My entrepreneur journey
I will be using Medium to write a series of articles on entrepreneurship. Specifically how to quit your job and start your own company, grow and expand the company and potentially sell it if that is what you want to do.
There are many people who write about or give advice on entrepreneurship in general. For example parents, friends, life coaches, researchers, teachers, professors, people who are successful in corporate business etc etc…. My advice would be to ignore almost all of them (and especially anyone with an MBA!).
Anyone without experience doing exactly what you are thinking of doing should be ignored, as well as half the people who do have experience. Including me. Most of all you should listen to yourself and be true to yourself and do what you think in your gut is right. I will write a longer article about why taking too much advice will kill your company, but for now I’ll outline my brief history below so you can decide what worth to assign any of the advice I give in future articles.
My mother is English, and my father is Dutch. I say Dutch but he is actually half Irish, quarter Dutch and quarter Indonesian. My mother’s family was relatively poor, and my father’s relatively rich, but not excessively so. Before my second birthday, my parents and older sister Sophie left the UK and went into what was called “the pool” which was essentially relief work for KLM (Airlines) station managers — my father filing in as station manager at airports where one station manager had left but the new one hadn’t started yet.
What that meant was for almost two years we moved every two or three months, spending time in Kuwait, Ghana, Milan, and Cairo. We eventually settled in Liberia (where we lived from 1977 to 1980), then Oman (1981–1985), Hong Kong (1986–1990), Singapore (1990–1994), then London (1994–2000), Sydney (2001–2008), New York (2008–2012), Singapore (2012–2018), then Bali in 2018 where I now live. I mention all of these as I think living in many countries has taught me to think laterally/creatively. More on that in a future article.
The first time I started to make money for myself (i.e. not pocket money!) was when I was in high school. United World College in Singapore when I was 15. I designed, created and sold T-shirts for my school dragon boat team. At a loss, because there were 12 people in the dragon boat team and the minimum shirt order was 20 and I sold them at what each cost. I went on to learn about price elasticity as I steadily raised prices over the next 4 shirts that I designed, produced and sold for school magazines, events, and leavers. Also while at UWC my band produced a CD, which was another relatively lucrative endeavor since the unit cost of the CDs was about $4 and we sold them for $16, and our band was good so we sold a few hundred.
I went to university in London, studying Computer Science with Management at Kings College. While I was there I bought hundreds of fake Ralph Lauren shirts in Thailand and my friend sold them to his fraternity in Holland. This was a good lesson in the margins you can achieve when you are doing an illegal trade! Other than that I managed to get an ok grade (a 2:2) considering I was probably one of the worst coders in the class.
I finished university in 1997 and since one of my ‘practice interviews’ with accounting firms (they will interview anyone!) offered me a place starting after the summer, I decided to head to Florida and finish my Pilots license and get my Skydiving license. It was a fun summer, but afterwards, it was time to start work to pay off the loan I took out to pay for it. My first salary was US$20k a year which I was pretty pleased with, but what I really wanted to do was join the dot-com boom which was starting to happen around me. It felt like lots of not that smart people were raising lots of money with not so great ideas. And I was missing out.
After 5 years with KPMG, I transferred to Sydney and worked there for another 3 years before starting Tigerspike. I was playing in the same band that produced the CDs in Singapore, and one day a friend asked if we could produce polyphonic ringtones for her company. At the time, phone technology meant that phones could play more than one (poly) note (phonic) simultaneously. We started doing that and then my friend, Anna Trybocka, said ‘why don’t you start a company and sell ringtones to other people’ so I quit my job and did it. I wasn’t going to miss the next technology wave (mobile). Anna couldn’t quit her job without losing her visa so her boyfriend at the time, Oliver Palmer did and brought Dean Jezard along with him and, later with Alex Hall, we co-founded Tigerspike. We needed a little money so I sold my skydiving parachute (metaphorically and literally!) and loaned Tigerspike US$8k, which paid for an office the size of a large toilet on Palmer St in Sydney.
Together we grew Tigerspike for 8 years with no funding (this is called ‘bootstrapping’), then did two rounds of funding in 2011 ($11m), and 2013 ($6m), then sold Tigerspike for AU$88m (about US$70m at the time) to Synnex Corporation in 2017. At the time we sold we had grown Tigerspike to 300 people and AU$50m in annual revenues, split relatively evenly across our eight offices: San Francisco, New York, London, Dubai, Singapore, Tokyo, Melbourne, and Sydney. One paragraph really doesn’t do it justice, but future articles will talk about specific parts, for example, Bootstrapping vs raising money, the importance of co-founders, how to open offices in other countries, moving to New York just before the financial crisis, the process of selling the company etc. Each deserves many more words. Also, my wife, Lydia proofread this and wanted me to mention that in 2009 I was crowned international grand champion of whistling. Its not relevant but it is nice to be the best in the world at something.
In the final year before we sold we worked with Ned Philips when he created his startup Bambu. He wanted to use technology in the wealth sector, helping companies to build artificial intelligence-driven ‘robo’ advisory services, and he worked with Aki Ranin and me to create and launch his company. It was a success and after the sale, I invested in his company and became an advisor and he was nice enough to recognize me as ‘co-founder’. Bambu recently raised S$3m (US$2.2m) led by Franklin Templeton, and now employs over 30 people.
Sustainability and purpose
The sale of Tigerspike closed on 1 August 2017, after which all of the founders left the company. Some of us later got together and set up Silkstone Partners, an angel network of exited founders, to find exceptional people and create businesses with them.
Since I didn’t have to work again (for a long while anyway, especially living in Bali!), I decided that what was important was a purpose driven life. My focus as part of Silkstone is helping female founders to create sustainable businesses. I am doing this by investing in them and also helping them as I did with Ned and Bambu.
So that is the short story. In future articles, I will write about many things, and hopefully, the experience and modest success I have had will mean that my advice is at least worth something to you; and if it helps just one of you to start and grow your own business then it would be worth it.