04 January 2011

Richard Noble's Bloodhound Project diary

Late again – but it's the end of the year and we are going strong! The sheer intensity of the project which is now increasing at a massive pace tends to mean that we are dealing with detail on a minute by minute basis and it takes a break like Christmas to give us a chance to look back to see what has been achieved.

Conor summarised it all very smartly:
'At the start of 2010 we had 7 possible stripe sponsors and a far from viable design ; to day we have 7 possible main sponsors a viable design and we are into build '
He might have added that we have 4097 schools on the programme which amounts to over 1.5 million school children following Bloodhound.
An indicator of what's happening is the online merchandise donation and fin sales. Normally the sales run at around £5-6000/month but by November the sales were up to over £17,000/month.
Of course it's been a very tough fight to get this far – there seems to be an expectancy that because Bloodhound doesn't seem to fit the mould of any normal business, it will soon crash and burn in the difficult financial climate. But it doesn't – it doesn't because it is fulfilling a very vital role in all important education and the project is trying to project British engineering at its very best. One of our Ambassadors made the point – there are very few school engineering projects which excite both the teachers and their classes!

Just to give you a feel for all this I asked one of our sponsors to bring forward their annual payment to help fill a cashflow gap. Unhappily the sponsor was itself hit was a cashflow difficulty because a major debtor had not paid on time. So the sponsors directors had a whip around , ante-ed up the money from their personal accounts – this is a very special team and group of sponsors.
The design team have a rough year – we haven't been able to expand as we wanted to and as I write this we are still 4 designers short. Not because we can't recruit them, but because we can't pay them. So everyone has to put in the long hours and huge personal commitment. We have been slow and uncertain in paying, but they have kept up the pace – and by this Christmas the financial situation is getting a lot better as we clear off much of the backlog. The first drawings are on their way to Hampsons on time, but there are delays as we increase the tailfin area, which in turn increases the torsional loads on the rear fuselage and requires extra strength in order to meet the stability cases.

These are all the pains of rapid growth – which isn't helped by the debtors not paying their bills on time. All of which requires a massive increase in working capital as we have to fund the expansion as well as the negligent companies who pay their bills late. It seems that every time the British economy hits a knockback, the financial shockwave results in the companies extending their payments. One huge and negligent company denied all knowledge of our invoice – until I was able to mail them the email trail, then they made the excuse that they were dealing with so many invoices there were inevitable losses. I explained that as a supplier to their huge company we expected our invoices to be treated in a timely and professional manner and that use of our working capital for 210 days without charge was not acceptable. The invoice was paid immediately – but we now have to be careful with whom we trade – financing large inefficient corporations is not for Bloodhound.

The other problem with rapid growth is the huge strain on people – it starts to take our people into areas of trading and work where they have never been before. The secret is to communicate at all times among the team – I am not sure what I should do here – not to go ahead and hope for the best. But there is yet another concern – as Bloodhound gets larger and the opportunities and solutions get larger, it gets ever more important to maintain the special team can do culture. The traditional solution of dealing with massive growth is to influx a new level of management – if we did that then the can do culture which has been achieved at such a huge personal cost will be lost and the key people who drove the project so far will be swamped by new conventional culture management and will lose their motivation and innovation edge. So to achieve what we need to achieve with such limited resource we intend to maintain the existing team, not expand the headcount more than we absolutely have to and value and preserve the existing culture which got us so far. That's contrary to traditional practice – but then so is Bloodhound.
And then there are the failures. Of course you can't expect every sponsorship deal to deliver, so you have to be very careful to allocate resource to potential deals which you believe will deliver. Much of the credibility depends on the people you are working with. The deals that seem absolutely unlikely and impossible to imagine are the ones most likely to succeed, often because the potential sponsor is innovating strongly and has the vision. The ones that seem 'bloomin obvious' are the ones that are more likely to fail. We had a 'Bloomin Obvious' which failed in late November – the deal was instigated by the potential sponsor, took two years to work its way through their systems, went through negotiation and then legals on both sides. So we had a mature deal ready to sign off. We all believed in the deal, after all it was 'Bloomin Obvious'. But the Board didn't sign and everyone's effort was wasted. That left a large hole in our cashflow – the only way to sort this was to take on a sponsorship agency so that we could run many more sponsorship deals in parallel so that any one failure could be offset with more opportunities in process and the cashflow damage limited to a few weeks.

So step forward Alistair Watkins and the Influence agency – this is working well. I quote from Alistairs report :
Given our experience of selling major sponsorships in both Formula 1 and the America's Cup, I have been pleased and a little surprised, if I'm really honest, with the initial reaction we have had from companies. The project is SO unique and the team has such great credibility, which together serves as a major advantage.
Alistair is making huge progress and is working through four truly amazing deals – it's hugely satisfying seeing these huge international brands taking an interest in Bloodhound and we are going to see all kinds of movement in early 2011 as all this takes hold.

While on the subject, Conor has just landed a key agreement which he has been working on for the last two years – we can't talk about it here because it hasn't been announced yet, but it's a huge step forward for the engineering team.

Earlier this year we signed with Cosworth – an unlikely combination of an A class Formula One engine supplier with a highly ambitious counter culture Land Speed Record team. The relationship was put together by John Davis who is driving the entire Bloodhound systems design programme. I was unsure about all this –after all Bloodhound could at best expect to play second fiddle to Formula One but at least it provided us with a contract – CA2010 engines and all the necessary support. In December, CEO Tim Routsis and I spent an hour or so together at the RAC Club – I was very taken with Tim's enthusiasm for the project and the huge possibilities he saw for Cosworth – this is going to be very solid and rewarding sponsorship.

Then there is the curious relationship with the Olympics. A week or so ago I was having a dinner which had taken four months to arrange with the Chief Executive of one of Europe's larger companies and a sponsor of the UK Olympic games:
Of course Richard – your educational efforts are very laudable , but Bloodhound will be completely eclipsed by the 2012 Olympics with all the huge corporate effort going in there.
I explained that I doubted his argument. If he was right, how could Bloodhound accumulate 4,000 highly enthusiastic schools? How many did the Olympics have? After all, the Blair IOS Olympic bid was based on generating long term cultural and educational change – so there should be a truly massive target in place.

Unsure of my ground I asked our educational team for comment. The results were surprising. It seemed that very very few schools were studying the Olympics and Dawn Fitt came up with one which had just ditched the Olympics in favour of Bloodhound! The Olympics' schools initiatives were undersubscribed and it looks as though the Olympic people had better get a move on if they are to make any meaningful impact and meet their objectives.
And we had better get a move on with our education programmes too - we are just not moving fast enough. We need many more UK compliant lesson plans and the online academy to brief our huge 203 country global following on the technology that goes into Bloodhound so that they can interpret and understand the data that flows as soon as the car starts to run . Then there is the Bloodhound online TV programming which is taking a huge jump forward. And then there are the education centres which are springing up in Swansea, Manchester and Bristol - all these need to be supported and developed. In December, Southampton University agreed to make a start on the online academy which is a huge and timely step forward. One of the frustrations with all this is trying to get across to the various partners that we no longer have the luxury of delay. The car build starts in January and we roll out a year or so later. There is no time for extended decision making: its all very simple – 'Are you going to do this , if so you have to make a decision now!'

As if to hurl petrol on the fire, METRO on December 8 ran the headlines : Britain has turned into the thick man of Europe.

The PISA World rankings for maths, reading and science show China, South Korea, Singapore and Finland in the top rankings. Britain is 28th in Maths, 25th in Reading and 16th in Science. If you want to study maths you are better off in Slovenia or the Czech Republic! Commenting on Britain's ranking, Andreas Schleicher Head of the PISA programme said: 'I think the picture is stagnant at best, whereas many other countries have seen quite significant improvement'. We all know what that means!

We now have a way forward on the Ambassador front and training starts in February. Again this is a completely innovative programme – we have 187 Ambassadors to date and we need to get across to the schools the fact that shortly we will have an army of well trained Ambassadors all CRB checked prepared to devote 20 hrs/ann and ready to present Bloodhound in local schools . We need at least 500 quickly.

The PR team have done really well generating a massive £25m AVE value in media exposure even before we have a car. The Shackleton Ad in The Times has brought forward 150 applications for stone clearing on the Hakskeenpan and the BBC is planning considerable activity for next year. Even the Guinness Book of Records is kindly running a feature in the 2011 book. As the new year rolls into focus the bookings for Bloodhound and the show car represent a massive level of activity for Jo Finch and the exhibitions team. Demand is so heavy that its proving difficult to coordinate the planning with the logistics. In December, I was at the Government's Technology World show in the Excel to meet Mark Prisk Minister for Business and Innovation who said: 'Bloodhound is the most exciting engineering activity going on in Britain today – please send me a paper'. It's on the schedule for tonight!

So as 2010 draws to a close, Bloodhound is poised for an incredible 2011. It's going to be hugely tough on everyone so it's important that the team gets a good break and then we plunge back into the fight. It's a truly great team and it's capable of exceptional achievement with an exceptional project.

But potential is just no longer enough – 2011 is about delivery – BIG TIME !

Author
Richard Noble

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