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The London Business School has organised a great line up of speakers for their Entrepreneurial Leadership Series. With interest in entrepreneurs and start ups at an all time high, it was no surprise that the lecture room was packed out last week. There was a mix of fairly studious looking MBAs thinking about taking that leap and setting up on their own. This was combined with a smattering of suits from the banking and corporate world no doubt hoping that they would at some point do the same as well. Everybody convened to hear Alex Kelleher talk about his experiences as an Entrepreneur – the successes, the failures, the learnings and where his ideas for ventures come from…
To introduce the man himself, Alex Kelleher (www.alexkelleher.com) is the Founder and CEO of Cognitive Match, a real-time optimisation software business. The firm has recently been nominated in Techcrunch’s The Europa awards. Alex is a well-known figure in the tech industry having now had two successful exits – Vivid Edge, a UK web agency which sold to Framfab (now LBI) and Touch Clarity, a reporting / analytics provider which sold to Omniture (now Adobe).
For any aspiring entrepreneur, there is always incredible value in listening and understanding how people have built successful businesses. It was great to hear some of Alex’s thoughts ranging from the idea and initial concept to take to market (ideally something you care about), how to set up, dealing with venture capital firms and also the subtleties between the UK and US on the start up scene. Most valuable I think for anybody in the audience was his view on concept vs. execution – it is not necessarily the idea itself that makes a business successful but rather better execution than anybody else doing something similar. One of the main barriers to somebody setting up which we often hear is the fear of not having a great and truly innovative idea for a business. Whilst many in fact don’t, it was good to hear that the idea is not the be all and end all!
A few points from Alex to note:
• Hard work!
• Speak to VCs all the time – you never really stop fundraising.
• It is vitally important to have that experience of setting up – finding an office, finance, legal – dealing with all the stuff you never thought was important gives you a real appreciation of how a business runs day to day.
• Hire the right team and incentivise them in the right way.
• Protect your equity (at all cost)
• Sell for cash
Whilst in general these talks are informative and fairly thought provoking, it does make me think about the following:
1) What makes a successful entrepreneur and how does Alex embody this?
2) Do people who go on to be successful entrepreneurs actually find the advice of those who have already ‘done it’ useful?
To start with the first, Alex is a good example of somebody who really seems to have grown with the tech industry. Two exits before the age of 40 and creating $75m worth of business is very good going! What seemed to come was a certain sense of at times muddling through in the early days, not knowing where exactly things were going and the fact that plans never always quite go to plan… His talk included anecdotes about tripping over wires and HP’s website going down at Vivid Edge – there was a sense of craziness. He has become successful partly through having a great idea at a good time, hard work, dedication and a sprinkling of maverick.
Answering the second is more difficult. I do sometimes wonder how many entrepreneurs actually take advice on board. Please do give us your comments on this! Whether this is somebody telling you to re-think your product, your potential shortcomings – everybody always has an opinion they are happy to share! To build a successful business from scratch I think you have to be pretty bullish. If at times this is ignoring ‘helpful’ comments then I imagine it can be easy to gloss over people’s input and advice. Whilst Alex had some very good points to note, I do think that he could have expanded more on the challenges of setting up and also discussed with the audience (who broadly speaking I imagine came from more corporate backgrounds) the realities of running a small business. These evenings are great to hear from somebody who has had success but it’s always a shame to feel that you are really scratching the surface.
Many thanks to Alex for a great talk and do check out the next speakers who are yet to come.
Post by Claire Hogg, Consultant, The Up Group