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Playbook Insights | Three principles for leading a fast growth business

Emma Barraclough, who heads up Chelsea's elite sports nutrition company Blue Fuel, tells SportsPro senior contributor and Playbook Labs lead Matt Rogan her top tips for leading a fast growth business.

6 December 2021 Matt Rogan

Blue Fuel

Rather than delving into a single subject area for this edition, I thought that it might instead be helpful to take a look at how a business leader manages the sheer breadth of responsibilities which fall to them.

In my experience this is particularly challenging to manage when a business is in its early stages of growth. It’s not possible to afford specialists to lead in every single area of your organisation, so you have to find time to work in the business, as well as work on it.

My guest for this conversation was Emma Barraclough, who leads elite sports nutrition company Blue Fuel within Chelsea Digital Ventures, a ‘digital-first, consumer product business’ spun out from the Premier League soccer club. Blue Fuel itself offers a range of nutrition products developed and used by Chelsea to help their elite players perform. This is supported by an app which ‘aims to fulfil the role that our nutritionist plays’ at the club.

From launching during a pandemic to scaling both a B2B and B2C business simultaneously, I found our conversation to be a really candid reflection on the highs and lows of leading and juggling divergent priorities. You can listen to the podcast here, but in the meantime, here are three key lessons that stood out to me from my conversation with Barraclough.

Be collegiate in your leadership style

Barraclough says her working day is “really diverse”.

“Through the build-up, for example, we could be doing factory visits, going up to our developers in Manchester, down to the training ground in Cobham then to Stamford Bridge to report financially to reassure everyone we were on track,” she adds. “Now our work tends to be quite a cyclical process – we go through rounds of pitching for funding and then product development, marketing and sales. Marketing never drops away, with matches giving us a calendar of tie-in opportunities.”

The biggest shift for Barraclough in stepping up to lead a product has been “the really diversified specialisms in this role”. That, she adds, has “been quite challenging”.

It’s key to understand each audience we work with. The worst thing you can do to a creative is weigh them down in some kind of process.

Emma Barraclough, Product Owner, Chelsea Football Club

“I’m leading a team of mid-to-senior people in everything from nutrition and science to design and app building – that’s really quite different,” Barraclough continues. “Leadership empathy across all of these specialisms is important. This means operating as a democracy in that environment as opposed to being at all autocratic in the way you work.”

Fast growth businesses are also not always naturally prone to process and governance, but this of course is fundamental to the long-term health of the business. Barraclough explains that “we can use some of the services within the club which has been helpful… procurement, legal and finance for example. It might not always be the quickest route to get something done but there are experts there we can turn to.”

Barraclough also has to flex her leadership style to enable her to manage the breadth of responsibilities she has.

“It’s key to understand each audience we work with,” she says. “The worst thing you can do to a creative is weigh them down in some kind of process, whereas developers might work well to an agile/scrum type methodology.”

In a nutshell: Understand the preferences and needs of each team you lead.

Balance flexibility with accountability

Launching any business during the pandemic would have been a challenge, not least one which is predicated on team sports participation which necessarily fell away during lockdown. Barraclough’s team have therefore evolved their strategy over this time period.

“The intention at launch was that the offer would be B2C, but we do have B2B relationships as well – with teams in rugby and hockey, for example,” she explains.

“We were looking at this as a subscription business initially, but that’s a difficult proposition to launch with… in particular in a sector where [a subscription business is] not very familiar. In time we’d like to develop the app so that one-to-one nutritional support becomes part of the offer but we’re not quite there in terms of development pipeline on that one.”

As well as iterating the product itself, Emma also believes the makeup of the customer base will also likely evolve – for example, from a 30 per cent female customer share currently to a more equal distribution, as well as to a younger demographic with a far better understanding of the benefits of nutrition on performance than (for instance) my generation. 

It helps in that regard to have live feedback from B2C marketing channels on a daily basis.

“The beauty of the Amazon marketplace is that you can – to some degree – shift channels and the products you’re spending against,” Barraclough says. “The ideal is not to get lost in this every day, however. You can never manage to work the algorithm backwards!”

The ability for Blue Fuel to stay agile in this way ultimately comes down to Chelsea Digital Ventures’ trust in Barraclough’s skill as a leader. She has to balance the need to be entrepreneurial with delivering against a business plan provided to the Chelsea chief executive.

“We’ve a lot of trust,” Barraclough states. “We were hired as experts and there’s probably a bandwidth they’re comfortable operating within. The trust has grown and we’ve been able to educate as we’ve gone along.” Part of that has been persuading the club not to grow too quickly, in particular internationally, and not to “spread things too thin”.

Barraclough had a terrific tip for this kind of stakeholder management. She advocates “taking time to listen and go on the second conversation, not what they tell you first… what they go on to repeat and then what is really important to them.”

In a nutshell: Balancing flexibility with accountability entails listening closely to customers, team and stakeholders and then acting quickly on what you learn.

Keep learning – but don’t take it home with you

Barraclough has long been very focused on her own learning, blending ongoing academic study with a real focus on observing industry trends the world relates to and yet sit outside the sports nutrition bubble.

“Pre Covid,” she says, “I attended a lot of things like trade shows to become more aware in different sectors. For example, what’s going on in food, ecommerce or retail?”

That doesn’t mean she’s become an expert on all the new areas of her responsibility overnight. That’s where a very open leadership style is key. “Coming into this space I need to be brave enough to put my hand up and say, ‘sorry I don’t understand that. Can you explain why that’s better than what we talked about last week?’”

I recall having this same challenge at Two Circles – I found some of the developers’ conversations very hard to follow – but ultimately asking the right question is the only way you learn. That’s a very important skill to drive through the team as well. Or, as Barraclough puts it, “making an environment where it’s OK to ask questions”.

It’s particularly important when you have a business full of specialists in their own spaces. Barraclough says she will “try to role model putting my hand up and asking a daft question”. It’s not just an important skill within the business, either. “Sometimes there’s also an assumption on the club’s side we know how to work to their preferences, so we have to ask them, too,” she explains.

Barraclough works hard to manage herself through the bad days. “When I was younger I’d take it really personally,” she says. “Not taking that home or worrying about it is really important. That was a big learning from early on.” Now she compartmentalises by “trying to get out for a run. Work life and family is bigger… but exercise is still there for me. Seeing the cheeky grin on my little girl’s face makes it worth it as well.”

In a nutshell: Role modelling asking questions builds an open culture. Try to actively decompress however works best for you.

Chelsea use Blue Fuel products across the club 

Ten words or fewer

Barraclough’s challenge to sum up the leadership challenge in a fast growth business in ten words or fewer was not an easy one. She settled on: “Never fear reaching outside of your comfort zone.” I think this sums up the three principles in this article. Leading a fast growth business is about being a consensus-building, direction-setting, hard-listening, role-modelling jack of all trades. It’s not easy, but it is an awful lot of fun.

You can find out more about Blue Fuel here and find Barraclough on LinkedIn

Matt Rogan has spent his career creating and scaling businesses in the sports and entertainment arena.

If you have feedback to offer or other themes you would like to see covered in future episodes of the Playbook Podcast then please do get in contact. 

If you would like to learn more about Matt or find out more about his book All to Play For you can visit mattrogansport.com. Please feel free to get in touch via email.

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