Leader in their field
From a back room in Kentish Town to the dizzying surrounds of ‘Silicon Roundabout’, Moo.com has seen many changes. Founder and chief executive Richard Moross takes time to reflect on the company’s growth to date
Moo.com is at the heart of London’s start up scene — normally being passed from one techie to another in the form of a small and very distinctive business card. From new offices at “Silicon Roundabout”, in Old Street, east London, founder and chief executive Richard Moross explains how it all happened, what he’s learned and where he’s going next.
How did all this start?
For the first two years it was just me in a back room in Kentish Town — operating on a shoestring in a shoebox. I’d raised a few hundred thousand pounds from the Accelerator Group, but that was beginning to dry up and it was clear that I needed to make a step change. I needed to find a developer that could get photos on to the card, and my dad mentioned a strange guy that had pitched to him a few days before. When I met Stefan Magdalinski at Pret a Manger he started finishing my sentences: “We could do cards … for Flickr!”
We were really down to nothing and everything was going on my credit card; with what I had left I booked a ticket to ETech [an emerging technology conference in the US]. We met Cal Henderson from Flickr and he liked what we were doing. Eventually, we presented to the venture capital (VC) guys and got a second round of funding in 2006. Now we have 34 full-time staff.
When we went to ETech I still didn’t really know Stef very well, and we had to share a room in a gross little hotel. I remember rolling over in the morning and seeing Stef’s exposed buttocks. “It has to get better than this,” I thought. We can afford our own rooms now.
Where did you write your first business plan?
I produced a horrendous 200-page PowerPoint presentation — about 196 pages more than it should be. I designed every slide in Illustrator and it took me about a month.
How important is mentoring in the tech community?
One thing we have really lacked in the UK is a real physical hub. You can’t run a business virtually, and you can’t do mentoring by phone. You need to be local, have a drink after work and talk off the record. Some of the smarter VCs put local businesses together and pair companies up. I’d never run a business before I started Moo and being exposed to other people who have started companies two or three times has been a fantastic help. You minimise risk by surrounding new people with experienced people.
How different are the UK and US tech scenes?
We don’t have the models for success in Europe, although that is changing. London is the hub of Europe: look at Skype — developers in Estonia, registered office in Luxembourg and headquarters in London.
Do you use social media to recruit?
The most important piece of social software is a person, so the first thing we hired was an HR manager; if you grow quickly, you need to. Most people we have hired have been friends of friends or ex-colleagues, and I have personally posted for jobs on Twitter, put stuff on Facebook, in my blog and I use LinkedIn every day — I’m not sure what I’d do without it. I’ve used a recruitment agency twice to recruit very senior people where we needed someone at the top of the organisation with several years’ experience.
Are you worried about the credit crunch?
It’s not affecting our business. It could do, but we’re providing a very low cost, affordable product that helps small businesses — it’s not a luxury item. When you’re trying to make an impression it’s the small things that make a difference, and we make the small things.
Is it important for brands to express some sort of personality online?
That depends on the brand. Companies don’t need to express anything, but if they do, it needs to be real, otherwise it feels like corporate bollocks. Our blog is written by Denise [Wilton, creative director at Moo.com] and it’s an extension of her personality; we couldn’t try to write the blog as Denise. I think that has crept into other organisations and it feels like a false one-to-many conversation.
How do you divide your work life and your personal life?
You just have to be yourself, both in business and real life. You do need boundaries sometimes, like with employees, but you have to be the same person. You can’t bring to work this weird, authoritarian character and be someone else in your personal life. My investors follow me on Twitter and I still write stupid stuff, but they know I’m a funny, stupid person.
What do Mooers use to communicate in the office?
Mouths and ears, predominantly. It’s not one of those quiet offices where people just talk on Backchannel.
How do you encourage staff to be creative?
We don’t fuel our staff with treats to make them creative and we don’t have innovation schemes. We hire creative people, so they just are. This was an architectural practice before, so it’s an open-plan, light space and it’s really important to make people comfortable when they work
so hard. We have lunch every Friday and then a social after work. And if it’s someone’s birthday, we’re allowed booze at lunchtime.
What would make your work life easier?
Concorde to San Francisco. I travel once a month, 12 hours each way, and it is draining. Any device that allows people to travel more quickly without timezones. A DeLorean would be good, or a jetpack.
Who do you admire?
Kevin Kelly, editor-at-large of Wired magazine. And Robin and Saul Klein, our investors.
What do you wear to work?
On my first day at my last job, at a company called Imagination, I turned up in a suit. I was the only person in a tie, let alone a pink tie. I was so embarrassed I went out and bought black everything: black socks, black suit, black shirt — everything. I wear black. I wear black to work, at home, to the beach. I’ve got 36 black shirts. I do like to accessorise with colour, but there’s something reassuring about black.
What’s the most important thing you have learned?
Just because you are the smartest person in the room, that doesn’t mean you should be the leader. It’s understanding where people’s real strengths lie and helping them understand that. The part I really enjoy is doing deals and having that relationship with another business — how you can put some things together and get something greater than the sum of its parts.
Where would you like to be in five years?
Working on my new business. In five years, I think my work here will be done and I’ll have taken this to a profitable exit. I will have taken my unique blend of sarcasm and laziness to some other organisation.