NPIF Equity

NED Network Focus…Joe Cohen

Tutorful is a company at the forefront of online learning during COVID-19, and following a £3.2m investment from Mercia, has seen significant growth over the past two years. The company has flourished with a supportive management structure, both internally and externally.

One of these external influences for the online learning platform is newly appointed Chair, Joe Cohen, who sat down with us to discuss his portfolio career.


How did you get your first NXD role?

My first non-exec position was with a Danish e-commerce business about 12 years ago. I became involved largely because I was an angel investor in that business, but they asked me to join the board due to my experience in e-commerce and marketplace businesses.


What prompted you to explore a career as a NXD?

I held three non-exec roles up until four years ago during which time I was also a full-time operator and an entrepreneur running businesses. Recognising that delivering better results meant managing my time more constructively, particularly if that time could impact more businesses better, led me down the path to becoming a full-time non-executive.


How different is the job of a Chair compared to your previous executive history in e-commerce?

I think it’s very different. I think as an operator, you own the business, right? I worked in a corporate setting for a long time and I always believed that it was my business, whether it was or not. As an executive, I had a sense of ownership and agency and I think I was probably a lot more directive as an operator. One of the areas that I have been able to develop as a non-exec, is working through influence as opposed to being so directive.

As a non-executive, a lot of the work I do now is to support others. That’s been a big transition for me personally, particularly in the way that I think more carefully about what I do and the impact it will have.


What made Tutorful an attractive business for a NXD like yourself?

There are several factors. Firstly, at its core, Tutorful is a marketplace business. It is operating a business model I know really well and so I can really bring by experience to bear. I’ve spent 20+ years working within market-place businesses of different sizes and stages. I have a genuine fascination with how marketplaces work because there is a real organic nature to them.

Secondly, I believe the education landscape is evolving more rapidly than ever.  The current education system was created during the industrial revolution and in many ways, is no longer fit for purpose. The changes we are seeing brings with it challenges for everyone involved in teaching and learning, but it also offers huge opportunities to look at how we can best meet the needs of students, both now and in the future. I think Tutorful is a great example of a company that provides that flexibility and choice for students.


What key lessons have you learned in your NXD career?

  • The biggest lesson I’ve had is that the leadership team of any business has to own what they do. As a non-executive I need to let them run the business. I am here to ask questions, support, and occasionally guide the leadership team, bringing out their best skills to ensure they are operating from a position of strength.
  • Another key element for me is how to bring clarity and focus as Non-executive to develop and frame the management teams’ strategic thinking relative to their specific business model.


Finally, what advice would you offer to those considering a portfolio career?

If I could give myself advice three or four years ago, when I embarked on this, I think it would be to be patient. Stick to the plan you have created about how you’re going to do something. The progress that you make with companies is not consistent; sometimes you make a lot of progress in a short period of time and other periods of time, you go wild. So, it is critical that if you make a plan, believe in it and stay the course. And make sure that people remain central to everything that you do.