An interview with past student and entrepreneur Nick Churchill – Evans, BSc Hons Management Science Operational Research 1994, Lonsdale College
To hear live alumni tales of starting a business, book your place at the next ‘Startup Stories’ event on 19th November here.
Nick supports the development of entrepreneurial talent at Lancaster University through his support for the Lancaster University Enterprise Centre.
What first got you thinking about starting a business Nick?
OK, one night I and three of my, my fellow ‘diligent hard working students had a conversation about the theory of building a business; we decided that the bedrock of a good business came down to one thing; we didn’t know anything really… but this is what we thought ‘It was about customer service’. So we talked about running we a sandwich shop; we could know all our customers names, we could give them love when they come in, welcome them, we could give them big fillings because the fillings are really small overhead in the scale of the whole business…That was the theory; Unfortunately it turns out we knew absolutely nothing about sandwiches, because we hadn’t done a sandwich course! From those early pipedreams, two of us actually decided to go ahead and start a business. It was that, or get on a graduation training scheme with Shell or someone. I am no big environmentalist, but I really didn’t fancy doing that!
How did you get started in your first business venture?
My best friend and I formed a business, luckily nothing to do with sandwiches… I had done a degree by that point in operational research, so I knew a little bit about looking at businesses and looking at business problems and using maths and stats to fix them. My friend did Operational Management (which was for less clever people!). What we did was literally go out and bamboozle our way into some contracts. I only looked about fourteen as well, I really don’t know quite know how we did it. I think it was simply blind disbelief that we could actually fail.
What kind of work were you doing to get things off the ground?
We picked up a couple of contracts, helping some customers to look at their businesses and a bit of management consultancy. The solutions to those problems were actually writing some software so we ended up being computer programmers as well.
So it was all going really well?
Sadly that only lasted about two years. We knew nothing, (even less than we knew about management consultancy to be fair); nothing about contracts and getting things agreed in a way that was water tight, where each party understood what they were doing and what they were going to get. I won’t bore you with the details but tears were involved, there was much gnashing of teeth, we almost came to fisty cuffs, (not my partner and me, him and me versus the other party.) In the end we thought let’s just draw the business to a close.
That must have been hard, how did you bounce back?
All my friends had great jobs with blue chip companies. I thought that they were living their lives on expenses and having a great time, so I thought, ‘I’ll go and grab some of that!’, and I did for fifteen great years until the company I was working for was sold to Capita. I think the guys I’m in business with and I lasted three months under the new regime. We all looked at one another in a meeting one day and I think I might have been the first person to say ‘There has got to be a better way of making a living than working for these guys,’ and everyone went …’Oh yeah.’ So we launched ‘Operation Wave’, as in wave goodbye to Capita!
You’re stepping into serial entrepreneur territory now! What did you do in the next business?
We decided we would try consultancy again. Whilst we had made a few quid, working for a big company, we had spent it all on children and wives. We all had big mortgages, big responsibilities. We needed to bootstrap and bootstrap fast. So we took some clients on and built some software for them. In 2011 we launched cloudThing and I left Capita in 2013. What I did was get to start a business without taking any loans and that has really been done by going and finding some customers.
They say selling is the steepest learning curve in your own business, what would you say?
Let me tell you it is quite hard selling, but what we did is the ‘Entrepreneur’s Hustle’. You pick the phone up, get on the email and, get hold of as many people as you know and you beg for them to do business with you. Basically that is what we have done…shamelessly. Then, when you have done something with them, or they say, ‘No! We can’t!’ we ask, ‘Who else can you refer me to?’ Honestly, we have built up the best part of two million pounds worth of revenue over the last 18 months or so by doing that.
What has surprised you most during this journey?
I think the thing that has surprised me most, is the warmth of human kindness, out there. I haven’t looked at the stats but, of every hundred people that you ask for help, I bet a quarter of them will do something for you. Most of my LinkedIn posts start ‘Help!’, because I figured that’s basically what I am looking for; I might as well be really up front about it and a bit of transparency and honesty about where you are is really helpful.
What are your top tips for student entrepreneurs?
I’d encourage you to build your networks now! If you are not already, get on LinkedIn. It’s a gold mine of people and there are loads of people that are itching to give you advice about who to go and talk to about getting grants, how to go about crowd sourcing money; loads of people that will help you if you just ask for the help.
What did you learn about yourself that you can share with others?
I found out was that actually I am not as clever as I thought I was when I was an arrogant twenty one year old with a degree, shaking my fists in the air and thinking I was going to rule the world. My co-directors of cloudThing are three of the smartest guys I have ever worked with, and they haven’t quite figured out that I am not as clever as they think I am! When you are looking at your network, think about who you want to work with. Who has skills that compliment your own? You don’t have to go into business with them necessarily, but you might find that you can collaborate and help one another.
What would your advice be to students thinking of starting a business?
If you can get out of university and start your business, or, ideally start it before, and bootstrap it, without getting onto the salary train, I would massively recommend trying it. I was welcome in my parent’s house, to a certain extent, for a while anyway, so I didn’t have to worry about unpaid rent. It is much more difficult once you have mortgage and all those things, and children bless them! So… do it … do it now, you’re interested enough to be finding out about it, so you have got what it takes in my opinion. Go try it!
With his software development company cloudThing, Nick works with and invests in entrepreneurs, start-ups and fast growing businesses to develop the technology upon which they deliver their services and upon which their businesses are founded. He has a passion for agile business through beautiful software and infrastructure architecture that can flex to unforeseen market opportunity, scale rapidly, yet stretch capital as far as it can go. The philosophy that Nick and his colleagues work to is that, “Everything we do should ‘build future’ for our clients”.
You can view Nick’s LinkedIn profile here.