Be friendly, share information with others generously, make an effort to stay in touch with your contacts, and let them know what help you’re looking for without being demanding.
After graduating from Cambridge University with a Masters in Materials Science, Angela took a job in management consulting at McKinsey & Company, where she worked with C-level execs on a huge range of business problems and sectors. She then became Head of UK for Homejoy, a Silicon Valley backed platform startup for home cleaning, before launching her own business in June 2015. Chime combines all of Angela’s backgrounds, being a tech platform that provides experts, often academic scientists, for management consulting firms doing research.
Where did the idea for Chime come from?
Chime is by no means the first company to do this – the industry’s been around for decades. My first job out of uni was in management consulting with McKinsey, and we used to use these ‘expert networks’. The experience wasn’t always good value for money, and while we were fortunate enough to have other resources to hand, it still wasted time and I was sure smaller firms would struggle to do the research they needed to. I was aware of how much platform startups like Uber were taking off and I thought there must be a way to apply a similar concept to expert consultations. I learnt how to build a marketplace as Head of UK at Homejoy, then started Chime in May 2015. We’ve been growing really fast, mainly through word of mouth, with top firms in London and around the world ever since.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My cofounder, David, is the CTO, so he’s building our product full-time, and I do everything else including operations, business development and admin. We make joint decisions on product, strategy, brand and finance. One of the things I really like about being an entrepreneur is that my day looks like however I choose it to look. If I wake up in the morning and feel really creative, I might do some content marketing or review something design-related with my cofounder. If I’m feeling a bit braindead, I might do some bookkeeping. If I’m feeling sociable, I might go to a networking event. If I need quiet, I’ll work from home. Of course, there are some unavoidable commitments or urgent actions I need to take, but the rest of my time is mine.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I bring ideas to life through a series of increasingly sophisticated prototypes. To begin with, I might try and get on the phone with 3-5 customers and describe my idea, for example a new feature. I probably have an image in my head of what it looks like, but that will morph as I talk to the customers. Once the image is crystallizing, my cofounder and I sketch out what the feature will look like – if it’s client facing, that will look like some mock screens and we’ll talk through how the customer would interact with it. If it’s an internal capability, we’ll sketch out a process flow diagram, and talk through how our staff would give input or the tech would automatically respond to triggers. Then we’ll build the most basic version possible and roll it out to a customer or team member who we’ve had a long relationship with and it’s “safe” for something to go wrong while they’re using it. We stay in close contact and gather their feedback before fixing and adding aspects, and gradually rolling it out more widely.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
The trend I’m most excited about is remote and flexible working. A traditional office – a physical location where large numbers of employees would travel to at similar times in order to work together – used to be the only way to ensure employees were doing the work they were meant to, and were able to work with each other effectively. Now technology has made alternatives possible. Our entire front-line workforce is freelance and works remotely, facilitated through technology that gives management oversight on progress of projects, instant messaging that get you a response quicker and less intrusively than walking over to someone’s desk, and videocalling and screensharing software that can enable meetings to be just as effective, and often more efficient, than in-person. Not only is it possible, but offering remote working actually benefits companies, through reducing overheads, enabling faster internationalization, and improving employee productivity and satisfaction. I’d go so far as to say it is also a moral obligation, to ensure those who need to work flexibly (usually primary caregivers) can progress in their careers as ably as those who can commit to a more rigid schedule.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I’ve meditated since I was a teenager and last year I went on a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat which has really helped me develop the ability to focus intensely on one thing for an extended period of time. The whole practice of meditation revolves around observing your thoughts as if from a distance and bringing them back to one thing, whether that’s your physical state such as your breath, or an image you’re looking at or imagining. Once you get good at that, it’s easy to apply it to work – if you find yourself getting distracted from the task at hand, you’re able to check yourself sooner and bring your attention back to it with less effort.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
At Homejoy I literally got my hands dirty! In the early days, when we were just setting things up in London, we didn’t have enough cleaners to always be able to find someone to cover if one cleaner cancelled last minute. We knew the early customers in London could make or break our brand here, so we wanted to ensure nobody had a bad experience. So if a customer had already been cancelled on and a cleaner cancelled last minute again, I would grab a bag of cleaning supplies and go to the job myself. I learnt three things: first, that I am a terrible cleaner! You shouldn’t assume that a job isn’t skilled until you’ve tried to do it yourself to a professional standard. Second, that you only really understand your customers and feel their frustration when your service has fallen below standard when you are on the front line. And third, when your business is young, you can’t afford any extraneous resource, so when you have more demand than supply you’ll have to find a way to plug the gap yourself.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I wouldn’t have worried so much about getting started in the first place! For months, even years, before Chime was in existence, I’d been trying to decide whether entrepreneurship was for me, I’d been searching for an idea I could believe in, and I’d been wondering if I’d built up enough skills, network and resources to strike out on my own. That mental image I had, of striking out, was incredibly daunting to me (not particularly helped by the incredulity of some of my friends and family). But given how hard it is to manage and grow a company that already exists, in hindsight it seems ridiculous to view getting started as being the difficult bit. Having grown up in the 90s, most of my life advice comes from the sitcom ‘Friends’. There’s one episode that I could’ve done with watching again a couple of years ago: it’s Chandler & Monica’s wedding day, and Chandler had freaked out so much he’d gone AWOL. After finding him, Ross coaches him to start getting ready: “You’re right. It is huge. So why don’t we take it just a little bit at a time? Ok? Forget getting married for a sec; just forget about it. Can you just come home and take a shower?”. He’s right, of course – any seemingly immense task can be broken down into smaller steps. Once you’ve figured those out, you can just keep putting one foot in front of the other without having to think about what they all add up to.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Keep asking questions. You might think that as you get more experienced, you should have fewer questions to ask, or that people will respect you less if you’re the one asking the questions. But we never stop encountering new situations. They may no longer be completely alien to us, but there will always be nuances we cannot predict, and our effectiveness is critically dependent on our ability to ascertain and respond to those nuances. For example, if you’re speaking with your manager or an interviewer, it’s a good idea to clarify what they’re asking you to do before beginning the task you’ve been set. If you’re the one managing someone, you’ll get better results if you find out what support they need to excel in their role. When trying to make a sale, you need to understand your client’s priorities in order to position your product to appeal to them. Before speaking at an event, knowing your audience is crucial to ensure your content resonates. And so on. Keep thinking of good questions to ask and really listen to the answers.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
Networking. I think it’s become a bit of a dirty word, partly because a lot of people don’t know what good networking looks like. But the dictionary definition is very simple: “interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts”. That’s it. Be friendly, share information with others generously, make an effort to stay in touch with your contacts, and let them know what help you’re looking for without being demanding. You’ll find that people start connecting you with potential clients, partners or hires, repeatedly and without expecting anything in return. In a startup, you don’t have much budget to spend on anything, so having a network of strong relationships will give you a genuine advantage in growing your business.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I’ve had to learn to be disciplined about committing time to sales even when things are busy. It’s easy to get into the mindset of “we’ve got lots of work, I need to worry about delivering on those projects rather than bringing in new business”. But of course sales has a time lag, so if you stop selling for a month today, in 3 months’ time you’ll have no work and then you’ll be panicking about being able to pay your bills. Lumpy revenue is worse than steady low revenue because cash flow is the lifeblood of any business. So when things are busy, you have to force yourself to let things run themselves as much as you can, and continue the sales efforts that you would be doing in any case.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Something I would love to have as a customer is a way to find well-matched people to do sport and other activities with, and an easy way to book somewhere to do it. For example, if you want to play tennis this Tuesday evening and none of your friends play tennis at a similar level, or they’re not free on Tuesday, you don’t really have another option. Even if you do find someone to play with, finding a free court within easy distance of both of you that you can book easily is a massive hassle. So I’d love it if someone created an app that let you set your desired activity, proficiency level, availability and location, then matched you up with a suitable opponent, and enabled the two of you to book a venue and split the cost. It’d be a fantastic way of keeping up with activities I miss doing on a regular basis and meeting new people, as well as helping the venues improve their utilization.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
Here in London, there’s something called the Institute of Directors, a sort of business members’ club. The IoD building itself is a really lovely environment to work in, it’s a professional and impressive place to hold important meetings, and membership also gives you access to hotdesking elsewhere. The Business Advisory Service and the events are also extremely high quality. There’s a special membership open to young entrepreneurs for £99 per year.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
The two software services I couldn’t do without are Xero and Slack. Xero for easy invoicing (including taking online payments), bookkeeping and submitting tax returns. Slack for communicating with my remote, flexible working team; the integrations you can build in make it an absolute dream to work with.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick (if you don’t have time to read the whole book, watch this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqHR7CUPVbA and read this http://www.slideshare.net/xamde/summary-of-the-mom-test). If you’re thinking about starting your own business, do NOT spend lots of time building an offering until you’ve understood your potential customers and tested whether there is genuinely a market need. The point he makes is that you should never ask someone a question along the lines of “do you think this is a good business idea” because people will be inclined to be nice and say “yes”. You should ask a series of questions without even describing your business idea that tease out your potential customer’s habits, pain points and willingness to pay for a solution.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
Like many young women in business, I’ve found Sheryl Sandberg to be incredibly inspiring, though I still think the biggest barriers to women getting into and staying in tech and/or leadership positions are the constraints in which we live and work, for example hiring processes. Claire Cain Miller wrote a great New Yorker article on blind hiring earlier this year: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/is-blind-hiring-the-best-hiring.html. I used to play the violin fairly seriously, so I’ve been aware of the impact blind auditions had on diversity in orchestras back in the 70s. It still flabbergasts me that there has been so little effort to introduce anonymised CVs and similar into standard recruitment processes, to reduce unconscious bias at the first screening stage.
That said, there are of course things we can do for ourselves. I remember reading Mary Schmich’s letter in the Chicago Tribune with the line “do one thing every day that scares you”. The whole letter is pretty great, but that line really stuck with me, and when I look back my most significant periods of growth were when I was doing things that scared me all the time. Now, when I have something on my to-do list that scares me, I remind myself of that, and it’s easier to look forward to the feeling I’ll get when I’ve done it rather than thinking of the nervousness I’ll feel when I’m about to do it. It’s like reminding yourself of how good it feels when you get back from a run rather than focusing on how much effort it is to get out and start running.
Having studied Latin at school, I’ve been aware of Stoic philosophers like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius for many years, and still occasionally dip into ‘Meditations’. Stoicism centers around the idea that the world is unpredictable, but an individual can cope with a huge amount of pain and misfortune through the mental attitude they take. For example, if you force yourself to sleep on the floor and live on a plain diet for a few days, you’ll see it’s not nearly as bad as you think it’s going to be. Then you can take that into your day-to-day life, and when something threatens to go wrong, you won’t panic. It’s incredibly relevant for the frequent and massive ups and downs faced by any entrepreneur.