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Big interview: Meet the 26 year old building the best contacts book in Bristol

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Written by: Gavin Thompson | Posted 11 April 2016 6:00

Big interview: Meet the 26 year old building the best contacts book in Bristol
  • Ash Phillips was recently named one of top 100 people in business supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs. And he’s only 26. Gavin Thompson finds out why...

ASH Phillips is a man worth knowing. Five years from now, he’ll have probably the best contacts book in Bristol’s tech scene, and perhaps further afield too.

The 26-year-old university dropout is the founder of Yena, a network for young entrepreneurs.

He’s just quit his job as a director in a social media and marketing company to run the network full time. Membership is growing and there’s interest in starting new branches from as far away as Mumbai. The potential is huge.

The question is how will he make it pay the bills?

“I’m curious to know that too,” says Ash. “I found myself forcing the revenue model, thinking how do we get money out of people who have no money.”

There are two answers, Ash thinks, long-term and short-term.

“Long-term is the one that gets me out of bed,” he says. “We want to be global. We want to follow in the footsteps of TED. TED has very few problems but one is that as a spectator I was the most inspired I’ve ever been but I was sitting with people I didn’t know and then left. I hadn’t spoken to anyone or been able to turn that inspiration into opportunity.

“We want to connect people. We’d like to have an online platform. A lot of young people in our demographic dislike (professional social network) Linkedin because the user interface isn’t great.

“There’s a gap there where we have the tangible aspect of networking where they meet for three hours a month, then the rest of the time they are not connected.

“When people leave a Yena meet-up the question is how do we connect? On Linkedin, Twitter, Facebook? The answer should be Yena. We could gamify the platform, give people customer relationship management tools to track their business.

“And importantly we want to encourage them to continue meeting in person, which Linkedin doesn’t do, and then track that relationship.”

A second long-term idea is to use Yena as an investment platform.

“We’ve got that network of people who are looking for £150,000 plus and that’s attractive to investors,” he says. Ash cites Wriggle, the last-minute leisure deals app founded in Bristol, as an example of a Yena member which has gone on to successfully raise money.

“They came to Yena for the first time two years ago,” says Ash. “If we’d had the opportunity to connect them to investors back then and give them first refusal... that’s the opportunity.”

His third idea is to provide co-working space for members.

“It’s a huge growing industry,” says Ash. “WeWork in America has just valued itself at $10 billion. We know there’s a market there.”

Ash says about 30 per cent of the start-ups in the Entrepreneurial Spark hatchery in Bristol, for example, have connections to Yena.
When they leave the programme after six months, they’ll be looking for somewhere to go and many won’t want to return to working out of the spare room having enjoyed the benefits of having fellow entrepreneurs around them to share ideas and collaborate.

“Where do they go?” says Ash. “We’re having conversations with a potential partner at the moment about getting something going where we have a Yena space, put people in that and see whether it works.

“Then the next step could be residential incubators where we have a live/work space. I was watching X-Men where you’ve got Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Children. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have a school for start-ups.”

Story continues after panel

What is Yena?

Yena was created as a networking environment for 15-30 year-olds.

It stands for the Young Entrepreneur Networking Association but founder Ash Phillips says they prefer just to call it Yena.

“Nobody can every remember what TED stands for either and it hasn’t done them any harm,” says Ash.

There are plenty of big ideas but Yena needs to survive in the short-term to achieve any of them. For that, Ash says there are two options. Charging for membership or securing sponsorship.


“We’re developing membership,” he says. “We’ve got an online membership hub where people will be able to access bundles of content to help them develop their business.
“Accounting spreadsheets for example, webinars about how to do things. Plus we’ll run workshops and sounding boards with established entrepreneurs and the other way round where you connect say senior bankers with five smart young people to help them think about what the future of banking would be.”

But he recognises turning a free meet-up of like-minded entrepreneurial thinkers into a fee charging members club would lead to a drop in numbers.

“So there’s an argument for offering the freemium model for as long as we can, if we can find some sponsorship,” he says.

“It’s not about asking something for nothing, we want to see how we can give sponsors something in return. If we can funnel people through brand awareness to become clients of a sponsor, that’s marketing not charity.”

Yena started in Bristol and expanded to Bath last year, which was a learning experience for Ash.

“I went naively in thinking Bath would be the same as Bristol,” he says. “Bristol is so bohemian people will just come in on their own to meet new people but it is different in Bath. It’s more tight knit, but then once you are in, you’re in.”

Birmingham and Manchester Yenas will launch shortly and Ash has had inquiries from people in Newcastle and even India.

Right now he is spending much of his time ironing out his business model and talking to as many mentors and contacts from his network as he can.

“If there’s one thing I’ve done in the last couple of years it is build a good little black book of contacts,” he says.

He’s already come a long way from his first job stacking shelves at Sainsbury’s in Filton, a job he says taught him about working with people. From there he worked for a bank and as an estate agent. The latter role he continued part-time while he began studying for a degree in business enterprise at the University of the West of England. But Ash soon decided spending thousands on studying for a degree wasn’t for him.

“I wanted to be self employed and thought ‘the only person I’m going to be handing a CV to is myself’,” he says.

But he has no regrets. Ash, who thinks of himself as a “ work extrovert” started his own business and began networking, which was when the inspiration for Yena struck.

“People were often surprised that I was running it as a company and I was always the youngest person at any networking event or in any meeting,” he says. “I would be 10 years at least the junior of the person I was speaking to.

“I thought where was everybody else? You see Jamal Edwards on TV, there are the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world. So where are all the young entrepreneurs in Bristol?

“Are they in their bedrooms just not talking to other entrepreneurs. And if so are they limiting their development and their confidence building?

“I thought let’s set up a meet-up for young entrepreneurs. A couple of people said ‘yes, great’.

“Some people said does that mean you don’t want help from an older generation of entrepreneurs. It’s about developing a safe place, a non-intimidating atmosphere where they won’t feel like they are being judged.”

During this interview, which took place at the Square Club in Clifton where Ash is often found, an established networking group was meeting upstairs.

“You walk in and they’ve got their formalities and their structure,” he says. “Most of them are wearing a suit, they probably parked their BMW or Mercedes outside. While that’s amazing and aspirational, it also intimidates people.

“A lot of people in our generation are introverts. They’ll shy away and be that person on their phone in the corner of the room because it’s easier. At Yena, they can bounce an idea around without shocking anyone.

“If you go to the event upstairs, their big goal, I’m generalising, might be to retire five years early or buy a big house.

“The big goals for people at Yena are world changing ideas. ‘I want to cure world hunger’, ‘I want to connect everybody worldwide’, ‘I want to create a private space company’.

“An older generation networking event may look at and say ‘that’s crazy’. Everybody at Yena goes ‘that’s awesome, how are you going to make that happen’.”

For three years Yena ran as a straight forward meet-up network, while Ash had a day job. This year he decided to focus on turning it into a business.

On the day he made that decision, he had an email telling him he had been named on the Mazarati 100, a list of entrepreneurs who give their time to support the next generation.

“To be on the list with people like (Innocent Drinks co-founder) Richard Reed, and (easyJet founder) Stelios Haji-Ioannou was amazing,” says Ash. “Going into a room of people like that... it’s nice to have some validation and recognition. I’ll be networking as much as I can with the people who are on the list for the next 12 months!”

Ash was joined on the list by follow Bristolians Nick Sturge, director of the Engine Shed, and Mike Jackson of WebStart Bristol, highlighting the strength of entrepreneurship and support networks in the city.

Those Networks will be key to Ash and Yena’s future.

“The long term goal for me is about legacy,” he says. “It’s about creating a network of what should be naturally the most successful people in the city and country in the next five to 20 years.

“I would imagine one of the future mayors of Bristol probably comes to Yena, I would imagine a future (Peter) Hargreaves or (Stephen) Landsdown (founders of the FTSE 100 firm named after them) have been to a Yena event.

“Yena means those people won’t get to 35, have that great idea and then be stuck. They’re going to be able to pick up the phone and speak to someone else who maybe the next Mark Zuckerburg and say ‘hey, remember me, I’ve got this great idea, what do you think?’.”




Ash Phillips

Name: Ash Phillips

Age: 26

Title: Founder and managing director of Yena (Young Entrepreneur Networking Association)

From: Bristol born and raised.

Education: Filton High School, Filton College. Went to UWE for eight months before dropping out. I studied business enterprise. Annoyingly the Team Entrepreneurship course started the next year, if I’d been on that I might have stayed. At the end of college, the careers advisors questions were ‘what are you gong to do at uni, not are you going to uni’. But it’s not right for everybody. I didn’t enjoy it because I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet.

First job: Sainsbury’s in Filton on the produce section, stacking potatoes and sprouts. We were produce Christmas champions in 2008. The main thing I learned from it was face to face experience and to work with people. I then worked in a bank and then as an estate agent for a while.

Idol: Elon Musk is doing incredible things and doesn’t let anyone tell him its too crazy to do.

Working day

At the end of last year I was fortunate to work with a business coach. I found how valuable mentoring is. So I surround yourself with as many people who know as much as possible. I’m having coffees and lunches every day talking to people.

You read business books that say ‘I get up at 4am’ or ‘I don’t get any sleep’. I’ve learned I’m not a morning person, so I wake up about 8-8.30am but I do work into the evenings because that’s when I get more productive.

I wake up, look at the business plan, see what’s happening, arrange meetings to get feedback, chatting to people who want to run Yena events elsewhere, as well as helping other people. Give before you receive, that’s the Yena motto.

Working from home means you don’t have that time to hit the office. But I have most of my meetings at the Square Club. There’s a million coffee shops where you can meet people and there’s no heirs and graces.


I never used to have time off. All my friends made fun of me for having a #NoDaysOff attitude. I’ve learned that’s unhealthy and you are less productive. Now I work when I’m productive and then I switch off. When I switch off I switch off completely. I’m a film buff, I don’t read books. I’ve got a short attention span so I’ll comics and articles. I’m just a big old nerd to be honest.

Favourite film? I’m a Disney fan so Lion King and Mulan are up there. The Trueman Show is great, it gets me thinking. Something that can test you.

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