Enterprise Connect is an initiative run by Kings College London which helps aspiring start-up founders learn from one another, and hear from some of the finest, high-profile, entrepreneurial minds, those whose businesses have hit the big time. What are they like? They are gluttons for punishment, it turns out; perfectionists who just want more! Last week’s panel was a mix of those taking their first steps, and 2 founders who have, in no small way, made history, but whose journeys in many respects are only just beginning.
Star Gazing and anti-ageing
Last night’s panel discussion, hosted by entrepreneur, Computer Science student and Vice President of the KCL Tech society, Fares Alaboud, began with a talk from Oliver Zolman. A third year medical student taking time out to study for a BSc in Regenerative Medicine & Innovation Technology, Zolman is also the founder of a social enterprise, Public Health and Longevity, which looks at solving the problem of ageing, one of the human race’s outstanding unsolved challenges, of which there is a long, but finite list.
Oliver’s journey began with a chance meeting at a conference he attended, where to his amazement he found himself rubbing shoulders with a large number of billionaires and world famous scientists. It was an opportunity he made the most of, pitching his idea and receiving enough encouragement to launch his project alongside 2 co-founders.
Oliver drew the audience’s attention to some of the truly awesome, game changing technologies that some of the world’s most inspiring people are working on: Dr Andrew W. Lo, an MIT finance professor and the driving force behind Cambridge based hedge fund AlphaSimplex Group, is trying launch a “megafund” to flood early-stage cancer research with more than $30 billion dollars of funding support. Planetary resources are a company based in the US who believe it’s possible to mine asteroids, backed by Avatar director James Cameron. Oliver’s ambition, simply, is to be as ambitious as they are. After all, as Larry Page, founder of Google puts it: “if you’re changing the world, you’re working on important things. You’re excited to get up in the morning.”
Craig Donaldson is the CEO of Metro Bank, the first high street bank to open in the UK for over 150 years. A wealth of experience in the banking industry has taught Craig that “people don’t trust banks, they trust their friends, so when their friends become fans of Metro Bank, they effectively become ambassadors for us.” It’s a simple formula for success; treat your customers with respect. And that means serving them as well as you possibly can, and that means making the best hires you possibly can.
Donaldson is very big on hiring, and he is something of an expert, having taken Metro Bank from 2 employees to 1,758 in a little over 4 years. “Hire for attitude”, he advises; “find staff who want to deliver as much as you do.” It’s a sentiment shared by most successful founders, who want to see the same qualities in their hires as they see in themselves. Donaldson himself is larger than life, determined, and not easily intimidated; “shy bairns get nowt”, is his mantra, and so far it has proved very effective.
Metro Bank’s 20:20 vision, the ten year plan they wrote in 2010 (see what they did there) in a Holborn hostelry over a bottle of wine, (displayed proudly in Donaldson’s downstairs loo until his wife insisted on moving it to the basement), as business projections go, has turned out to be more of a prophecy. Although the bank has incurred losses, this was to be expected due to the scale of the vision, and indeed the bank has grown at a phenomenal rate, on track to open its 200th branch by 2020.
What pleases Donaldson are the plaudits and awards that the bank has received, not just from industry bodies but from independent customer focused brands such as Mumsnet, who have awarded Metro Bank their gold award 3 years running. Above all, it’s the bank’s astonishingly high net promoter score, a management tool that is used to gauge customer’s loyalty to a brand that excites him, being significantly better than any of its rivals, from HSBC, to Virgin Money. Better brand loyalty than a Richard Branson venture. High praise indeed.
Hack you way to the job!
Perhaps the key takeaway from Donaldson’s talk was the importance of working incredibly hard. It’s a message that had clearly been understood by the next speaker, Mark Chaffey, CEO and Co-Founder of hackajob, a disruptive recruitment platform. Mark has succeeded in creating a start-up with over 5,000 users, 40 employers, including Shazam & Halo (Facebook are said to be in talks) and 1,800 completed “hacks” whilst completing the final year of his degree at King’s. He and his co-founders and employees now number 6 and they have learnt 2 things very fast. Not to be afraid of rejection (9 out of 10 people will say “no” to you, don’t let it bother you) and to roll your sleeves up, and, yes, work very hard! To quote Oliver Zolman quoting Peter Diamandis, CEO of XPRIZE private spaceflight and Co-Founder of Human Longevity Inc: “if you want to become a billionaire, then help a billion people”. Simple!
Ashish J. Thakkar: Africa’s youngest billionaire
Sitting quietly through all this advice, scribbling notes and smiling encouragement at each speaker, sat Ashish J. Thakkar. Africa’s youngest billionaire.
Thakkar’s story beggars belief; his family had been farmers in Uganda since 1890, before life under Idi Amin became untenable and they were forced to move to the UK, where Thakkar was born. When he was a young teen the family, who had run a small business in Leicester, moved to Rwanda, only to become embroiled in the mass genocide of the early 90’s, spending time in Hotel Rwanda, temporarily unaware of the whereabouts of Thakkar’s sister (no mobile’s in the early 90s), and eventually losing everything they had worked their whole lives to achieve. They settled back in Uganda as refugees.
At age 15 Thakkar founded his first company, importing computer parts from Dubai and re-selling them in Uganda. At first he had to beg for Middle Eastern Credit, but he soon turned the tables on his creditors, becoming a lender of some distinction. A decade on and Mara Group, the company Thakkar founded, was active in manufacturing, real estate and agriculture as well as IT, and employed over 11,000 people.
Then Bob Diamond, the charismatic, controversial banker, fresh from quitting Barclays Investment bank under a cloud after its involvement in a rates rigging scandal, came calling. Diamond is a figure of some repute in the City, and, although the first major casualty, it could be argued, of Britain’s drive towards austerity, his business acumen and ability to have a transformative effect on an enterprise has rarely been in doubt.
Atlas Mara, the business he has founded with Thakkar, is some project. 80% of Africans own a mobile phone, just 11% have bank accounts. If ever there were an opportunity for a man to restore his global reputation alongside one of the continents own, then this is surely it. Mara has operations in just 22 out of Africa’s 54 countries, but the infrastructure they plan to build will play a hugely significant role in reversing the fortunes of a continent desperately in need of solutions, being home to some of the worst living conditions on the planet.
Clearly, nobody else on the panel, very few people on the planet, in fact, have scaled quite like Thakkar. His advice? Stay humble, think differently, be patient. “If I need to wait 3 hours in the reception of somebody’s office in order to get something done, then that is what I will do”, says Thakkar. He attributes his inner peace and ability to stay clam to his spiritual teacher, Morari Bapu, whose 3 core teachings, truth, love and compassion, are always at the front of his mind.
Life thru a lens:
The final speaker of the evening was Yee Mun Thum, King’s Alumna and founder of Scarlett of Soho, a start-up offering designer eyewear as a service, the first in the world to do so. “Lenses are cheap, old antiquated, and ripe for disruption”, says Lee, and, not being spectacle wearers, we’ll have to take her word for it. By the sound of her practical and creative advice (make sure you scale the right thing, be bold, surprise and amaze people) she has the world in focus. Ouch!
What we learned
Being a successful entrepreneur is not a glamorous occupation, and there are plenty of reasons why most founders fail at it. Scaling successfully requires hard work and dedication. Then it takes good judgment to bring the right people on board, who can uphold the values of your business. Above all, perhaps, is the ability to see the world differently to the majority of people, and to do things that others wouldn’t do. It takes a level of courage that few possess, often the desire to create a business comes from a life changing, sometimes a life threatening event, but successful entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes, there are no hard and fast rules about who will, and won’t, make it. As ‘As Baroness Dido Harding, CEO Talk Talk, memorably put it during an Enterprise Connect seminar in Series 4: “when the world zigs, we zag”. Easier said than done. Going against the grain feels unnatural and requires phenomenal strength of character, sometimes a slice of luck. That is why there are always more people in the audience than on the panel. King’s is doing a great job of trying to arrest that trend.
Enterprise Connect is all about celebrating and showcasing up and coming King’s start-ups via King’s Start-up Junction, as well as providing free advice from mentors on the night, through the Connector Pods outside the lecture theatre. Join Innovate Kings to learn more about access to entrepreneurship activities!
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