Dr Hugh Christensen is the founder of financial technology company BMLL Technologies. He started BMLL in 2014 as a spin-off from work he was doing in the Engineering Department at Cambridge University in conjunction with several financial exchange groups. BMLL’s mission is to enable value extraction from financial market data, specifically limit order book data. BMLL now counts many of the world’s largest financial institutions as customers, is nearing 100 employees, and has raised tens of millions in funding. Hugh exited BMLL in 2020 and now works for Amazon. Hugh attended Christ Church as an undergraduate before moving to Cambridge for a PhD.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I have always been interested in understanding and modelling data generated by complex systems, in particular real-life systems that impact business. After university I worked in central Government and the financial services industry, before returning to academia. It was there on a joint project with industry, I was exposed to the challenges that market participants had in using and monetizing this financial data set. The decision to become an entrepreneur came when I realized there was no solution out there that solved the problem these businesses faced.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
For me entrepreneurship is about innovation. Innovation is about experimentation, and if you experiment you are going to fail, and if you are going to fail a lot, you need to think long-term. Thus, it’s not about getting the perfect answer, it’s about trying lots of uncorrelated approaches, until you find one with traction. This highlights the importance of the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80-20 rule.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
A major milestone on the development of a business idea is incorporating the company. I was lucky enough to have a friend who had previously founded a successful company and was able to provide guidance and background on this process. Without their input, I doubt I would have taken that first step. However, I would say you never ‘really’ know if a business idea is good until it’s been battle tested with customers – in the world of enterprise technology this can be a long and slow journey.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
The successful entrepreneur needs to (1) Identify a sizable target addressable market. This means knowing and understanding an area of business in depth. (2) They then need to be able to specify a business plan to capture a significant percentage of that target addressable market. This means understanding users existing pain points by collecting signal from these users and being able to identify the patterns therein. (3) The entrepreneur then needs to be able to persuade others of the validity of their vision, which includes investors and future employees, in order for them to execute on the business plan. Thus, in summary I would say the three top skills are insight, communication, and leadership.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
What I enjoyed the most was spending time with customers, understanding their business problems and being able to use data and computer science to solve these business problems. BMLL’s customers include some of the world’s largest financial services institutions and as such solving their problems has significant global impact.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I think leadership is the highest calling not only in the field of entrepreneurship and business, but also in wider society. Leadership is the ability to bring people together to work as a team, in order to solve problems and achieve outcomes, with many examples of great leaders from across the spectrum of politics, military, business and religion. At my current employer Amazon, we have 16 Leadership Principles which are at the heart of what Amazon does and how its employees work. Three of these that I find particularly impactful are customer obsession, ownership and invent and simplify. On a daily basis, these Leadership Principles inspire me personally to do my best for customers and colleagues.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I think we are all cognisant of our strengths and weaknesses and aspire to improve on both. I haven’t been fortunate enough to meet with the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, who put in place the Leadership Principles. However, if I did, I think I would like to ask, given his experience, for his advice and guidance on how I could personally improve, in order to be a better leader.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
Seeing satisfied customers is fantastic. Even more so when you exceed their expectations and give them a beyond amazing experience. I would note here, that for many people in the workplace, their customers might be internal stakeholders. Independent of if the customer sits inside or outside your organization, the ability to deliver a fantastic experience is for me the definition of success.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
There are so many! I think if you are singularly focused on achieving your vision at all costs, this can come at the detriment of your ability to consider others. It is important to remember that not all your stakeholders may want work as hard as you, or are as driven. This can lead to frustrations and tensions which need softer skills to manage. As someone with a technical background, it can be easy to downplay the importance of functionality such as EQ. At the end of the day, successful businesses are not one person operations, they are about the taking the team on the journey with you.
How have you funded your ideas?
BMLL has been very successful both in generating monthly recurring customer revenues and in raising funds through equity placements. These two sources of funds are not necessarily independent, with customers often wanting to invest in equity placement rounds.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
BMLL has won several awards over the years, for example Innovate UK. Whilst such financial awards are gratefully received, they come at a cost in terms of time required to enter which directly relates to burn-rate of funds. Thus, as an entrepreneur you always have to ask yourself, how best to use time.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
BMLL has never been based in Oxfordshire. However, BMLL has run various projects with Oxford University and regularly takes interns from the University STEM departments. As a financial-technology entrepreneur being based in the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge, and London, gave the best possible positioning in terms of access to customers, capital, and employees.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
I think key official resources include your university, Innovate UK and local business angel groups. Unofficial resources I would point people towards would be your peer group or contacts who have done something similar in the past – there is no substitute for experience in the field of business. And never more so than at the early stages of a company.
Any last words of advice?
Believe in yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done. To quote Sir Winston Churchill, “Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts”.