Our CEO Joe jumped at the chance to return to ideaSpace for a catch-up interview, having been a part of the Cambridge community of founders and entrepreneurs in the early days of Cambridge Intelligence. Reflecting on his startup journey, he shared lots of useful tips for early stage entrepreneurs, talking to ideaSpace head Ben about the art of delegation, the importance of peer support and what “success” means to him.
I’m a big advocate of bootstrapping … if you can, you should try.
Scaling a self-starting business
In 2011, Cambridge Intelligence consisted of Joe “coding furiously” at his ideaSpace desk, working to bring his first data visualization toolkit to life. He was soon selling licenses to his first customers. Faced with the choice of finding an investor or going it alone, Joe went for the independent option.
Going independent isn’t easy, but it means you can follow your own vision, and listen only to the market and your customers – not your investors. Customers will give you much more valuable feedback than an investor ever could. That’s because the customer not only finances your work, but can give you first-hand advice on what the product needs to do. “It’s a double win, really”.
Joe attributes the speed of our growth to our product-driven approach: with one well-designed and maintained product, you can help hundreds of customers at once. As soon as our first customers began to work with – and love – our product, that’s when the scale up journey started in earnest, and Joe knew it was time to start building a team.
It was hard to write code and sell things at the same time.
The art of delegation
At first, the temptation was to find people who could do everything – technical geniuses, able to market and sell the products they built. But Joe quickly learned that this wasn’t the best approach.
When you’ve been wearing all the hats for a long time, it can be challenging to share them out. “At the start, I wrote a time wheel of all the activities I was doing – sales, marketing, development – and thought, which am I good at and bad at? Which do I absolutely have to do [myself]?” Having independently developed the first toolkit from scratch, it’s no surprise that Joe stays closely involved with our Head of Product. “The product side is really dear to me and I’d struggle to not be involved in the shapes of the products.” He has less trouble letting go of other parts of the business, such as finance and marketing. “Although I still have the occasional delegation issue, I recognize a bit better now when to step away…”
Having that outside help stops you getting sucked into your own world and keeps you a little bit more real…
Peer networking, and staying grounded
Access to a peer group of founders has been important to Joe since the beginning. Kitchen chats at ideaSpace were invaluable in the early days, and he still networks regularly with other founders in Cambridge and London. Creating a Chief Operating Officer role five years ago also made an enormous difference. For the first time, Joe had a personal sounding board – and was able to benefit and learn from his own appraisals as well as delivering them.
What does ‘success’ mean to you?
Whether he’s watching a member of the team talk to a customer, or present at a conference, Joe takes most pride in seeing his company philosophy come to life through the people who have helped to build the organization. He’s also seen many team members build a career, or even change careers, through working with Cambridge Intelligence.
That’s what’s empowering for me – watching people live through the company.
Listen to the ideaSpace podcast to hear Joe talk about becoming a global CEO, joining a US trade visit with the PM and winning his first royal accreditation.