Entrepreneurship, UAVs and Star Wars: A conversation with Daniel Sola, CEO of Archangel Aerospace

We caught up with Daniel Sola, CEO and founder of Archangel Aerospace, an aerospace consultancy specialising in High Altitude UAVs (aka HAPS or High Altitude Pseudo Satellites) and space.

 

This is my first interview with an entrepreneur for Rapid Innovation Group’s “entrepreneur’s viewpoint” page. I am excited to see where our conversation takes us.

Well I will try and give you an “entrepreneur’s viewpoint.” I find that if I describe myself as an entrepreneur I suffer massive imposter syndrome [laughs].  Maybe that’s because I’ve spent a decent amount of time rubbing shoulders with extremely successful founders in Silicon Valley or maybe it is the curse of British self-deprecation.  Who knows.

 

Considering it’s the dream of imaginative children to get as close to space as possible, I’m interested in how you got into this line of work?

Well, I studied engineering at University even though I’m not an engineer by instinct. I almost studied History or Classics. In all honesty I was a terrible engineering student for most of my degree and I even attended PPE lectures instead.  We did a solar-electric high altitude drone project in my third year, I got enthusiastic about it and suddenly I was an engineering scholar and doing pretty well.  I am most interested in outcomes of projects that can have a big impact so even if I did choose an arts degree, I think I would have got to a similar destination in my career by a different route.

I always intended to work for myself, but after University I looked at my debts and options and felt the tug of The City.  As many graduates do, I felt there was a painful choice to either earn lots now to build something special later or do good work now, utilising my engineering skills. That is one of the things I enjoy about Silicon Valley. They have shown this is a totally false dichotomy and doing valuable things pays.

I decided to spend a few months in The City whilst my security clearances were coming through. I had planned to just earn some cash whilst waiting for clearances but it was something I found difficult to leave. The people were bright and energetic, it was fun and I was looking at something like a 60% pay cut at the graduate level to go and do science or engineering.  The City often talks up competition for top talent to justify bonuses.  This really misses the point. London banks aren’t competing so much with New York or Paris for top talent; they are competing with productive British industries and startups for the pick of graduates.  I think we will see this trend reverse as technology continues to disrupt old industries and inefficiencies though, so I’m optimistic for a resurgence in UK technical talent getting on with doing productive things.

 

So after working as a trader did you set up Archangel Aerospace?

No I spent 5 years gaining skills and experience before that. I began working for QinetiQ on three main areas. Asteroid deflection, infantry modernisation and high altitude UAVS.

It was at QinetiQ I got involved with the development of Zephyr, a High Altitude UAV. The last we developed with QinetiQ was Zephyr 7 and Airbus are now working on the Zephyr 8. Archangel Aerospace was founded to support the World Record flights in 2010 and we’ve continued to be involved since.

 

Can you explain your involvement with Zephyr further?

The story behind Zephyr is an interesting one. At the end of the First World War, Royal Aircraft Establishment was banned from making airplanes, so the engineers there pooled their own funds to develop an aircraft which they called Zephyr.

Similarly, this project began as an internal start-up with employees at QinetiQ putting their own money and time in to get it off the ground. The first prototype was called Zephyr 2 in homage. The Zephyr programme is somewhat bigger today and has produced a High Altitude Pseudo Satellite powered by the Sun and is unique in its ability to stay in the air for weeks or months. It holds three world records for altitude and duration. It started as a hobby which many dismissed as “it will never work”. Soon enough there were people tapping watches and asking “where is it?”

 

Bringing things back down to earth briefly, given your involvement with solar and battery technology on Zephyr, what’s your view on these two technologies in meeting future energy needs?

I think with regard to solar, the efficiency of the cells and scalability of production will be key. New production methods for amorphous triple and quadruple junction solar cells are really interesting. Scale in supply is a significant gap which needs to be crossed in order to lower costs and lead to widespread adoption. A lot of energy tech faces the same catch-22: scale is the way to lower prices and lower prices are needed for scale.

What Tesla did with its home battery (Powerwall) was significant in pairing cars and homes to batteries. The more this technology can be scaled up the faster it can lead to mass adoption. The basic Tesla Powerwall is quite undersized but even if it was sold at zero profit it still makes sense for Tesla do it to drive up scale and drive down the costs for car batteries.  One of Musk’s other companies, Solar City, will install solar cells on your roof that make more financial sense with some home storage so it is an easy upsell.  Regardless of how effective this particular home battery is, it’s a smart business move and it certainly makes the market more credible for other suppliers.

We’ve been told that fuel cells will be important for a while now.  The date changes but the rest of the slide deck looks the same. For most cases, fuel cells don’t make sense to me as the round trip efficiency is too low. Unless you were immediately going to use a substantial amount of the energy stored for heat generation anyway, batteries are the answer for home storage.  For cars the rapid recharge was attractive but rapid charging batteries are coming and you still don’t want all that heat.  For some bigger solar electric aircraft, fuel cells may well make sense with specific designs.

 

What are the applications of HAPS? How do you see them as addressing significant global issues?

HAPS of course have a military use for surveillance and communications but the commercial applications are probably more valuable. HAPS are cheaper than orbital satellites and produce better quality imaging and communications with better spectrum reuse. In a commercial capacity Earth monitoring could be applied to pollution monitoring, agriculture, border controls and sustainable fishing to name a few. The potential to sample weather and atmospheric composition directly, something satellites can’t do, is great. That side is exciting but it can be difficult to find a customer with cash for global scientific missions.

 

 R+D in this area is often military funded. Given the commercial applications of HAPS, do you see investment diversifying?

It’s hard to see where funding in HAPS will go. We have already seen huge amounts of money being poured into it by Google and Facebook given HAPS applicability to enable internet connectivity throughout the developing world. I expect that just like satellites the first customers will be (and have been) governments followed swiftly by commercial communications, which will come to dominate.  The science missions will wait for the economies of scale to drive the cost right down.

 

Business is often about mitigating risk and shaping perception. What risks do you see in terms of perceptions of UAVs in getting HAPS funded and widely deployed?

Unfortunately, the word drone gets used a lot and often these refer to quadcopters used by amateur photographers and hobbyists. They can pose significant threats in civil aviation and when a bad enough incident occurs there will be a backlash against all Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

Having said this, regulators have been very accommodating in the projects I have worked on, allowing special permissions to fly within busy airspace in Europe and the Middle East for example. The safe answer is always ‘no’ so I have been really impressed with some of the enthusiastic efforts by these regulators to help us get to a ‘yes’.

It has been significantly harder to agree arrangements for regular routine flights, which is likely to involve legislative change. Right now, a lot of regulators are inundated with requests for flying multi-rotors straight off eBay (and that’s the operators who request permission). That workload is only going to increase so I feel quite sympathetic towards them.

 

What’s next for Archangel Aerospace?

Well, we are moving offices to Oxford. We are going to set up shop in Harwell, a hub for innovative space technology. Using our expertise and knowledge we want to carve out our own niche in the emerging HAPS market, as well as working on some lower level UAV and payload products. We think we are onto something special and have a pretty clear vision for the future but the key for us is to rapidly get to a testpoint for each product as early as possible.

 

Lastly, what did you think of Star Wars (the latest film instalment, not Reagan’s Cold War defence initiative)?

I thought they played it safe to be honest. It’s the 4th time they’ve blown up the Death Star or something similar so some new ideas would be nice. It reminded me why I wanted a lightsabre as a kid growing up in the 80s. It’s hard to hate on a Star Wars film so long as there is no Jar Jar Binks so I think it’s a thumbs up.

 

An interview with the founder and CEO of Export Technologies, Daniel Loughlin

Daniel Loughlin founded Export Technologies, an eCommerce platform provider and consultancy, in 2005. To date, their eCommerce platform, the IRP, has transacted over £1 billion in retail eCommerce sales in over 180 countries. I caught up with Dan in order to delve deeper into the world of eCommerce and entrepreneurship.

How would you define an entrepreneur?

From my point of view, it is someone who can create a viable business out of an idea.

How did you come to be an entrepreneur?

I was initially a programmer and had a big interest in eCommerce and still do, and an opportunity arose. Because I was able to facilitate the eCommerce side of it, from there I really developed the business out of that. I didn’t set out thinking I wanted to develop the business but it happened because I knew how to do the eCommerce part of it so it was a very quick and natural thing to do. I’m sure a lot of people in the technology sphere materialise in a similar way – they start with an idea and the business comes afterwards.

If you could go back ten years, would you do it all again?

I’d possibly do it slightly differently. I think one of the bad things in many ways about technology is that it’s not quick. It takes a lot of detail and a lot of time. The length of time you have to sink into these projects makes you question doing it. Saying that, I still enjoy the area that I’m in and it remains very interesting. As you get to learn things, you do realise you could have made a few quicker decisions in the early stages.

How would you encourage someone to get involved in the world of eCommerce?

I am positive about eCommerce, but it has moved on from where it was 4-5 years ago when my answer would have been “get involved” and it was still possible to grow businesses very quickly. I would say now that people should get involved to maintain or expand the market share. To find areas of huge growth in a pure selling sense, you’d have to pick your market very carefully and have absolutely the right technology.

I think the best time to start a pure eCommerce company would have been between 2000 and 2004, after the end of the first boom.  There is a lot more money to be made on the technology side of things: efficiencies, solving problems et cetera. On the shop and selling side of things, it’s definitely getting more competitive.  For serious growth markets I think people should be thinking about selling internationally instead of selling here. Look for demand and think about selling some of the high quality products that we have here and carve out a niche.

You were partly responsible for growing Chain Reaction Cycles into the world’s largest bike store, achieving a turnover of £180m. How did working alongside CRC have an influence on shaping Export Technologies into the company that it is today?

I think it had a big role to play because it essentially allowed us to fund our R&D and was a very nice position to be in. So because of CRC, we became an R&D organisation instead of a selling organisation and remained there for a long time creating a great product.   It was also a great opportunity to learn a lot about the way that online markets work in depth.

You’ve previously mentioned that you got involved with CRC at a time when there were strong tailwinds in the cycling market. In which markets do you think we are currently seeing strong tailwinds?

In my view, you can make money in most markets. You need the right technology and the right choices – it will not just happen. Unusually, there isn’t enough focus on a pure sales angle. Probably because the world of online selling is a bit more opaque. But companies need to get real skills in that area in order to really get on top of the key metrics and they key channels. Unfortunately, these require a lot of detail in order to make them work properly. Not being able to physically see your customer is a challenging thing. Normally, you meet your customer. You can watch them, talk to them, and learn, and in the online world you’ve got to shift your thinking into a different way of doing that.

If I was to pick a niche, I would be thinking carefully about what the populations of the growth economies are consuming, and whether or not we can supply them from here. For much of the world’s history, China has been the largest economy. I’m not sure about the restrictions, but I’d look at Eastern markets e.g. do they consume something that we can supply from the UK?  If there are no export barriers then whiskey might be an example. There will definitely be growth areas like that. People need to look at poorly serviced markets where there’s a demand – companies like us are useful in trying to analyse these markets.

What are your main aspirations for Export Technologies over the next three years?

I would like to really strengthen our technology and simplify it so that it reduces the barrier to success – that is a key thing. Commercially, I’d like to see a wider adoption of the technology because I believe it’s very strong.  And also to grow the business in a structured way, based on a strong value proposition. I believe our IRP technology and our vision of “Commerce in a Connected World” can have an impact.

When you’re not doing all things eCommerce, what do you like to spend your time doing?

I spend time reading about the area I am in, business in general, and current affairs. I enjoy competitive sports; playing them rather than watching them and getting away from the computer screen in the outdoors.

Sometimes I think about the impact our work has, and the bigger impact of Information Technology; the area we are in. There are competing forces in our own area of Commerce – between ‘buy local’ and ‘buy global’ so it will be interesting to see how this shakes out. I think most of us are spending more time interfacing with technology, and less with other people which is a change for society. There are also issues of personal data and security brought about by the way communication has changed that society is yet to catch up on.

"As a CEO, you never stop pitching."

Rory O’Connor is the CEO of Scurri, a cloud-based delivery management platform that gives merchants the tools to gain control and operational efficiency. Scurri was recently chosen from thousands of businesses to represent Ireland at the European Business Awards. We caught up with Rory to hear about his journey with Scurri so far.

First things first, how are you on this rather warm day?

Great, I love the sun. I just biked in which I love doing. Days like today always put a smile on your face.

Congratulations on being chosen to represent Ireland at the European Business Awards. How does it feel?

It’s great. We’ve actually won a number of competitions over the last year or so. It’s good as it gives the team validation that what we’re doing is worthwhile. It also provides you with exposure and opens up funding opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise get. Sometimes it can be hard to see the amount of progress you’re making, but getting recognition from your peers in business is always motivating.

So tell us a bit about Scurri; how would you sum it up in three sentences?

Basically, it’s a piece of software which makes managing e-commerce deliveries easy for online merchants. What that actually means to a layperson is that we use our software to connect e-commerce companies’ software stack to courier companies like DHL. This allows merchants to print shipping labels and allows them to pull delivery data back into their systems. It improves operational efficiency, provides access to delivery data, and improves customer service.

How did the idea come about?

It happened like most startups I suppose. We started with a slightly different idea but the vision was the same; to make delivery simple through technology. We started out targeting small sellers, like those on Ebay selling excess delivery inventory from the couriers.

We then continued our development by speaking to customers, and kept iterating the product. We thought that there was more value in the e-commerce sector, so now we’re operating in a very focused segment but it’s a very big market with lots of opportunity and growth.

You’ve recently completed a funding round; was that challenging? What have been the other significant challenges that you’ve faced since starting Scurri?

For a startup business, finance and cash is always a big challenge. We had a seed round for angel investors and I learnt a lot as I’d never done fundraising before. Whilst it was very taxing, I actually enjoyed the experience. One of the main things I learnt was the importance of timing; it’s very important to find the right investor at the right time. Maintaining momentum during the funding round is also key.

As a CEO, you never stop pitching. You’re always thinking about the next round; it doesn’t stop. Someone once said to me that the role of the CEO is to appease stakeholders and to get funding. I spend a lot of time working on many things, but it really comes down to those two responsibilities.

As the CEO of a company which is enjoying some success, what would be your advice to other startups?

We made a lot of mistakes. For someone to leave the corporate world to run a startup is difficult. It’s not just like a smaller company; you’re trying to build something. When you’re trying to create a new product or disrupt something, the rules aren’t there. You can’t just take the big company rules and scale them down; you have to make the rules.

When we were building the software, I really started to follow lean and agile philosophies. The whole ‘build it and they will come’ approach can be damaging. It’s better to prototype, to get out there and talk to people, even if you don’t have a fully formed product. I’d advise everyone to read Eric Ries’ book The Lean Startup, and Steve Blank’s The Startup Owner’s Manual.

How do you enjoy working at Tech Hub? Is it a good environment for startups?

I love Tech Hub. My team is in Ireland so I spend four days a week here. To be in a place where your team isn’t around you but there are lots of people facing the same challenges, with the same dreams and aspirations, is great. The staff here are also very good and they look out for you. If they can help in any way, they do.

Finally, what is your favourite TV show at the moment?

I watch a programme in Ireland called Love/Hate. It’s a drama about gangland in Dublin. It’s very good and has recently been shown in the UK and had record numbers of viewers tune in on the first night, which is unprecedented for an Irish TV show. I never miss it.

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

"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.

 

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.”

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.

"One of the biggest challenges was finding out how big could our business could be"

I recently had the opportunity to speak to Carlos Mendes, Co-founder and Product Manager of WeListen. WeListen offers an enterprise innovation management software tool, InnovationCast, which companies can use to drive innovation within their operation from the idea to the final product.

I asked to him to tell me more about the reasons for founding WeListen, developing InnovationCast and any challenges that they experienced during the start-up phase.

“Four of us co-founded WeListen several years ago. We were already colleagues so we had professional experience but we were looking for an opportunity to do something different. The basic idea was to join forces and start up a company together. We started as a project-based company and, at one point, we began working with Mota-Engil to help them organise their collaboration infrastructure.

“During that engagement, António Meireles, who was in charge of Innovation Management at Mota-Engil, came to us with the challenge to devise something better that would improve the way employees collaborated within the company and to support innovation management. The initial idea was to take a solution from the market and add some customisation to ensure that it was a good fit between the needs of the company and the existing product. In the end, we could not find any one solution available that could address all their needs such as:

    • How can we support all of our innovation management process within the company?
    • How can we turn our ideas into value?
    • How do we engage our people to drive innovation?

“This lack of an existing solution for all these aspects drove us to produce InnovationCast. We created a solution for this from scratch. InnovationCast is not only a way to enable innovation from within a company. Our aim is to allow companies to innovate at a sustained rate. Not only does it allow a company’s internal workforce to provide innovative ideas, but it also allows external suppliers and buyers to help address any challenges.

“One of the biggest challenges for us, and this may be shared by other start-ups, was finding out how big could our business could be. Sometimes you get customers to provide solutions to but it is not always easy to keep the company going on a sustained basis. Since we started as a project-based company, we were working with clients that had different projects and problems to address.

“We had projects coming in, which was good for us, but we had difficulty focusing on a particular area. From the beginning, we always had the idea of creating a product based on social technology. We didn’t know what that product would be. On the one hand, working on different projects for different companies was good because we were finding out as a company what was possible for us to do. On the other hand, it can be difficult to choose what you want to do as a start-up that has a clear focus area.

“We had so many ideas that it was easy to want to do it all, but obviously we had to put our mast in the ground. As a startup, you need to understand what you want to do and what real assets you have to build a business.”