Archive for the 'Interview' Category

Up interviews Per Besson at social Gaming start-up, Happy Elements

 

Can you tell us about Happy Elements? What do you do and how was the business founded?

We are a social gaming company focused on bringing our games to both Social Networks, such as Facebook, as well mobile gaming platforms.

Happy Elements was founded in 2009 and first game was launched in fall of that year in traditional Chinese on Facebook Taiwan. Launch coincided with that platforms  explosive growth and our game “My Fishbowl” soon became extremely hot on the market. With its 1.3 million Daily Active Users it still remains the platform’s most popular game.

What markets are Happy Elements currently in and what are your plans for expansion?

Based on that initial success in Taiwan with “My Fishbowl” we have launched successive games on that platform as well as an additional 18 platforms around the world in a total of 15 languages, both Asian and Western. We are widely considered to be the social gaming company with strongest overall presence across Asia’s four strongest social gaming markets; Taiwan, China, Japan and Korea. We are now using that presence to serve as a “publisher” for other gaming companies i.e. customize and promote other companies’ games using our resources.

You launched the business with “My Fishbowl”, a Facebook game. How important is Facebook to your future strategy and success?

With the launch of our first game “My Fishbowl” on Taiwan, Facebook, has served as the base of our success, however across other key Asian markets Facebook (Japan, China and Korea) is way behind local social network platforms. Our strategy is to work, when we can, with the market leaders in each country.

Facebook and the web in general are awash with casual gaming companies, so who are you targeting and how do you seek to differentiate yourselves from others on offer?

The social gaming landscape is entering a mature phase where the dominant companies now have the user base across which they can cross promote their games. This means that for smaller companies with a small game portfolio having a good game is often not quite good enough. Monetization often isn’t higher than the cost of acquiring new users.

We believe that “We are running a service, not a product”, so that our games must constantly be kept fresh and new with updates to improve quality of content and gameplay. With so much competition the users are becoming more and more demanding. And that pushes all of us in industry to make better and better games.

How important is it that you have a multiplatform product, and to what extent are you focussing on mobile and tablet?

Creating a new social game can easily involve 6 months work for a team of 15-20 people. That is a lot of fixed costs to recoup, therefore it is important to try to get the new game on as many platforms as possible. Because of this we have created GIP (Global Integration Platform) as a type of middleware to connect our proprietary games, as well as the games we publish for third parties, with the 18 platforms we serve.

Mobile and tablet games are the new hot field and we are putting a large part of resources into game development. Some large players that from the SNS gaming space such as Zynga & Electronic Arts are naturally reallocating resources and growing quickly into this space, but there is still much space for new entries and Happy Elements as well as many are rushing to establish a strong market presence.

What is it like to work at Happy Elements? What type of company culture are you keen to foster?

Ours is a very young relaxed, fun team-oriented company culture. We are trying to foster a merit-based culture that rewards innovation and self-motivation. Since demand for top talent in this sector can be so fierce it is especially important for us to create not only a friendly place to work, but also a place where employees feel challenged to grow professionally.

Outside of your own market, what do you think is the hottest emerging trend or technology right now?

I see smart phone technologies getting smarter and smarter and this combined with location-based technologies will make the mobile in our pocket and even more of a powerful, multi-use tool in our lives.  Things that we probably can’t even imagine now, but will definitely also include innovations to make gaming ever more exciting and engaging for the users.

An exclusive with… Fredrik Holmén, Co-founder and CTO, Keybroker

keybroker logo
Tell us about Keybroker? What does the company do and how did the company develop from an idea to a business?

Keybroker works with some of the largest online retailers in Europe to drive more profitable online sales from online marketing. In the last 365 days we have generated close to 500 million Euros in order value for our clients. We do this on a gain-share pricing model, with a unique technology and a great team of campaign analysts.

Keybroker started by doing arbitrage on traffic bought from search engines and sold to the big affiliate networks. We quickly realised that search marketing was an absolutely critical sales channels for retailers and would not be allowed to just be “unmanaged” but also that it was very complex and required big investments in technology. Keybroker could provide this package to retailers directly in a smart way.

The business is VC-funded. Apart from the financial boost are there any other benefits or even downsides with VC-investment?

We have been fortunate to work with two of Scandinavia’s largest industrial holding companies Investor AB and Industrifonden. They’ve been great at providing stability, network and experience in our growth journey. Our investors invest from their own balance sheets so we’ve been spared most turmoil and potential myopic decisions that could come as a consequence from a financial market in distress. 

There are a number of players in the online advertising optimisation market.  What is innovative about Keybroker and who are your competitors in the UK?

For us results are really key and we put our neck on the line for our clients. We do this through our pricing model that only rewards us if we bring in more sales under a maximum cost per order. Our Campaign Analysts are also remunerated based on how much “Success Fee” they generate for their clients so we really do share the financial and strategic risk. It’s all geared to ensure that we have the same incentives as our client has.

To deliver these results we have developed a new generation of search marketing technology. We call it Business-based search marketing. It allows retailers to lift their merchandising rules up from their sites and stores to Google. So your online marketing campaign is no longer keyword driven but product and business rule driven. We firmly believe that advertising and merchandising are critical to each other in a multichannel landscape; our technology, RealTime Ads, is a bridge between the two.

The UK market is probably one of the most sophisticated online marketing markets in the world and the competition is immense. However, we feel bullish in that we are genuinely changing the game within a channel that is of paramount importance to a retailer’s success online. Add to this our new service offerings, Power of 5, around social media sales, display, mobile and web TV and we are very confident that the success we’ve had in Scandinavia will be replicated here and beyond. 

Keybroker has a number of offices outside of its original market Sweden. At which point did you decide to go international and what have been the main challenges with expanding outside of your “home market”?

Keybroker is the largest search and social company in Sweden. Last year we did 7% of all order value online in Sweden! In order to continue our growth we need to expand geographically. We also felt that being in the UK would challenge us to develop our offering.

Expanding is of course to get business outside our home market and we have been able to quickly sign up leading online retailers here. It’s taken a lot of work and patience to build a network and trust in a new market where very few know us to start with. It really is a market based on relations and trust. It’s also great fun as we get to relive our start-up phase again but now with the backing of a mature business in Scandinavia to lean on.

What are the company’s aspirations for the future?

Keybroker is today a group with two distinct arms – advertising services and advertising technology. Our aspiration is to continue to grow and develop under our own steam and be one of the leading groups in Europe generating profitable online sales for the best clients.

What is it like to work at Keybroker? What type of company culture are you keen to foster?

Our pitch is “Try us” which internally means “Trust me”. “Try us” is the bedrock of our culture. We want to work with “buddies with brains”, people that not only impress us but are genuinely fun to be around and contribute to our culture. The client is always king and we work hard to really understand how we can contribute to the client’s success. Oh, and cash is queen. We foster an environment where leadership can be demonstrated by anyone – it’s a mind set not a position. Our people and culture is by the far the most important component to Keybroker’s growth and success. The people who work at Keybroker have defined our culture and you can find the culture charter on our web site. 

You are one of the co-founders. What is your personal background prior to Keybroker? How have you found starting your own business? What have been the biggest surprises?

After completing my Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering and Industrial Economics I began to work for Accenture’s Supply Chain Service Line in London. I focused on Sales and Operations Planning for large retail and consumer goods companies such as Frito-Lay, Pernod Ricard and Sainsbury’s.

Starting and working with Keybroker is like getting a MBA every 6 months – sales, product development, price models, organisational change, funding etc… The highs are of course as great as you would expect. There are of course several insights. One is that “Everything is possible” is actually true and it’s critical to believe in it. You will never be bigger or better than your biggest ambition. Just by stating what you want gets you a long way. You don’t get what deserve but what you expect. A key to success is to set big bold goals from day one and believe in them. 

Outside of your own market, what do you think is the hottest emerging trend or technology right now?

I find the current development in medicine mind boggling. It may well be the next big development that totally will change how we all live just as digital technology has done over the last decades. There are projects out there in for example protein and steam cell research that has the potential to have dramatic impacts on our ability to cure diseases, restore lost body functionality and ultimately expand our life spans. What are the consequences of that? For one prepare to get a second career!

An exclusive with… Doug Monro and Andrew Hunter, Founders, Adzuna


Tell us about Adzuna? What does the company do and how did the company develop from an idea to a business?

Adzuna.co.uk is a search engine for classified ads enabling people to search for the right job locally. Essentially, it searches thousands of sites, aggregating millions of adverts in one place, so you don’t have to trawl the net to find the perfect job. And soon it will be possible to search for properties and cars in the same way too. We hatched the Adzuna plan in 2010 on the back of an envelope in a central London pub. The site went live in July 2011.

How is the business funded?

We’ve raised £300k investment from Passion Capital and prominent angels (with backgrounds at eBay, Skype, BT and Virgin) in addition to funds originally invested by the founders.

How is Adzuna different from Google and other established search engines in the space?

Our aim is to provide the user with exactly what they want. Firstly, completeness and freshness of content – we list every ad, update our index constantly in real-time and expire ads as soon as they become stale. This also enables us to gather data that will enrich the user experience.

Secondly, Adzuna provides a clean, non-spammy user experience – we have more powerful search filters and less overt advertising so the user gets to the information as quickly as possible.

Thirdly, unlike any other search engine operating in this space, we a have a social networking overlay to give job seekers an advantage in the market.

Who is the business aimed at and why should they use Adzuna?

We’re currently targeting all active jobseekers in the UK or those with an interest in comprehensive jobs data. We think folks in the UK should use Adzuna because we have all available job vacancies in the UK listed in one place (over 450,000 jobs) and we allow our users to connect to these vacancies by leveraging their friends on Facebook and LinkedIn.

How do you plan to monetise the business?

The business model will be advertising funded both in paid per click/search based but at this stage we are purely focussed on building an excellent classifieds search experience that people want to use. Money will come later and in ways that don’t damage that experience – although we know from our previous businesses that consumer traffic in this sector is valuable to advertisers.

At the moment there is a specific vertical focus. How possible is it to scale across different verticals? Is there a possibility Adzuna could go international?

Yes, we’re just a job search engine at the moment, but we plan to expand into property and cars in the not too distant future. Our search engine in property and cars will behave in much the same as it does in jobs – all listings, compelling data insights and cool social layers.

We aim to be the biggest and best classified search engine globally and you can expect to see us expanding outside of the UK in 2012.

What are the challenges you expect to face when trying to grow this business?

We aim to be a serious global player in classifieds and we need robust and scalable technology to get us there. If our systems and processes are not designed to work for 10’s of millions of users per month, we’re not going to be able to fulfill our vision. So, we’re working pretty hard on getting this right at the moment.

How big is the team now? What do you think are the main ingredients of building the best team?

We are currently a team of around 10 people comprising of founders, technical development and marketing. Some are in London, and some telecommute from around Europe. They are all incredibly passionate & rock stars at what they do.

Which companies do you most admire at the moment and why?

Andrew – Spotify (although they are losing some popularity at the moment with Facebook login shenanigans!) I admire Daniel Ek because he’s not afraid to disrupt markets and he’s only 26.

Doug – AirBnB (despite their recent trust and safety issues): created a new category in an area that used to be dull, innovating on product and monetisation, using social networks cleverly, trying to genuinely connect people and meet their needs … I also like Etsy and Peopleperhour for some of the same reasons.

An exclusive with… Arnaud Bertrand, Founder and CEO, HouseTrip

Tell us about HouseTrip?
HouseTrip is Europe’s largest booking website for holiday apartments. The concept is to allow you to book your very own apartment (instead of a boring hotel room) for a few nights in every popular destination in Europe.

How did HouseTrip develop from an idea to a business?
It developed well. I had the idea with my wife while studying hospitality management in Lausanne, Switzerland. Straight out of university, in the beginning of 2009, we drafted a business plan, got early funding from a few business angels, recruited a team and developed the website. We had lots of challenges of course but kept it moving and we launched the website in January 2010. Since then, we have been one of the fastest growing companies on the continent with an average monthly revenue growth of more than 40% for more than 20 consecutive months now.

HouseTrip is VC-funded. What is the main thing the funding enabled the business to do? Are there any downsides?
There are more upsides than downsides. The obvious upside is that pretty much only VCs are able to invest such large sums and follow up with further rounds of funding. Also, having VC funding from top-tier investors brings you credibility and that makes a lot of things easier, in particular recruitment.

You are originally from Switzerland and started the business there. What was the reason for establishing an office in London?
We still have the HQ in Switzerland but the reason behind opening the London office was mostly a question of reaching a specific online talent pool, which is basically much larger in London than in Lausanne.

What have you found are the main differences in running a business in Lausanne to London? Culture, expertise?
I must say that I am having an easier time managing UK employees. Switzerland is currently in a very favourable economical situation: less than 3% unemployment, extreme competition to hire any staff, etc. Working on the till of a supermarket earns you more than CHF60k a year (£46k)! This means that Swiss employees are used to awesome working conditions; and it is extremely difficult to grow a start-up in that environment. In Switzerland, we’ve twice had cases of employees threatening to sue us because of their working conditions – both times for ridiculous claims (one guy telling us he couldn’t bear anymore to work until 5.10pm every day when end-of-working-day was defined as 5pm in his contract). In the UK, the working culture is completely different and it’s infinitely easier to grow a start-up in that environment.

There seems to be a lot of activity in this space. What is the size of the holiday rentals market and what differentiates HouseTrip from its competitors?
The holiday rentals market is valued at about $100B so it’s absolutely massive. The way we differ is mostly because we go after a slightly more mature market (in terms of age of the people who make up that segment) than our competitors. AirBnB and its two German clones, Wimdu and 9Flats, go after backpackers with an offering composed mostly of spare rooms and properties which are main residences (as opposed to dedicated holiday rentals). We attract more families and couples with an inventory composed mostly of professionally managed, dedicated holiday rentals. We’re also much more efficient for our hosts: a few of our hosts are also listed with competitors and they all report to us that we simply bring them many more bookings. Always nice to hear.

You founded HouseTrip straight out of university, what has been the most interesting learning experience?
I’ve had to learn a fair bit indeed! The most interesting has probably been to learn how to think strategically and tactically as well as how to align your resources’ focus with your strategy.

What advice would you give an aspiring entrepreneur?
Focus and say “no” a lot. You need to pick a handful of things and do them perfectly, otherwise you’ll end up being all things to all people. I tell every “newbie” entrepreneur I meet this, however a core (and important) characteristic of entrepreneurs is that they rarely follow advice so they all make the mistake of being unfocused at the beginning. Those who survive are those who change course and focus.

What is it like to work at HouseTrip? What type of company culture are you keen to foster?
We’ve actually just completed a human resources survey and 100% of HouseTrip’s employees would recommend it as a place to work. So I guess we’ve already developed a fairly nice working environment. I don’t think working in a start-up is for everyone: you need to expect lots of empowerment, responsibilities, an environment of uncertainty, constant change and a lot of work. So we only recruit people we think would fit the bill well. Our culture is articulated in a few values; A FEAST: Ambitious, Focussed, Experimental, Authentic, Simple, Team spirit.

HouseTrip has grown very quickly in 2011. What are the company’s aspirations for the future?
I can only say we’re very ambitious and would be happy to keep our growth rate going forward.

Outside of your own market, what do you think is the hottest emerging trend or technology right now?
I’ll focus on the Internet even though there are some fascinating things happening also in biotech and med-tech. The internet has enabled to make people’s lives easier in a lot of ways. If you make a lot of people’s lives easier and have a solid business model around it, you’ve unlocked a hot trend. What’s painful in people’s lives? Ordering/buying food is annoying; finding a great professional (builder, doctor, dentist, cleaner) is very difficult; I have no good resource to recommend cool activities during the weekend (not that I have any but we’re speaking hypothetical) in London, you name it.


An exclusive with…William Tunstall-Pedoe, CEO & Founder of True Knowledge

What is True Knowledge, and what is the business/ revenue model behind it?

True Knowledge (www.trueknowledge.com) has a technology which automatically answers people’s questions on any topic.

We provide users with exactly what they are looking for, instead of a list of links to web pages which might be what they looking for.

Behind the technology is a large and continuously growing knowledge base of the world’s knowledge, which is in a form that the system can understand and reason with. The Knowledge Base contains both factual and common sense knowledge, which enables the system to model the world and understand what users are asking. As the knowledge base grows the platform can answer more and more.

I invented the technology and founded the business which has subsequently been taken forward and transformed by the team of 25 fantastic people who work here.

As far as revenue is concerned, the www.trueknowledge.com website has about seven million monthly users and is growing at around 20% per month. We monetise that traffic with advertising.

Additionally we generate revenue by licensing the underlying platform to a number of third-parties via APIs to power their products. These include other websites and mobile products such as Siri (www.siri.com)

We are also working on additional products powered by our technology.

Which company do you consider to be your biggest competitor, and what sets True Knowledge apart from other search engines and Q+A platforms?

We have competitors in a number of different spaces.

In the Q&A space are many companies like Quora (www.quora.com) and Answers (wiki.answers.com) where the answers to questions are written by people and no attempt is made to answer the question automatically. This approach doesn’t typically give users an instant response to their question and has some serious challenges around scaling and keeping results fresh.

Wolfram Alpha (www.wolframalpha.com) has some similarities to us in that it answers questions automatically and uses structured knowledge to do so, but there are fundamental differences both in approach and technology.

What did you do, professionally, before establishing True Knowledge?

My occupation has always been developing and commercially exploiting innovative computer software. I have been doing this continuously since the age of thirteen (breaking only to do a computer science degree at Cambridge University). I’ve always had a passion for both business and technology and have been very fortunate in being able to combine the two without ever having to do anything else.

Was it a sequence of events or one specific “Aha” moment that lead you to want to launch the platform?

Many of the products I developed before True Knowledge involved very deep technology typically involving Artificial Intelligence (AI) but in very niche markets. For example, I developed the anagram software that Dan Brown used to create the anagrams in the Da Vinci Code book and movie (www.anagramgenius.com) and I also developed the only software that can automatically solve and explain cryptic crossword puzzles (www.crosswordmaestro.com). I’m proud of the technology behind these products and they continue to sell to this day, but they are never going to result in an industry changing business.

In the late 90’s I thus decided that I wanted to tackle a difficult AI problem with a very big market and chose the biggest problem I could find which was to improve internet search. The internet was becoming very big and internet search very important but I couldn’t believe that 10 or 20 years in the future people were still going to be finding things out by guessing keywords and browsing links.

Having made the decision though it was not a fast process to get going. I needed almost two years to get the early technology developed and patents filed and then the dotcom crash put pay to turning it into a business for a while. However, in 2006 I filled in the remaining technology and business gaps, got some initial funding and hired the company’s first staff.

Once you’d made the decision to obtain funding, how easy was it for you to raise?

I raised friends and family money and a £75k government R&D grant in 2006 at the same time as hiring the company’s first staff. This lead to an angel round in 2007 and then venture finance (from Octopus Ventures). Raising equity finance is never easy but we have been fortunate to have found enthusiastic and supportive investors each time we have needed to raise money.

Does being based in Cambridge work well for you and the team? Do you feel that you miss out on anything by not being in London?

I have jokingly referred to Cambridge as “the second best place in the second best country” for an internet business like True Knowledge. Although “second best” is usually pejorative it is actually not bad considering the size of the world. Cambridge is a fine place for a technology business with a great technology and start-up culture, the world’s best university and great people.

London has some big advantages though in terms of sheer volume of talent within commuting distance and True Knowledge has a London office as well for this reason. Also our Cambridge office is located a few minutes from the train station enabling access to London in under an hour. The United States, and in particular the San Francisco Bay Area (first best country, first best place) have significant advantages again – particularly for talent/know-how and access to finance for an internet technology business like ours.

What is the single best thing that you’ve done, and the biggest mistake that you’ve made, as CEO?

The single best thing I did was start the business in the first place. When I started, the idea of founding a business on a new search technology, arguably in competition with highly successful companies like Google and tackling a very difficult AI problem that nobody had solved for decades has (with some justification) been characterised as nuts. It would have been very easy to have listened to the sceptics and never let it get off the ground. However, the team here has proven the cynics wrong with a system that is now performing at scale and serving millions of users, being used by paying customers and with lots of other validation of our approach. We still have lots more to do but I have never regretted the path we set out on.

I have made many mistakes and possibly the biggest was not focussing early enough on showing what we can do with a highly slick product that engages users and looks perfect from a design point of view. Our early strength was always the core technology and the focus was on showing what the technology could do. We presented the technology in a fairly raw form hoping that others would see its capabilities through the imperfect presentation and use it in their own products. With hindsight, bringing product and design people into the team earlier could have brought some benefit. We’re in the process of fixing this now.

What would you expect to be the greatest challenge to your business over the course of 2011?

Possibly the biggest will be growing the business to massive size, whilst dealing cleanly with all the issues that result, in a way that doesn’t slow us down.

You’re in the process of building a great team there: is there anything in particular that you look for in new team members?

We are a business that is very ambitious: we are trying to build something enormous and change the way world interacts with the internet. What we are doing is also extremely difficult. We are thus looking for highly talented and intelligent people who are excited by this challenge and unafraid to be involved in something big.

Finally, before University you briefly worked on a project helping computers to recognise and understand human speech – is this something that we can expect True Knowledge to be able (one day) to do?

Yes – but not (at least in the short term) with our technology. Speech recognition technology turns speech into text. Our technology responds to text so getting the user experience of talking to a computer and having it understand and respond can be readily done right now by combining our technology with state-of-the-art speech recognition from third parties.

Thanks William – best of luck for an exciting year ahead.

An exclusive interview with Stephen McCluskey, CEO of online video start-up, Vzaar…

Tell us about vzaar and how the company has grown since it was set up.

Vzaar offers a video solution for professional online marketers and ecommerce sites. The business started in 2007 as an eBay only video solution enabling eBay sellers to add video to their listings. In 2008 as the platform matured the service opened its offering to the wider web offering any online business a scalable and affordable video platform.

The company is based in London with sales and headcount growing quickly. Revenue in 2010 has consistently grown 20% month on month with over 1,200 customers around the world.

What is your product range and who are your customers?

vzaar’s video content management service handles the video encoding and uploading, the distribution and analytics of video. The rationale is that by using vzaar a company will be able retain prospects, drive engagement and increase conversions on their site. (i.e. not off-site on YouTube for example). With vzaar you can brand the video player and measure the effectiveness of your video using our analytics engine.

To date we have big brands such as the Press Association, IBM, Toys‘R’us, Budweiser and a multitude of mid-seized companies using our services. Typically, it is the Marketing departments who engage with us.

How are you funded?

At present, a group of angel investors and, Sophrosyne Ventures, fund vzaar.

We also recently announced that Oliver Stone, the celebrated film Director, has invested in vzaar. You should check out the endorsement video he recently filmed with us on http://vzaar.com/about/oliver_stone – we have had amazing traction from this.

We are looking for further investment now to accelerate the excellent growth the company has had in 2010.

Who are your competitors and how are you different from them?

Our main competitors are US based companies such as Viddler, Kaltura and Fliqz who also serve the mid-sized corporate market. The high end enterprise segment is currently served by the two most heavily capitalised companies, Brightcove and Ooyala.

vzaar’s strengths are in the usability of the service, with the functionality/value proposition meeting the needs of online marketers. In a nutshell: a really good affordable service that delivers online video fast.

How do you see the online video marketplace developing in the future?

There are several market trends that play well to vzaar’s positioning. Firstly, the uptake of online video is surging, especially in the USA and the UK, up 30% year on year. Secondly, the proportion of video uploading, encoding and management being outsourced is also increasing as those corporates who do use online video realise that our specialisation is more attractive than managing the video in-house.

Online video is particularly effective and growing e-marketing tool in vertical markets such as fashion, the sports and music industry and corporate communications.

What are your plans for the business moving forward?

We are aiming to take the business through the next growth phase by scaling our marketing initiatives with new partnerships and adding even more functionality for our customers. 2010 has been the year the company really took off and I envisage 2011 being the breakout year for vzaar. We already have over 1,200 customers and I expect this grow very substantially.

We are also making rapid inroads internationally. Over 60% of our current customers are in the USA, and we are seeing new growth from countries such as Germany and Australia.

You have already built up and sold two businesses – Vebra and thinkproperty.com – to the Guardian Media Group. What prompted you to join a small business?

Growing sales, headcount and profitability and then achieving a good exit at Vebra was great. I took a little time out and then decided that I wanted to get into a cutting edge tech, online startup that I could shape and help to grow. Pretty much the definition of vzaar in early 2010.

I’m also really driven by online video. After all, movement, animation, colour, film, etc. switch on humans and most websites today have too much static content – they simply haven’t yet understood the marketing power of video yet … and that’s where vzaar comes in.

How has your experience with vzaar been different?

When I joined Vebra the company was already well established. Joining vzaar was different in that I joined at an earlier stage of maturity. Fast growth and well geared funding is the focus at vzaar today.

Your earlier career was in management consulting, how has this background helped?

Tremendously. I spent almost 15 years at PA Consulting Group. My first decade in the company was in the Technology Consulting Practice advising consumer electronics and telecoms companies on new product development, R&D management and that magic grey area between marketing and development. I then moved into a more strategic consulting role working on business planning, due diligence and M&A work.

The experiences of the high-pressure environment of management consultancy gave me great confidence when making the move into operational management. I saw and learned a lot in my consulting days some of which I hope I have been able to bring to bear to vzaar, notably in sales, marketing and development delivery.

Can you share one of the learning’s from your career and how it has influenced you?

Most of my consulting work at PA was done internationally. This gave me an understanding that different cultural values drive people’s behaviours and work patterns. In my experience, the most effective teams were those which contained people from differing backgrounds as everyone has to make a conscious effort to understand the other team members’ standpoint to deliver well. I saw that diversity actually created delivery.

At vzaar, we have colleagues from Brazil, Jamaica, the UK, South Africa and New Zealand and we are proving my point.

What has been one of the biggest achievements at vzaar you are most proud of?

I think it must be increasing the entry pricing for the service this summer after upgrading the product rapidly and seeing sales continue to grow with no impact on attrition. It proves that we belong where we are.

What advice you would give to people looking to transition into a start up business?

Be bold and be funded.

Action speaks louder than analysis initially: the service needs to deliver to the customers’ needs and revenue needs to happen fast as well – it’s about having an edgy, driven mind-set within everyone.

I think the real issue is how to transition from a start-up to an established business – this requires a clear view of the company’s growth plans, supported by early performance, and access to the right amount of investment capital.

An exclusive with… Aidan Fitzpatrick, IT Director of Wiggle.co.uk

What is Wiggle? Can you explain a bit about your history?

Wiggle is a pure play cycling and tri sports e-Commerce site.

The business started as Butlers Cycles, a small independent bike shop in Portsmouth that had been trading since 1920. After early successes selling bike parts and other items online, Wiggle was launched in 1999. From there, it expanded to the current 45,000 square foot warehouse where at any time there can be more than 250,000 products in stock.

In 2010, we have won several awards including the title of Cross Border e-Retailer of the Year at the e-Commerce Awards for Excellence, Online Bike Retailer of the Year at the BikeBiz Awards, and the Sunday Times Fast Track 100. We have also been named Britain’s most visited cycle website by Experian Hitwise UK every year since 2006 and readers of Which? magazine recently voted us top sports and leisure site.

The business has experienced a lot of growth in the last year. Why is this and how has it been achieved?

Our success is driven by the fact that we have always believed the customer is central to everything we do. We are committed – as fellow active sports enthusiasts, Internet users and hardworking people – to ensuring our customers are always satisfied. The majority of people who work at Wiggle are keen cyclists and sports fans and this is reflected through our passionate service, attention to detail and extensive range of exclusive brands and products.

With brands such as dhb, Verenti and Focus Bikes we deal directly with the manufacturers, shaping and tweaking the features and specifications to ensure the product our customer buys is exactly what a true sports enthusiast would want.

We reward our most loyal customers with free gold and platinum discounts of up to 12%, and the last year has seen massive growth in sales to the UK and abroad.

How important is technology innovation to the business? Tell us about the Wiggle platform.

As we’re solely online, technology and the web are tied to everything we do, and apart from a few key partners the whole of Wiggle’s technology stack is home-built. We use agile and Kanban in our software development, and we’ve got buy-in on that right through the businesses. Not every development team is able to count on the Marketing Director attending the scrum meeting each morning! (One of our Tech Leads recently wrote about this on the Wiggle Blog.)

In the past we’ve had both developers and designers putting “what if” work together and had it go live: the Japanese version of our site was a good example of this. As well as encouraging experimentation in the teams we’re working with some very innovative technology. We have a major site update coming out soon, and you’ll see more interesting work from us in 2011.

Who are Wiggle’s competitors and how do you seek to differentiate from them?

We have a much greater reach than independent bike dealerships and high street stores. Our site has tens of thousands of products with a broader range of sizes and colour-ways, at a much better price, and we can get them to your front door next day. Bike stores just don’t have the stock. Bike buyers can specify the custom bike they want and have it built and shipped by our expert mechanics. Our quality of service, delivery options and international reach and pricing set us apart from other online players, and we have some fantastic exclusive brands.

I always like seeing what some of the newer entrants to the market are doing. There’s a lot we’re looking to do, and disruptive start-ups with interesting technology should come and talk to us: perhaps we can help.

What are Wiggle’s biggest challenges and opportunities online right now?

From a technology perspective it’s all about growth. There are a number of metrics I keep an eye on to monitor how we’re doing, and the ones that have doubled in the last 12 months are the slower ones! A year ago a lot of our IT was quite ad hoc: now there’s a healthy amount of structure and repeatability in what we do. 75% of my team have been with the business fewer than 9 months, and there’s a balancing act between growing so quickly and delivering reliably at a breakneck pace. With so much change and so many things we want to do, a lot of careful coordination is required.

The international side of the business is sizeable and growing rapidly, which gives us some extra dynamics. With large customer bases in Australia and Japan, we really are a 24/7 operation, and our site has a high level of internationalisation with translation, payment and delivery options that few others in the UK are doing.

Google’s recent BCG report had the UK as the largest ecommerce market by capita in the world, and being at the forefront is an exciting challenge.

Can you tell us about your background? Why did you join Wiggle?

I have a technical background and have always kept my hand in over a number of CTO roles. I’m most excited by rapid growth businesses and Internet start-ups, so Wiggle fitted me well. I’d not cycled much since moving to London and had needed an excuse to get back into it! Wiggle had originally brought me in as an interim, but I loved the business and the challenges and just couldn’t leave.

Prior to Wiggle I spent some years raising investment, mentoring and doing early-stage technology with start-ups at a venture incubator, and earlier still was the CTO at Confetti. I spent some time in Norway building what was essentially a B2B version of Spotify several years before its time: at one point we had the largest SAN in the country.

Who ‘fits’ the Wiggle team…

Speaking for IT, we like fantastic, driven, coder superstars. It’s not easy when we’re growing so quickly, but we’re not trying to hire good people. Good isn’t good enough, as Jason Calacanis says. We are dealing with some very tricky and exciting challenges scaling up infrastructure, capacity, team, and international content.

We look for people who are very active with technology in and outside work: on github, releasing iPhone apps, presenting at hackathons, building webapps in Rails or Django in their spare time, talking about Agile, Kanban or Scrum and so on.

After we ran out of space in Portsmouth I took half of the team up to a serviced office opposite Waterloo Station, and next month we’ll be moving into a fantastic new-build Wiggle office, metres from the river between London Bridge and Waterloo. We’re going to create an excellent environment for talented engineers there.

We have a lot of greenfield work to do and there’s plenty of responsibility to be taken on by capable, can-do people. A lot of developers got a great career boost from lastminute.com during the dot-com boom, and I think we’re going to do something similar for our own team.

What do you see as the biggest technology challenges today for e-Commerce businesses?

There’s a lot going on at the moment, and I’m paying attention to some of the retail apps coming out on the iPad and how well they’re really working. Most e-tailers have a significant amount of traffic coming in from smart devices, and aren’t doing much to support it.

More broadly, I see a new wave of businesses working successfully with personalisation, group buying, marketplaces and comparison models. Web 2.0 came very quickly and has made our sites as important as ever in communicating with customers. Web 3.0 and the semantic web won’t arrive nearly so quickly, but it strikes me just how ill prepared a lot of UK e-Commerce sites are. Our data, how we expose it, and how we let users consume it is going to be very important.


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