How to succeed as a technology start-up

Sarah Wood’s adtech start-up Unruly was recently acquired for £114m. Here, Wood shares insights and advice for aspiring tech entrepreneurs...

There has been a lot of debate recently around female entrepreneurship and the reasons why there are so few women in technology.

One woman who is at the fore of UK technology, and who has publicly called for other women to get involved in tech, is Sarah Wood.

Co-founder and co-CEO of video advertising technology (adtech) business Unruly, Wood has been voted UK Female Entrepreneur of the Year, named one of the 10 London-based ‘Entrepreneurs to Watch’ by Forbes, and was awarded the title of Digital Woman of the Year by Red Magazine.

Her business Unruly has been named the UK’s second fastest growing technology company for its success in delivering powerful social video campaigns, and was acquired by Murdoch’s News Corp for £114m in September of this year.

Speaking at a recent fireside talk hosted by Startup Grind London, Wood discussed her journey to-date as a female entrepreneur, the challenges she has faced and how she has overcome them.

Read on to find out Wood’s advice to succeed as a tech start-up…

How would you describe your experience as a female entrepreneur in tech?

“It’s a lot about the learning curve. I had a lot to learn and it was challenging. I think you must be happy to get out of your comfort zone and just take the challenges and learn from them.

“The biggest challenge as female entrepreneur, and what I think is a problem for lots of women in leadership roles, is that we worry too much about external perceptions. We’re either perceived to be too nice or too bossy, or both at the same time, in irrational and illogical ways.

Nobody ever talks about a guy saying ‘They’re too bossy or they’re too nice’

“There’s too much emphasis placed on women’s personalities and too much judging of women full stop. Nobody ever talks about a guy saying ‘Oh they’re too bossy or they’re too nice’ -it’s just a non-issue! We aren’t being judged in the same way. There are many extra layers of judgement that are applied to women that aren’t applied to men – looks, being another one. It’s not enough to be smart, driven, successful, people also expect you to look fantastic.

“So, all these additional layers of expectation can wear you down if you let them. We all can just choose not to respond to that, and not to care about those judgements and layers of perception.

What would you say to others that want to become an entrepreneur?

I wouldn’t actively encourage everyone to be an entrepreneur

“I think people need to make their own decisions. It’s not the right course for everybody. You need to be incredibly driven, committed and I don’t think everybody would enjoy being an entrepreneur. I wouldn’t actively encourage everyone to be an entrepreneur. That’s a decision you need to make on your own.”

When did you discover that you had something in you to become an entrepreneur?

“I don’t know if there is a moment of discovery, there are a lot of myths around being a founder and being an entrepreneur. There are stereotypes, founders who are saying ‘I was running businesses from the age of 10, selling popcorn and then buying my first scooter at the age of 11.” That’s not always the case though.

I’ve tried different jobs: [I’ve been] an egg packer, dog walker and pancake maker

“That was definitely not my story. I have always been enjoying doing stuff in different businesses and trying different jobs: egg packer; dog walker; pancake maker; maths and physics tutor. I still enjoy being a part-time academic, teaching a Masters course in online video culture at Cambridge.”

How did Unruly start?

“Matthew Cooke and Scott Button (Unruly co-founders) had worked together on their previous start-up, in a very exciting advertising environment. I was still working as academic at this time, in revolutionary literature and visual culture and I was very interested in politics.

“Being an academic was great but it didn’t have as much impact and it was slow. You do all of this amazing work but then nobody sees it.

“At the same time I was a mother to two children, and I had to go down to Sussex every week and leave my kids in London and I was already thinking ‘I can’t be doing this forever.’

“Then 7/7 happened – the bombing at King’s Cross, I was not involved in it but close enough to be evacuated, thankfully nothing happened but that made me evaluate and rethink; ‘Am I doing what I want to be doing? Am I living life to the fullest?’

“I wanted to be closer to home, to my family and to set up my own business that allowed me to have control over my own timeframe, travel when I wanted to and be there for my family.”

Did it take a lot of conversations to actually launch Unruly?

“No it didn’t take too many conversations. Most of the conversations were around what we are actually going to do. This was the big challenge, because we wanted to do something that was related to the social web as this was very exciting at the time (it was 2005).

“We wanted to do something that was tied to the internet. So we just tried things, and tested quickly, if it didn’t work we moved on. We set up the comedy portal eatmyhamster.co.uk as we realised that we were finding content on the web but were struggling to find funny content. I really enjoy watching funny videos, laughter is so important, so we set up this site. We loved it and enjoyed doing it but we struggled to find an audience quickly.

“What we did find out was that lots of people enjoyed video. So we thought ‘Let’s try something else then’, and we built a viral video chart which ranked the most shared videos on the social web. We hired developers and almost immediately it was successful.”

How did you find your first customers?

“Analytics and testimonials mainly, also video charts. We bootstrapped, Button was doing sales, I was delivering campaigns and Cooke was developing the product. We divided a lot of tasks and helped each other.”

How did you make your first hires?

“Our first hire was a sales person. Your first hires are the most important people in your company. We hire people who are better than we are at something. You must look for people who have skills that you do not have.

[When hiring] we look for ‘pandas’

“We hired freelancers and interns and our team grew out from there. We have one rule when hiring people; we look for ‘pandas’; warm, passionate, encouraging, positive and open minded, anything is possible people, social creatures, determined and nurturing with no ego.

“If you get someone with those qualities then they are very likely to want to brainstorm, collaborate and share ideas. We also pay a lot of attention to cultural fit, we want to make sure we hire the right people for our team.”

Unruly was recently acquired by News Corp. Why did you decide to sell the company?

“We decided to sell so that we could grow even more. We enjoy having fun, doing work for our clients, having an impact and we do enjoy scale and that’s what’s so cool about being an entrepreneur – having a massive impact on your own world and people around you. Now we’ll be able to deliver better campaigns for our clients, accelerate our roadmaps and we’ll be able to grow our presence even faster.

“We don’t see joining News Corp as an exit but as a stepping stone to take our company to the next level and take advertising to the next level.”

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