Smart Connections – Networking with Shhmooze

Shhmooze is a smartphone app that makes networking at events and conferences fast, smart and effective. Michelle Gallen, founder and CEO at Shhmooze, explains how every event junkie out there can benefit from Shhmooze and why she admires founders.

Could you start by explaining what Shhmooze is about?

It comes from the fact that we felt that networking really sucks, it’s hard work, it’s painful, it’s time consuming, and most of us are actually pretty rubbish at it. However, networking is really important when you are in business and even more so when you are in the startup world. I have been in this space for quite some time now, and I felt that there has been a need for a service like Shhmooze.

Shhmooze is a smart phone app that allows you to make smart connections by helping you to check-in to events, both massive conferences like Le Web as well as smaller meet-ups like Tech Club.

When you check-in with Shhmooze, it will show you who is at the event. This is done by analysing a lot of publicly available social media and network data, and as a result we don’t only tell you who is at the event, but also who you already know there, and more importantly, we provide you with smart recommendations of who you should talk to. In conclusion, Shhmooze helps you make smart connections so that you can have fantastic conversations at any event you go to.

How did you come up with this idea? Was it because you went to so many events and got frustrated that you couldn’t connect with people in a better way?

I am definitely an events junkie but it’s a little bit more interesting than that. In my early 20’s I had a brain injury and I basically went from having a fantastic job, working on Regent St, being super happy and active – to being sent home to my parents in a wheelchair. I had to spend a lot of time learning how to do a lot of basic skills again, such as learning how to walk, and how to read and write. I spent a lot of time working with technology to support my learning process. I had memory problems and I needed to often look things up when I was out, so when the first smart phone came on to the market I jumped on it. This made me realise very early on that mobiles could help my brain.

I love to go to events and to meet new people. However, as a result of my brain injury I have prosopagnosia, which means that I really struggle to recognise names and faces. So when I was looking at my mobile one day, I thought about how my phone actually has information about where I have been, as well as information on where all these other people have been via Twitter etc. Therefore the phone can basically scan the room for me, and let me know who I know. It is something which can really help me on a personal level but actually, it also helps a lot of other people since many of us struggle with networking.

How long have you been working on this idea?

The company was formed in April 2010. The technology was built over two years in order to be really solid. We wanted to make it right, and not turn it into a service that is about shouting out that you are in a room and that there are 50 other people there too. We wanted it to be about creating an understanding to why someone would be at a particular event, understanding to what level they want to be connected and to understand what they might want to talk about. We want to make things happen in the real world.

What is the market like for an app like Shhmooze?

I am going to be generalist about this. I think maybe 95% of the competition consists of generic conference apps that are based around the conference organisers’ needs. Sometimes these apps only work at one event since the conference organiser pays for them. There is also another section of apps, which are more about discoverability and work to inform you that this friend of a friend is having pizza at the same restaurant as you are.

I think the difference is that when I go to a conference, I am switched on and I am there with a purpose, that’s when I want to know whom to talk to. I don’t think that there are a lot of apps in this space, and I don’t feel like a lot of people have done the same deep thinking as we have.

What is your strategy for monetisation?

We have a freemium service that anyone can use, but if you are a power networker, then you can purchase additional features. We also work with conference organisers. We offer to upload schedules and speaker profiles for free, but for a certain fee, give them to possibility to have their own brand on the app.

Considering the fact that you seem to be a very avid conference-goer it would be interesting to get your point of view on the startup community in London. Is there a community, especially in regards to Tech City, and if so does it provide any support?

I think it is kind of like the music scene, at first you have an underground scene and for a while, everyone thinks it is cool and then it goes mainstream. I think what Tech City has done is that they have identified a scene, and they are now trying to find a way to consolidate it.

To have the government behind you is very powerful, even if it’s not the only solution to sustain London’s tech community. I think we need a more solid support and slower voices – and you also need the renegades and the anarchists, the people that are out there pushing it. I think Tech City is just part of an interesting support system that is happening. The one thing that I am little bit concerned about when it comes to Tech City is that it seems to be such a focus on geography. I think it we would be great if we get over spatting over geographical boundaries and instead focused on the amount of amazing tech startups that we actually have here.

I know you have been involved in the entrepreneurial scene for quite some time now and I was just wondering what it is that you personally find to be the most appealing factor with this choice of career?

Well, my father warned me to never gamble, as we have had gamblers in the family that had bet their entire savings on a horse. So I didn’t go into gambling, I got involved in startups – which is obviously completely different…

I left a career at the BBC to do my own thing [TalkIrish.com] and after that I just kept on going. I think you have to be somewhat of a risk taker. Personally, I had no guarantees when I left my job, I just walked. You will need a great deal of confidence in the fact that everything will work out.

I think founders are different from people that join startups. I have a massive amount of respect for individuals that have actually founded companies, the people that grind away and do a lot of deep thinking. Founders are an incredible, interesting species.

Do you think you are born a founder or do you think it involves a certain set of skills that you can learn over time? Do you think anyone can become a founder?

I think anyone could do a startup but I think that you wouldn’t be really interested if you are not a certain type of person. I think founders are usually people who are risk-takers, and people who can see potential and not resist the opportunity to do something they believe is right or try something new because they believe they can make a positive difference. There are plenty of people out there doing startups because they know that what they build will generate money, and that’s great too, but for me it has always been about creating something which will make things better, and then I try to come up with a revenue model.

Interview by Philip Gasslander

"This is the most exciting thing I've ever done"

Matthew Painter is co-founder and CTO of import.io, a startup currently in private beta that aims to revolutionize the way that we access, collect and analyse so called ‘big data’. We caught up with him over lunch to find out about his background and how he became an entrepreneur.

Import.io is rooted in some serious programming, how did you become interested in computers in the first place?

I had my first computer when I was 5 or 6, a Commodore VIC-20, and I started programming soon after that really. I started off using Commodore Basic, and soon enough was spending time trying to program role playing games and similar sorts of programs. When I started at Cambridge I was studying Maths but in my 3rd year I switched to Computer Science. This was a fairly easy decision to make given that I’d always loved programming and that I’d had previous experience with it.

And how did you first become involved in startups?

On graduating I left to a startup called headporter.com. This operated on a simple premise: it supplied student unions with IT services (e.g. websites, membership card schemes, email lists etc.) in return for access to all of their databases and the ability to resell data to companies doing target recruitment and similar things. We had signed up all of the Russell Group universities when some unfortunate circumstances meant that we had our finance pulled. This was a blow as we had to walk away from what we had spent quite some time building, but I enjoyed myself while there and I took a wealth of experience with me. Following that I did some consulting before joining Yahoo to build a Yelp competitor. Surprisingly this had an atmosphere much like a startup because it was a small team working on their own project within the company. This was going very well until poor annual results caused Yahoo to shut down the project in order to focus on their core business areas and cut costs.

After this a friend approached me saying he was working on some tech within a large organization that had a lot of opportunities. He found it constrained working within that environment though and thought for a chance of real innovation they would need to start their own company up. Having enjoyed my first start up experience and liking the idea I didn’t hesitate to get involved and it’s been a great decision – this is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.

As CTO what sort of challenges do you face most often?

As CTO you’re not just a technological person you’re also a businessman, and one of the challenges we face is balancing risk and reward and making trade-offs accordingly. With startups the challenge is always about balancing efficiency with quality, and this manifests itself at many different levels. One of these might be human resources, for example the Google founders personally interviewed their new employees until the company grew so much that this was no longer possible – a clear trade-off of their time that they thought was worth it. The right workforce in a startup is crucial to deliver results under very tight time constraints, particularly when bootstrapping. I have to make these judgements regularly as we are currently going through an angel round, but we have to keep focusing on the business itself and not compromising the quality of it while we raise funds.

What processes have you gone through in terms of funding?

We started off bootstrapping for as long as possible. We were lucky in that Kusiri (import.io’s predecessor) was self-funded and cashflow positive very quickly so this was not as painful a process as it can be for some startups. It was pretty clear though that to really get a world class company off the ground you do need investment – you need cash to burn through. If you don’t put money into it, you’re not going to get anything out of it.

Finally, as someone who studied computer science, why do you think more American computer scientists enter into entrepreneurship than their British counterparts?

I’d say there is an element of truth to that, American society is a lot more entrepreneurial in general with people more motivated to start businesses. The UK has entrepreneurial people but our culture is more risk averse and we don’t have the same background motivation pushing us forward. Take Silicon Valley for example, people there have been brought up in an environment that will surely breed more entrepreneurs. If we get a few big successes in the UK people will become more motivated to get involved. More encouragement for young people to do computer science and coding would also have this effect. I’m very keen on this, so we were involved in SVC2UK last year, and this year we’re hosting a team for Young Rewired State. YRS fosters the sort of growth we need to see more of in young people.

Interview by John Sherwin

"I realised how much more satisfying it is when you are able to pursue something you are truly passionate about."

Founded in London in 2011, Payumi is an online service that makes it easier and more efficient to collect money from friends or colleagues for a wide variety of social situations where people need to share the cost. Khurram Farooq, Founder & CEO of Payumi talks to us about the different challenges entrepreneurs face during the startup process and why he believes Payumi will change the way we manage our social financial relationships.

How did you come up with the idea behind Payumi?

Given my background in technology and digital media, I was pretty set on doing something in the consumer internet space, and I had a stack of ideas that I was considering. Payumi won over the others because it is a very simple proposition that addresses a real need. People immediately got what I was talking about and so it passed the elevator pitch test 100% of the time. Thinking back to my time as a student, I remember falling out quite dramatically with a good friend over a gas bill and it occurred to me that building a solution to prevent this problem was obvious and long overdue. (Alex, if you’re reading this, you still owe me £27.50!)

Everyone I spoke to about the idea immediately shared with me some of their own furstrationsfrustrations about the process of collecting money from a group and in particular how painful and awkward it can be often leading to stress and even arguments. Through this process of talking to potential customers, we developed the product so that it could work for a wide variety of potential social situations where friends need to share the cost. It was very quickly clear that our solution needed to be flexible enough that it could be applied to just about anything.

I definitely think that the need is there. If you have lived in this city long enough, you know that sharing bills and paying for things as a group is part of everyday life, but do you think this need is big enough to facilitate the behavioural change needed for Payumi to succeed?

As people are increasingly maintaining their social relationships online, it’s astonishing that we still continue to organise group finances by emailing round bank details or worse still collecting cash and cheques. Almost all social activities involve shared expenditure and so the piece that is missing from the equation is how money fits into people’s online social life and this is where Payumi comes in. People are always looking for new, easier and better ways to do things and so I think Payumi will solve a lot of problems for a lot of people.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in the process leading up to the launch of Payumi?

There were a number of different challenges. I think the first big challenge for me was to find a good technical lead as I am not a technical guy myself, a problem which a lot of founders that are not technical often encounter. The second challenge was of course to get some funding. As a result of my background in investment banking, I had a pretty good network of founders, investors and other people that I could speak to, many of whom I had enjoyed working with before or knew through other connections, so that is how we managed to secure our initial funding. The third challenge is building the right team and I think the idea helped a lot here as some really cool and talented people were as passionate about it as me and wanted to get involved.

How has the product been received by consumers so far?

Everyone loves it! Like any new consumer internet start up our biggest challenge is to just make people aware that it exists. Pretty much everyone coming on to the site ends up ‘liking’ us or saying good things about us, so the initial reaction is thankfully a good one.. We are still building new features in response to feedback and iterating the product rapidly so the product will get better with time and soon move onto mobile as well. We are launching to the public fully next week so these are exciting times for the team. We’re confident people will finally say goodbye to using email, bank transfers, text messaging, phone calls, spreadsheets or notes on the fridge to track and manage payments from friends.

How do you view the market for this type of service and have you identified any potential competitors?

I don’t think there is anybody in the UK market that is providing this kind of service in the same way that we are. There are a couple of companies in the US, such as WePay and Paydivvy who have tried to address the problem by becoming deposit account providers which let you create group bank accounts where one individual administers that account on behalf of the group rather than providing a direct money transfer service between friends. In fact, WePay is now much more focused it seems on pursuing smaller merchants and trying to win business off PayPal.

There are some other players in France (Leetchi) and Germany (Friendfund) but both of these work quite differently to Payumi so I think there is a real gap in the UK market where we can establish ourselves as the leading market player for direct, many-to-one peer to peer social payments. We have a unique model and while we are focused on the UK market for now, we will look to deploy it internationally in due course.

Being located at Hoxton Square, arguably the heart of Tech City, what is your experience of the east London start-up community? Do you feel like a start-up community exists here and if so, have you felt any support from it?

There is definitely a great community here, even though we didn’t locate to East London because of that reason, it was more a matter of convenience for us as we all live in the area and we were lucky to find some great office space nearby. Being part of the community is cool though as being a founder can sometimes be quite a lonely experience unless you have other founders around who you can talk to and who you know understand some of the challenges you face because they have experienced similar things themselves. Having said that, we probably haven’t leveraged the community as much as we should have because we have been very focused on building the product and the team and already had funding in place, but the community is great for keeping up to date on what’s going on in tech in Europe and for the opportunities to network, work with other start ups and share knowledge and experience.
How did you make the decision to leave your job and pursue a career as an entrepreneur?

As a corporate finance advisor focused on technology and media businesses, I used to advise entrepreneurs on strategy, raising finance and mergers and acqusitions so I was curious about doing something for myself – something which I really considered to be fun. I was always so inspired by the entrepreneurs I met who had started from scratch and turned their companies into really valuable businesses but also into great places to work, while having a lot of fun doing it. I felt that I also wanted to build something from the ground up.

So, finally I guess I just took the plunge – luck and serendipity played a part in that I was forced to take a career break to allow my wife to pursue her career in Psychiatry with a 6 month secondment in New Zealand. While I was there, I learned to fly a plane – something I had always wanted to do – and I realised just how much more satisfying it is when you are able to pursue something you are truly passionate about. When we returned to London, I was very focused on building a company and have never looked back.

Do you think there are any specific skills entrepreneurs need in order to be successful?

Persistence, passion and a belief in what you are doing. You also need to be a bit of an all rounder and be able to lead and motivate a diverse team to achieve success. No matter how stressful my day is or however complicated the situation I am dealing with, I still relish getting out of bed in the morning whereas in my corporate job I always felt a bit stifled and often wished I was doing something else.

As Steve Jobs once said in a letter to new Apple employees, There is work and then there is your life’s work – this feels like my life’s work and I am enjoying every minute of it.

Interview by Philip Gasslander

The Investment Game: how to choose your investors wisely

Tony O’Shaughnessy, founder of ABS, gave us some key points to consider when looking for investors for your company:

“I think the very first thing you need to understand is why you are looking for investment in the first place. It sounds really obvious but you would be amazed by the number of people who think ‘if only we had investment we could do x, y and z.’ Thinking about money problems alone is a very naïve viewpoint. You should really make sure you know exactly why you want the money, what you’re going to do with it, and that what you are going to do with it fits with your strategic direction. This is absolutely key.

You also have to think about what the role you want these investors to play:

  • Do you want them to be equity holders?
  • Do you want them to be proactive?
  • Do you want them to have valuable employment in the business?

The minute that you have investors it will affect the culture of your business and your employees directly. You need to know that it is a great idea because it allows you to build a new product, etc., but also what it means in terms of the way you operate.”

 

"Building a product that people want" – An Interview with Dragos Ilinca, CMO and Cofounder of UberVU

Dragos Ilinca is the CMO and cofounder of UberVU, a social media intelligence company with bases in London, Bucharest, and the USA. Dragos began our interview by describing the genesis of UberVU as it evolved out of a web-marketing consultancy into a social media posting platform, into a social media monitoring tool, into its current form as a social media dashboard with social media intelligence.

In your opinion, what is the most difficult part of getting a startup off the ground? Is it getting funding, working together as a team, is it actually developing the product, or something else? Or is it everything in combination?

I think it’s everything in combination. It all comes down to building a product that people want because I think everything falls into place from that. Of course in order to build that product, you need a team. We were lucky because we had known each other for a lot of years, we had started other businesses together, but I look around and a lot of people are looking for co-founders and I think that’s really, really hard, finding someone to start a business with. And once you do that, its about just building something that people want—even if it’s a minimal sort of version—because if you do that, raising money shouldn’t be difficult. If you manage to build that product, that kind of means you’ve got a team, and if you’ve got that team and product, raising money should come pretty easily. So in our case, I think it was definitely figuring out what product to build, but I see a lot of entrepreneurs who are starting with building a team, especially in places like London where developers have so many options to choose from. They could work for, you know, the finance industry, or an already-established startup, and if you’re just starting out it’s difficult to get talented people to join you.

Perhaps it’s too early to ask this question, but in terms of your experience working with social media, how do you adapt? How do you know when to stay your course with your vision for developing a product, and how do you know when to pivot? The social media world is constantly changing, so how do you adjust for that?

I don’t think there’s an easy answer to it, but it kind of comes down to traction. If nobody likes your product or buys it, you need to do something about it. If you have a few people who really, really love it, then you need to understand who those people are and why they love it, and if there’s an easy way to reach more of them, that’s your whole market. And if you’re happy with that that’s fine, but if you need a way larger market, you can potentially work with them and figure out what a dumbed-down version of that product is. I think the most difficult thing is actually making the decision. I think deep down you kind of know when things aren’t really going well, and you can stick around for three months, maybe another six months and see: make a plan, and just say we’ve got this deadline and if things don’t pick up we need to do something about it. But I think people deep down kind of know, but they’re just afraid to make a decision. You need to be able to say, “What we’ve done so far, yeah, it’s a lot of effort, but in the end, people aren’t really paying attention to us and aren’t buying the product, so tough luck. We need to start all over again.”

UberVU strikes me as a pretty advanced mechanism, integrating social media and media monitoring. Do you think the days of simplicity in application development are over? In other words, do you think the skill-level required to produce groundbreaking apps will only become higher as times goes on?

Probably. That’s probably true. Because we’re a business tool, so from that point of view, we need a lot of technology to do what we do. But look at something like Instagram, for example: there’s not a lot of technology in there. If you think of technology just in terms of code, you know, other people can build that kind of stuff in a weekend. If you think of technology as also the mechanism by which they’ve been able to build viral coefficients in it so that it spreads and that kind of stuff, then that’s very difficult to replicate by other people. So I think if you’re building consumer apps—if you know what you’re doing—you can still get away with not having a highly technical solution. But even so, if you look at Colour, they’ve got pretty hardcore technology in there, and it’s just a photo app, more or less. So even these things are becoming more and more complex, and I think the reason is that you can do so much more now with the technology and the stuff that would have been impossible to do in real time is now possible, so you can build a lot better experiences for the user; and the second thing is there are so many people looking at the tech space, that if you build something that can be replicated within a week, and you’ve got absolutely nothing else that can make you succeed, then it’s just not worth it, because other people will copy you ASAP. Just look at Groupon as an example. A lot of people think it’s the technology and they built that in a weekend and there are hundreds of clones; but actually the difficult part is the sales behind it, selling to small businesses and being able to scale and that kind of stuff. So if you think about that as sales, not really technology, but technique and strategy, then it’s very difficult to replicate it. In terms of actual code, some people can probably build that in a day. But it’s not that that makes it work.

Since you’re the CMO, I wanted to ask a marketing related question. Since uberVU and so many applications are so heavily grounded in the online world, how important is actual person-to-person interaction in marketing?

I think it’s still important to have the in-person interaction. Not all the time; we started selling online with credit card, so it wasn’t necessary to meet anyone at that point. You could, you know, make the product and the company look more human by having photos of the members of the team on the website, having a video where you present certain stuff, having a blog that’s very human, but now that we’re moving more into the enterprise space and we’re starting to get customers like NBC or the World Bank, for these sort of things it looks like it’s pretty important to meet face to face, and if you cannot do that, at least have a few phone calls. I think the higher price you charge for what you do, the more you need that sort of relationship. And it’s not just because of the person-to-person interaction; usually if you’re charging a lot of money, the solution that you’re selling, you need to really understand the customer’s use case and be able to show them how the product is really going to make an impact. And these solutions are usually pretty complex, so it’s not like a photo sharing app: you take a picture, you share it with your friends, pretty easy to understand. It can be pretty hard to articulate just from a website and understand exactly how that could be used in your organization, and understand how easy it is to use even though it’s got this breadth of features. It’s hard to make the jump from, ok I see this demo video, how could I use it for my specific use case? It’s very difficult to understand that. And people just don’t have the time and don’t want to take the effort, so instead of researching that tool for 30 minutes and not understanding, it’s sometimes more useful to say, ok let’s just have a 30 minute phone call, you’ll tell me about it and I can explain really easily how we can help or how we won’t be able to help and you’ll probably need some other tools.

 

“The only guidepoint is reality” – Interview with Andy Hutt of triOpsis

Andy Hutt is founder and CEO of triOpsis, a real-time visual intelligence company designed to provide technology that allows enterprises to use mobile devices to track the status of products and services on the ground.

I can’t promise any words of wisdom at all, but I can promise words.

1) Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur rather than go down a more traditional career path?

Lots of answers to that. As with most things in the world, life is a bit more complex than, I woke up one day and said, “Fantastic! I’m going to do this.” Life evolves to a point and you make some decisions. For me, one of the most important ones, and it is only one of many, is when I looked at a traditional career path, I just saw boredom. My background is in finance; I’m a qualified accountant. Way back when I worked for PwC, I worked in Private Equity Transaction Services at Deloitte, I worked in corporate finance, blah, blah, blah. And the problem was whenever you looked at the career path of any of those, it was frankly just boring. And for me, I didn’t want to spend 30-40 years of my life doing that. At all. So it’s about how to make a change. And any change is very difficult to make.

For me, the obvious one with the skillset I had was to go and set up a business. It was possibly a bit of a random choice in terms of where we went, but you have to use what you have around you. I had no background in software prior to this, I had no background in retail, no background in utilities, never set up a business, all those kinds of things. But you have to make a decision that says, I need to change something. I need a more interesting path in my life, I need to do something which I find more satisfying, more enjoyable, and I have more control of.

2) What new skills and specialisms did you have to develop as you got triOpsis going? How did you develop new skillsets?

One of the skills a potential entrepreneur has to have is risk taking. Risk taking possibly equates to stupidity or arrogance, because if you knew all the risks, you probably wouldn’t do it because you’d assess you’d fail; or you understand the risks, and you’re so arrogant that you think you can succeed anyway.

A lot of people are very risk-averse when it comes to trying different things. I’ve never set up a business before. Ok, fine, how do you do that? You just go and talk to some people, get a bit of guidance, and do it. And a lot of it comes down to just doing it. I’ve never run a technical team before, in terms of coding, never run a PR campaign before, I’ve never been a salesman, I’m going back to when I started the business, and it’s about risk taking, just dive in and do it. And if you work out you haven’t got the skills, learn. So, can I be a salesman? Yes. If you can’t afford a salesperson at first, that’s what you have to do. You can’t say, “I don’t have those skills!” You have to dive in, do it. The key thing is, if you’re prepared to take that initial risk—which is basically whether you’re prepared to show yourself up, whether you’re prepared to effectively fail—you need to learn quickly. Dive in, learn quickly, chuck it at the real world and off you go.

In terms of acquiring new skills, it’s partly about risk taking, it’s partly about confidence, and it’s the ability to learn quickly. A large chunk of my view of the world, when it comes to learning and entrepreneurship, is about surviving enough failures to succeed.

Most of the time, until you’ve made your business, you’re assembling a collection of small failures. If I go back to the first sales pitches I did four years ago, I cringe. I’m like, “My God, did I ever actually pitch something as stupid and vague as that?” But you have a go and you just learn, and that was a failure. You’ve got to collect these failures. And in terms of how you fund the business, ideally with entrepreneurship, you need to get enough funding to survive enough failures to have learned enough to succeed.

People view failure as though there’s only one way to fail, which is, you know, like the Eurozone at the moment: BIG! And actually, entrepreneurship is lots of little failures. “I tried that, it didn’t work. Put that to one side. I’m going to try that, ooh that didn’t work, ooh that does, let’s do more of that.” Ideally it’s not catastrophic. I got a good piece of advice early on, which is, “Never bet the ranch early on any particular given path.” Some people say, “You’ve got to do it the whole hog, just go for it!” And if you did that, put all your money in one strategy, one path, one thing, and it fails where do you go? I’d rather spread the failures, and then try and learn where I passed. “That bit did succeed, I’ll put some more money over there.” With failures you learn. Success doesn’t actually teach you anything, it’s just like, Oh, I got lucky. More of the same.

3) How do you balance breadth across industries and depth within an industry?

It’s a really good question because for me, success only comes if you focus. But it’s actually the point I was making a second ago about failures, because you don’t actually know which market, which product is going to be a success. So what you have to do, and what we did, is we started off in brands and we tried retail, and we’ve ended up in utilities; we ended up in water, and we’re now in gas and electricity. It’s a case of the same learning curve, but the ultimate goal has to be a focus. As a small company, you don’t have the resources to do lots of stuff. Provided you understand that to start with then you may succeed. If people don’t understand that to begin with, if they think they can have a go at everything, they will fail. You can’t. Unless they’ve got a really big bank balance, in which case, good luck to them! So, what you have to say is, ultimately I do have to focus to succeed, but I don’t know where to focus, so it comes back to how do I learn? How do I fail, etc.? And what you try and do is get into a niche where you think, yeah I’ve got something real. And that particular point to me in terms of business is what I was talking about earlier: you have to get that in the real world. You can’t sit in an office and think, right, it’s going to be this. That’s the way for me. You have to take the risk and then actually go and talk to that particular client. And they’ll probably go, “Oh that’s rubbish.” So you go back, you have a think, you listen and then you go back and you try that again. And ultimately it comes down to, sadly, what will this generate in revenue for somebody or will it save them money? You need to understand that as an end point.

The only guide point is reality, and that’s the bit when I was talking about risk taking earlier. A lot of people aren’t prepared to take a risk. And a risk is standing up in front of people and actually potentially looking a bit stupid. And for a lot of people, they’re not prepared to do that. The ultimate arbiter of everything is reality. You can’t sit in an office and make a profit. You have to actually physically go into the real world, get your product into the real world, and get real world feedback. Think of anyone who sits in an office and says, “Yeah, this is the best thing since sliced bread!” For our products, we could say, “Yeah insurance market, hey! We can do all of this stuff!” But actually if you spoke to someone in insurance they may turn around and go, “Err, you can’t do it for these reasons.”

4) What is the lifestyle of an entrepreneur like?

The lifestyle of an entrepreneur? It varies. In the world of big corporates, hard work is when you have lots of work on. For a small business, when you’re an entrepreneur, that’s easy. I’ve got work. The hardest part is when there’s nothing. You know, there aren’t any projects. You haven’t got a team of people, you have to sit and you have to go, I need to do something, I just need to create something from scratch. That’s hard work.

 

What route should students take to become a successful CEO?

Peter Collins, currently the CEO of Permasense, has obtained a PhD Computational Fluid Dynamics and an MBA prior to his various managerial and director roles. He built on his knowledge and skills as an engineer prior to management.

This is perhaps the conventional way to proceed in one’s career, but there are many other opportunities for newcomers these days. The British schooling system creates a dilemma for students at numerous stages. Having to graduate with only few A-levels suggests that you are required to narrow your focus down at a very early stage. However, individuals’ personalities only shape after “teen” years, where confidence and ability to manage others become evident. So there is no clear-cut answer to which is the best route to take.

In order to get an understanding of which route successful CEOs prefer, we asked Peter whether he feels his career advancement was the key ingredient in his success or whether if he could go back in time, would he have done it in any other way…

I have no regrets…

Engineering based businesses are best run by engineers. You cannot build a great engineering business without knowledge of and passion for engineering, as you cannot build a great hotel business without a knowledge of and passion for hotels.

It’s a pity that more engineers don’t remain in engineering, in particular to build engineering businesses…

Growing a business during a rough patch in the market

You do not need to look far to notice that the Eurozone recession is dooming on us. During the last global recession, entrepreneurs were some of the worst hit across all businesses.

So we got in touch with one of few entrepreneurs who managed to continue hiring and growing his business during the recession, Tony O’Shaughnessy, to describe how he managed to build Fourth Hospitality to a point where it was strong enough to break the storm and plough through by hiring 5 to 10 people a week, and to give us and other entrepreneurs advice on how to survive rough patches…

“The key point here is business planning. I’ve written and seen so many business plans that have unachievable financial targets. This is because entrepreneurs are stereotypically very opportunistic, and there is nothing wrong with that as long as you consider the worst-case scenario. You need to consider how you can ride the storm in the middle of the Atlantic, i.e. how can I operate my business with limited resources and demand.

Additionally, you must always think of the basics: what is it that your product does and how is it unique. A lot of people promote products/services that are ‘good to have’, but not many people sell ‘essentials’. If your product is an essential in the market with no better substitutes, the effects of external pressures will be minimal. Once you have identified why the market demands this product, you must drive this through with consistency.

We offered complete back office solutions, which met market requirements that would aid them to overcome the effects of recession. Very importantly, our offering was affordable. Major industry players felt the pressure of the recession and wanted to become more organised to succeed. Consequently, they recognised us as a way in helping them through the recession and coming out on top. In particular, the idea of visibility and sales analysis became very important to them in understanding how they can outperform. Our ability to provide this solution became a great asset for them to control performance of outlets.”

Key challenges in sales and marketing for entrepreneurs and growth-stage firms

Permasense corrosion monitoring systems provide engineers, inspectors, planners, and plant managers insight into condition and capability of critical oil and gas assets. Potentially it is a technology with wide appeal. Given this, what are the key challenges in the sales and marketing process? What are the key steps and challenges entrepreneurs face in taking a product like Permasense successfully to market and what would you advise they do to overcome them? We asked the CEO of Permasense, Peter Collins…

Identify the product champion

Identifying the individuals in a company that are ‘own’ the problem your product or service is addressing is the place to start in finding the individual to champion it in your target customer.

For example, in Permasense’s case, this person my be an asset integrity, engineering, corrosion or inspection manager.

Identify all that have to sign off on adoption

If you are selling a system solution, impacting on a number of functions or business processes, you must also win the buy-in of these gatekeepers. For example in Permasense’s case this includes IT, safety, plant operations and frequently others.

Identify the economic buyer

It’s as old as sales itself – no sale without a budget, and it’s so easy to believe you’re close to a sale, when the person who has to sign the cheque hasn’t even been brought into the sales process, let alone convinced.

Whether you or your champion, or both of you together, convince the economic buyer will vary – but you will need to be clear with your champion how that final step to sale is going to happen…

Realistic time plan

Entrepreneurs and their financiers should not underestimate the length of the sales cycle, and thus how long to positive cash flow. For business-to-business sales like Permasense’s, this cycle can easily be 6-12 months. And that following achievement of reference sales. So make sure to plan your cash management accordingly.

Know your product

Know your product, believe in it, communciate that passion – but don’t oversell it! Having the appropriate background – in Permasense’s case, an engineering background – is, I believe, so important.

Customer (and Patient) Control – An Interview with Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli

Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli is founder and CEO of Patients Know Best, a personal health record system designed to put the patient first. By giving patients control of their own health records, the system allows more efficient and effective relationships between doctors and patients, as well as between doctors and specialists comprising teams of care providers. Patients Know Best is based in Cambridge, UK.

1)   Before Patients Know Best, had you ever thought of doing something entrepreneurial, or did the drive really start with the problem and solution you discovered?

I started with something entrepreneurial in a sense because I knew I was going to start my own company. I was setting myself my own syllabus, so I went through medical school having learned how to program; I was just teaching myself how to write medical software and the intention was that I’d basically solve problems for physicians. And that’s what I did during medical school. I also grew up in Cambridge, and in Cambridge… I was told in school that when you’re in Cambridge, you start your own company, so I believed them. I knew I would do that one day. The final piece for me was learning business, so I worked for a management consultancy in the States, in Washington D.C. While there, I saw the problem that I thought, “OK, this is really important I could commit to, I can see myself dedicating the rest of my life to solving this because it’s really important.”

Beyond that, there’s also a business model behind solving this problem, and I guess I just wanted to solve this for myself. I was facing the problem as a patient, trying to organise my care, trying to manage my health. I spent a year sulking that no one was doing it, and 2008 came along and I said, “You know what, I’ve literally written the book, so I have to do it. Let’s just go and do it.”

2)   How much has the service evolved since you started as a result of patient and physician input? What developments do you foresee with regard to the service in the near future?

We started with an embarrassingly minimum viable product. We took all the classic startup advice, start with the minimum market product: we launched with only one feature. I came back to the UK and I began asking for interviews from my friends who were doctors and then asked them to recommend other doctors to speak to. They weren’t saying, “My problem is I don’t have a PHR.” They said, “My clinics are overrun with patients and I’m always late in helping my patients. There are budget cuts, I can’t get enough staff…” All these very clinical, very operational problems. So I just began building up clinical problems, and I thought, if you use the patient as an asset rather than a liability, we can help. What’s the minimum feature they would need, that they would pay tomorrow, to use? And the one thing they said was, “We want to send messages to patients across institutional lines, if the hospital wants to send a message to the patient and cc the GP, or GP send a message and cc the social worker, for example.” And that was the only thing we launched with.

To give you some contrast, the UK government spent tens of millions on Healthspace, which is their sort of attempt at a patient portal. And only after they went through that sort of tens of millions did they get the feedback of, “I don’t really need any of these features, but I really need to send messages.” So then they began trying to do messages, but by then they’d spent so much money, no one was going to give more money to develop the software any more. So, we started from that feature and every single other thing you see in the software is because a doctor, a nurse, a patient sat down and said, I need this, or I’m stuck on this.

The whole thing top to bottom has been built by the user saying what they need; we respond every two weeks by putting out new features. From our perspective, it’s great because we’re only building stuff that people care about, but also our users are huge evangelists. Every commissioning customer who uses us can point at a part of the screen and say, “That was mine.” And then they go and tell all their friends, “Go and use this software because that was mine. And also, whatever you tell these guys, they’ll do it in two weeks. They really respond really quickly and I’ve never had a software company do that with me.”

3)   In one of your customer videos, Gary Hotine describes looking for something that would be like “Facebook for Patients.” I’m curious to know how apt a description you feel that is for Patients Know Best.

A lot of our users describe us as the Facebook of healthcare. When we trained patients in the beginning, the docs were kind of worried that the patients wouldn’t understand how to use the software. When we sat down with them, most of the trepidation was that they did not believe the docs had actually handed over the records and given them control. But as soon as they get there, they’re like, “Oh, I see, that’s like Facebook. I’m good.”

From that point onwards they just go ahead and use it. It’s like Facebook in the sense that it’s a very easy method of communication, pulling data from everywhere and it can send lots of places. It’s not like Facebook in the sense that we’re not selling your data and we change the terms of use every week: we are not confusing our financial benefit with your privacy desires.

4)   When you started, I’m guessing it was pretty much just you. How did you then go and assemble a team? What qualities did you look for?

It started with just me having the idea and doing some of the research in the States and then deciding I needed to go back to the UK to start it. Cambridge was the place to do so, both as my home and because I’d heard that Cambridge receives 7% of all VC funding in all of Europe. It’s just a crazy number. So I came back to Cambridge and just did a bunch of things to start building the team. I emailed the CEO of Cambridge Network and said, “I’m coming back to the UK, I’ve trained as a programmer and I’m starting this company; I have no team, no product, and no customers. Who do you think I should talk to?” “Let’s have coffee.”

I think he took pity on me, but he said, “You know you should talk to Ian, he’s a CFO of VC backed companies and I think he’ll talk to you.” It turned out we shared the same pub, and we kind of just spent 2 hours the first time talking about the company and he thought it was really interesting. Over the next four months, the poor guy, Ian, taught me accounting. And then eventually he became a member of our board of directors and CFO of our company. So he was the first really heavyweight executive to commit his time to the company.

Then from the development side, I started by just getting some contract developers to build the proto-type and then some other ones to build the final software. We now have developers from the UK (obviously), but also the States, from France, from India, just a real international team. And they tended to have some experience with healthcare in the past that meant that they were as frustrated with healthcare as I was. And so they’re quite evangelical.

In parallel with that, I got a meeting with Dr. Richard Smith, who was the former editor of the British Medical Journal. It took me six months to get a meeting with him—because everyone’s trying to get a meeting with him—but I knew when I was reading his editorials as a medical student, he was always on the patient’s side, often to the anger of his colleagues and medical professionals. But he’d always be on the patient’s side. I knew that if I could just get a meeting, he’d get it. And sure enough, he got it and he agreed to new meetings. And then one day, he agreed to be chairman of our board of directors.

As you build that core team of world class people, it’s just easy to get people. Everyone then wants to join up.