Reflections on 2016

2016 for me was, if I had to pick one word to describe it, a year of ‘regrouping’.

 

I had only moved properly back to London end of 2015 from New York. In the year that ensued I regrouped with old friends whom I had partially lost touch with – people with whom I go back over a decade, spent more time with my family and my ‘auxiliary family’ – my beloved colleague PPH-ers.

 

The year reminded me of the importance of having long-lasting relationships in life, people with whom you’ve gone through life-transforming experiences like university or school years, the army, trips or expeditions, or building a startup together. The tough times more than any others are the ones that build long lasting bonds between people. No amount of ambition and the success it fuels is worth sacrificing that.

 

Even though I first moved to London approaching 15 years now, it’s only in this last year, my second spell upon my return, that I got to appreciate how much London is home for me. More than ever I’m in love with its contradictions. Fast-paced yet balanced and civilized; old-school in so many ways yet modern, cool and funky; deeply traditional yet cosmopolitan and international like no other city I’ve experienced; demanding and tiring at times yet forgiving, warm and communal at others; close-knit in its social circles yet easy to meet people and make new friends.

 

Apart from regrouping the things that I’m grateful for in 2016 are having made new friends, build relationships that I’ve learnt from and hopefully contributed to, travelled extensively, grown my company and team, rented a studio so I can devote more time to my art which is my passion, and setting the foundation for what seems a great 2017.

 

By far the highlight of my year was being appointed Godfather to my beautiful little niece (my brother’s daughter)  whom my sister and I  baptized this summer, and more recently being asked to be Godfather to one of my best friends’ unborn child. No honour can be grander or more gratifying to be bestowed with the trust and responsibility that comes with being a Godparent to someone’s child. I feel blessed and privileged to be in that position twice already.

 

The best trips I’ve had in the year include visiting one of my old friends in Mumbai, India, my family in Dubai and later Cyprus for Christmas, spending time in the beautiful South of France this summer and falling in love with the breathtaking Cap-Ferrat. My trips to the U.S. have become less frequent, yet I visited New York twice including spending my birthday there in May. I spent time in Marbella in Spain, Berlin, St Tropez, the beautiful Greek islands, the gorgeous old town of Nafplio in Greece, skied in the Trois Vallees where my year began in 2016 and ended. The symmetry itself rounded up the year perfectly.

 

On the business front, with the exception of a short-lived hit triggered by Brexit, PeoplePerHour has continued to grow strong and unabated. We’ve made drastic improvements to the product and the customer experience and that’s thanks to the hard work and dedication of our team. Team PPH – you rock!

continue reading »

Contentment

I consider myself really lucky to be surrounded by some amazing people. Truly blessed. Friends, family, colleagues and even just acquaintances. I’m lucky to have a wide network of brilliant people from different walks of life but also different cities and cultures. I can count friends in New York, London, Athens, Cyprus, Dubai, Miami, L.A, San Francisco, Austin, all the way to India (If I’ve left any out I apologise:))

 

Yet I don’t know that many people who – despite their successes- are truly truly content. I find that most people are always on a never ending quest. Quest for more of whatever it is they crave. One of life’s paradoxes is in fact that the more we get the more we want, and the more we want the more discontented we become. There’s a fine line between ambition and greed, and an equally fine line between complacency and contentment.

 

I don’t believe in complacency. I believe that no matter how much anyone has achieved they cannot rest their laurels. There’s always more to do, more to learn and more to give. No success should be taken for granted – we can all lose what we have much faster than it took us to acquire it.

 

I do however believe in contentment. One needs to be truly at peace with what they have in order to be happy. We need to remind ourselves of the good in our life and live in the moment in order to really take it all in and appreciate it.  Cliche as it may sound most people I know do not live in the moment. They are always in anticipation of what comes next. They are too busy planning, worrying or sharing the moment with others on social media instead of BEING in it.

 

2016 has been the first year for me when I’ve really achieved contentment (or at least more so than previously). For me it comes with a number of things. Appreciating the ‘now’ is a crucial starting point. But it’s also about having a purpose and doing good things for you and those around you. It’s about being selfless, giving, being generous and altruistic and just seeing the bigger picture. Its about showing heart!

continue reading »

Endurance

We’ve all heard this phrase before: ‘life is a marathon not a race’. Yet how many of us put it in practice?

 

Ironically we’ve been nurtured to worship and admire  endurance. From the preachings of Jesus Christ who endured so much in his life for the good of Mankind, culminating in  enduring the weight of the very cross he was crucified on; to persecuted mythical heroes we grew up in awe of, from Hercules to Tarzan, to more modern characters like Rocky Balboa who beat the odds by never giving up. We revere not their success but their endurance… we envy not the result but the courage they show  in  ‘going the distance’ as the soundtrack of Rocky – by that very name and not coincidentally – reminds us, climaxing our emotions seeing a guy refusing to give up despite the beating he was taking, enduring till the end even if he lost. Or did he? As the expression goes ‘he may have lost the battle but won the war’.

 

Tenacity, grit, persistence are the things that make one endure through tough situations. Time and time again we see those being more instrumental to the long term success in any given situation that the mighty powers of whatever one deploys in the short term: talent, wit, intelligence… I call those ‘situational masteries’. You can master a situation with traits like charm… the ability to outwit someone, talk the talk; you may even hit some home runs with situational mastery. People do after all become overnight hits- sometimes. They do in casinos too! But that’s neither a strategy for success not a safe haven for ones’ hopes or ambitions. It’s dependent as much on luck as on anything else; or in there being just the right mix and fit between the ‘situation’ and the tricks possessed to master it in this notion of ‘situational mastery’.

 

Building endurance is, on the other hand, a strategy. It’s a sustainable, dependable and more predictable – or a more backable – route to success. I’d much rather train for a marathon than the 100m sprint (although admittedly I have done neither). By the nature of having a longer path from the start point to the end you have just much better odds of finding a way to win; to muster the energy and stamina needed to keep going. I’d much rather bet on a team committed to building something – anything – for the longer term. Be it a business, climbing a mountain, building a family.

 

Warren Buffet put it perfectly when asked how is it possible that he beat every other investor with the least sophisticated of strategies, purely by sticking to fundamentals. He said:  “because no one wants to get rich slowly”

continue reading »

How Athens helped us build a successful global startup

I started PeoplePerHour.com in a basement in London back in 2007. I had no idea – even in our wildest dreams – that a few years later we would be serving 1.5 million people across 150 countries and be the source of inspiration, financial freedom and independence for so many people the world over. To date we’ve matched close to a million freelance projects with Small & Medium sized companies all over the world, across disciplines such as design, software development, web building, but also translations, data entry and administrative services. Freelancers on our platform, or ‘GiGsters’ as some call them today, have earned over 100 Million Euros to date from us, and growing

 

It’s been a journey blessed by good fortune, a roller-coaster of emotion, a tonne of mistakes from which we learnt from, a lot of laughter, some tears, intense pain at times and great fun at others; all mixed in with a good pinch of faith and luck. Somehow, nine years on, we are still here!

athens_team_small

Least of all we never expected to have – by 2016 – the vast majority of our team based out of Athens, Greece. Without that admittedly the company could not have survived. So how did we end up in that situation?

 

It all started in 2010. Just after we raised our Series A funding round and the first amount from Venture Capitalists (Index Venture) to a tune of c.a. 8m Euros, we needed to expand rapidly. Which in our line of business means hiring more engineers to develop and improve the PeoplePerHour platform. UK at the time was deep in recession, as was Europe, and the startup culture hadn’t yet caught up to the levels it is today. We simply struggled to convince risk-averse people to leave secure jobs to come work for a startup of 4-5 people in a basement.

 

One cold yet sunny Saturday morning in early December, just after we closed the funding round, I was having my usual Sumatran roast coffee pot walking around my flat pondering how to buck this trend when I got on the phone to a good old friend of mine, Spyros in Athens. Spyros at the time was running a small web shop in Athens and coincidentally was also my first outside investor in my previous company (which pivoted into PPH in 2007). Within minutes he told me he could find me 10 -15 engineers by March. Incredulous as I may have been back then, he delivered on the promise.

continue reading »

Celebrating our 9th bday @ PPH !

The Vanity Sandwich

What an MBA means to a startup!

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0kCPBBpDTY]

A supply-side analysis of marketplaces

Marketplaces are notoriously hard to get going because of the chicken-and-egg problem at the start. You need supply in order to get demand and you need demand in order to get supply. In most the money comes in through the demand side of the equation and thus are considered to be demand-led. However, I would argue that in embarking on setting up a marketplace business one can be more rigorous in their analysis on the supply side.

These are the factors I would consider if I were to set up another marketplace business (or invest in one):

 

1. Arcane Supply

My first company was a business called Arcarnus which promised to broker the world’s ‘arcane’ places and services – secret gems as it were- to a discerning people.

That business didn’t do very well when it came to scaling but the notion of the ‘arcane’ was certainly carried forward to my next (and current) business PeoplePerHour.com and is without a doubt a big reason for its success.

Amassing inventory – of whatever kind – that has an element of exclusivity or scarcity is key to getting initial traction. It’s not always a must, but if your inventory is too easily discoverable elsewhere it will be harder, and although not impossible (as Amazon has proven) you need to innovate in different ways like price, the speed of delivery or simply having a huge breadth to become a ‘one stop shop’ destination. Whilst doable that’s without a shadow of a doubt a much more expensive endeavour.

 

2. Homeless supply

Arcane or not, my next question would be “is that inventory looking for a new home?”. Some things – like second-hand collectables, much to eBay’s delight, were craving to migrate from the street fair to the world wide web. Others like grandma’s hand-knit woollen cardigan also did, finding a home on Etsy.com.

Here too, timing is everything. A category seeks a new home when a) there’s enough inventory within it and b) when their current home gets crowded. If you’re selling hand-crafted inflated Baboons who pop a caramel-infused marshmallow out of their backside every time you squeeze them (now why didn’t I think of that idea before!) and you can only make a handful a day, you may find that walking up the street is all you need to sell them all. Why pay a marketplace a % of that? But if you find that your whole neighbourhood or town rip off your baboon-trade, then you may well need a bigger home for your boons.

 

3. Ripe for storytelling

Given an infinite amount of dollars, any business can turn into a success (even my fabulous baboon idea above). But given finite dollars, having scarce supply, that’s ripe for a new home, and, a story that others are willing to share, will almost certainly act as viral agents and catalyst for distribution and growth.

In the end, people don’t relate to facts and figures, or shapes or forms, or tastes for that matter, as much as they relate to ‘storytelling’. Even the sensation of taste is instantly followed by a story, and it goes like this “Yumm…” You instantly can’t wait to share the delight with others!

Everything that precedes it, therefore, is a means to an end. What propagates are not the facts, the smell, the taste, the form or the function. It’s the story they inspire.

Every great company has at some point planted storytelling in their customers’ mouths one way or another. For Uber it was something like ‘look at me and my own personal chauffeur aren’t I cool’ … for Airbnb, it’s the personal experience of staying in someone’s own home, and the things that hooked you. In my last stay, it was the host’s sound system and how he came over to personally show me how to hook my iPhone to it.

With PeoplePerHour, the story we hear again and again is how someone built their entire business through PeoplePerHour.com. Often while residing on some beautiful resort on the beach!

 

4. A friendly Macro

Sadly, success and effort are not symmetrical. If Newton’s 3rd Law of motion was translated into the world of business dynamics it would be this: “for every micro, there is an equal and opposite macro”

In other words, for every one thing, you get right internally there is some external force that opposes that success and acts as ‘friction’ point (no wonder we borrow terms from physics in marketplace lingo).

Macro is your tailwind. You need it acting in your favour otherwise, it will be much harder – if at all possible – to get there, at least without running out of fuel!

Is onboarding of the supply you are amassing helped by some macro forces?

Again, in our case, that was clearly the case. Be it out of ‘need’ (e.g., rising unemployment during the recession forcing people to seek alternative sources of income) or by choice underpinned by socio-economic drivers, such as work-life balance, freedom and the aspiration to be your own boss, it remained unquestionable throughout our journey that people’s yearning for independence was no short-term fad.

Similarly for other categories: travel’s tailwind is the long-term declining cost of travelling; the health food’s sector is people’s ever-increasing health consciousness (or paranoia of premature death), renewable energy is buoyed by people’s delusion that we are running out of energy sources (when in fact, it’s outstripping consumption) and hypocritical rhetoric on saving the planet when they destroy it in equally or more ways than the rest of us; and so on.
Delusional or not, having a friendly macro helps!

 

4. The 10x factor

Peter Thiel argued in his book ‘Zero to One’ that for a start-up to be a big success it needs to be 10x better than that of the incumbents. In marketplaces, businesses that criterion is almost always a supply-side criterion.

The Uber experience is certainly 10x better than waiting in the rain to hail a cab which will – in most cities – also be more expensive, a lesser quality car and a driver who may have just got off the wrong side of the bed that morning, or had an argument with his wife and doesn’t give a sh*t, is rude and scares the crap out of you because he’s behind the steering wheel and you’re inside locked doors with what looks and moves like a loony on steroids.

On Airbnb, you will find amazing homes to stay in which are (for a certain category of people at least) 10x better than hotels in terms of cost (per square foot at least) and the homeliness factor.

PeoplePerHour grew very quickly when we started because getting a logo or any piece of work done on the site was – and still is – 10x cheaper than the old-fashioned way (say going to an agency or hiring someone in-house).

 

5. Platform stickiness

Platform stickiness comes from both sides, albeit in different ways. However, more often than not, a marketplace is not just an exchange mechanism but also a suite of tools for the supply side to build up a regular source of income. It’s more than a one-off ‘hit’ or strike of good luck for the Sellers.

Tools, such as the ability to get paid fast, securely and seamlessly, exchange files, communicate in real time, integrate with your calendar, trusted reputation systems, and a raft of other admin tools like collating all your invoices in one place, perhaps even integrating with your accounting software – not to mention getting customers in the first place – are invaluable tools for Sellers that would otherwise be a nightmare to put together individually themselves. And very expensive!

A newer breed of marketplaces, which I am a big believer in, takes that one step further and builds deep workflows tailored exactly to the vertical they are serving. They essentially become mini ‘ERP’ systems for micro-businesses who don’t have the scale to do that themselves and overlay the transaction on top. Newer business models are arising to support these, often licensing the software hosted in the cloud (SAAS) and in other cases, a dual model where they charge in part for the transaction or in part for the software. Wahanda (now Treatwell) is one such example in the UK, as is Zocdoc.

These are powerful marketplaces as they can migrate upscale to serve larger enterprises once they prove the model for SMEs by tailoring their software and workflow to serve larger organisations. This is a big part of our strategy in the next 1-2 years at PeoplePerHour.com as well.

 

6. Network effect

Once you crack the chicken-and-egg problem and get going, marketplaces turn the corner and become both highly scalable and defensible businesses. That’s because ‘network effects’ kick in.

Simplistically, network effects means that the value in a marketplace is a function of how many participants are in the marketplace. So every new user you get makes the entire marketplace more valuable, for other buyers and sellers alike.

Sounds obvious. But what’s not obvious is how to get that flywheel going. In practice, it comes down to understanding why Sellers on your platform could benefit not just from getting Buyers (and hence sales) but from other sellers. Often it’s to do with complementarity. They can find other products or services that strengthen their selling power. This then gives them an incentive to promote your site and bring others in their network to the site so as to collaborate. Hence, network effect.

In certain marketplaces, this happens de facto in an unstructured way. On Etsy.com example, many Sellers turn to Buyers and then resellers of the things they bought. On PeoplePerHour.com we see the same dynamic: a graphic designer may need to work with a Videographer for a project they are doing for a client. Or a voice-over artist or copywriter.

Other marketplaces do this in a more structured way or design in their DNA from the start which has considerable advantages. For example, if you are building a marketplace for lawyers, and say you know they work with paralegals, you design the flows such that when a lawyer creates her profile she can then invite her paralegals – or other lawyers they collaborate with for that matter – and integrate all of that into their profile. To encourage that behaviour one could allow discovery of lawyers based on the size of their team, or feed that into their reputation system. These type of marketplaces can get exponential growth as each participant will be inclined to bring numerous more with them (their network), which in turn will make it more attractive for Buyers and build critical mass faster.

 

Epilogue

Very few successful marketplaces are built by design. Most just happen. Most even happen despite bad design, not because of it. There are so many variables needed for success that probability overtakes calculus. Which is why VCs take 10 bets for 1 to succeed. Given how many businesses they see (and a biased sample set at that skewed towards the best of the crop), if there was a predictive formula for success surely they would apply it and have 100% hit rate?

That said, one can conduct a rigorous analysis, especially – as I argue above – on the supply side, to consider whether the marketplace they are about to create has the necessary qualifying criteria for success. ‘Qualifying’ is the operative word here. Meaning: if you do tick the above boxes, you’re off to a good start. But it’s certainly not the end and definitely not a foregone conclusion.

The Entrepreneurs’ Dilemma: To Quit or Not to Quit?

Unfortunately, entrepreneurs get bad advice all the time. There are many misperceptions around success and the journey of building a company, such as ‘entrepreneurs take big bold risks’ (they, in fact, take very calculated risks) or ‘failure is good’ (there’s nothing good about failure, but sure you can learn something from any experience). I can’t address all of them here but the one I’d like to focus on is ‘never give up’ (we’ve all heard it before).

True, in theory, if you never give up, you technically can’t fail. But you can end up spending a lifetime pursuing the wrong dream or being blinded from the stark reality of what it is you are doing.

 

entrepreneurs advice

Source: gratisography.com

Entrepreneurs – or worse yet, people giving advice to entrepreneurs, like investors – often like to present themselves as heroes or villains. The ‘macho’ daring people who had the guts to do what others couldn’t. Hence, they like to keep hammering this ‘we never give up’ mantra while drinking their  own cool-aid. It boosts their ego.

 

 

The reality is that knowing when to quit is super important and quitting sometimes just makes absolute sense. ‘Quit while you’re still ahead’ is much better advice, in my opinion. And here’s why: everyone is capable of having bad ideas. Even the best entrepreneurs, like Richard Branson, did and still do. Virgin Cola was not a success, so he shut it down as one should. Would it be smarter to spend the rest of his life and valuable dollars trying to beat Coca-Cola just so that he could save his own ego?

Equally, even the best ideas may simply be attempted at the wrong time, or with the wrong group of people. There are so many ingredients that are needed to make a start-up work that no one (however smart) can predict or be in control of them all.

So the question then is when does one throw in the towel? For me, the acid test is these two questions:

  1. Do your micro-fundamentals stack up?
  2. Are the macro-fundamentals there?

continue reading »