One question I like to ask founders is: “When you were at school, what did you do to earn money?” For me it’s a shortcut to finding out how entrepreneurial and driven they are. And also how imaginative.
And those qualities are a fair indicator of the quality of an entrepreneur.
Even more interesting is when the schemes an entrepreneur dreams up are solutions to problems they are facing themselves, and which they know others are facing.
Al Bentley of Simply Wall St is an excellent case in point – someone who has always had, and will always have, a side hustle. We sat down with him to find out what all those enterprises have taught him.
So Al, my favourite question — when you were in high school what did you do to earn money?
In England they have a program called Young Enterprise. I was always a computer geek, I always liked to build websites and this program came up and I basically designed websites for parents of the school. It went pretty well.
I also liked wearing aviator sunglasses and I imported them for about £1 and could sell them to the rich public school kids for £20-25. Those were a good mark-up! The problem was that they were such bad quality they all broke, and I had all these customers coming back to me…
I also found that you could charge a lot of money for making fake driver’s licenses. It was pretty straight forward. I just bought a printer and scanner and Photoshopped them.
Happy customers, this time?
It was funny because people would buy these fake IDs and then they would come back to me and want their money back if they couldn’t get into clubs. I’d say: “I’m not, like, guaranteeing you entry into club!”
What did you study at university?
I started studying architecture. I was obsessed with becoming an architect for a while. I like creating things. That’s my main interest – I love to build things.
I saw architecture as a profession where you could create and still do really well, and it’s really interesting. But as I started doing it, I realised it wasn’t for me. I switched to naval architecture and worked at that for a few years.
So no more side hustles?
Actually, at that time I had a business on the side selling windsurfing equipment. I wanted to buy a carbon fibre windsurfer mast, but it was impossible to buy one online and the prices were just extortionate. I knew the real cost was about 1/10th of retail. So I went to the factory in Taiwan and ordered a bunch of these masts, imported them, and started selling them online.
But as it grew it started to get annoying because I’d have to ship out these masts continuously. It was a nightmare.
Did history repeat?
I started having problems with warranty and that’s when it became more of a hassle than it was worth.
It taught me an interesting lesson – be careful what you start because even if it’s a small business, if you’re promising someone a service for, say, a year, you can’t just cancel. I sold the masts with a one year warranty, so even though I wanted to close the business I still had to run it for another year until the final mast was outside its warranty period.
Do you think being an entrepreneur is an innate thing, or something that’s taught?
No, it’s definitely innate, you can’t learn it. You can learn skills that can be useful. But there’s an innate drive – I don’t know exactly what it is. It’s definitely something that’s in you from childhood. And I think the drive is mostly around thinking you can do things differently, believing yourself. Seeing something and saying: “Oh, I could do that,” rather than: “Oh, that’s complicated.”
I don’t necessarily think it’s to do with money either. But I do think, generally, people like the idea of creating something that makes money.
What’s the hardest thing about a startup?
Finding the right people is the hardest thing. Hopefully your network is big enough and strong enough that you have people you can approach.
If you had your time over what would you change?
We fell into the trap of listening to our customers – that became our product management process. But we should have been listening to and figuring out their problems, not letting them dictate the solutions. So, don’t listen to what the customers say, but look into what they need.
It’s like the Henry Ford quote: ““If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” You need to listen to what your customers are telling you and try and understand the underlying problem. The customer’s not there to tell you the solution. They’re there to try and help you uncover the problem.
What’s your advice when it comes to raising capital, what’s the key?
If you can, find a way to avoid raising capital. Once you start raising, you don’t get to spend much time on your business.
But if you have no choice, the key is creating scarcity. You can’t go to someone and say, “Hey, invest in me because no one else will.” You have to create some scarcity, and that’s not easy.
Why did you choose to base yourselves at Tyro Fintech Hub?
We realised that with a small team it can become a tiny bit lonely. And so we started to think: “Oh hang on it could actually be quite nice to be around some other startups.”
A soon as we walked in we realised, “this is what we need right now”.
And, compared to the other places, Tyro Fintech Hub had much higher quality startups, and they were true startups. Overall it was a better working environment.
What two books should every startup founder read?
The Lean Startup of course. And some of the product books out there are really good, like Inspired by Marty Cagan and Hooked by Nir Eyal.
It surprises me how few founders bother to read books about entrepreneurship? Have you noticed that?
Yeah, it’s the problem with humans and the sunken cost fallacy – once they’ve started something, the last thing they ever want to hear is that they might have got something wrong.
It’s fear, a fear of having to face up to the possibility that you might have made the wrong decision and wasted years of your life.