Alex Froom has spent 18 years in the digital agency world, working for international brands and delivering complex platforms that include technology for the 2012 London Olympics. Alex and business partner Daniel Chick, (founder of IBG plc), moved to Oxford to start Zipabout in February 2016 and will soon be launching a county-wide Intelligent Mobility project that includes a Journey Assistant providing highly personalised and predictive advice for getting around the country. Zipabout, a small firm with 6 employees, has had no outside funding to date, although they are looking for a suitable investor and partner to help the company grow.
What is your background? Why are you doing this?
My background is in B2C digital engagement. I’ve run a couple of digital agencies over the years and worked on pan-European brand and product consumer launches with a particular focus on consumer engagement – everything from games consoles to vodka. We’d done a lot of work with transport brands leading up to the Olympics in 2012, and we were constantly amazed at how backwards the transport industry was, particularly in terms of technology. The transport operators and seemed to be almost held to ransom by large consultancy firms who were delivering very little but charging millions for the privilege! We thought we could make something significantly better at a fraction of the cost, whilst actually providing the tool people need.
Opinions will differ on this, but to me the word entrepreneur is somewhat overused these days; it seems to have become synonymous with ‘self-employed’, which to be honest is all I have ever considered myself! To me, entrepreneurship is identifying an overlooked opportunity and taking risks to bring it to life for high rewards or commercial gain, so I imagine there is an element of that in all of us who start a business – but I think for that title to mean something there needs to be some measure of success first. I have plenty of ideas that never worked…
Ha! Does anybody decide to become an entrepreneur? In my experience the people who introduce themselves as entrepreneurs usually want something from you – don’t trust anybody who writes it on their business card! The rest of us are people who believe in something and set out to achieve it; often we’re just frustrated technicians who can see a better way of doing something. There is always the hope that the risks will eventually return the rewards, but also the understanding that if it fails you can always try again. Either that or we’re all just unemployable…
So what would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
1 Belief. There’s a lot of hard work involved, often accompanied by periods of little or no income and a lot of risk, so without a positive outlook and belief in success it could be a bit overwhelming.
2 Collaborate and don’t be afraid to ask for help. A lot of people think they can do everything themselves when they start a business, but the reality is we all have certain skills and it makes far more sense to work with people who complement them. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and to let people into your idea – we’ve had to do that a lot, and it’s made the business far stronger as a result.
3 Don’t be afraid of competition. I’ve had clients in the past who have buried their heads in the sand and chosen to ignore threats rather than embrace them – a little healthy competition is never a bad thing to keep you on your toes and push you to make your product the best it can be.
Oh, and one more – focus on making something real. Starting out on your own can be exciting, but it’s easy to get sidetracked into the fun things. In the agency days we built a lot of platforms for well-funded dot com startups and it’s amazing how many of them spent weeks stressing over job titles and business cards rather than actually doing any work! It’s good to look forward to the fun stuff, but you don’t necessarily start there.
You have to enjoy what you do or you’ll never be able to see it through the rough patches. The upside of that is that you have a job you love, and that makes you very lucky.
If you could have 5 minutes with the above indiv/company/org, what would you want to ask or discuss?
Would you like to invest in us? We have a platform that really should be part of the Tesla offering…
We did a lot of work behind the scenes for the London Olympics in 2012. There are a lot of things we pulled together at very short notice that all went off without a hitch – I’m proud of that.
Don’t believe that the multi-billion pound incumbent has the faintest idea what they’re doing! We’ve had all sorts of odd meetings at very senior levels within large firms and at first it was flattering – we genuinely believed they could form the partnerships they were offering and could help us grow. It took us a while to realise that there is no way a global PLC can easily invest in a startup; nor do they understand the pressures and needs of one. It usually turned out to be either industrial espionage or an attempt to keep us away from their competitors, but even the really great partners we work with struggle to react at the speed a small business needs.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
After years of running businesses in central London I love being in Oxford – it’s refreshing on a lot of levels, not least of all because of the choice we have for lunch! There’s a great buzz here and a lot of people who are really doing things rather than just talking about it; we’ve met an extraordinary network of people trying new ideas and collaborating in a really open and supportive way. That said, recruitment is hard in Oxford – really hard. For a recent role the nearest applicant came from Leicester; the draw of London is just too strong.
I suppose that really depends on what they need, but there are a lot of great people to talk to depending on what sector they are in. Mobox and the County Council have probably been the most important relationship of all to us, and I would recommend starting there if you want a feel for what’s going on across the region – they’re really not like other councils! And with the likes of Nominet on the doorstep there are a lot of really innovative and helpful potential partners here.