23 Mar 15 The Startup Diaries
As part of our “Startup Diaries” series we recently caught up with Jamie Brown, business consultant and former CTO.
To say Jamie has a passion for the tech world is a massive understatement - he has played a key role in building several successful startups from the ground up and still enjoys hands-on work in development and systems architecture. He is now involved in two exciting early stage, fast-growing startups – both in very different industries.
Jamie Brown at a conference relating to his work with China
Jamie also happens to be a really lovely guy who was happy to tell us his story and offer his advice to anyone hoping to break into the tech start-up world!
Here is the transcript of the full interview:
Hi Jamie! Thank you so much for sitting with us today. Would you mind starting off by telling our readers more about Chicmi and Bark?
Chicmi ( http://www.chicmi.com/ ) is a British-Chinese tech startup - with investment and a development team in China, but currently focusing on growth in Britain. We've made an app that fashion lovers can use to explore London's diverse fashion scene - finding out which boutiques are around you, which stores have sales on nearby, and what fashion-related events and exhibitions are happening in the city. It basically provides an easy way to get a fashion fix wherever you are in London. It's great for Londoners, but also for Chinese-speaking visitors to the city as it's available in both English and Mandarin. So far they’ve been focusing most of their beta activity on Chinese visitors coming over to London to shop.
Bark ( https://www.bark.com/ ) is a brand new services marketplace. It makes it very easy to find any kind of service professional online - from a gardener to a wedding planner to an aircraft maintenance specialist! You just describe what it is you want and where you want it, and Bark's technology automatically goes out to find and contact professionals in the area and invite them to quote back to you. So if you post a gardening job then a few hours later you will get a load of quotes from gardeners who are interested, and you can choose which one to work with.
How did you get into the tech industry?
I've been interested in computers since I was a child. I was teaching myself to code when I was 10, and I did freelance web development work when I was at secondary school. I was lucky enough to be involved in some very cool startups in the North East of England early in my career, which gave me a taste for how much fun a fast growing tech company could be. During that period I got hooked on digital marketing - especially search marketing, which was booming at the time - so I took a bit of a detour and tried out some corporate and agency roles in digital marketing, but I didn’t that was nearly as fun as the startup scene! So I ended up back at a startup, as General Manager for cloud storage company called Livedrive, right in its early days. Livedrive was an amazing journey - in six years the company ballooned into one of the biggest cloud companies in Europe, and we sold it in February 2014. After that I decided I would work for myself, and invest my time in contributing to the most exciting startups I could find in London.
What is your role within these two businesses specifically? How did you come to work for each of them?
For both businesses I'm a consultant. I get involved in any aspect of each business that needs focus at that point in time! Bark has just acquired a large Irish business called SkillPages, so I'm working with the team on migrating SkillPage's 25 million users on to Bark's platform at the moment. Chicmi is very much about business development and marketing at the moment - developing our early stage partnerships with retailers, bringing new retail partners on board and getting the word out. Chicmi has really been embraced by London's local government, which is exciting! It's lovely to be able to get my hands dirty in code one day, but then go to a meeting at the Mayor's Office or to a Fashion Week event the next!
Gosh that sounds incredibly exciting! What would you say the best and worst things about working for a tech startup then?
Startups require a certain mindset. I've seen a lot of people fail because they're used to the corporate world where it's very structured or their role is very specific. In a startup you've got to be willing to do anything - from a menial task, to something completely unrelated to your area of expertise. You can't be arrogant, you can't be awkward or a jobsworth, and you've got be hard-nosed because the best startup owners can be quite abrasive. It's not always fun, but it's always changing and every day is different, so you're always learning.
What myths about startups have you found to be untrue?
The biggest myth is glamour of beautiful offices, free lunches, and super benefit packages. All of the startups I've worked with are great for people who love what they do - but are often in the worst offices with very little outside of a basic salary and some share options. It's only when the startup graduates to a profitable business or gets serious Series A funding that it starts becoming more glamorous - and that's when it starts getting media attention, so everyone thinks startups look like Google. They don't. And they shouldn't - the most thrifty ones are the ones that survive, and are often where the best people work.
What do you think are the biggest obstacles facing startups today?
Marketing and money! Gone are the days when you can just launch something great and it goes crazy, unless you get really lucky. And gone are the days when free marketing would get you very far, unless you've got a lot of time to spend. In the UK we don't have such a cohesive networking infrastructure as you do in Silicon Valley, so getting the business in front of influencers or the press is harder. You need to be prepared to spend a lot of time on marketing, or a lot of money, or both to get traction. Just having a great product is not enough.
Which do you think is the most important: the right market, the right product, or the right team?
The right team will point you to the right market and build the right product. So definitely the right team. But all three are needed ultimately.
Have there been any key inspirational figures or mentors who have influenced you at various points in your career?
I've learnt so much from watching the founders and owners of the companies I've worked with. Every single one has brought something different to me. Creating your own business takes guts and it takes a lot of faith in your idea - and whatever the business, it's an inspiring process to watch it come together and grow. It's also lovely to see how different each startup is, and how it takes on the personality of the founder. I still learn every day from the people I work with - and when I stop learning I move on.
Do you think it’s important to have a mentor?
I think it's important to realise that you'll never be perfect at what you do, and that you can always learn from others around you. You don't need a mentor who goes out of their way to help you - you just need to surround yourself with as many people as possible who are better than you at the skills you need, and watch and learn.
Do you go to any networking events or meetups?
I've dipped my toes into the Silicon Roundabout community in London but I haven't "got it" yet. I'm sure I'm missing something! I always feel I should be more involved.
The fashion world and City of London have both been really welcoming since I started working on Chicmi, so these days I find myself at fashion events or in the House of Commons more often than I find myself at tech drinks!
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Early on in my career, in my early twenties, there were a couple of times when I decided I was really good at what I did, and stopped learning. I was lucky enough to have some humbleness kicked back into me, a couple of times by some really good bosses, and also by my wife! I think staying humble and constantly learning is the best thing you can ever do for your career. Don't expect too much from others, but expect a lot from yourself.
What advice would you give to young people looking for their first job in tech?
Experience is everything. The skills you learn in school or university are so different from the skills you use in a real tech business, so get experience wherever you can. When recruiting I will look far more seriously at the CV of someone who tried and failed to build their own startup when they were at school than I do at someone with a PhD in computing.
Do you think there is a “brogramming culture”? How do you feel about gender inequality in the tech industry?
Yes, there is a big problem there, especially in startups. I don't think it's just the brogramming culture that is the problem though. Right from their first years of life many girls are discouraged from taking an interest in tech, both by general social assumptions about gender and also by the very male-dominated culture around tech. This gets more intense as they go to school and to university, and then the women who do survive are often rewarded with a company culture that often doesn't respect them, makes life difficult for them, or just straight out abuses them.
I don't think there's a single solution to the problem. It's going to take changes in society, in media coverage of tech, and in education to make it. But what we need urgently is more awareness and focus from business owners - and also more exposure for the female role models who are doing so well and bringing so much to the tech community already. Especially the female tech entrepreneurs - there are some amazing tech businesses out there created by women and we need to shout about that more.
What do you like to do outside of work? Do you feel like you have a good work-life balance?
I have a hopeless work-life balance because I love what I do and most of the time I'm doing it for fun, not for the salary. I'm very fortunate that my wife is also involved in Chicmi, so I get to work with her on that. She's also a very successful artist (click here to see her work!) so I get to help out with her projects from time to time, which provides a completely different change to tech startups!
Jamie and his wife, Aowen, outside of the BBC Headquarters.
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