Riding the entrepreneurial rollercoaster: from banking to billboards
Riding the highs and lows of the entrepreneurial rollercoaster isn’t for everyone – Aidan Neill (EMBA 2013) describes the Bitposter journey and his plunge from banker to billboards
You need to be part lunatic, part paranoid, and part pathfinder to take a startup idea through to successful execution. The ideal entrepreneur is a paradox of sorts - a mix of strategic clear thinking and irrational belief in a different way of doing things. The rare breed of disciplined lunatic. Paul Graham, of Y Combinator fame, wrote a widely read blog about “How to be Silicon Valley”. The difference there is not so much about money and smart people, but rather about “a place that tolerates oddness in the search for the new…exactly what you want in a startup hub, because economically that’s what startups are. Most good startup ideas seem a little crazy; if there were obvious good ideas, someone would have done them already.”
"The ideal entrepreneur is a paradox of sorts - a mix of strategic clear thinking and irrational belief in a different way of doing things."
The toolkit provided by my time at LBS – organisational design, marketing process, managerial metrics, financial modelling, etcetera – provide the foundation for the discipline aspect. John Mullin’s 7 domains model is a brilliant filter for deciding whether you have a hope in hell of pulling off an idea before you start. If John could only charge on the basis of avoiding wasted time he would be a rich (richer!) man. Having said that, the frameworks, if taken on full merit, would have prevented all manner of innovation and highly prosperous lunatic endeavor.
At a personal level, managing this fine line and staying sane has been one of the major challenges of the journey. Rolling with the punches when the investor who was “done”, or the customer who was “committed”, or the engineer who had said “yes” drifted in a different direction, is all part of the rich tapestry of the start-up world.
Too often the academic “science” of business execution is overplayed in the press, where the emphasis is on suggesting that the billion dollar exit was a series of linearly executed plans. It suits to write history that way because it is appealing, although it is factually always incorrect. The really impressive thing about the successful entrepreneurs I have met is the depth of their resilience. The ones who had epic failures and still maintained their life resilience are even more impressive. As Peter Thiel puts it in Zero to One: “Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.”
"The really impressive thing about the successful entrepreneurs I have met is the depth of their resilience. The ones who had epic failures and still maintained their life resilience are even more impressive."
We started Bitposter basically as an accidental offshoot of something else. I had worked in investment banking for 10 years and wanted a transition into something more operationally hands-on. I did not know how the transition was going to take place, so I took the obviously imprudent decision to just quit and figure out the details later. I was an investment banker, so clearly I could do anything!
Over the next couple of years I made some bad decisions, got smacked (proverbially) around by the real world and basically realized that there were a lot of things about running businesses that I had no idea about. Amongst other things (such as signing up for an MBA at London Business School) I had made an investment in an early stage digital media business, which was building salesforce applications for companies like Coca Cola and Royal Mail. There was some logic to this: I wanted to observe first-hand the digital problems that were being described by these large companies, and to see if there were “scalable” products that could be built to solve those problems. In most cases the answer was no, but we were on the lookout from a good position of visibility. Through this experience, I have learned a number of things, but a few thoughts arise on reflection.
The first is that serendipity is underrated, but you need to be paying attention.
I introduced the digital media business to an old friend who was running a division of a very large outdoor advertising company. I had no real idea what my friend did, but we said we would have lunch and see whether there was anything useful our digital media company could do.
The second thought is that finding product-market fit is hard, but being paid to observe the problem you are addressing is a low risk starting point.
Over a liquid lunch, Chris (my friend) explained that his company was having a problem with their digital billboards, where the information about what advertising was playing at any point in time was coming back to them in a scrambled format, which no one internally knew how to interpret. Over the next month we built a simple application that allowed a visual representation of play counts, error messages and general proof that what was bought was played.
Spending some time inside the outdoor media company it was apparent that not much technology had hit this world, as we observed (literally) a multibillion market cap company managing aspects of their inventory on whiteboards. This was a clue. Everywhere you looked there were surprises – there were disparate systems, no aggregated view of the marketplace, and brokerage fees often adding up to more than 50%.
Thirdly is that it is very rare that you will be the first to try something; it’s being first at the right time that is critical.
There appeared to be an opportunity, but why were we the ones who were uniquely positioned to see this and do something about it? There is always a reason why the opportunity has not been exploited before – vested interests, a lack of need, a lack of desire, etcetera. There was an obvious technology latency, but things were changing in the market – the lightning rod (every start-up needs one of these) was around the digitization of the billboard screen network, which was forcing incumbents to rapidly rethink how to buy and sell. Digital screen costs had been rapidly falling, reducing the CAPEX required to convert old poster screens to digital, and the early ROI for media owners was profound, with circa 8x the spend being generated on a per-screen basis versus the old poster, and none of the distribution cost.
It remains to be seen how the Bitposter journey will play out; the unforeseen challenges that inevitably lie ahead. I’m confident in our position and direction but sufficiently paranoid about the “unknown unknowns” as Donald Rumsfeld would call them.
We have raised several millions of dollars of venture capital from a combination of key industry people, funds, and high net worth individuals. We also have commercial agreements in place with some of the largest outdoor media owners in the world, and license agreements on our platform with several of the largest media buyers in the world. We have a team of 13 in London and some outsourced tech development in Belarus. The team is awesome, but there have been some costly battles to get to this stage.
As with my own experience of trying to get away from a linear “rational” careerist mindset, it is great to see the ecosystem in London developing and more and more MBAs applying their minds to solving big problems. The next challenge is to get those big problems to be ones like affordable housing, cheap clean energy, and food distribution rather than more ways to improve advertising efficiency, or apps that say “yo”.
We would like to thank and acknowledge Sibo Wei (MIM 2015) and Graeme Burns (MBA 2016) for making this article possible.