Wadham entrepreneurs

18th April 2018

News, Student news, Alumni news

Starting your own business is exciting and daunting in equal measure. Wadham entrepreneurs discuss the challenges and opportunities, sharing their experience and advice.

  • Wadham entrepreneurs. Clockwise from bottom left, Nicholas Shekerdemian, Peter Walsham, Aneequa Khan, Charlie Walker, Kyle Grant and Daniel Emmerson.

Aneeqa Khan, (PPE, 2005) CEO Eporta

After working in private equity and at the property website Zoopla, in 2014 Aneeqa founded Eporta with a friend from Keble College. Eporta is a business to business online platform for sourcing furniture, lighting & accessories, directly from suppliers. She now has a team of 28 people and projects all over the world. Eporta hosts around 1,000 different brands from 50 different countries.

Eporta

After finishing at Wadham, Aneeqa went to China for a few months to study Mandarin and Chinese political philosophy.

She came back to London where she got a job at the private equity firm Terra Firma, followed by CVC Capital Partners. Then at 26 she joined the property website Zoopla as strategy director and head of IPO.

“At about that time I bought a flat in Brixton and was struggling to find the right furniture. I care about design and wanted it to look good so was keen to find the right items. Working at Zoopla where we helped people find the right properties, I realised that a similar service did not exist for furniture and interiors. There was a bottleneck where offices, property developers and interior designers find it difficult to source the right items from manufacturers and get trade pricing, and manufacturers found it difficult to get exposure to the traders,” she said.

Aneeqa had stayed in touch with Simon Shillaker, a skilled developer and friend from Keble College, and together they set up Eporta. “For the first few months we were working out of my kitchen. After quite a few tough months we managed to hire a few team members (one of whom helped us with renaming to eporta!) and we found an office in Clerkenwell, situated near a lot of furniture show-rooms, property developers and designers.”

Finding your USP
“Our USP was that we were the first to provide an efficient way to source furniture and lighting for commercial and residential projects, and provide total transparency of pricing directly from manufactures”. Eporta deals with all size businesses who become Eporta members at no cost. They streamline the sourcing process with everything in one place, essentially a portal for furniture and product designers to connect with potential buyers such as property developers, architects and interior designers. Eporta then earns its money by getting a fee from the suppliers.

Advice for would-be entrepreneurs?
“Question whether you really want to set up your own business and why you want to do it - it is hard work and being your own boss is not enough of a reason. If you are really sure, then go with it 100% and don’t over think it,” is Aneeqa’s advice. 

Her biggest challenge?
“Finding great people”, she says without hesitation.  Aneeqa admits that Eporta has set the bar high for what they expect from their team but working at Eporta sounds like fun too. “We have regular team socials where we like to do weird things – the last one was having our tarot cards read,” she laughs.Wadham’s inclusive and diverse ethos mirror’s Aneeqa’s own philosophy and she believes that this has been heavily influenced by Wadham.  It is clear that Aneeqa believes in her business and enjoys the challenges that it creates. With plans to open a second office in the medium term, she is excited about the future for Eporta.

Daniel Emmerson (Archaeology and Anthropology, 1994) Co-Founder and Joint-CEO, OpenAsset

Wadhamites Daniel Emmerson and Peter Walsham (Physics, 1994) co-founded and launched tech company OpenAsset in 2003. They built a digital asset management (DAM) platform for the global Architecture, Engineering, Construction and Real Estate sectors. Now with offices in London and New York, OpenAsset employs over 50 people and has 600 clients across the world. 

OpenAsset

The pair lived together in second year at Wadham and remained good friends after college. Peter went to Imperial to do his PhD, then on to CERN, and Daniel worked as a teacher and business consultant in Japan. It was when the couple met up five years post-Wadham they decided to start a business together.

“When I asked Peter what sort of business we’d start, he said other than technology he had no idea,” recalls Daniel. “We had really good complementary skills, his in sciences and as a developer and mine, in humanities and consulting, more business focused.” The pair initially moved to Peter’s parents’ house in Cambridge where they started to plot world domination. As they tried to figure out a way forward they mainly ended up “eating large sandwiches in an English country garden”.

“It was by chance that we stumbled into the Architecture and Engineering world and identified they had big problems managing their digital assets – high resolution images, videos, PDFs etc,” said Daniel.

Having recognised the opportunity they built a platform and by 2005 released version 1 and Daniel began selling the tool to the AEC industries (Architecture, Engineering, Construction). From the outset the pair made a conscious decision to keep the business private and not seek external investment which meant they could only grow with the resources they created. As technology evolves at a pace, the challenge now is to improve and advance the platform on a regular basis. OpenAsset is now fully Cloud based and they are working on leveraging AI to build exciting new features for clients.

Finding your USP
“Our USP – a digital asset management system tailored to the needs of project and property based companies - AEC and Real Estate - has also provided us with one of our biggest challenges.”  Having been approached by other types of businesses asking for a similar service, it requires discipline to say no and to stick to your target markets, says Daniel. But in the end that strategy has worked well for them, they include the world’s largest Architectural practice and many famous global companies as clients.

Advice for would-be entrepreneurs?
“Don’t worry about not having the bright spark awesome idea at the beginning,” says Daniel. “There are an infinite number of business problems that need solving with technology. We were bouncing around in the market and the market gave us the idea – you just have to start by doing something – consulting, watching, learning and listening. Oxford people should be good at that!”

“In the early years it was intense but we were in our twenties, with no families or responsibilities, so the pressure was different. Looking back the timing was perfect. We had no money for the first few years, but you just have to go through that. Seeing Oxford contemporaries starting to do well and establish themselves in life was wonderful but also challenging as we continued to live on a shoestring – but the price was well worth paying. And it is immensely rewarding being in charge of your own destiny. In 2010 when we launched the New York office we had a lot of logistical challenges but it has been great fun. We have absolutely no regrets. Peter and I now have a very good work/life balance. We both still love the company and what we’re doing, we’re lucky to have terrific people working with us.”

“Think about your team. We had really good complementary skills and it is very important to bake that into the recipe early on. If you’re a tekky with entrepreneurial ambitions look around you for talent and skills to work with. Oxford is full of ambitious, hard-working, smart people. Alongside a good sprinkling of luck, that’s just what you need for success.”
Dan believes that current Wadham graduates should seriously consider entrepreneurship. “There are so many fantastic established careers open to Oxford graduates, and that’s great, but I wonder if potential entrepreneurs find it too tempting to take that route. We’ll never know how many great products and businesses could have been, but there are so many opportunities for those who want the stimulation of entrepreneurship.”

Nicholas Shekerdemian (Chinese, 2013) Co-Founder, Headstart AI

Nicholas Shekerdemian co-founded Headstart, an AI-powered recruitment platform, in 2016 while studying for an undergraduate degree in Chinese at Wadham. The immediate success of the company meant that by 2018 Nicholas was listed in Forbes 30 under 30 social entrepreneurs 2018. Headstart now employs a team of 21 people.

Headstart AI

Headstart “maps what good looks like in client organisations” by determining the traits which predicate high performance. They then train their machine learning algorithms to look for these traits in candidates who have applied for available roles. Headstart maps 'fit' based on contextual, psychographic data: a synthesis of education, experience, personality and motivations.

Nicholas explains: “For years companies have screened job applications manually - key word searches being the most advanced way of whittling down a short list of candidates. Combinations of minimum grade requirements, target schools/universities and one-dimensional assessments have been gradually adopted as mechanisms for reducing the insurmountable applicant load. These imperfect measures are inefficient and exclusionary. They fail to provide companies with true insight on the calibre and potential of the candidate.”

Headstart, founded by Nicholas and Jeremy Hindle, a tech entrepreneur and neuroscientist, enables organisations to find the right candidates in the shortest time possible. A great candidate experience also helps employers broaden their talent pool whilst reducing bias and discrimination.

Initial funding for Headstart came from Nicholas’s previous startup. While on his year abroad in China he had realised that there was a huge demand for English lessons and he knew lots of Oxbridge students who were happy to provide tutoring. He formed Teaching by the Top, bringing the two groups together and enabling him to return to Oxford with enough capital and commercial acumen to establish Headstart.

Finding your USP
Headstart doesn't believe in exclusionary criteria, says Nicholas. “Our Machine Learning-fuelled Applicant Matching System empowers companies to automatically and inclusively evaluate a candidate's suitability using a blend of personality, motivations, values, skills and experience all at the same time. This allows companies to make accurate and informed decisions, while reducing bias.”

Advice for would-be entrepreneurs?
“It's perfectly normal not to know everything at the start - the way to scale a business is to learn by doing, and fail fast. There are loads of things I do for the first time, almost every day,” he says.

“The most important thing you can do to improve your chance of success is surround yourself with people a lot smarter than you are. Humans are surprisingly willing to help when asked nicely, and not enough people realise that. The worst thing that can happen is that someone says they're too busy, or not reply. But if you don't ask for help, you won't get it.”

Nicholas has found that opportunities come in the strangest forms. “When at a crossroads, I always strive to take the less conventional path (albeit with risk calculated beforehand). The key thing to remember is that it's not always the glamorous/successful people that provide the best opportunities; sometimes it's the people you'd least expect. So be nice and helpful to everyone, because it comes back around.”

Biggest Challenge
“My personal biggest challenge was balancing studies, building a company, and maintaining a healthy personal life. When you're building a company it's very easy to get fixated on short term goals and forget the broader context and vision. There's always a false sense of urgency, which is certainly important for drive, but which also can be tough for life balance.”

“I made a tough decision to leave Oxford after receiving the Thiel Fellowship and getting into Y Combinator. That was a decision I had to grapple with and think through for nearly a year. It worked out incredibly well, but was a big jump into the deep-end for me, as a young founder who no longer had the comfort and structure of education.”

Building a company isn't easy and it certainly takes its toll on other areas of life, he adds. “Thankfully, an awesome co-founder, a great team, and some incredible mentors help a lot with that, as they are able to guide you back to a healthy balance with their collective wisdom and experience.” 

Charlie Walker (History & Politics, 2002) Founder of Harmonic

Charlie went into recruitment straight from Wadham, founding Vivid Resourcing aged 24. He successfully exited the £30m turnover business seven years later. He founded Harmonic, Recruiting for Accountancy and Finance, in 2017 and now has a team of seven and is planning a second office in Europe.

Harmonic

“I went straight into recruitment after Wadham. We had a family friend with a job in the industry and I had always had an affinity for things involving verbal communications and understanding people’s stories. So I went from Wadham to a recruitment start up in Bristol where I worked for two years and got some great experience.”

At 24, with investment backing, Charlie set up his first business, Vivid Resourcing, in Bristol. After four months the business moved to London. But timing was not on his side as the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the financial crisis happened soon afterward. “It was challenging in terms of morale” admits Charlie. “We focused on supplying specialist technical consultants internationally, and the business gradually began to grow. The business went to number five on the Sunday Times International Track 200, a ranking for mid-market private companies with the fastest-growing international sales.

“When, after seven years I sold the business we had a turnover of £30m and five offices in London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, LA, Manchester and Glasgow and I was awarded the Recruitment International Entrepreneur of the Year.”

Finding your USP
After taking a year out to spend time with interest and to pursue hobbies, Charlie was ready for his next challenge, setting up Harmonic. He also works as an advisor, mentor and non-executive Director for Knowit the Product and Digital recruiters “I chose to specialise in recruiting for accountancy and finance because I felt genuinely passionate about it. The main difference between my agency and others is that I have built and run finance teams and understand how you can mess it up badly and the problems resulting from inadequate financial infrastructure and reporting.”

The other key aspect of Harmonic is the company values. “Values are vital” says Charlie who loved Wadham because its values were aligned with his own. “I am passionate about doing things in an ethical way. Long term outcomes and client testimonials are essential. A lot of young people are criticised under the ’millennial’ tag but I like to find people who are driven by purpose and values rather than by money. The sense of community is important to the business and we give our guys time for mentoring and volunteering as well as doing bits and pieces for the local community.”

Harmonic hosts events and debates, supporting peer-to-peer learning and works with charities English for Action (set up by fellow Wadhamite Dermot Bryers (History and English, 2002)) and Last Night a DJ Saved My Life.

After a year, Camden based Harmonic has a team of seven and Charlie is planning to open an international office outside the UK.

Advice for would-be entrepreneurs?
“Try to get a good mentor before you set up and make sure you get good legal advice before taking investment decisions.”

It hasn’t always been easy acknowledges Charlie. “When I was setting up I wondered every fortnight whether I was doing the right thing – it is very hard work and you have to sacrifice a lot in terms of leisure time and it is difficult to switch off. But I love running my own business.”

Charlie, a founder member of Dots Funk Odyssey (in 2003), continues to make time for his music, and can be found working as a DJ twice a month in London venues.

Kyle Grant (Synthetic Biology, 2014) Co-Founder OXWASH

OXWASH, an environmentally friendly laundry and dry cleaning service for Oxford was launched in February 2018 by Kyle Grant with backing from co-founder Dr Aron D’Souza (Harris Manchester, Law, 2009). Kyle has launched the business in tandem with his studies with support from two fellow graduate students.

OXWASH

Offering a sustainable solution to laundry and dry cleaning for students, staff and local businesses, OXWASH is operating an online laundry service, where you fill your tagged OXWASH bag with dirty linen or dry cleaning, order online at OXWASH.COM and hand over directly to an OXWASH rider.

Orders are picked up in an emission-free cargo bike and washed or cleaned by an out of town expert team using sustainable and efficient methods and environmentally friendly detergents. Finally customers’ clothes are returned, ready to wear.

Finding your USP
No one enjoys spending time in a launderette waiting for the washing to be done, even if you have washing machines in College, said Kyle. And many students and businesses are keen to do their laundry in the most sustainable way. With a small team which includes two fellow graduate students, Nelson Jones and Jack Parsons, laundry is picked up regularly by bike and returned within 48 hours at a cost of £9.95 for a mixed bag of laundry and from 50p for dry cleaning.

Most of the Colleges have been using the same laundry suppliers for many years, and Kyle is hoping to persuade them to try this more sustainable and personal service, helping Oxford city centre to become emission free.  

Kyle is delighted by initial responses to OXWASH: “Everyone has been so supportive and we have had a really positive response from colleges and corporate clients. It’s an ideal service for those who don’t have the time or facilities to do their own laundry.”

Biggest challenge?
“I would say the logistics of operating an on-demand service in a busy university city is the hardest facet of the business. We had to build a bespoke algorithm to plot our bike couriers routes in real-time and optimise based on traffic conditions and roadworks etc. The bikes themselves were chosen to fit in bicycle lanes and often bypass traffic jams and can use pedestrian and bike-only routes through the city. Traditional vans don’t have this advantage.”

Advice for would-be entrepreneurs?
“Don’t just pick the most obvious solution to a problem you want to tackle. Try to actively think of the weirdest feasible solution before settling on a plan of attack. Share your idea with as many people as possible and get feedback early on. Once you’re growing, be prepared to let go responsibility for parts of the running of the business. You CAN'T do everything!”

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