Kabir Bali is an Oxford alumnus, having graduated from Magdalen College in 2016. He joined Monitor Deloitte as a Strategy Consultant until early 2020 and recently left this role to co-found a new venture called Jumpstart.
Jumpstart can be summed up as ‘Teach First but for start-ups’ – a graduate scheme for top Russell group students, where they rotate across a number of companies to gain the experience they need, within commercial non-technical roles. Once they have found a role and business they like, they can then enter a permanent contract. Jumpstart also provides training (to make sure graduates are ‘day one ready’ for their placements) as well as ongoing support during the placements.
Jumpstart provides graduates with an alternative to the traditional professional services graduate programmes – providing them with the dynamic experience of working in a start-up, combined with training and career progression.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
Having joined the wider strategy practice at Monitor Deloitte after graduating, I moved internally to the Digital strategy and Innovation team, that specialised in helping incumbent firms adapt their strategy to meet the needs of the digital economy. Making this move definitely gave me inspiration to start applying knowledge and experience of how the economy was changing, to how I might personally be able to see opportunities for myself – which is probably when I started thinking more about starting a business.
However, it was less about deciding to be an entrepreneur, and more about conceiving an idea which had potential. I am not a great believer in ‘deciding to become an entrepreneur’ – you need to start with an idea you think has potential to make the world better or more efficient, and start from there! Starting off with the desire to be an entrepreneur is obviously admirable – but I wouldn’t do it for the sake of it; generate the idea first.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Identifying some aspect of the world we live in, however big or small, that could either be done better or completely differently, and having a vision for how you might actually implement it. I don’t think it’s about purely coming up with a new business. An employee of a large corporate, who sees the flaws in the way that company markets its product and comes up with a plan to fix it, is just as much of an entrepreneur as Elon Musk – even if the scale is completely different!
This argument could even be extended to someone like Dominic Cummings who showed entrepreneurship in the 2016 referendum. He observed that the remain sides was using traditional means of accessing voters through electoral registers, while a significant portion of the population weren’t included on these, but were online and on social media. You may completely disagree with his beliefs, and the immoral means by which he potentially manipulated those people, but he did identify an under-served portion of the population, and how they could be included in the political process better!
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
The point when we got demand validation. We put together a simple website and posted this on various recruitment sites for universities, and got way more applications than we were expecting. Whilst, at this stage, we hadn’t got as much validation from start-ups, we know that from a graduate perspective we we are on to something. As long as you know there is kernel of truth in the concept that appeals to people, and you have some degree of validation, it’s worth pursuing!
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
1. Outside of the box thinking: If the definition of entrepreneurship is thinking about new ways of doing things, to be one, you need to able to approach conventional problems for an unconventional perspective. You will find it hard to identify gaps in the market to build on if this isn’t the case
2. Pig headedness: As an entrepreneur you are always fighting against the odds. To be successful you need to have a stubbornness, an innate belief that you can get your idea over the line
3. Listening: While it’s important to be stubborn it’s also important to be able to pivot and react to customer feedback. For me this is the crux of being an entrepreneur – can you balance your passion for the idea, with your ability to take on feedback to pivot and change as needed to make your idea a success?
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
Agency. While I enjoyed some of the projects and intellectual challenges of strategy consultant, it’s ultimately impossible to genuinely care about what you are working on as your agency (particularly as a junior employee) is pretty limited. The knowledge that whatever choice you make, what you do or don’t do has unfettered impact for how your business performs, I find really empowering. You pretty much have complete agency.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I have developed a huge respect for Satya Nadella for the way he has revived Microsoft since he took over six years ago. In 2014, Microsoft was written off as a ‘has been’ firm that had completely failed to break into the smartphone through its Nokia acquisition. A lot of pundits were sceptical of Nadella’s bold move of betting Microsoft’s future on the cloud computing market, given Amazon’s dominance. It actually showed real strategic acumen, understanding that at its core, Microsoft had huge amounts of trust with the companies that had used windows OS for years. Nadella understood that cloud was the means by which Microsoft could leverage this trust in the 21st century. While it seemed like another foolish late play to outsiders, he understood the link between cloud and Microsoft underlying successes, and its position in the market.
It’s also been remarkable how he has changed the public perception of the company from a monopolist bully to the responsible face of Big Tech. He has proactively positioned the company to emphasise data privacy and security since 2014, which has paid dividends while Google and Facebook are facing a public backlash. It’s also refreshing to see an understated CEO, with a low key consultative style succeed – while the prevailing view of the successful CEO is the brash, overtly macho, charismatic leader.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
The big theme for me would be on the trend away from shareholder value and profit maximisation to stakeholder value and public purpose for companies. While companies and business talks about it a lot, there hasn’t been much in terms of action and changes – companies are still judged by profits and share price! I would love to see if he actually thinks the talk about purpose is a PR exercise, or whether Microsoft sees themselves as pioneering this change, for e.g. in the way it reports on itself, or in their business model.
If I did have time leftover (probably unlikely!) – it would great understand how and where he sees software companies helping in the fight against global warming!
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
Approaching the two-sided ‘marketplace’ of graduates and start-ups from only one angle: focusing in on only the graduate’s needs and wants and neglecting what start-ups need and want. We continued to pitch this one-sided view to start-ups even after they told us that this did not appeal to them. It is important that you alwyas consider both sides, when you are buidling this kind of business. It sounds pretty obvious, but we are all emotional beings and we develop attachments to the concepts we have created. We can often assume we have validated or tested aspects of it, when if we are really honest – we haven’t.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Through both universities in the vicinity – a wealth of talent and ideas to draw upon, as well as being close to London.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them? (Anything Oxfordshire especially!) *
In terms of books – the two which stand out for me are Eric Ries’ “The Lean Start-Up” and Clay Christensen’s’ “The Innovator’s Dilemma”. The latter is lucid in the theory of innovation, and how it manifests itself in the economy – a useful frame for any aspiring entrepreneur – and the former is more about how to apply an empirical hypothesis driven approach to validating business models. “The Lean Start Up” has become a bit of a fad, and a lot of blogs and articles are written about it that misinterpret some of the core ideas – so it’s well worth reading the original for inspiration!
A podcast which I think really stands out is Reid Hoffman’s “Masters of Scale” – which is full of great tips and techniques to stretch ideas. The “Eleven start Experience” that AirBnB used is a personal favourite (https://www.product-frameworks.com/11-Star-Experience.html).
Any last words of advice?
On the subject of advice – it’s really important that when you are looking for a network of people to advise and bounce ideas off that you keep this group of people relatively small, and be clear on why you are specifically asking them for advice. Everyone in the world will have an opinion on your business, even if they have no clue on the industry or market you are playing in. Seek out people who have been there before, and have expertise or experience not just in entrepreneurship but in the areas you are focused on (e.g. education, financial services, technology).
EnSpire Oxford is a University of Oxford initiative to help connect people to the entrepreneurship resources they need, and to promote entrepreneurship across Oxfordshire.
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