How Duncan Cheatle convinced 500 founders to go for dinner

The Supper Club's motto was 'no accountants, lawyers or life coaches'.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2018

As a business owner it can sometimes be hard to find advice from someone who truly understands how your business works.

The usual solution involves employing an advisor or business consultant, but these can come with varying degrees of experience and you can be left wondering how much the advice you receive is related to the next fee. Sometimes the best advice can come from your peers.

The Supper Club in brief

Founded: 2003

HQ: Shoreditch, London

Employees: 14

This is the notion that led Duncan Cheatle to found The Supper Club (TSC) in 2003. In simple terms, The Supper Club is a networking group where business owners can get together, share the good and the 'crap times' and generally chew the fat about what it’s like running their business.

Chairman and StartUp Britain founder Cheatle says TSC came about through his frustration at the typical programme of networking events. Lots of the events revolved around having a well known speaker in a room full of 'anyone that was interested', followed by networking afterwards.

While this worked for some, Cheatle says the networking side left a lot to be desired:

‘You would turn to your left or right, hoping to find a fellow founder, CEO or entrepreneur, but eight times out of 10 it would be an accountant, lawyer or a life coach. It's not to say that they don't have useful advice, but really it was about getting a peer group together.’

In the knowledge that he wanted to create a networking environment specifically for founders of scale ups he invited a few people he knew to a round table event in a private dining room where they could speak freely across table about their business - incidentally this is where the name of The Supper Club comes from.

'Our motto at the beginning was no accountants, lawyers or life coaches. But it also meant bankers or others that were there without the ability of a peer to share something in the same setting,' says Cheatle. 

Eventually as the meetings grew in popularity Cheatle introduced paid membership and recruited a manager to run the network part-time. Now a fully fledged business the company runs a programme of  events including speaker talks*, practical workshops and also has a heavy emphasis on producing content.

Today, as it celebrates its 15 year anniversary, the club has 500 full-time members, has convened over 2,700 events in Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham and London and has hosted an estimated 32,000 founders.

The Supper Club’s membership is varied including boomerang makers, cereal bar bakers and sex toy designers, but there are some rules. Members must be the founder of a scaling business with over 10 staff and have either an annual turnover of £1 million, a raised valuation of £5 million or for agency style businesses, an annual sales or commission of £3 million and over 20 staff.

A Supper Club event

But what is the value of peer-to-peer learning?

‘When I joined five years ago, you still had to educate people on the benefits of peer-to-peer learning. Whereas now you can be out at an event every night if you wanted to,’ says Emma-Jane Packe, The Supper Club's CEO.

She joined five years ago before replacing Cheatle as chief exec in 2015 when he stepped back to concentrate on a new business venture - he now sits as chairman. Packe believes it is a cultural change and a general increased willingness to be open about problems that means founders are more willing to seek counsel from their peers.

Peer-to-peer learning provides the opportunity to benchmark and sense check elements of your business performance with other founders or to simply get a problem off your chest in what is theoretically an unbiased environment.

This does of course open it up to more competition, but it is the flexibility that TSC offers its members that makes it unique. Cheatle describes this as an 'intelligent concierge service' that ensures members are constantly connected to other members who have a specific experience in industry.

The company is exploring the prospect of hosting events in the USA and Dubai and aims to grow its permanent membership to over 1,000 members.

So what has changed?

Society has changed  dramatically in the 15 years that The Supper Club has been going. The group has seen the adoption of the smartphone, the fallout from the financial crisis and now the uncertainty and opportunity represented by Brexit. Businesses' needs have unsurprisingly changed too. 

While there will always be macro and smaller industry specific challenges - Packe notes (from observation) that 95% of members generally face the same three problems of 'people, time and money' - in recent years the future of the workforce and building markets abroad in particular have started to form an increasingly larger part in the conversation.

The club has also become more diverse in age and gender, as well as becoming unsurprisingly more techy. Just over one in seven members are female and while Packe admits this needs to increase she is proud to have seen the improvement.

But what about the prospects of Britain as a place to do business? Are The Supper Club's members nervous about Brexit?

Despite admitting that the main concern for members lies around potential access to talent, Packe says they have generally been optimistic: ‘Business people are problem solvers. I wouldn't necessarily say they aren't panicking, but they are problem solvers.’

Cheatle is equally sanguine: ‘The thing I have noticed over the years is the resilience and the ability of British business owners to bounce back and say, having slept on it  "we are where we are, how can we turn this to our advantage?" I'd say that is a pretty consistent trait.’

*Packe says that The Supper Club’s speaker events are more focused, less big name and more experience led.

Image credits: The Supper Club


Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime