"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