Anthony Stevens is Co-Founder and CEO of 6clicks, which is a fast-growing startup that has developed a cloud-based technology solution designed to automate and manage risk assessment, risk management and compliance. The critical role Risk Management plays in businesses of all sizes has never been more obvious in light of the pandemic, OH&S issues, and highly publicised hacking scandals and modern slavery compliance breaches. Ant and the team at 6clicks have positioned themselves perfectly in a space that was primed for digital disruption.
We caught up with Ant earlier this year, just as the COVID-19 virus was beginning to break in Australia, to learn about how and why 6clicks was started and to explore Ant’s personal entrepreneurial origin story.
Ant, when you look back on your life now, what were some of the things that led you to the startup world and to starting your own business?
Ant: There are a few things that come to mind. When I was young – maybe eleven or twelve years old (in the late ’80’s), my Dad wrote an article for Apple Magazine. He was a university professor and his area of research was music and education which led him to write an article about MIDI, which involved the use of musical keyboards and computers in combination with each other. I didn’t understand much about it at the time, however the thing that’s relevant is that my Dad, being an academic, refused to be paid by Apple in a traditional sense so instead they sent him an Apple Mac as compensation for writing the article. He didn’t need another Apple Mac, so he bought this thing home, and let me use it.
So this is me at age eleven, and I can remember it vividly, sitting up to all hours of the early morning with it and my Mum and Dad constantly saying, “get to bed, get to bed!” I ended up teaching myself to program and basically write software in this language at the time that was called HyperCard. It was sort of like Powerpoint on steroids with macros built into it, so you could orchestrate story flows and build little games and choose-your-own-adventure stories. So I think this early access to and fascination with computers was crucial to the direction I ended up taking.
I was also fortunate that Dad, as an academic, was lucky to bring home lots of new things. He was a bit of a pioneer in connecting computers to university networks in the United States back in the mid ‘80s and so I realised then as well that computers could connect to one another other. He bought home one of those old dial-up telephone modems with the suction cup and that’s when I learned how to dial into bulletin boards. Looking back on that now, it was hugely informative and also helped me understand from a reasonably young age how computers work. I think that’s why, when I look at software and I look at new technology, I kind of “get it” pretty quickly. As they say, if you start something young enough in life, then it becomes natural to understand it.
From there, in my early teens, I got into some minor entrepreneurial pursuits. I ran a little business when I was in my later years of schooling – selling watering systems to the parents of some friends around the neighbourhood. So I had this interesting business which started me thinking about other ways to make money.
Tell us about the watering system business?
Ant: It started when Mum and Dad had some friends who commissioned a “turn key” solution for watering their garden. In other words they wanted me to go to the hardware store, buy all the piping, install it all and bundle that all up for a fixed price, make sure it all worked and then come back and maintain it from time to time. Back in the day, I did that stuff, and it taught me how to buy for x and sell for y, and how to service and make customers happy.
Was it a one-of project?
Ant: I did a few of them, just the sort of stuff you do at school. Years later, as an undergraduate, I got together with a couple of mates from university to do another business. We had a friend at the time who was in the car leasing business, which they eventually sold to Direct Salary Packaging. They were in the business of leasing cars, salary packaging and corporate plans. As part of their operation, they ran a call centre where they were campaigning and generating leads and they wanted software to manage this more effectively. So in 1998, when we were in the final year of our undergraduate degree, we built a piece of software for a fixed price contract and ran it on a server.
Towards the end of the project I said to Jono and Chris (the guys I was working with), “Why are we handing over the software and the server to these guys? Why don’t we buy a server and put it in a rack (we didn’t call it a data centre then) and then sell it to these guys on the basis of a per user per month subscription?” Now all this sounds like Mickey Mouse stuff and ridiculously obvious now, but it was ‘98.
Effectively we’d built a CRM system, we had built in the idea of customers, leads, opportunity, quotes, and conversions. It was a database with a web front end, and then we went down to this place in City Road, which was one of the very early data centres, and in those days you had to buy an RU, a Rack Unit, which was like a skinny pizza box in a rack. Remember there was no cloud then! We went in there into this freezing air conditioned place, plugged it in and connected it up to the internet, gave them an IP address and the software and they used it successfully for years.
That was a point of contention, because it was a huge trade-off between building an asset and building a piece of software intellectual property that we wanted to hand over and get some return on. But at the same time we saw the opportunity of keeping them on the hook, and eventually that translated to us building more software and charging for more and more users. I eventually sold my stake in that business and got married at the time and used that money to buy a ring. So that story ended where I didn’t sort of cash out, but I think at the time, if we had kept it going, it was a very early software as a service business. It was in every respect web-based SaaS and I think if we trumpeted that business model and talked about it more futuristically things might have been different.
Looking back on some of those early times can you identify any particular traits or personality characteristics that you think may have driven you to where you are today?
Ant: I was a maths and science guy. I did a lot of maths and science study, and so I identified with having an analytical mind, although my mum always used to say I was a musician. Both my parents were musicians, and I played cello and I used to teach cello too. Your parents know you best ultimately, and mum would say, “Actually you are a Creative, you are analytical in the way you think and operate, but deep down you are creative, and you are creative in so far that you can think about the world a couple of years out.”
The pretty consistent theme was intuition. Linking back to the earlier story with my Dad and writing software and thinking about the opportunity of software and its’ automation benefits and connecting computers – for an 11 year-old I guess that was big deal. Back then you didn’t understand this stuff just naturally because it was all new, so you had to think about what the computer was trying to do and understand the “why” behind it and then decompose that into what the possibilities could be.
I find a happy place for me is to figuratively shut my eyes and think about the market and where it’s going to be in a few years time, be it in a business model context or in a use of technology context. Ultimately what’s going to make the world a better place? What could help automate things or drive productivity benefits or solve problems that companies or consumers deal with?
Tell us about your business. When and how did you and your co-founders come up with the idea for 6clicks?
Ant: I was previously at KPMG as a Partner and Chief Digital Officer and I essentially oversaw the development of a whole heap of software that KPMG took to market and sold to its clients. And through that process, we had to buy a heap of things from everywhere from Microsoft to small software vendors, and part of the process we had to go through, like lots of companies, was a procurement exercise.
I can remember vividly sitting down with the team and asking them about the process we needed to go through to buy technology and software. Obviously, there was a commercial or legal process but there was also, emerging at the time, the fact that we needed to think about compliance. The Risk Team showed me a bunch of spreadsheets that they had developed that included all the things in the industry that we needed to comply with, and also the things that internally were important and the questions we had to ask software vendors to check that they were compliant too. I thought to myself, oh my god, it’s a nightmare. These were huge spreadsheets with multiple tabs and word documents.
I didn’t think that was scalable in any way and ultimately it didn’t really help us address the risk that we had. It was too heavily dependent on humans doing stuff – updating bits and pieces. I could see that the world of Risk and Compliance effectively comes down to companies asking themselves, based on the industry they’re in, what regulations and legislation are out there and how do those laws apply to them. This then results in them seeking advice on those laws and regulations and then developing some policies that they need to put into place and actively follow while, from time to time, checking to make sure that they are doing all of these things in the right way.
So when we built 6clicks, at the core of it, we built some technology that helps and supports this mapping process. The standard was to do it in spreadsheets which is really not acceptable, especially at the enterprise level where the macro thematic around the world involves regulators stepping up their emphasis and impost on organisations to do this stuff more effectively with very severe penalties for not getting it right.
So that was at the core of our software and then we thought about the existing solutions and, this gets back to thinking about the world down the track, and how it will be a bit different. So now that industry is currently serviced by consultants, lawyers, auditors and accountants who send emails, PDF documents and spreadsheets. They just email them back and forth between themselves and their clients. So we looked at Xero which is a cloud-based accounting system that has been very effective because they have thought about the value chain, they have thought about businesses needing accounting software to run their business and make money but at the same time, accountants need to help those businesses from time to time, with closing books at the end of the month and so on.
So we thought, “Why isn’t there a risk and compliance equivalent of Xero?” and effectively that is what we have built. It’s a system that allows consultants and lawyers to log on and manage or work alongside their clients in the management of risk and compliance issues. So it’s a bit of a combination of automation, content and rethinking the value chain. That’s what we’ve done.
Since you kicked it off, has the idea changed or evolved?
Ant: We are still evolving it. We are evolving it all the time. Since we started selling, we’ve had a lot of interest from service providers – accountants, lawyers, anyone advising an enterprise or government. There is a lot of demand from those guys as they are thinking that, to the extent to which technology is affecting their industry, they want to be on the front foot because they don’t want their clients telling them to do it, they would prefer to be innovative and lead. That’s challenging for them too because they have existing business models that have been running for decades, so it’s hard for them to change, but they have expressed interest in it and we are working with some of them now.
At the same time we have been selling directly into the Enterprise and Government sectors and have closed some deals there in Financial Services and Education. What we found though, to get back to your question on how we are pivoting, was that our early buyers tended to have a specific profile – their role in an organisation tended to have a core focus on compliance and was risk related or responsible for risk and compliance issues. So, if you take an organisation of a thousand people, that might equate to maybe five people in total, not many.
So we started thinking more broadly about where else does the issue of risk manifest itself in businesses and it was pretty obvious that it’s in Boards, Executive Teams and Projects. And if you look at the shocks that are currently impacting businesses including the Corona Virus and cybersecurity breaches for example and the flow-on effects from them on businesses like Toll Holdings recently, or in the Education sector, the fact that Chinese student numbers are reducing dramatically, it’s clear that these are Board and Senior Executive Team level issues.
So we then started thinking about what is it that would make things easier for Boards and Senior Executives in the context of risk management. They are not experts in risk management, but they do have obligations to think about it. However, one of the big challenges of a director is, they sit on the board and they might be an ex-accountant and well-versed in accounting issues or they may be an ex-lawyer and so they are an expert in law. Their skillsets and expertise are deep, but narrow. Of course they try to be broad, but in the end, they need experts – people to prompt them about risk and what’s relevant to their business.
We also looked at it from a psychological point of view or cognitively the way people think about risks and we ran some experiments where we asked people to name the risks that could impact the performance of their business over time and we gave them a blank piece of paper and said “start writing”. What we found was that they would quickly come up with a few, two to five risks, that were obvious based on their expertise and then they would slow down and it became challenging to add to the list.
Alternatively, when we said to them, “Here is a list of fifty risks. Rate them and determine if they are in or out in terms of relevance to your business” two things happened. Firstly, they ended up with a much more comprehensive list of risks, and secondly, they also became aware of risk issues they hadn’t previously considered. So there was an educational piece to it too.
The insight came from that initial experiment. The test to write down all of the risks on a blank page. Directors of Boards, and senior people running businesses are intelligent people, but this is not a question of intelligence or one of understanding their business. Rather it’s all about awareness of the possible risks.
So we then looked at how this process was being done today. And, well, the way you currently do it is you pay KPMG or PWC $50k to run a workshop. They then come in and put Post-It notes on the wall, and they go back and charge you $500 per hour to develop a spreadsheet and say “X said this, Y said that and Z said this” and they put it into a five by five risk matrix, again in Excel or Powerpoint and that then goes into the next Board Pack. They then wait for everyone to look at it, and they stare at the dots, and think how did that dot end up in the top right? I thought it was bottom left, but the Chairperson said it was top right. So you get all these interpersonal and board dynamics.
As a result, in addition to our 6clicks enterprise software, we have also built an app that is based on the “swipe right, swipe left principal”. You swipe right for a risk that’s relevant, swipe left if it’s not relevant that then leads to a simple process you can conduct with your team of identifying both the likelihood and potential consequences of that risk. The beauty of this is that it is then done at a collective level. So it helps deal with the issue that sometimes arises when there is someone on the Board who has an overly influential or commanding style, which can result in others sitting on the sidelines instead of contributing their individual expertise and perceptions around the risk that faces the businesses. The result of pulling in those data points is a much richer and more fully informed discussion.
So with our app, you do all of this – you work as a team and collect the data, you swipe right and left. It takes no time at all and then you press a button and that graph that takes the traditional analysts six hours to work out goes straight to your email box in seconds. Done! We are putting risk libraries in there, libraries for cyber, health, business continuity, a targeted one for boards, so you can identify something like fifty possible risks to discuss with the board. That’s what people are looking for, they don’t need the long workshop.
Can give us an idea of the current scale and traction of 6clicks?
Ant: We have about a dozen customers now – a mix of service providers and enterprise and government. So we have an enterprise piece of software out there which is generating revenue and now we’re just looking to scale that. As for the app, that’s a freemium business model which drives leads and engagement and we think there will be opportunities to monetise that through data and analytics and possibly advertising as well.
Let’s explore your co-founder relationships. How would you characterise them?
Ant: I think it starts with trust and mutual loyalty. Certainly that’s the case with me and Louie. We first worked together at KPMG. He and I are generationally different, he is thirty years old, I’m forty-two. We have different experiences but share values and work ethic and our general commitment to the cause. I learned early on in my career from a guy I used to work for, when he used to talk about leadership and teams, to think about the team composition like a hand of cards, and the goal of any leader is to play the best game of cards with the cards in your hand.
So I think about that, and how we all bring different skills to the table, and it’s about mutually respecting those and acknowledging and working out how they are best played. Louie and I get along well. He focuses on product and engineering, basically driving requirements, executing on the technology aspects of the business from project management and planning and execution standpoints.
Andrew is a co-founder too. We acquired his business (Trusty Gate) that he was running at the end of last year and, because it was so early on and we are all in leadership roles, we see him as a fellow co-founder. He has had twenty years in the industry as a top tier cybersecurity consultant, so there’s huge depth there, and my background is different again…
You’ve talked about skills there, what about personalities?
Ant: We all bring something different to the mix. Andrew has a strong background in cyber (he used to work with the Department of Defense) and he is very entrepreneurial too. He has a great style that resonates with our clients – pretty measured and risk-managed in his delivery. I am probably more bullish and blue sky, energetic in style. Louie is like a rock, he ticks along and makes things happen. I think we have a really good balance at the moment in terms of diversity of personalities and skills.
What does a robust discussion look like for the three of you?
Clarifying and agreeing on our objectives typically involves the most robust discussions for us. We start with trying to actually communicate effectively to one another about what it is we think we should be doing because, with the energy and excitement that we’ve all got, we are all running at a 1000 miles per hour and the danger is that we run this fast in too many different directions. That can be frustrating because, in one person’s mind it may seem very clear about what needs to be done, but it’s important to make sure everyone is seeing and agreeing on the same thing and that takes time.
All of us have this sense that that there is so much opportunity in our market. Historically, Compliance and Risk have not been seen as glamorous and not renowned for innovation. It’s an area that has actually been a laggard in terms of innovation for decades, but for that reason we all see tons of blue sky. So for us, it’s almost like trying to work out who breaks the discussion. What I mean by that is that we each have so many ideas about what we want to do, but then we say “yes” to everything and this is our biggest challenge.
We want to do twenty things at once, but if we do that, we are spread too thin. Our business model objectives can end up being too ambitious based on where we are at the moment. So we can see opportunities to make money or to drive value or expand into different regions, but at the moment we are a pretty small team. Our ambitions and goals can go beyond our current resources, which is annoying. This is the constraint of a startup. It’s a world of limited capital and you can’t do everything you want…
Let’s talk about capital. Please tell us about your experience with approaching investors and with trying to raise money?
Ant: I’ve been reasonably lucky on this. We raised some early angel/seed capital mid last year and then did a little top up round for this acquisition that we did at the end of last year. Louie and I had a view that we were pretty determined to get to an MVP point before we raised capital, and we did that by and large. I mean the definition of MVP is always up for discussion. What is the metric as to when you stop building and you think you have a product that someone will buy? I think it’s the point when you have a product that someone says “I’ll pay for that”. We kind of got to that point maybe plus or minus a month or two, but we were committed to not raise capital or take money to build a product on the back of a slide-pack and an idea. We actually wanted to prove our product, so we invested a lot ourselves – both capital and sweat to get it to a certain point to demonstrate some value and traction, and the fact that we were serious about this, and that we have some skin in the game and that investors would be brought in later to accelerate the agenda as distinct from creating the agenda.
What was it like, you mentioned it’s not a glamorous area – what sort of reception did you get, was it hard to explain?
Ant: I think the bit that people get is the macro thematic – and that wasn’t hard to explain. Risk and Compliance is an area that sucks, every business has to tackle it, you pick up the paper everyday, you’ll see evidence of that. At the time the banking Royal Commission was quite topical, if you go back 12 months, the key message coming from that, is that you have these senior people getting paid a heap of cash who aren’t as accountable as they should be, and it all comes back to the regulators expecting banks to up their game, there’s this disconnect.
So I think the thematics were friendly to us, in terms of explaining why this was an investment opportunity, and I think we still play to this. The business model nuance and opportunity and how it would play out was harder to explain. I think we needed to probably have a lot more understanding of all the different strategic business models that exist in this space, and they are often hard to explain consistently. We had a view of what they would be, but in practice what you actually find is slightly different. My lesson out of that is that the narrative is only really concrete once you can demonstrate it and talk to people about it.
Did your pitch change as you went through the cap raise?
Ant: The pitch changed a little bit as we got more confidence and as early investors committed to invest. That always helps, no one wants to be alone, no one wants to invest $50k or $100k and feel that they are the only investor. Success breeds success, in terms of the narrative, once you get a certain amount of capital it comes together pretty quickly. The actual story about what we were doing and how we were going to do it and who we were going to sell to, was early and therefore changed and, in hindsight I was confident that it wouldn’t change as much as it has. It hasn’t changed for necessarily better or worse, it’s just that the things that have been successful have been different to what we expected.
When the business had that initial injection of funds, what was the first thing you did? Did your focus change?
Ant: We’ve been very focused to get to the point where we have a saleable and repeatable narrative to offer to potential customers. Andrew and I are seeing a dozen customers a week and our diaries are packed a few weeks out. We now have a narrative when we sit down with someone, we’ve got half a dozen slides, and we show them the product, ask them questions and now the questions we receive back from them are always the same questions. So you know you are on to something when the questions you receive in the sales process are pretty much the same, so we are now narrowing down on what it is that they need and what they want, and if we can meet that need effectively that’s good.
We’ve been very sales and marketing led, because the sales cycle in the enterprise or business to business sector is quite long. It’s not a case of just releasing an app that consumers download and away they go. That said, it is also really sticky, the likelihood of something going in and never coming out is pretty high, particularly in this space, so we have been focused on that and now product and adoption are our biggest challenges and that’s where we are swinging more of our capital allocation around to. So once customers are using the software or about to use the software, we have to make that experience successful, as distinct from just selling it hard. We have to embed it successfully and effectively.
Let’s turn to the ecosystem now. How have you found the Melbourne ecosystem? What kind of reception did you get from potential investors? How did you prepare for these meetings? Any tips?
It’s been a mixed bag, I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, about where the ecosystem is in Australia as we go into our next capital raise (Ed: 6clicks went on to successfully raise a $2m round not long after this interview). I do sense that the traditional investor capital market is incredibly conservative. I talk to people all the time, and it’s pretty consistent that they are not really venture capitalists, they are more private equity, growth capital oriented, who are looking for ten ticks on the page, and only at that point will they get the cheque book out and they are more following the Canva’s and Atlassian’s’, but not really up for the growth at the venture stage. I don’t think they would argue that. As a founder who has talked to them, and in my experience, I think they are pretty conservative.
In terms of the Cyber space, there is quite a bit of activity now, there are cyber incubators and accelerators that have popped up. I kind of feel they are a good thing, however we have not been part of one as I don’t think it’s going to help us given the stage we are at now. I think if you are a very early stage business with limited experience – the classic two 23 year-old girls or guys sitting in a garage with a slide pack and an idea and looking for mentorship and some business acumen injected, these programs could be useful. Ultimately though, these programs, they don’t tackle the big issue which is selling into enterprise and selling in a business to business space. There are a lot of businesses that I know which have raised a million bucks, they have worked through all that and are now trying to secure a pilot customer. There are a lot of examples where just getting traction in the enterprise space is tough. I think it’s tough overall. So whether the ecosystem, the accelerators and incubators could do more to help that agenda, I think that is the question.
What about the informal ecosystem? Do you have some advisors or other founders that you might tap into?
Ant: We have a quasi-advisory board. They are ambassadors for the business, they are not a formal advisory board, they are more people who have a vested interest in the businesses and can refer or make referrals or advocate for our brand and get it out there. That’s probably more effective than some structured program for us, but I do think some people feel they need a structured program if they are missing skills. For us we just need accelerants to growth, and we have focused on whatever is going to give us that as quickly as possible.
What were the thought processes you went through when making your leap out of corporate? You and Louie both did it.
Ant: That was a tough decision. I was in a senior role, things were good. I had job and income security. For me though it was largely my personal agenda to face into the entrepreneurial opportunity head on and on my own steam. I guess what I was doing was trading income and security off against experience and capital and I am cool with that. Many aren’t or wouldn’t be. But where I am in my life, it suits me well. It’s very hard, but from adversity and challenge I know comes good learnings and experience, so no matter what I do, it will be good, but it is hard.
Do you miss having the resources of a KPMG?
No I don’t. What we have now, which I think is ultimately more disruptive, is speed and agility. Plenty of those consulting houses have probably thought of these ideas, like our app, but they can’t execute, so if we can execute like we are we will get a jump on the market.
What are some of the hardest decisions you have had to make to get your startup to where it is today?
Ant: We’ve made some tough decisions. Hiring decisions mean people are getting paid, so there is an allocation of money there, and you are making a judgement around people and personality and skill. I have spent a lot of my working life trying to do that, but it is inherently challenging, and you don’t always get it right. So far, I think it has worked really well because the team dynamics are fantastic. Steve has bought a huge amount to it and we have also recruited a developer here locally and another marketing guy. Decisions around people are challenging because you know you don’t really have the luxury of bringing someone on board for six months and then finding out it doesn’t work. It’s not just the money, it’s also the energy, the time and the waste of effort when you make a poor hiring decision.
Pricing, product and getting the value proposition right has also been tough. We have spent a long time, and just until recently we have been very accommodating on price and value and positioning of product, and we have actually started to be a lot clearer and dogmatic in how we sell and position our product with people who are interested. For example, we have found that a couple of consulting firms are very interested, but they are not making decisions effectively and they want to keep trialing our product and want to extend the trial and keep extending the trial and we have actually just started saying “no”. We have to back ourselves that the market is there, and not spin too many wheels when we are faced with clients who can’t commit.
So with pricing we have also started being a lot clearer and saying here is the minimum spend, not discounting too heavily, just being more confident and commercial. And it really is a confidence game. Yes you want to close the deal and get it across the line at all costs. You want the logo, but you also don’t want to piss people off. You want to be easy to do business with, and not get the reputation of being semi-hostile, but it’s a commercial thing too – demo after demo after demo after demo, you either get it or you don’t get it, you want to buy it or you don’t. It can be frustrating!
Let’s talk about the “entrepreneurial grind”. How have you found being a founder from a wellbeing perspective? Have you started doing some things for yourself that you haven’t before?
Ant: Great question and I wish I did more. The pressure that shareholders, stakeholders or customers put on you is one thing, but that pales into comparison to the pressure you place on yourself. There is a view in some markets around the world that founders try and fail and try and fail, and failure is just something you learn from and that it’s really ok. While this is fine, for me I can’t shake my personal commitment to try and really get it right! Even though people say failing is fine, it doesn’t make it easy, and if you are going to fail you want to fail knowing you have gone hard in every possible way to get to the right point. So mental health and work life balance is a challenge in this context, finding techniques to get sufficient levels of energy so you can do what you need to do.
So what do you do?
Ant: I exercise as much as I can, although it’s a series of tradeoffs that I haven’t quite got right to be honest. I spend more time with my kids now and try to make that a quality experience, to be as present as possible, and not be distracted by phones or whatever. I try and look at the world through their eyes, which obviously excludes 6clicks by and large, although they continually ask me questions about it, but they are young enough that it doesn’t really matter to them so that’s good. I think being open with Louie and Andrew, sharing the fact that you are all pushing so hard to do something, to close a deal or get something over the line, but it’s not easy, the internal voice and the challenge to make that happen is confronting. But if you know that the folk around you get that and have empathy or awareness then that’s half the trick. So start by sharing that problem or challenge, and that makes it easier.
What sort of exercise do you do?
I’m not a natural runner, but I run from time to time, but more functional fitness – various videos at home, weights and gym equipment.
You mentioned you are a cellist earlier. Do you play that?
The cello is a beautiful instrument, my son and daughter both play the cello, and so I enjoy it more through them than myself these days
Or I walk – bush walking is great and I ski as well. If I can find the time and money to ski once a year I’ll do that as I find that to be really meditative, because you can be in the middle of nowhere and you can only focus on one thing – to get down the mountain. In so much of what we do we are multi-tasking and thinking about different things and that leads to anxiety and stress. So if we can do some things where we focus on one thing, and something physical ideally, that’s good.
What have you learned in your startup that you didn’t know before, and that you’ve picked up through doing and experience?
Ant: I think the learning for me has been on the sales process and psychology of buying. I have actually found it to be a lot simpler than the strategist in me would probably like to think. People are ultimately buying for reasons that are semi-emotional but based on a couple of simple needs that they are looking to address. As a founder looking at business models and strategy and wanting to unpack all these different nuances about what the product or strategy could mean to someone, I think it’s easy to overcomplicate things. Ultimately customers are just looking for your product to do one or two things well, and the rest is a free kick. So if you can avoid getting carried away with all the other bells and whistles, and simplify the offer, that is a key learning.
What advice would you give to a school leaver if they are weighing up going to university or starting up a business (assuming they have that choice)?
Ant: It depends on the individual of course, but as a general rule, I’d suggest going to university, not so much for what you will learn, but for the fact that you will learn how to learn. I think the ability to learn and understand concepts and connect them to others in as broad a capacity as you can is critical. This is especially the case if you want to be a startup entrepreneur. You need to understand a little bit about a lot – a bit about finance, money management, law and technology and not too many people have got that breadth of skills….. you have to force yourself to understand lots of different areas, and I suspect that a 17 or18 year old may not have worked out enough of those techniques to learn effectively across a broad set of domains.
What about an MBA?
Ant: I’ve met some people with MBAs who I think have got a tremendous amount out of it and their business acumen is very strong as a result. Conversely, I’ve also met some people who have an MBA, and their business acumen is weak or not as strong. I don’t think necessarily doing that degree yields too much more than confidence. It may be a confidence game, or prestige, or it may open some doors, but I think if you are a good thinker, and you know how to learn and communicate and you read as much as you can, you can learn almost everything and that would include the things that they teach you at MBA schools.
Any final advice to a would-be startup entrepreneur?
Ant: The other thing I have learned is to be as ambitious as you can and appreciate the fact that, at the moment, there is a lot of money and capital going into innovation and into startups generally. You need to be aware enough that you have to grow quickly or otherwise you won’t be successful, not because your idea is not great, but because you won’t get sufficient scale or critical mass.
So move as quickly as you can, take as much risk as you possibly can and in this market make sure you qualify sales as quickly as possible. I read something the other day, that the minute someone doesn’t get what you are trying to pitch, stop trying to sell them, just find someone else that does. As a founder, you are so passionate and committed to your idea, and I find this all the time, you are talking to a consulting firm or a business, and advocating for why the software is going to have an impact, and if you have people scratching their heads or pushing back, and it’s not a push back because it’s a question, but it’s that they just don’t buy into it, you have to stop selling. It’s a waste of time. The conquest of convincing someone, everyone wants to get someone over the line, emotionally it feels good to influence someone, but if you are not going to get there and you are going to spend ten meetings to get them there almost under duress, then that will be just too hard.
A last, quick bonus question. I know you read a lot, are there any books or maybe podcasts that you’d recommend?
Ant: I am now really big into podcasts, that’s where I think I learn the most. I listen to Patrick O’Shaughnessy’s podcast “Invest Like The Best”. I really enjoy that – he interviews people who are fund and investment managers. And another one I listen to is Exponent, a podcast on business strategy, and it’s a reflective look at business and consumer affairs when it comes to technology. I’d recommend both of them.
This article was written by Luke Henningsen and he is Co-Founder of the growing startup community at Ucities which is being developed to help provide a dedicated space for founders and startup people to network and support each other. He also leads a business called Scale & Swing, which delivers executive search to startups looking for senior talent at a startup-friendly price-point. Feel free to reach out to Luke on LinkedIn or at Scale & Swing or join the growing community at Ucities.