Smedvig Capital and Entrepreneurs Universe recently hosted an evening with global content marketing specialists, Quill at Home House. Founder and CEO, Ed Bussey was our guest speaker, in conversation with Philip de Lisle. Attendees included CEOs, as well Founders and Chairs of interesting growth companies.
Founded in 2011, Quill is purpose built to deliver high performance content across an unparalleled number of topics, formats and languages. Quill is a trusted content partner for global brands and agencies including Shop Direct, STA Travel, LA Fitness, Reckitt Benckiser, 888.com, WPP, Aegis and Publicis.
Prior to launching Quill in 2011, Ed was Chief Operating Officer at ZYB, an award-winning mobile social networking pioneer acquired by Vodafone Plc in May 2008. Ed was also part of the founding team and Global Marketing Director of online clothing retailer Figleaves.com, acquired by N Brown Plc in Oct 2010.
In March 2014 Smedvig Capital led a £5M investment in Quill to accelerate growth, consolidating the business’s position as a European leader in content marketing and advancing the roll-out of their proprietary SaaS Platform.
Here’s a snapshot from the event:
Philip: Where did the urge to become an entrepreneur come from?
Ed: I never planned to be an entrepreneur – it happened by accident. I wanted to do something adventurous so joined the navy, but then I got a place at Cambridge. The navy paid for me to go there on a salary so I guess that was entrepreneurial! I joined the Young Entrepreneur’s Society at Cambridge and ended up becoming President.
I entered the ‘Young Entrepreneur of the Year’ competition with a business plan around a publishing idea ironically. As one of the UK winners, I was sent to San Francisco and found myself in an environment I had never been exposed to before. I was so inspired – not just by speakers like Steve Jobs and Michael Dell but by the 17 and 18 year olds running amazing businesses – that I went back and set up a business from my room which was completely against the college rules.
One afternoon I was called to the bursar who wanted to know what I was doing; after some moments of silence, he said he was impressed and I could continue the business as long as I was going to lectures. At the end of my third year I sold the business and went back into the navy.
I re-emerged in 2000 when the internet was kicking off and, regrouping with the guy I had sold the business to at university, started the journey that was to become figleaves.com.
Philip: You’ve done a lot with PE, but also with your non-exec hat on you’ve done a lot with non-PE. Could share with us what the differences are between the two, and how you found working on both sides?
Ed: I’ve had experience of both; Quill’s Series A round was almost entirely made up of angel investors, plus Ariadne Capital. Our Series B round was led by Smedvig Capital with a number of angel investors following on.
I am a massive believer in the value that angel investors can bring to a business like ours – the battle scars gained through having built and exited businesses of their own are valuable beyond money.
In the UK now it’s much easier than it was five or six years ago to find enough of those people to pull together a million pounds. We raised just under a million in our Series A; almost entirely from former and existing entrepreneurs looking for new ventures to back. That Series A group has been incredibly supportive in terms of introductions to potential candidates and clients, but also as a sounding board.
There is a very complimentary and important role for Private Equity alongside that as you reach a stage where you need to access bigger sums of money.
Both are important and bring different values to a business like Quill.
Philip: What’s been the scariest thing that’s happened to you on your journey?
Ed: I think the scariest thing for any entrepreneur is running out of cash. In the early days I was funding the business whilst persuading good people to join me out of good jobs, and I take that responsibility very seriously.
The moments when you can see the end of the runway and your cash burn running to zero are the most frightening.
Philip: If you were running a master-class for entrepreneurs today, what would you teach them?
Ed: The first thing would be honesty. Is your business plan and concept really going to make money? You’ve got to be really honest about your plan, but also be honest with yourself; at Quill we believe the people who perform best in an early-stage business are those who are self-aware. I think if an entrepreneur is not able to self-audit, it can be a recipe for problems down the line.
Secondly, I would teach stamina; it’s a marathon, rarely a sprint. There are going to be moments of elation, but also moments of massive stress and extreme disappointment. You’ve got to have the energy and the stamina to keep looking for the solutions to problems.
The third thing is about people; people are critical to a business. The good entrepreneurs make a point of hiring really great people – even if it takes longer. In some cases those people might well be a lot better than the entrepreneur themselves.
Philip: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing entrepreneurs today?
Ed: I think the barriers to entry are coming down, especially in digital and tech. The biggest challenge now is speed to market.
Availability of capital and of talent is also a key factor; one of the biggest challenges Quill has faced over the past few years has been finding great people.
I would probably put finance as number three; it’s never easy to raise money, not least because it takes time to do it properly and the process is very competitive.
Philip: How do you actually go about finding people?
Ed: In the early days, through my network – as a founder entrepreneur it’s good to be continually keeping an eye out for great talent. However, we’ve grown from 3 to 30 people in three and a bit years and at some point you need to hire dedicated search people. The best people are not necessarily looking for work right now, and businesses like Quill need to entice them out. Recruiters and search firms are an effective way of doing that.
Philip: Given that you need to hold onto your top people, how do you grow them?
Ed: It is difficult for early stage businesses in some respects because we don’t have big budgets, training departments or HR.
What we offer fundamentally is a stake in the business, which for me is almost a point of principal for the first few years. I look for people who are going to come and work with me – not for me – to help realise Quill’s vision. That’s a lot of work and I’m expecting people to go the extra mile. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect people to come in and do that without some share in what we are creating.
Also, in my experience, the best way of learning in areas such as new technology and digital marketing approaches is on the job in businesses like Quill and – at the time – figleaves.com
P: How would you define success and could you share your personal drivers?
Ed: For me success is a very relative thing; it’s about making choices – not just material choices but personal, health and lifestyle choices – and then seeking to fulfil our potential and realise those choices.
Success is also about trying to mindfully enjoy the journey; the danger for people like me – who tend to be quite results orientated – is that it becomes all about the destination and we forget the journey.
Philip: What’s the future for the company and what’s the future for you?
Ed: In terms of Quill, we want to become the global leader in our space. I think we have got the timing on this right; when we started there was almost no talk of content, and now you can hardly move for mention of it. We have a huge opportunity, a fantastic team, and good investors behind us. I see our investors – Smedvig – as partners.
Personally, I want to build a great business but I also really want to have quality time with my family. I will keep doing both so long as I feel motivated and inspired by what we are trying to create.
Audience: Why would you choose Smedvig for funding?
Ed: When we did our Series B, we were fortunate enough to have multiple term sheets in and multiple institutional investors looking to invest.
I chose Smedvig for several reasons. Firstly, their questions were the most intelligent during the ‘dating process’ as we were getting to know each other.
Secondly, their fund structure is different, and that for me is a benefit because they aren’t doing investments all over the place. They really get behind their portfolio businesses. They are very partnership oriented and I actually trust them, enough to include them in as much as I possibly can.
I want to work with Smedvig over course of the next few years to build a great company.