How UK uni grads grew a business in Silicon Valley
Alluring and inspiring, it’s a place where giants have been born and where you know the people you pass in the street could well be working on growing their own tech masterpiece.
Silicon Valley is also a place where day melds into night, a hive of activity where entrepreneurs stretch the working day in an attempt to ensure their idea is one of those that make it.
It was into this environment that two Durham University friends were dropped with just two weeks’ notice and £3,000 savings between them almost six years ago.
Danny King and Alan Heppenstall had earned a place on Silicon Valley’s prestigious Y Combinator accelerator, a three-month programme that counts Dropbox and Air BnB amongst its alumni.
They had been knocked back twice before: the first time following a Silicon Valley Comes to the UK conference in Cambridge and secondly during a Skype interview. Their idea, around credentials, is niche, which is why it’s only now that others are cottoning on to the market.
Both computer science graduates, the friends had spent months after graduation brainstorming business ideas, eventually focusing their attention on education and home automation. For King, now 29 and the son of a headteacher and teacher, education was where the most frustration lay – and also where they both believed they could make the biggest impact.
They returned to the Cambridge conference and pitched to one of their previous interviewers – and just weeks later found themselves on a plane heading for a new life in the US, with nowhere to live. They had to “hustle to pay rent”.
“We were financially uncomfortable in the US and that’s scary because you don’t have the safety net of the NHS if you get sick,” King tells BusinessCloud. “But that paled into insignificance in terms of the people we met and how far our horizons were expanded.”
Accredible, the business they grew from Y Combinator, works with universities and other education organisations to award branded and verifiable digital certificates or badges to their learners. For students it provides a more efficient way to prove their skills and, for employers, a way of identifying who will be suitable for the role they’re trying to fill.
→ READ MORE: UK BEATS US FOR ENGINEERING START-UPS
It now has 15 employees in the US, UK, Canada and India, is almost at the $1m revenue mark and counts the likes of Google, MIT and Rosetta Stone among its clients. With 1.3m credentials under management, it has associations for doctors, lawyers, dentists and parts of the US military on board already – and much of that success is down to where it is based.
“It just feels like there’s a fraction of the investors in the UK compared to Silicon Valley and a fraction of the willingness to invest in tiny baby companies at such an early stage,” says chief executive King. “A lot of investors in the UK that you talk to are so much more conservative and I did feel that there were more financial opportunities here.”
There is also the opportunity to soak up the entrepreneurial spirit that flows through the streets of San Francisco. King met countless people who had been there and done it in the early days, and he is keen to offer his advice as a mentor to other up-and-coming business minds.
“Here in the Bay area you can walk down the street and know that 30 per cent of the people on that street are working on something like you are – even all the billboards on the freeway are adverts for developers,” he says.
“Everyone you bump into is thinking about creating the next big thing and just being around that naturally inspires you and can make you jump out of bed in the morning.”
There’s an in-joke in Silicon Valley that, after the initial rush of excitement around starting a business and raising funding, many entrepreneurs hit a difficult patch known as the ‘trough of sorrows’. The survivors regain that excitement and learn how to grow, a path the Accredible founders trod themselves.
→ READ MORE: HOW CAN A START-UP COMPETE WITH AMAZON?
Example of a digital certificate
Following the initial success of the product, time has been spent on growing the vision and creating a company culture. There’s also been a need to focus on work-life balance, which is often lacking in their fellow Valley entrepreneurs: 14-hour days were the norm early on for King and Heppenstall.
“If you start a company you’re starting this for ten years or more and you can’t operate at 200 per cent for that long,” King says. “It’s common to work crazy hours and there can be a cliquey network where people work together and socialise together, but I always encourage people to integrate into the community as much as they can.
"Life passes you by while you’re building up your business and it’s easy for that to happen in the Bay area, but that can be mentally damaging.”
Heppenstall realised this earlier on, his friend says, and after the business temporarily relocated to the UK for two years, he remained in Cambridge, getting married, buying a house and starting a family.
“The UK was where Alan felt more at home and where he was his best self but I started to miss Silicon Valley,” says King. “We had the opportunity to come back to fundraise for the second time and I jumped on it, and then I started to wonder whether it was possible to run this company an ocean away from my co-founder.”
For Accredible, the separation has worked. As chief technology officer, Heppenstall is based in Cambridge with a team of developers, enabling them to access talent for a third of the price they would pay in San Francisco. While King heads up the HQ, there’s a head of sales who works from home in Shropshire and employees in Canada and India, with the different time zones offering a better coverage for customer support.
Born in Leeds, King has lived in Nottingham, London and Durham, but says the US, where he has a 14-month-old baby, is now home. He was due to undergo his green card interview the day after he spoke to BusinessCloud. “I love it here, it feels like it’s got all the good bits of the US and none of the bad – it’s a really liberal bubble,” he says.
As for the future, the business is about to turn a profit, and King says the real success will come once they hit 10 million then 100m credentials. From that point, it will have the impact on the jobs market that they set out to achieve.
“We’re building up a database of the world’s credentials and that’s very powerful for recruiters,” he says. “Facebook changed the way advertising works through targeting and we want to do that for jobs. As a job seeker, you could receive targeted jobs based on your credentials, solving the problem of people finding work and employers finding people to work for them.
“We’re five to ten years from achieving that vision and we’ll fundraise again in two years to help achieve that.”
While having such a spread-out business – where both founders are in environments they’re happy in – is proving a success, there are times they feel they miss out on.
“We don’t have those moments of serendipity where we’re walking home from work and one of us will mention something and before long we’ve solved a problem we had in the business,” King says.
“We also miss out on those meetings where we don’t have an agenda, so we often Skype. And, of course, I miss being able to play squash with him or go for a pint.”
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