Meet Emma Obanye
‘I see the world through different lenses’
Emma sold her first business BuddyBounce to Crowdmix in 2016 after raising £400,000 to build it. Her latest businesses are Mindful Team and The Retrospective Game.
She is now Head of Delivery of OneTech at Capital Enterprise and lives in Hackney and Barcelona.
Here Emma tells us her story and how she is changing the face of startups.
Tell us your start-up story
In 2010, my co-founder and I decided to go to Start up Weekend with Buddy Bounce. Chat Roulette was quite big then and we though, imagine if we could stop people getting their bits on camera and connect people based on common interests instead.
We won ‘start up most likely to make £1m’. The judges loved it and a wave of opportunities came along. So we spent two years building the app into an influencer-marketing platform. We had 70,000 users and all the record labels were working with us. Cheryl Cole, Penguin Random House and O2 were clients.
The new business — Mindful Team — is people analytics. A way for companies to measure the health and productivity of employees by conducting regular team reviews. It came from my experience at Crowdmix (the company that bought Buddy Bounce). I had a team of 30 people and the reviews showed morale was very low. I thought: ‘we need tools for better transparency along with more quantitative data’. After we built our MVP, initial trials showed that happier staff increased productivity by about 40%.
What challenges have you faced along the way?
The challenges in my earlier life made me want to prove myself. I’ve seen it in other founders.
My mother came to the UK from Nigeria in the early 60s. When we were young I moved from Leeds to London to Woodberry Down Estate in Hackney. My primary school situation was terrible, I changed schools quite a lot.
I was bullied massively at my second primary school. So I was quite timid when I was younger. My third primary school was socio-economically diverse. I had friends from all over the place, but I didn’t want my mates to come back to my house to see where I lived. Exposure to these difficulties makes you who you are. My siblings experienced crazy racism living in Leeds in the 70's. They tell me stories now. They taught me never to use that as an excuse, but to get on with it.
I could say a lot about working in sexist environments as one of the few women. Some people think they can take advantage of the situation. You’ve got to manoeuvre your way out of it. There can be a lot of nepotism. I remember seeing my female colleague being slapped on the bum in the office one day.
“One of my colleagues once told me he thought I’d slept with the founder. Are you kidding me?”
Do you feel that anything in your background has been either an advantage or disadvantage in your start up journey?
“Being pretty much the only woman and a woman of colour in my tech career I just had to survive.”
There was a great article by Riz Ahmed about being a chameleon. That’s me. From an early age I have been exposed to all these challenges of being a minority. You become accustomed to the way other people think and see the world. As a woman of colour, I think that you tend to see things from multiple sides.
How have you overcome challenges?
My tactic is normally to lay low, to plan and execute. It’s not in my nature to be confrontational, so I don’t go down that route. I find a diplomatic way to get round it unless it’s really extreme.
Can you remember a day where you thought about packing everything in, what was it that kept you going?
When Buddy Bounce was about to raise a second round, our non-executive director pulled out. That was very significant because she was part of the syndicate of our lead investors. She wanted one of the founders to be CEO, but that wasn’t working for us.
I was about to go on a retreat. And I thought this is over.
Up until that point I had to spin. When the thought came ‘what if we failed?’ I would shut it out. But that weekend I got to the point of accepting the possibility of failure. Luckily, we got a bridging fund and engineered a sell-off.
But I had accepted the possibility of doing anything but keeping this business alive.
Was there a moment when you thought ‘this is going to work’?
Yeah. There were several — meeting Will.I.am because it felt like synchronicity.
Sometimes when you get past the challenges things start falling into place like dominoes. Almost, out-of-body moments. We went to LA. Pitched to the CEO of Universal Music at his home. The entertainment executives were all there. David Lyons, CEO of Wired was saying ‘Come on Emma. Work this place’. And I thought ‘I might never have this experience again in my life’. It was a ‘pinch myself’ amazing moment.
What’s the best advice you have received?
The best advice — because it was the most real — came from our mentor. She was always really positive with us. Then one day we met her when she was fed up. She was 10 years in and she was like, ‘Don’t ever raise money. You’re in jail’. Ultimately, what I took from it was that it may feel like freedom, but you’re shackled to your investors.
I don’t ever want to be in the position where I’m taking investment before I really need it.
What are your dreams/plans for the future?
To grow the platform, keep moving forward. Be of value to people. To make a difference.
We always had this vision. Our strapline is to get everyone continuously improving. I use it myself every week to reflect on my life. Mental health is a challenge. You need to go through your demons and hardships because ultimately that’s what life is about. The biggest lessons come from the most difficult moments, not the successes. The champagne and whatever is fun. But you don’t get anything from them.
Is there anything you wished you had known before?
“How difficult it is. You get all these fairy stories touted.”
The first time round there were constant highs and lows. And that’s not healthy at all. My second business is now much more steady. We know what we’re doing and have a plan. In the early days you’re winging it, going from pillar to post, taking advice everywhere.
Treat it more like an elite chess game, strategising a few moves ahead. Not running around like headless chickens.
Testing and learning is fundamental. You don’t know until you get out there. Put it out there. Start small. Don’t be scared to fail. Some founders have a protectionist mentality — ‘not until it’s beautiful’. You’re kidding yourself. And then it becomes not so hard to fail when you’re failing all the time.
What could existing founders/companies do to make their workplaces more inclusive for someone like you?
As much as I’m a woman of colour and there are very few people like me in tech start-ups, I never saw that as an obstacle. Because very early on I learnt ‘that is how it is’. I had tools to get round it. I understand that many people don’t have those tools.
It’s about opening up opportunities, realising that you need to provide opportunities for people who don’t look like you, don’t dress like you, don’t think like you.
Having people who challenge makes for better decisions, because you have to look at different sides of the equation.
Use Mindful Team to reflect! If you’re working in a team with different people, make sure you continuously improve and adapt to accommodate and create a team that is diverse.
Why do you think it’s important for tech companies to be diverse and inclusive?
Because the stats say that you will generate more income and be more creative. And generally, we just need it to build the world of the future: for everyone, not just the few.
What is your message to inspire other underrepresented founders?
“You have just as much a right to pursue this as anybody else. Realise half of the barrier is yourself. Get past your own barriers. Then somebody else blocking your path is nothing compared to that.”