Michael Smith is the third interviewee in this 4-part series which explores the pivotal year in some successful entrepreneurs’ careers. In 1998, less than a year after graduating from the University of Birmingham, Michael launched Hotbox.co.uk (now Firebox.com), an Internet retailer which now turns over tens of millions of dollars each year and is responsible for inventing the Shot Glass Chess set and selling many other games and gadgets. Then in 2004 Michael launched Mind Candy, which after raising $10M+ venture capital is now one of the world’s leading developers of social multi-player games, helping kids around the world play and connect.
Which was the year that made you?
1998, the year I launched Hotbox.co.uk, invented the Shot Glass Chess set and subsequently realised that my first business was going to work.
Jamie Murray Wells is the second interviewee in this 4-part series exploring the pivotal year in some successful entrepreneurs’ careers. He follows on from Kulveer Taggar – an Oxford graduate who quit his Investment Banking job at Deutsche Bank in London and ended up moving to Silicon Valley and selling his company Auctomatic for $5M less than a year later.
While studying for his finals in English at the University of the West of England, Jamie discovered that he needed to start wearing spectacles. When he also discovered that the cost of a pair from his optician was £150 even though they would only cost £7 to make, he smelt a big opportunity. This inspired him to use the rest of his student loan to set up Glasses Direct, a business which would sell spectacles directly to the public, over the Internet. In the first year of business, Glasses Direct sold 22,000 pairs, and had an annual turnover of £1M, the company now sells a pair every few minutes over the web, with annual turnover of around £4m, and estimates that it has saved the British public over £40m on their prescription eyewear.
Which was the year that made you?
2007, the year Glasses Direct came of age. The company stopped feeling like a bootstrapped startup and this was the first year where our mission to become a global household brand became a real possibility.
Following last term’s Tycooons of Tomorrow series, this term I’m going to be interviewing four successful entrepreneurs (arguably, tycoons already!) on the pivotal year in their respective careers. The idea for the series came from a conversation with Paul Carr – we thought “A day in the life of” was going to need to be romanticised too much to get anywhere, but most people who have ‘made it’ can attribute a significant amount to one particular year.
In the first interview of “The Year That Made Me” series, I spoke to Kulveer Taggar where he shared his journey of studying at Oxford, to Investment Banking in London, to dot-com millions in Silicon Valley – all in just over a year!
Which was the year that made you?
2006, the year after I finished my PPE degree at Oxford. It was when I left my graduate job at Deutsche Bank to work on my start-up full-time and moved from London to Silicon Valley.
Kieran is the final Tycoon of Tomorrow in this 4-part series – and the biggest hitting yet. He was born in Bermuda and moved to England at the age of 14. A year later he started HolyLemon.com, a video sharing website focused on funny videos and at the age of 19 sold this to NASDAQ-listed tech company HandHeld Entertainment for $1.25M. Last year, at the age of 20, he left his Management degree at Bath University to found his third company, Playfire.com, for which he has already raised $1M in venture capital investment.
What was it like to sell a company for over a million dollars at the age of 19? What did you do with the money?
It was very surreal! After the exit became public, I did 10 different radio interviews, was on the front-page of the local paper, on the BBC website and the ITV evening news. It’s odd seeing and hearing yourself in that way! My life didn’t change very much after the sale. I went on holiday with my girlfriend, and bought a MacBook Pro, but that was about it! The best thing is that I have capital to self-fund future ventures in the early days, and it’s a credibility stamp when meeting more experienced successful entrepreneurs.
James co-founded studentbeans.com in June 2005, with the vision of the website becoming as much of a staple to university life as baked beans. Today, with over 100,000 new students registering for the site each year, that vision is becoming a reality.
Have you always known you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Some people are born to be athletes and some people are just born to be in business and I am one of those. At the age of 14 I took, developed and sold black and white photos of dogs to their owners. At 17 I did young enterprise and developed a local directory service online for shops and services in North West London. During my gap year I did an internship in San Francisco, a ski season in France and travelled the globe. In between that all I honed my sales skills doing telesales for a bingo company. Combine these experiences with a business degree from The University of Birmingham, running events and gaining sponsorship from over 30 companies whilst studying and being involved with AIESEC – the largest student run organisation in the world, where I went on placements to The Philippines & Colombia, by the time it came to graduation I knew I didn’t want to be cocooned by the normalities of daily life in the corporate world. There was only one option and that was to be an entrepreneur.
Hermione is the founder of new media social enterprise Newspepper.com and this year she graduated with a degree in Journalism from London Metropolitan University as well as an NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) qualification which is usually taken as a post-graduate course. She is the younger sister of 28-year old dot-com millionaire Ben Way, a man who was reportedly worth £18.3 million in the 2001 Sunday Times Rich List, aged 20, only to later have a dispute with his investors, losing everything. He went on to advise the UK and US governments on technology, and he is currently the Chief Innovations Officer for London-based Venture Capital firm Brightstation Ventures.
Having known she wanted to go into the media industry before her degree even started, Hermione got involved in a plethora of related activities while studying. These ranged from working as a runner for various TV shows and at local newspapers to a broadcasting internship at CNBC Europe.
You managed to squeeze an awful lot of media-related activities in alongside your degree. How do you divide your time up while you were studying?
It wasn’t so much a case of dividing my time up, but more a case of trying to cram as many experiences and opportunities into my week as possible whilst not sacrificing good results for my degree. I work very well under pressure so much of the studying part was done at the last minute, which worked well for me.
Every entrepreneur kind of knows they should focus on core. But what does ‘core’ mean? Over the last 3 months I’ve had a break from blogging, have also spent a lot less time reading blogs and have been paying particular attention to whether what I’ve been doing has been ‘core’. Other big distractions from core that I’ve been trying to minimise have been:
that aren’t with users or advertisers. I found one of Venture Hacks co-founder Nivi’s recent tweets particularly thought-provoking:
“Email is a to-do list that other people get to write on.”
Perhaps you should ask yourself whose to-do list is more important next time you’re stuck answering emails in your inbox and sacrificing your own to-do list. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that many of the most successful entrepreneurs aren’t the best at answering their emails on time.
On 19th April 2008 at the Kresge Auditorium, Stanford University, 11 of the key players in tech entrepreneurship shared their wisdom on startups at the 4th annual Startup School conference. Andy and I had the pleasure of attending along with 500 other aspiring hackers and entrepreneurs from around the world.
We arrived on the Friday afternoon and after a party at Y Combinator in Mountain View where we met many of the YC alumni, including Trevor Blackwell’s robots, we stayed at Snaptalent HQ along with Kev Edwards and Jon Markwell from the Brighton entrepreneur scene.
There’s already been some good coverage of Startup School 2008 by TechCrunch, Wired and Kontsevoy so rather than go into too much detail, I’m going to share the key messages that have stuck most firmly in my mind since the day: