Blag Your Way To Dotcom Success

Tips from real-life entrepreneurs at the Said Business School Silicon Valley event

Last month a bunch of tech entrepreneurs, MBAs, VC vultures and a sprinkling of media (e.g. BusinessBecause.com) gathered at the Said Business School for “Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford 2009”.

The event attracted some illustrious speakers such as Reid Hoffman, the co-founder and chairman of LinkedIn, Biz Stone (awesome name, huh?), the co-founder of Twitter and Mike Malone, the valley's “insider” columnist from ABCNews.com.

Here are some links to what these big shots are saying about the future of social networks: http://www.sbs.ox.ac.uk/newsandevents/Pages/SiliconValleyComestoOxford.aspx

But I decided to seek out the smaller fish, albeit still VERY impressive entrepreneurs, and relay some of their tips for turning business ideas into dotcom reality. In an intimate room at the back of Said Business School, about 25 eager MBAs gathered to listen to the following rising-star businessmen:

Bob Goodson: CEO of start-up networking site YouNoodle

Kulveer and Harjeet Taggar: cousins, co-founders of eBay applications site Auctomatic.com (and previously co-founders of apparently now defunct student marketplace Boso.co.uk)

Rajeeb Dey: founder & CEO, Enternships.com, which places people in internships in small enterprises.

Dave Rosenheim: CEO of global gig-listing site JamBase

All male. All very forthright. All risk-takers. All started thinking entrepreneurial thoughts when barely past puberty. All surprisingly self-deprecating and, reassuringly, articulate.

Here are some words of wisdom from the boys:

1. Taking financial risk

Taking on debt is usually unavoidable in setting up a business. But there are ways to lessen the blow. Try to reduce your “burn rate” suggested Rosenheim. For example “don't move to the center of London where the cost of living is high”.

Goodson recounted a week-long period of only eating fish and chips whilst couch-surfing at a mate's flat – apparently this diet was the “most efficient way to consume the maximum amount of energy at the lowest possible cost”.

Harjeet and Kulveer Taggar had a similar story about instant noodles. But despite the hunger pangs the guys were passionate that it was all worthwhile...I guess the Taggar cousins wouldn't consider a few instant noodle dinners as a huge sacrifice when they came to sell Auctomatic for a sweet £2.5 million just two years out of undergrad.

2. Getting free stuff

To help ease the initial financial strain, Dey recommended “blagging” as much free stuff as possible. He cited an example of office space from Regus, a company that rents out equipped, serviced offices on short-term lets – but which seemingly gave Dey's business, Enternships.com, a free three-month trial. Dey was also particularly proud of getting his hands on a Virgin Atlantic Gold Card, which lets him swan through airport lounges in style, even if he is stuck in the back of economy when he boards the plane.

Goodson, a former president of Oxford Entrepreneurs, agreed about the importance of blagging, but remarked that it was a very “English” term: “People in America don't understand”.

According to Urban Dictionary a similar term in the US might be to “mooch”. For the Yanks reading this article, please tell us if you think “mooching” is an essential characteristic of entrepreneurs...

3. Value of an MBA

Rosenheim, the only MBA amongst the five, believed that his business education provided him with a strong network and taught him about prioritization.

Blagger Dey said: “I wouldn't do one personally, but it's good to have someone (i.e. an MBA) around with discipline”.

The Taggars agreed that it's helpful to hire MBAs “to be organized” and cited a business student who helped Boso.co.uk with a submission to the Cranfield Business Plan competition, which led to an introduction to UK Dragon's Den judge (and retail giant) Peter Jones. The boys acknowledged they probably wouldn't have stood a chance without help from their MBA friend.

But Harjeet emphasized that the MBA skill set is not really necessary if you're running an early stage consumer internet company. It's more important to get your product out, listen to your customers, and iterate the product.

It's also more important to have a technical skill set, than an MBA: “If you're running a technical business you should have a certain level of technical expertise” he said.

4. Funders

A business student from the audience asked about the best stage to pitch for investment. Rosenheim had some strong views: “There are good matches and bad matches; relationships can sometimes be destructive and distracting”. The panel was agreed that looking for funding shouldn't be a priority in the early stage of a start-up, and warned of building your business to please potential funders instead of building your business for your customers.

Many b-students are taught that they need to raise investment before starting out, but the entrepreneurs argued differently. In the case of Boso.co.uk, Harjeet and Kulveer Taggar didn't raise any money for technology development. They only raised money when they needed to expand their marketing efforts.

5. Mentors

Goodson said he thought that you “earn mentors” and that if you're lucky enough to find a good one, you should put them on an advisory board and give them shares. His particular gem has been a San Francisco PR guru, Susan Best, who helped him break into the US market.

You're likely to need a number of different people to turn to, said Dey who feels “finding the one mentor is tough”.

And it can be tricky to explain to mentors what your business is really about – as Harjeet Taggar commented: “You know more about your problem than your mentors do”. The possible exception is the issue of people management, where everyone agreed it helps to talk to an experienced manager who understands people crises, as often the issues are the same across industries.

Any final tips from the group? Yes: if you're a successful Australian tech entrepreneur, stay in Oz! Don't feel pressured to move to Silicon Valley just because you think there's more going on. It's tough in the Bay area, salaries are expensive and rent is high.

So Silicon Valley came to Oxford for the day, but these young entrepreneurs don't recommend going there. Stay in your home market, bootstrap your company, avoid early funding, find the right mentors and blag as much free stuff as you can. It will pay off for some of you.

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