The exciting journey that is entrepreneurship, beginning from the seed of a single idea growing into a successful business was fascinating to hear about at OxWIB’s Entrepreneurial Insight Panel on the 20th February, where successful entrepreneurs shared their experiences and advice. The speakers included Vicky Simmons, who is an art director and founder of the greeting card brand ‘Mean Mail’; Agne Milukaite, founder of Cycle.land-the peer-to-peer bike sharing social marketplace; and Catherine Spence who is the Principal Licensing & Ventures Manager at the Oxford University Innovation Incubator.
The path to entrepreneurship...
Vicky Simmons founded Mean Mail in Spring 2017, having studied design at university and her background in advertising. Simmons’ inspiration for Mean Mail came from wanting to create greetings cards that reflect how close friends really talk to each other; as Oscar Wilde said, ‘True friends stab you in the front’, where when with close friends you can laugh at yourself, encapsulating the sarcasm of British humour. Whilst Simmons initially designed 48 cards, she launched the brand with 16 cards so as to not spread herself too thinly and has also gained international exposure from Mean Mail’s first trade show.
After completing her MSc in Migration Studies at Oxford, Agne Milukaite moved to Berkeley, California and worked at a Canadian home robotics company before returning to Oxford to launch Cycle.land. Milukaite spotted a gap in the market as transport innovation in 2016 was heavily focused on cars through companies such as Uber and Tesla with a lack of diversity, which she explored through bikes. From launching in Oxford in April 2016, Cycle.land has grown tremendously, working with companies such as OFO and Mobike to increase their scalability across many cities. Recently, Cycle.land is pursuing an exciting new project that brings with it international expansion through their joint venture with Youon, which is China’s largest and most successful public bikeshare company. The company are also currently in their 2nd seed round of funding, contrary to the view that bikes were not a very lucrative market.
A recurrent theme of the discussion was that at the heart of entrepreneurship and starting your own business was the passion for an idea. As Catherine Spence described, some of the most fascinating ideas are presented not as thought out business plans, but often on the back of envelopes. In relation to the Oxford University Innovation incubator, just a sample of the ideas being developed include AI drug discovery and even the use of quantum physics to determine what is in a bottle of wine.
A day in the life vs the bigger picture
As Milukaite described, the scene which you would commonly associate a CEO with would be ‘thinking deeply in a corner office whilst the business executes itself’. However, the reality is more focused on running all areas of the business at the ground level through invoices, e-mails and following up on them. For example, for Simmons, her day can involve both accounting using the pseudo AI financial assistant for automatic chasing of invoices (Starling Bank’s zero accounting tool) to looking at product development, looking at Mean Mail’s customer analysis compared to the market-where the 40:60 split in male to female customers compared to the 5:95 market average gave them an insight into the diversity of their customer base. However, ultimately as the entrepreneur; you determine the strategy of where the company is heading and make the big decisions even if you are not determining exactly what happens day to day. This led the panel to discuss what they were surprised by with starting their own businesses in that the timescale at which you need to project the business into, both in the short-term with Simmons speaking about the fact that designs for the following Christmas’ cards are due this month and John Lewis as an example, who start the campaign for their Christmas advertisement on the 1st January. Strategy planning for the future 5-10 years is equally important, for example considering an IPO and ensuring that everyone is aligned in that vision.
This discussion of the vision for the future prompted the interesting question of how the vision of a brand or company changes with scale. As Spence said, founders are often tied to the idea they have innovated, but often this concept can be applied to other things. Therefore, whilst it seems critical to question the premise on which a business is built as the founder’s treat their ideas like a baby, it is a kindness and will make the business more robust and more likely to be a success in the long-term. Adaptability of a start-up very much depends on the product or services’ market. Simmons recounted that she was approached early on in starting Mean Mail by big companies for collaborations but ‘if it was not a hell yes, then it is a hell no’. Early collaborations can often dilute the brand and its values, and therefore put it at risk and instead you can re- approach the company in the future. In contrast to this, Milukaite has found that the bike share market and urban mobility needs to be disruptive and increasingly green and as it was expanding extremely fast, collaboration and joint ventures allowed them to meet and take advantage of this growth.
The challenges facing female entrepreneurs
Sparked by the TED video that brought attention to the fact that whilst women own 39 percent of all businesses in the US, female entrepreneurs only receive 2% of venture capital funding, the panel discussed what the cause of this gap was and what could be and is currently being done to close it. Whilst fundraising is difficult for all entrepreneurs, women have been found to have a harder time pitching their ideas than men. A significant factor contributing to this is the lack of diversity in Venture Capital firms that make the decisions about who to invest in. Therefore, in addition to encouraging more women to start their own businesses, it is also important that more women take up roles in Venture capital firms. Although these changes take time, ‘It is easier to challenge the status quo from the inside’, as Spence said. Moreover, in Spence’s experience developing start-ups, those with a diverse team are more successful as everyone brings a different perspective to the table, and so are more representative of society.
When is the best time to take the leap?
As the feelings of vulnerability and never being ready will always be present, it can work to an entrepreneur’s advantage to start the intimidating journey as soon as possible, especially if your idea cannot be compartmentalised and cannot stop thinking about it. For example, there are now incubators which student founders can join. On the other hand, with retirement age just increasing upcoming entrepreneurs today have many years to gain experience. For Simmons, she believed that freelancing and developing her designer skills after graduation put her in a better position to launch her business. Similarly, if you do not have your own idea, working for another start-up, learning their processes and gaining access to decisions being made will be a better preparatory experience to start your own business than being pigeon-holed to a desk. Therefore, there is no correct or best time to take the leap; but your passion for an idea and drive to make it a success is a significant driver. Overall, a key piece of advice conveyed by the panel was that from taking the plunge and failing you will learn far more than if you do not, and that entrepreneurs should be continually challenging themselves.