Record-breaking athlete Mark Beaumont discusses changing lanes to a corporate career
Mark Beaumont is famous for record-breaking expeditions on his bike – but here he explains how he is increasingly swapping cyclewear for suits as his corporate career picks up speed.
For 15 years, I was a full-time athlete and a broadcaster – and for all professional sportspeople, there’s always that question of what you do next.
In your mid to late 30s, you don’t really want to start in a graduate job, so how do you transition comfortably and pivot in a career? It’s a switch that has in fact been expedited for so many people by Covid over the past 12 months.
I used to joke that I spent half of my life in Lycra and half my life in suits, but that's just not the truth any more. Now I spend most of my time working with early-stage, fast-growth businesses.
And I would see my transition from being Mark Beaumont, the athlete and broadcaster, to Mark Beaumont, involved in early-stage investing and finance, as a five-year process.
I had started to sow the seeds for that back in 2018 and 2019 – and I feel lucky now, with hindsight, that I started to make those plans before the world stopped spinning a year ago, because it allowed me to turn that five-year plan into a six-month plan.
The transition I've made is not a typical move from sport into business, because I've managed to jump straight into a partner role in an investment firm – St Andrews-based Eos Advisory, which provides seed funding to innovative ventures in science, technology and engineering that are trying to address some of the world's biggest problems.
The reason I’ve secured a senior role is that I managed throughout my athletic career to keep pretty close ties with equity investing, and one of the partnerships I had, for 15 years, was with Lloyds Banking Group’s private equity arm LDC.
I got to know the business in my early 20s as a sponsored athlete, progressing to looking after a lot of their ‘eco-system’ – their advisory networks and hosting events, and later working with their originations team, opening doors, creating deal flow, and some of the due diligence that happens around such investments.
I’d done an economics and politics degree, but I didn’t have hands-on experience of equity investing or how to scale SMEs.
Before lockdown, I was spending my life on the road as a public speaker – in 2019, I did 130 events and keynote speeches, and I probably got to see more businesses than most advisors would. You therefore get this real understanding of different sectors, different ages and stages of business.
I thought ‘well, this is exciting’. What I don't want to do is spend the next chapter of my career just singing for my supper – going to conferences and talking about cycling around the world.
‘That’s the icing on the cake and I can do it when time allows. But while I've spent the last 15 years being furiously busy getting my sleeves rolled up and trying to take on ‘firsts and fastests’, I want the next 15 years to be equally impactful, albeit in a different way. I've got no ambitions just to hang on the coattails of my former career.
I was seeing quite a lot of opportunities for me to personally invest in a couple of early-stage companies at the seed round. My plan was just to build a small portfolio of businesses I could help nurture.
When I met Eos managing partner Andrew McNeill during that research process, he said, ‘look, Mark, you're at a slightly different stage in your career than most of our syndicate members, who are by and large two decades older than you. They've exited businesses, they've had successful corporate careers.
‘You want to get your sleeves rolled up and actually create a much bigger eco-system over the next ten, 20 years of thriving companies that are making a difference in the world, so as well as being an investor in the syndicate, would you be interested to help Eos at the core?’
At that point, it was growing from being a private members’ club, based out of St Andrews, to something that was actually scaling quite quickly.
I later decided to invest in some of the syndicate companies as a private individual, but also to invest in Eos at the core. And I felt there was an opportunity to take it from a private syndicate membership, which it still is, to something that scales from three to five early-stage investments a year to something much more significant in terms of deal flow.
I wanted to personally get involved in backing Scottish innovation, and inward investment to Scotland, with businesses that are in an earlier stage where you're really proving the concept and then building them into global markets. I felt that was the stage when my input could be most relevant.
Through my athletic career, I'm not just entering and trying to win races, I've always been trying to go out there and really shift the dial in terms of what's possible. All the records that my teams have taken on, they've always been very high-profile events where we've not tried to repeat history, we've tried to do something significantly different – so it’s not about sort of me as an individual any more.
And I do think I can take the same approach and the same passion to trying to help the scientists and technology founders that Eos works with to scale their ambitions, because often they are good at the nuts and bolts of what they do, but lack the commercial awareness or the contacts to scale these businesses – that’s where I can help.
Everything I did as an athlete was about building finance, recruiting the right teams, building a profile around what I was doing. People always assume that with the major expeditions over the years it's just about being an athlete, but it's a business. To go the distance in every sense you've got to have a plan for how you create significant impact for yourself, your sponsors, your shareholders.
I'm not the world's best bike rider – I’m not even the best bike rider in Edinburgh. And yet I’ve broken all these records over the years with my teams, because of the approach that we've adopted to do these major projects, so that start-up mindset is incredibly useful when you're then raising a fund, when you're then investing in early-stage businesses.
Having that sort of entrepreneurial drive to do things differently, and to inspire people around you to work hard, on your own purpose and plan, is the same if you're investing in an early-stage cancer research company or trying to peddle around the planet.
As for my background as an endurance athlete, the metaphors of big expeditions can be useful. If I'm talking to a company about hard miles, I've got a good reference point for what that is – although obviously the physical suffering, wondering if you’re going to live or die, doesn't translate.
Most businesses don't fail because their core product isn't viable – it’s because of the human dynamic. If mentally you give up, then you give up.
If you've had hard miles in your life, be it in sport, or the military or something entirely unrelated, you can clearly see how that gives people a level of grit when it comes to businesses, and we face hard decisions all the time in Eos – for example, turning down money if it doesn’t feel right.
Something else that’s true of both the sport and business worlds is that having a good support network is crucial – and I’m a big advocate of being connected to and having a positive impact on your community.
I guess I was lucky, because my athletic career started quite young – a 12-year-old who peddled across Scotland with the help of my mum, and that was a community event, helping local causes.
In fact projects in my professional athletic career have all, where possible, had an educational programme, and they always had a charitable programme.
We all face such massive uncertainty in our lives. Look at the past 12 months in particular. We're all trying to figure out how to stay relevant and busy and make our time fulfilling.
And I always find on the difficult days, the more you get the arrows metaphorically going back out into the world, the more that you connect with people and projects that you care about, the more it gives you a sense of quiet confidence and purpose about what you're doing.
I’m not for a minute saying I've got it all figured out, but I try and make sure every period of my life is meaningful. The sum total of my ambition is not to pay the mortgage and have a pension pot.
I give a lot of my time pro bono and take on projects I'm passionate about. For example, I've recently been talking about the importance of outdoor learning for young people in Scotland – and I also want to continue to get out there each year and make a few interesting films and documentaries.
I still have the opportunity to push myself as an athlete, albeit not to the level I used to. But I’m not just passionate about, say, cycling down volcanoes or rowing oceans – I have a personal interest in climate change, I have a personal interest in cleaning up the world's oceans, I have got a personal interest in life sciences and healthcare.
Imagine in ten, 15 years’ time where we've got an eco-system of scores of companies based in Scotland that are scaling into global markets, bringing significant inward investment into Scotland, and really addressing some big global challenges. That's worthwhile, that’s interesting – and that's something worth getting out of bed for.
As told to Emma Newlands