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Scaling Up and Sliding Down – Exploring the highs and lows of our region’s most ambitious businesses

Scaling up a business can be tricky.

From tough competition to finding the right talent, there are numerous obstacles businesses need to overcome to succeed.

With every struggle, however, comes a learning curve.

There’s no denying it takes resilience, flexibility and a good eye to run a business – but scaling up means pushing boundaries and aiming even higher.

To emphasise such, North East Times, in association with RTC North, a leading provider of tailored business support services hosted two panel discussions highlighting the trials and tribulations of growing a business.

The event, ‘Scaling Up and Sliding Down – Exploring the highs and lows of our region’s most ambitious businesses’, provided a platform for introspection, analysis and an insight into the diverse journeys that led panellists to where they are today.

In a welcome speech, North East Times’ business development director John Duns set the event against the wider context of a changing region.

He said: “As we approach a new era, with the North East Mayoral Combined Authority – which will come into play in May – there’s a real feeling that, as a region, we can kick on.

“And kicking on is what Scaleup North East is all about.”

John introduced Scaleup partner Tony Brooks, who discussed the aims and objectives of Scaleup North East.

Funded by the Government through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, with the North of Tyne Combined Authority acting as lead organisation, Scaleup North East is delivered by RTC North Scaleup partners Tony, Angelina Bell, Craig Huntingdon and Jon Symonds, who use decades of combined entrepreneurial experience to map out growth journeys.

Tony said: “We’re not superheroes, but we have got superpowers.

“We’ve got experience, we listen, we care, we help, we support and we advise.”

  • Left, Charlotte Ali – Co-founder, Rheal Superfoods. Right, Tom Beardsmore – Chief executive and co-founder, Coatsink


Scaling Secrets – How to Hack Fast Growth


Charlotte Ali – Co-founder, Rheal Superfoods

Tom Beardsmore – Chief executive and co-founder, Coatsink

Jonny Catto – Managing director, iPac

Dr Andrew Jenkins – Founder and chief executive, Kinewell Energy


The first panel, hosted by North East Times editor Steven Hugill, was a thought-provoking discussion surrounding the top tips for scaling up a business.

From managing money to finding the right people, panellists gave practical advice and shared fascinating stories about how to succeed in business.


Hacking growth

In the words of Steven, “it doesn’t happen overnight, you can’t pluck it from thin air, it’s not something you can translate immediately from a website or a self-help book – otherwise we’d all be doing it!”

Yet while there is no quick fix for business growth, panellists offered recommendations and strategies that have proven to be key in propelling businesses forward.

Charlotte Ali, co-founder of Rheal Superfoods, the Sunderland-based manufacturer specialising in organic superfoods blends, emphasised the importance of networking and meeting likeminded people.

She said: “Surround yourself with people who are more experienced, who’ve had a lot of challenges and who you can learn from.

“That’s something we did from the early days.”

Tom Beardsmore, chief executive and co-founder of Coatsink, an indie games publisher and development agency, agreed while also emphasising the power of perseverance.

He said: “We started as two people, just me and my co-founder.

“We took no investment at all, right up until the point we sold the business in 2020.

“We really took the hard route.

“We just grinded and bootstrapped, and slowly got there.”

Nodding his head was Dr Andrew Jenkins, founder and chief executive of Kinewell Energy, whose software has helped deliver some of the world’s largest offshore wind farms.

He added: “The key point for scalability is having a scalable business model.”

Jonny Catto, managing director of Gateshead-based food packaging manufacturer iPac, made a point of how every industry is different.

He said: “In ours, it’s not about creating demand; it’s about setting up the manufacturing capability to deliver better than competitors.

“It’s about getting the right people in place, who really know what they’re doing.”

Attracting the right talent and skillset

Surrounding yourself with the right people can help your business grow.

Hiring a team of exceptional talent isn’t just a matter of preference, it’s vital for success.

And although it is important to be meticulous when selecting your workforce, it’s equally as important to ensure your business is attracting the right people.

Jonny pointed out that in his experience, production jobs are the hardest to recruit for, rather than office-based roles.

He said: “You have to do so much work to make yourself stand out from the competition.

“You really need to work on what makes you different from another potential employer.”

Andrew likened recruitment to buying a house, adding you have to be willing to compromise.

He said: “It might be that the skills are there, but that you’re just not paying enough.

He also cited the importance of principles, adding: “Skills you can teach, values you can’t.”

Financial support

Scaling a business has its fair share of challenges, especially when it comes to getting the money you need to succeed.

Whether it’s through grants, investments or acquisitions, understanding the landscape of financial support can mean the difference between success and failure.

Charlotte knew she wanted to grow Rheal Superfoods quite aggressively, due to the evolving marketplace.

Initially starting with a funding round of £150,000 through crowdfunding platform Seedrs, Charlotte and co-founder Sean were then approached by the BBC to appear on well-known TV programme Dragons Den.

After the episode aired, and a successful pitch to the Dragons, they planned another crowdfunding raise.

This resulted in Rheal Superfoods raising £1 million in just three days.

She said: “Because the show is watched by millions, it’s a great opportunity to get yourself out there and reach people who are willing to invest in the brand.”

After utilising capital investment, Jonny emphasised the importance of having a solid business model, and how preparation is key.

He said: “Don’t underestimate how much reliance is on you really knowing your numbers.”

  • Left, Dr Andrew Jenkins – Founder and chief executive, Kinewell Energy. Right,  Jonny Catto – Managing director, iPac


Support and partnerships

It’s not uncommon to feel alone when running a business.

However, programmes such as Scaleup North East allow founders and business owners to seek advice and support when they need it most.

In the panel’s opinion, this is an invaluable tool when scaling up a business.

Andrew said: “There’s a lot of support in the North East.

“They’re all fantastic and all focusing on different stages of business growth and solving different problems in the local economy.”

“There isn’t one or the other – go to all of them!”

Charlotte, who utilised Scaleup North East more than five years ago, reaffirmed the notion of meeting other founders and gaining a sense of reassurance that you’re not the only person going through a certain issue.

Believing in yourself

The funding, support and team around you means nothing if you don’t believe in yourself and your business.

However, keeping that positivity is easier said than done.

Being able to pick yourself up and dust yourself off is a key component to success.

And to do that, you need belief.

The gaming industry is an oversaturated market, so believing in your product is imperative.

Tom said: “You have to do your best to build the game you want to build and execute it as well as you can.

“The core, ultimately, is how good the game is.”

The essence of such – making sure your product or service is the best it can be – can be taken into any industry.

However, one of the biggest obstacles, and something that can be detrimental to not only a business, but to the confidence of its founder, is competition.

“Don’t automatically assume competition is right,” said Andrew.

Secrets not uncovered

We all know there is no quick fix, or a one-stop-shop for scaling up a business.

However, when asked about a particular piece of advice attributable to growth, Andrew explained there were two elements he likes to think about – investment and not trying to be perfect.

He said: “Money is the easy bit; the difficult bit is being the best to get it.

“You don’t have to be perfect; you just have to be better than everyone else.”

Charlotte added: “The key is to feel comfortable being uncomfortable.”

  • Antonia Philip & Jonny Philip – Co-founders, Nursem


Piloting Pitfalls – How to Navigate Speedbumps and Setbacks


Antonia Philp & Jonny Philp – Co-founders, Nursem

Dan Martin – chief executive and co-founder, Swarm Energy

Dr Carrie Ambler – chief scientific officer, LightOx


We often focus on the positives in business.

However, the pitfalls – and understanding how to deal with them – are just as important.

In the second panel, speakers offered refreshing – and realistic – takes on growing a business, and how it is never all smooth sailing.


Standout pitfalls

There are pitfalls that can hinder the progress of any business, and some stand out more than others.

Panellists began by discussing some of their standout pitfalls, and how they were all eventual learning curves.

Dan Martin, chief executive and co-founder of Swarm Energy, a renewable energy tech firm, explained the unfortunate demise of his first business.

He said: “Often, to get to a successful business, you have to go through a few battles and get a few battle scars.”

Jonny and Antonia Philip, co-founders of skincare company Nursem, emphasised the importance of having the right people around you.

Jonny said: “Hiring is also super valuable; it can send you into the stratosphere if you get it right.

“On the flipside, if you get it wrong, it can send you back a couple of years.”

How to keep going

In the pursuit of any goal, perseverance is key.

Yet the journey of scaling a business is full of setbacks, doubts and moments of adversity.

However, it’s during these times the ability to keep going becomes paramount.

A big driver of this, said Antonia, is purpose.

She said: “I feel like our brand has a huge purpose.

“Our purpose is to help healthcare staff have good hands, so they can do the jobs they love.

“If you don’t have something that is purposeful, then you wouldn’t have the same driving force as we have for Nursem.”

This resonated deeply with Carrie, chief scientific officer of LightOx, which is developing light-activated chemotherapy treatment for early-stage mouth cancers.

She said: “I believe in what we do; I believe in the product we’re developing; I believe in the chemotherapy and how it will be able to help patients’ lives.

“If we are successful, it will have an impact on our patients, and that’s what we work towards.”

Finding the right people

When building a team, few decisions hold as much weight as the selection of who you work with.

Despite careful processes, though, sometimes we find ourselves with the wrong fit.

And while disheartening, it’s a challenge many organisations face at some point during their growth.

While there are occasions where the individual may not be up to standard, or not the right fit, it is up to businesses to ensure theirs is a safe and comfortable environment for employees.

Dan pointed to the creation of a positive culture.

He said: “The right culture starts with the founders, from day one.

“It’s how you foresee everyone working collaboratively and creating a safe space for people.

“It isn’t just about free coffee, it’s how you treat each other, and how you want to be treated.”

  • Left, Dan Martin – chief executive and co-founder, Swarm Energy. Right, Dr Carrie Ambler – chief scientific officer, LightOx.


The funding landscape

The quest for funding can be tricky and somewhat frustrating.

Panel host Steven said, “you’re already running up a hill because there’s so many things you’ve got to tackle”, and this was particularly pertinent for Carrie, who explained it takes patience and determination to obtain the right funding.

She said: “It’s almost like dating.

“You’re going to have to spend a bucketload of time trying to find the right people.

“For every 20 people, you may find one who is interested.”

Accessing support

Living the life of an entrepreneur and running a business can be difficult.

However, knowing there’s support out there can be reassuring.

By tapping into these resources and forging meaningful connections within the community, owners and founders can leverage connections, navigate pitfalls and ultimately achieve results.

When discussing his experience with Scaleup North East, Dan described it as a valuable resource that everyone should tap into.

He said: “Sometimes it’s a lonely place to run a business – you haven’t got a lot of people that share a similar experience.

“It’s good to have contact with someone who has been on that journey before you, and give you advice and guidance.”

Echoing this was Jonny and Antonia, who explained they recently reached out to fellow panellist Charlotte and her co-founder Sean for advice.

Antonia said: “Having other people on the sidelines, who can cheer you on, will help massively.”

Jonny added: “There used to be a lot of excitement about being a start-up.

“We should also be desperate to get to ten or twenty million.

“The scaling up is the hard bit.

“Testing an idea and staying small is doing no-one any favours.

“If we can figure out the next bit, by having ten £50 million businesses, as opposed to lots of smaller businesses, that’s what will help the region.”


There isn’t a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach to scaling up a business, and it takes perseverance, the support of others around you, and knowing your business inside out, to help any organisation grow.

And although there are bound to be setbacks – and a few bumps along the road – understanding you’re not alone, and that there are people that can help, like Scaleup North East and its expert team of partners, is priceless.


The North of Tyne Combined Authority is a partnership of three local authorities: Newcastle City Council, North Tyneside Council, and Northumberland County Council and the North of Tyne Elected Mayor.

The UK Shared Prosperity Fund is a central pillar of the UK government’s Levelling Up agenda and provides £2.6 billion of funding for local investment by March 2025. The Fund aims to improve pride in place and increase life chances across the UK investing in communities and place, supporting local business, and people and skills.

April 3, 2024

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Created by Kate Hewison