Nicholas Russell is Entrepreneur-in-Residence on the Conception X programme. Conception X creates deep tech startups from PhD research. In 2019, Conception X teams raised over £5M in venture investment, and are working with leading companies including Amazon, Barclays, and Microsoft.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
Undergraduate degree in Psychology, Personality theory in Los Angeles. Moved into media and branding in San Francisco, which led to an MBA at Oxford. Spent time as a management consultant in renewable energy for five years. Worked primarily between China and Europe, focusing on electric vehicles and renewable generation manufacturing. Learning how venture capital brings new products to market at scale, and launched a real estate startup in London. Currently focused on working with early-stage entrepreneurs and venture capital firms raising seed capital funding for new deep tech propositions.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship is building teams, brands, and customer communities that deliver products and services to market. Those products and services have significant advantages over existing solutions, and the company should be well-positioned to be a category leader. The best companies create their own categories.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
Each time, it has been discovering huge volume of latent demand, and a change in market / market forces which make it profitable to convert that latent demand into customers. In electric vehicles, it was the confluence of battery technology, consumer demand, and government support for charging infrastructure. In real estate technology, it was the growth of e-commerce devaluing retail space, leaving substantial volumes of vacant units in the middle of some of the world’s richest cities. With Conception X, it’s watching the growth of venture capital investment and startups as a career path challenging existing university education and corporate employment.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
1. Resilience. Rarely is the path from idea, to innovation, to product, to revenue, to sustainable revenue straightforward. Research can help map a customer space and choose a starting point with a higher probability of early adoption. However once a product is launched into the wild, not only must the business and leadership respond to changing circumstances, but also the product itself can modify the ecosystem. Further, as soon as a new entrant showcases a valuable opportunity, fast-following competitors begin to converge around that opportunity. Therefore, the new company must not only iterate a new product with limited resources, but also do that in the face of the constant influx of new competitors.
2. Vision. As the product is subject to being modified the market, the team must remain focused on the problem to be solved, which is often quite different from the product itself. Vision is not the Apple I computer itself, but the company which makes computers easier to use. Vision is not the challenger bank account, but the new financial firm which offers all the reliability of a traditional bank, whilst also being easier to use and more transparent on fees. The team must remain attached to delivering the vision in the face of changing markets and products. Visions underpin brands, and brands underpin communities. Communities and brands are stickier then products.
3. Networks and communities. Companies are tribes of individuals who join forces to effect something – to collaboratively create something. That can be as simple as a six-line piece of code unlocking online credit card processing for millions of small businesses, or as complex as an electric vehicle which people trust with their children’s safety in blizzards. Entrepreneurship is not only about seeing an opportunity and delivering a product or service that captures economic value, but building a tribe of people dedicated to the that product, its customers, the company, and each other.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
Building an online product that operates 24 hours a day, as it begins to scale. Going to sleep, waking up, reviewing user accounts. Seeing new users sign up. Seeing them interact with the product and each other. Watching them create value independent of human activity. Building a tool which people use that makes their lives or work better, easier, more fulfilling, or more profitable.
Hiring people into roles and watching them both deliver for the company, and grow personally. Seeing them challenge their comfort zones, take risks, and learn how to launch and scale a product. Seeing them grow as both members of staff, and as people in the world. Hearing them articulate different thoughts. Watching them train new junior members of staff. Watching them contribute to a company’s culture and make it their own. Seeing them outgrow their role. Watching as they eventually build their own career, life, or company. Learning from their acts of service and love.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
Elon Musk is a tremendous entrepreneur. He could have rested on laurels after PayPal, but instead chose to double-down not on one company, but on three. He choose three of the hardest industries. Automotive, Space, and Infrastructure. He turned electric automobiles into objects of desire, and lands reusable rockets. He takes advantage of new mediums like Twitter and is not afraid to expose his vulnerabilities or human side in the pursuit of shaping the world to his desires.
Emily Weiss from Glossier built a $1B brand in a saturated global beauty market in five years. She started with a basic online media campaign, and consistently grew the offer into a global presence and force. She adapts her methodologies without compromising on vision or product quality. She consistently engages future leaders to work with her on developing the business. She has an incredible eye for talent and is pushing the envelop when it comes to beauty products and retail marketing.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
With Elon Musk, I would be curious to know the process of innovation. How the company generates ideas and product features, tests them, and builds viral marketing campaigns around simple interactions like “ludicrous speed”.
With Emily Weiss, I would want to know what she looks for in hiring staff. Whether those be brand evangelists, core operations, or customer service people. At every touch point, the brand is fresh, playful, and serious all at the same time. It ensconces the values of a much larger and older luxury houses, without becoming either exclusionary or diluted. The product formulations can be absolutely brilliant, and then they are delivered in a community that is both authentic and open. All challenges every brand chases, yet precious few are truly able to deliver.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
Entrepreneurs need to work across three time horizons, effectively, and at all times. They need to learn from the past whilst not being bound by it. They need to manage what are often very small enterprises today. They need to recruit and deliver competitive results with small enterprise cashflow. And they need to maintain a vision for the future that is essential in making strategic decisions today. Mistakes happen when an entrepreneur does not work across these three horizons simultaneously.
Forget the lessons of the past, and violate consumer expectations. Poorly manage the present, and run out of capital. Failure to maintain alignment with future vision hobbles decision-making in the present, and ability to recruit, market, and sell.
Company culture quickly dictates decision-making. Company culture is always being created, either consciously or unconsciously. These cultures are generally both assets and liabilities simultaneously. Understanding a company’s culture, and being able to effectively manage and guide it, does not guarantee success, however a failure of company culture will likely result in business failure.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
TechStars accelerator programme
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
The intensity of entrepreneurship also requires commensurate periods of downtime and decompression. Oxford is both rich in intellectual stimulation, whilst also offering the ability to easily relax and not think about work. It’s a tremendously rich and well-connected environment.
The downside is being near to London is not the same as being in London. The talent pool is smaller.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them? (Anything Oxfordshire especially!)
Conception X programme
Any last words of advice?
If one can find fulfilment leading/working with an existing team, great companies need great people. One would be advised to undertake entrepreneurship when they have exhausted other options as inadequate, or untenable compromises. That being said, entrepreneurship is one of the greatest opportunities for societal and personal wealth creation.