Hydraulics Online Co-founder on being a dragon: not breathing fire – but firing up the next generation of young entrepreneurs about internationalisation and exporting
Helen Tonks, Hydraulics Online Operations Director and Co-founder, never says “no” to an opportunity to “pay it forward”. She’s been involved with numerous projects with local small businesses, primary schools and high schools, and university undergraduate and masters students.
Even so, it was something of an honour to be invited back to be a “dragon” for Manchester Metropolitan University’s (MMU’s) latest cohort of Young Enterprise entrants.
Young Enterprise at Manchester Metropolitan University
David Taylor is the Principal Lecturer in Entrepreneurship at MMU and has been working with the Young Enterprise initiative since its inception in the Higher Education sector. For more than two decades, he has run the annual competition for student entrepreneurs within the University, with successful entrants going on to regional and national finals.
“These experiential units are a wonderful opportunity for the students to apply their learning and boost their employability,” explains David Taylor, “and many of the students are actively thinking about establishing their own business.”
As part of its Young Enterprise programme, MMU has bought in guest speakers and mentors to guide the students, supplementary to the Young Enterprise resources. Over previous years, this has meant bringing in around 50 experts to speak with the students in person – whether that’s as a mentor, in presentations or in a “Dragon’s Den” type environment.
Adapting through the pandemic to continue to inspire
This 2020-2021 academic year, because meeting in person has had to be scaled back in response to the pandemic and associated lockdowns, the format of interaction has changed slightly although their character has remained the same.
The business leaders who have contributed to this year’s Young Enterprise programme at MMU have been able to participate from much farther afield, since most of the content has moved online, giving students access to a wider range of expertise and experience.
As part of the new digital resources for 2020-2021, Hydraulics Online contributed two videos for the cohort: the first about getting started as an entrepreneur and the second on internationalisation and the importance of adopting an “export mindset”.
Helen says, “As a digital business, Hydraulics Online has exported right from day one. Today, fifty percent of our turnover is international. It’s really vital to the success of UK plc that every business has the opportunity to benefit from the internationalisation and export opportunities in today’s connected world, so having an opportunity to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs is really important – and exciting to be involved in. I always learn something myself too.”
Baking in an export mindset from day one
Helen is passionate about “baking in an export mindset from day one” and her experience with Hydraulics Online has been greatly valued by MMU and the student cohort.
“Helen has been involved with some of the apprenticeship programmes in the Business School, so we invited her to get involved with our entrepreneurship programme. The roles have been quite varied,” David Taylor says. “Helen is representing UK industry in the classroom and she brings specialist expertise and real-world experience. This gives our students an insight into a globally exporting business and offers a third-party voice to both challenge and validate what we are saying. The Dragon’s Den format might not be the most realistic way to expose the students to pitching, but it really helps them to gain an understanding of the need to formulate a concise argument and be in control of the data and facts in a high-pressure environment.”
Helen says, “It has been wonderful to act as a sounding board for the latest student cohort, first in the semi-finals and then again in the final. I’ve learned a lot since Mark and I founded Hydraulics Online in 2004, and it’s great to be able to channel and share some of my experience and learnings to help the students make sounder decisions and plans for their own fledgling businesses.”
Ready for future entrepreneurial success
David Taylor concludes, “The Young Enterprise scheme, and the Dragon’s Den format in particular, is a very different challenge to the classroom environment to which many of the students are used – and they gain an awful lot. Generally, the students love the whole intensity of the Young Enterprise experience. It’s not just about the launch of new businesses, but it’s the network we expose them to and the benefit to their CV. It really makes them standout from the others and many of our students tell us it’s the first thing they get asked about when they go to interview.”
Helen adds, “It’s a competitive world which makes it so important to have a great CV: a CV that shows that you have put your time and energy to good use, that you are growing as an indvidual and have the transferrable attributes and skills that an employer is looking for – even if you don’t necessarily have the exact experience yet. The Young Enterprise work gives MMU students a real chance to prove and challenge themselves. It’s wonderful to think it may also be the deciding factor that helps them to clinch that all-important first job after graduating or springboards their own ‘young enterprise’ to success too.”