“As a child I remember going over the Humber Bridge feeling immense pride that it was my grandfather’s company that had built this. Money is secondary for me, it enables us to go on the journey my primary motivation is to make a difference, build a legacy that positively changes people’s lives”
Where did your personal inspiration, entrepreneurial/leadership purpose come from – what shaped your views?
I was inspired by entrepreneurship as a young kid. My earliest memories are when I was about 5, I remember feeling proud of my Grandfather (my mums dad), he had started his own construction firm from Australia that ended up being a big civil engineering firm that built things like the Humber bridge. When the Mary Rose was lifted from the sea bed it was my grandfather’s crane that did this.
I remember Christmas with my family, I would sit on his knee and he wouldn’t give the family normal presents, he would give home grown veg and a share certificate and that is what made me decide what I wanted to do.
As a child I remember going over the Humber Bridge feeling immense pride that it was my grandfather’s company that had built this. So, from an early age I felt it was almost genetic for me to grow a business and I felt stimulated by that idea at the same time.
“I felt entrepreneurial and loved inventing stuff, especially if it was technological”
At school I was buying and selling things and was always inventing, back in 1992 I won the young electronic designer of the year for an invention that British Gas could use, I got to meet Prince Andrew and Sir Clive Sinclair. I felt entrepreneurial and loved inventing stuff, especially if it was technological. All I knew back then was that I wanted to invent and build something.
I went to university to do engineering, I decided I would go to work for a few years and then eventually leave and go and start something myself. I got some great opportunities to experiment, in university I tried to start things up that didn’t work and so my entrepreneurial journey began.
Out of University and on with my entrepreneurial journey
“Have confidence and determination to follow your ideas through, you’re never too young”
I did 2 start-ups straight out of University. One we never got off the ground beyond a website and applying for VC funding, which made me determined to raise it successfully later. It was and still is a good idea but I gave up because I didn’t have the confidence and thought I was too young.
Have confidence and determination to follow your ideas through, you’re never too young.
The second one, I was one of 3 founders and we grew this company into decent revenues. It was a commodities trading platform, funded by a commodities company. It ultimately failed 2 years later because it never got enough traction, the biggest issue being because the parent company hedged its bets by putting only a small part of its crop through the exchange. This gave existing (very conservative) buyers a safe alternative route and it meant we never got enough market liquidity to be a viable platform.
Towards the end I pitched several evolutions of the product (as a supply chain trading solution) to our customers which they liked, and which have since become commonplace in the market, but the other founders had lost their energy by that point. I didn’t push because I thought they knew better than me (they were older and more experienced).
- You need fully committed investors.
- Back yourself and your gut feelings always. You’re probably right.
- Don’t let others tell you that you are wrong (when you know deep down you are right) just because you think they are more experience than you.
“I imagined being hit by a bus and the last thing that would go through my mind was regret, I knew then I had to build an entrepreneurial organisation”
Post these entrepreneurial experiences I decided to join a commercial organisation, at the time Dunhumby was rapidly growing, they were building Tesco’s now famous club card database. In 2005/6 I remember I was becoming increasingly frustrated and deeply upset, I call it the bus moment. I imagined being hit by a bus and the last thing that would go through my mind was regret, I knew then I had to build an entrepreneurial organisation.
“Huddle was my 64th idea that I have finally turned it into something, the reason why it became more than an idea was timing, I am passionate about collaboration and knew this was going to become increasingly important”
I had worked for successful and failing entrepreneurial businesses, during this time I kept saving up money so that I had some money to start up the businesses, when I decided it was time to start Huddle I had saved up 25k.
From experience I knew there were 3 critical things:
- Money to pay for what you need, my partner and I now had the fighting fund.
- Co-founder, if you want to build a technology business you need a technologist, I was a marketer, I needed a coder Andy was going to be my partner.
- Combination of two things idea and timing.
I was driving with a friend and we were talking about technology, we were in Wandsworth at the time and there was a large BT advert with the words collaboration written across it and it just hit me that I was passionate about collaboration and that this was going to be the big thing over the next few years and that I could make a difference in this space.
The two other trends we identified were:
- The rise of social software in our home lives that was going to revolutionise how we work in the office.
- A terrible experience implementing the incumbent microsoft product called Sharepoint, for collaboration, at Dunnhumby. We spent £3m trying to get it to work and it failed completely. I vowed to do it better!
Dare to be different
This led to us hiring a 120 person marching band complete with cheerleaders and American football players in Huddle outfits to parade up and down outside (and inside) the sharepoint developer conference in California this year (2011). We were determined to show the world that there is an alternative!
“I also realised that the idea is nothing without the execution, this is everything in the entrepreneurial space we had a rising tide and a ship that could benefit”
I intuitively knew that we had the concept right and that this was going to be a huge trend over the coming years, this space would become massive, we had the timing right. I also realised that the idea is nothing without the execution, this is everything in the entrepreneurial space we had a rising tide and a ship that could benefit.
What’s the special sauce that magical ingredient
“I knew that if we got the funding, brought on board the right people, got our timing, product and secret sauce right then we would have an unfair advantage in a competitive market”
I knew that we needed something to make this idea successful, in February 2006 Andy and I sat down to come up with ideas and to build a plan with a series of milestones. This was to include leaving our safe jobs, getting the concept, showing the concept, building the prototype, test if people will buy and to be clear on what would make it different.
I knew that if we got the funding, brought on board the right people, got our timing, product and secret sauce right then we would have an unfair advantage in a competitive market. I had learnt this through my time at dunhumby where we had supported Tesco in building a unique customer database that was the biggest source of insight. Tesco had totally unfair competitive advantage.
Andy and I were trying to figure out what was going to be our special source. We realised that if we could set up a network this could make the difference (by invitation only), we could get people to sell to themselves, grow virally by word of mouth this was the fourth piece of the plan.
Delivering the plan
We hit the timescales and then at the end of the summer we decided to leave our jobs, it was like a game of poker we looked into one another’s eyes and decided yup. A week later we sat in my bedroom and we thought right what have we got to do.
Overcoming internal fear
“I was soon asking myself why it had taken me 6 years to make the journey. With my kids I would say try and do it earlier and like Nike ‘just do it’”
This period felt like the greatest challenge a leap of faith. I was thinking about the temple of doom as I left the safety of work, like the film it felt like there was an endless chasm and like Harrison Ford I had to take a leap of faith, when in truth it’s actually a brick wall; it’s a visual illusion and then he walks across safely.
The other analogue is that it’s like a cliff and you think you are going to fall down, you take one step at a time, you know where you want to get to without knowing exactly what you need to do. I was soon asking myself why it had taken me 6 years to make the journey.
Building beyond the fighting fund
Next it was about building the product and raising more capital, in truth the next 2 years of Huddles story is all about money to hire and win customers. Andy and I had invested 50k, we found a company that was willing to build the product they estimated it would cost them 100k to build, they took 5% in equity and suddenly we had a value on the business of over 1 million straight away.
We were committed and gave them my life savings, they could see that it was worth backing us, we now had to live on our mortgages and had blown the additional 25k we had. I knew that if you need to raise money a way to a rich man’s diary is through their PA, so we needed to find someone who was wealthy and who would be a mentor to us.
Finding a mentor and investor
We knew someone who may be interested and so a 5 min conversation with his PA got us 10 mins for us to speak to him. We pitched to him offering him a non-executive role and fortunately he decided to invest in us.
We invited him to our developer’s office, we faked it so that it looked like our office and it made us look bigger than we were. We showed him what looked like a real product, when in fact it was a case of smoke and mirrors. Our initial investor, with whom we practised the ‘fake it till we make it’ mantra really bought into us as people.
He knew that we didn’t have a fully-fledged product or business plan, but he backed us as individuals. He bought into us, the product vision and he believed in us. It was then down to numbers, we asked him how much do you have to invest, he had 150k, we offered him a percentage that meant that we had valued the business at £3 million, he agreed.
That’s what it’s all about at an early stage. And his gut feeling has paid off, he’s still our chairman, investor and his shareholding is worth huge multiples more than when he first invested.
Some insights and lessons I learnt through this journey:
- A healthy dose of naivety and ballsy-ness meant that we highly valued our company. Realise that you can’t afford to be scared.
- Demonstrate value, we had done a deal that valued us in the millions, we got our investor emotionally involved, he wanted to have some fun.
- Motivation, he could see we had invested in it. Our 2nd investor was bored and saw it as a flutter, funny enough, the same day he spent 150k on an Aston Martin and quickly wrote it off, whereas his investment in Huddle continues to grow.
Positioned for growth
With our 2nd investor on board and 150k we were then able to start bringing in talent, 9 months later we ran out of money and then this is when we did the first raising of money. It was at the time when web 2.0 was emerging and so our product timing turned out to be perfect! We had an entrepreneurial investor, new clients like Boots and we had a talented team on board.
Raising the next level of funds
“In the US there is a cult of entrepreneurship, all of the investors are entrepreneurs, you are treated with respect, like a rock star”
The iMax had a web 2.0 conference, we had 7 mins to pitch our ideas, we managed to nail it and as we stood down from presenting we had 10 investors coming up to talk to us, we raised 2 million. Fast forward 2010, B round of fund raising, web 2.0 had morphed into the cloud, we were a cloud provider and so we were able to raise the 10million dollars in the US this time.
Raising funds in the UK and US offered some difference. In the US (Boston), there were lots of great collaboration technologies merging. In Europe raising money felt very dry and very numbers focused, where as our experience in the US was different.
In the US there is a cult of entrepreneurship, all of the investors are entrepreneurs and because it’s the cult of entrepreneurs you are treated with respect, like a rock star! As a simple example following our pitch, the audience stood up and clapped us, telling us we had a great product, I had a real feeling of pride, it was a pretty amazing experience.
Following the US pitch we flew to California, one of the guys we had met said ‘let’s meet for breakfast’. We sat down and he asked ‘what do you want for the terms of agreement’, we gave him a deal. By that afternoon he signed the exact deal, stating ‘we aren’t going to try to screw you, if we are going to do it we will do it’. In the US it’s a different way of dealing with these guys, both parties are going in with their eyes open.
What’s the purpose of Huddle and Huddle Foundation?
“Beliefs are important to us, we have always believed in doing it for reasons beyond profit. We also want to give back and so we set up Huddle foundation, to date we have gifted over $400k worth of software for free”
Beliefs are important to us, we have always believed in doing it for reasons beyond profit. I knew that I wanted a family and to manage my lifestyle, it’s not just about making money and profit, although this is important.
We set up Huddle for other reason, for me personally it’s important to be able to say that I have done it. We also want to give back and so we set up Huddle foundation, to date we have gifted over $400k worth of software for free, we believe really strongly in it and are looking to ramp that up, to date we have supported:
- A hospital in Afghanistan.
- Business mentors in Africa.
- Charities in Haiti.
“When I hear stories about how Huddle is supporting these organisations it makes it feel really worthwhile and demonstrates we are doing it for different reasons”
When I hear stories about how Huddle is supporting these organisations it makes it feel really worthwhile and demonstrates we are doing it for different reasons. Money is secondary for me, it enables us to go on the journey, my primary motivation is to make a difference, build a legacy that positively changes people’s lives.
Legacy is really important to me that’s why I chose to never go into the city, it’s just about making money. I’ve always wanted to build something and give back to people. Our company is Ninian solutions Ltd this is a homage to my Grandfather, he was a Scottish saint and the world largest concrete structure, taller than the empire state building, my grandfather built it, it’s a tribute to him that energises and symbolises making it a Big Hairy Audacious Goals.
What have been your critical lessons learnt along your entrepreneurial journey?
- You’ve got to learn what works and doesn’t work. You do this by trying different things.
- Make sure that you have a secret sauce of success.
- Learn to have the confidence to back your own ideas, act on your ideas.
- I had good ideas from university but I believed that I was too young, learn you are never too young to be an entrepreneur.
- Without those experiences I wouldn’t have been successful in the US they look to see that this is your 3rd entrepreneurial attempt, if you haven’t failed they aren’t interested.
- Execution is everything, ideas are ten a penny.
- Always bet on bright, passionate people over experience.
- Focus on building a fantastic service/product/customer experience and everything else will come. But have a route to monetise built in from the start.
What are the characteristics that in your experience entrepreneurs require now and in the future?
- Endurance, you get knocked down but have the inner steel to rely and pick yourself up.
- Inner confidence, my parents gave us plenty of this, my dad especially. My dad said you can take over the world I was a cocky little shit at school, bullied, lippy and got into a lot of fights. When you have had that experience, you learn to face people down.
- Leadership is key - providing clear and compelling vision to everyone who you work with (or want to work with), investors and customers, so everyone can see what they need to do (even when figuring the detailed stuff out, they know where they are headed), get excited about the opportunity and attract amazing people in to work with you.
What would be your 5 top tips for aspiring entrepreneurs?
- You are never too young to start, it’s an advantage as you can fail more often, learn that by trying you are you are probably not wrong, look at Facebook.
- Have confidence in your own idea, just because someone is older than you learn to back yourself, even when someone is saying no.
- Ideas are nothing, execution and hard work are everything.
- Network, it’s not what you know it’s who you know, force yourself to be better at it, get to know the key people.
- The guy who invested shared his insight that you need 4 stability points:
- Job what you do.
- Money - so you can support yourself to actually live a sustainable life.
- Partner, emotional or business who you can confidence in and share with and
- Family are the ultimate back stop, very supportive wife/partner.
If I use an analogy, when you are climbing you can’t hang on with only one point of contact, when you are building a business you probably won’t have all 4, there is always something that goes wrong. If you suddenly only have 1 you know you won’t make it through, most people stay stagnant looking at the wall ‘going I can’t do that’, an entrepreneur will take on the challenge.