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Making The Switch From The Corporate World To Your Own Startup: A Chat With Paul Wickers

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview the founder/CEO of Huggg, Paul Wickers. Huggg is an app based on the idea of kindness, which allows a person to brighten up someone else’s day. You can make messages edible, in that instead of simply sending them a message of, say, “Cheer up!” you can take a more proactive approach. You can “send” them a coffee or a pastry via text, and all they’ll have to do will be to walk into a partner store to turn that message into a physical product. We talked about taking that leap of faith in leaving a secure job to pursue an idea, finding the right type of funding for your business, and how to find the best people to work with you. Below is the transcript of our conversation, word for word.

THE INTERVIEW

Timothy Armoo: Hello, everyone. Today, I'm with a very special guest, Paul Wickers. Boom!

Paul Wickers: Hi! Hello!

Timothy Armoo: And Paul is the CEO and founder of a really cool app called Huggg, but actually, what we're going to talk about today–a bit about Huggg, but actually more about his journey from going from the corporate world to the world of fast-growing startups. And I know a bunch of people are thinking about making that jump, and what Paul is going to talk about is how he made that jump: the kind of reasoning behind it, the rationalisation behind it, so that by the end of this conversation, you guys would be able to at least get some type of framework to use if you're thinking about making that jump. So what we're going to do is just kind of rattle on for a bit, and Paul, if you don't mind, introduce yourself and tell us a little bit more about you.

Paul Wickers: I'm Paul. I'm the founder and CEO of a business company called Huggg. And Huggg is inserting real things into messages, so if you imagine, a typical use case might be: a person has a friend who's having a terrible day at work; you're able to open up your messaging platform to him or her, and be able to send them a coffee cup emoji, which is actually coffee for them next door. It's inserting real products into messages, and our vision is that we can do this across all messaging platforms, all over the world. It adds a monetization to messaging platforms that currently isn't there, and it enriches the user experience for people using messaging platforms, increasingly using emoji, GIFs, and other things, to do more than words can do. Why not insert some of the real world into that? And that's what we're putting together.

Timothy Armoo: So your journey started from the corporate world: RBS, Santander, and then afterwards making this jump. But before that, how did you actually even get into the corporate side of things?

Paul Wickers: Well, the corporate thing came about because I did what many people do, and you follow the norms of your peer group, so I went to school and then did my A Levels and then actually, what I wanted to do is I wanted to be an airline pilot, and I couldn't. Yeah, I wanted to be an airline pilot, and I couldn't because, as you can see, my eyes aren't perfect, and they were adequately imperfect that I couldn't be an airline pilot, and that was really annoying. So I went off and did a generalist degree; I went to Lancaster Management School, which was like a five-star management school at the time, all very hard to get into and whatnot. And then on the back of that, I got an interest in finance–the whole finance world. I've got quite a mathematical brain, so I then went into an RBS Graduate scheme, which was really hard to get onto and very rewarding when I did it, but that was it. I was kind of then institutionalized very quickly into the corporate world, and all of the safety and everything that that gives you. And I actually worked in the corporate world for 13 years in the end.

Timothy Armoo: For 13?

Paul Wickers: 13 years, yeah. I'm actually older than I look, it turns out.

Timothy Armoo: What was the degree that you did?

Paul Wickers: I did management with Spanish.

Timothy Armoo: With Spanish?

Paul Wickers: Yeah, so I'd always had this kind of weird mix having some sort of a creative side of me, but ultimately, quite a mathematical brain, so I did quite an analytical degree, but I always have this kind of creative side to me, which meant I didn't want to drop my languages, for example. But I went off and did a generalist management degree, which, you know, gives you some skills, but what the university does is it really teaches you to transition away from being at home, when to look after yourself, and it gives you some degree of intellectual ability, so that you can then go off and get to a certain level of corporate role. But I wouldn't necessarily advocate that every single person needs to try and go to university. I now could do what I do if I hadn't gone to university in the first place, but I also learned a ton of skills in the corporate world that I use all the time now, but I've had to relearn how to act, how to communicate, how to conduct myself in the startup world–very, very different.

Timothy Armoo: Two questions on that. If you had to, would you do university again? And the second one is, what is the one skill that you think you gained from being in the corporate world?

Paul Wickers: It's probably quite specific to my experience, but because of the nature of the corporate investment banking world that I was in, it meant that I spent– from my early twenties–I spent all of my time talking to board-level people all the time, so it turned out that I was having to face off against people who were doing now what I do, but at a much higher level and much more advanced level. I was having to face off against those people, and it taught me to get very competent and professional pretty quickly at what I was doing. And I saw a lot of businesses in a lot of different sectors, and it's meant that all the time I've been able to understand a lot of patterns about what makes businesses good, bad, and indifferent. So I think the reality is that the specific parts of that meant that I had some transferable skills, but I wouldn't necessarily advocate that I would go to university again. Would I? I probably would, because it got me my banking, my banking got me to what I do now. But I probably could have done this when I was 22. I just wouldn't have been maybe as competent in some of the areas of it.

Timothy Armoo: And how senior did you get? So you first started with RBS? How long did you stay there?

Paul Wickers: Yeah. I was in RBS for seven years. I was in Santander for just shy of 7 years as well.

Timothy Armoo: And how senior did you get in each of those places?

Paul Wickers: When I moved from RBS to Santander, I actually got re-based where I maybe should have been sometime before that, and it was a director role. So I spent the last 7 years at director level. Prior to that, I was at what was deemed to be at 'manager level' which is essentially the person who does all of the kind of written work and less of the facing off with clients–becomes doing an awful lot of the facing off with clients and all of the negotiations with people helping you to do a lot of the written work that's associated with that.

Timothy Armoo: Got it, okay. And then through that whole process, you then started a family and everything else. Was that when you were in RBS or was that at Santander?

Paul Wickers: Yeah. So it all happened at the same time. When I transitioned 6-7 years ago–must have been 7 then, because I'm now aging it versus my daughter. So when I transitioned 7 years ago from RBS to Santander, my wife was pregnant with our first child at the time or we'd just had our first child–it's around about that time. We went on to have another three children after that, so we've built–we grew quite a big family. This business idea just kind of came out of the blue one day. I wasn't trying to be working in a startup; it just happened.

Timothy Armoo: So that's a bit of history about how you actually got into the corporate world, right? You just mentioned that you weren't actually in search of a startup idea.

Paul Wickers: No.

Timothy Armoo: It was more so that it kind of came about. So were you perfectly happy just being in Santander, being at that senior level?

Paul Wickers: I was very comfortable. I was well-paid, I was well looked after, had a lot of obligations. I have a mortgage, and I had children, and at that point, my wife hadn't gone back to work after our second child because she wanted to raise those children until primary school and then go back to work. And so life was kind of very comfortable, but it had reached the point where I could do my job very competently. I wasn't necessarily out of my comfort zone very often, I was still learning, I love the people I work with, the unit that I was working in was very, very successful and a very happy place to be. And so I wasn't looking to move away from that at all. What actually happened–and also, the conventional wisdom is people who have a propensity to work in a startup world can't stand corporate well, so they almost never leave corporate world in their thirties or forties. They leave corporate world well before that because they couldn't stand it. What actually happened with me was, in the course of doing a particular deal, a particular business idea came into my head, and that particular business idea just ate away at me until it became a business I had to start, and I started working on it piece by piece, and after a period of a few months, it turned out that I've actually started to create something, and it just had to be followed through. That's the reality of what happened with me.

Timothy Armoo: So that process there that you've just explained is something that so many people have issues with. So many people have these issues. "I have this job at this bank", or this accountancy firm, or consultancy firm, "but then I also want to be able to work on my startup as well." What's the framework or what's the actual thought process that they should go through to think about how they can balance the two at the beginning stages?

Paul Wickers: I get asked this a lot, and where people tend to get–almost everybody has a business idea, and almost everybody thinks that that business idea is there to be protected and nurtured, because everyone in the world is going to try and steal it from you. So the first piece of advice that I would give to people is, get that business idea out of your head and validate it as fast as possible, and you can do that for free. The first thing you do is just ask all of your friends and family about it and ask them what they think about it. Now the second thing that you need to do if you really think that you're going to want to start a business and want to go on that venture is, first, understand that it's incredibly hard–like, harder than you would ever imagine–and just have some consciousness about that. Secondly, it's particularly–if you're in a relationship, you need to understand straight away that you need to get the other half of your relationship very on board with what you're doing, because it does put a strain on your life in general because it does increase the amount of work that you have to do, it definitely increases the amount of stress that you have to take on. But if those two things in your life are sorted, then you absolutely should go for it, but what you need to do is check against yourself. And what I mean by that is, almost everybody reverts to what is easier. So as soon as you start getting from "idea in my head" to actually executing it and trying to validate it, it becomes very hard very quickly, and sinking back into what you knew before and what was more comfortable, it's almost inevitable for 99 percent plus of all people. That's why so few people actually follow through on it. So my advice would be–and this is what I did–you have to put yourself in a jam, you have to give yourself a situation where you actually can't turn back for me, it was that I took a few thousand pounds of our family's money–as in our money–which would have been destined for a car or decorating a child's bedroom or something, and I had an outside design agency start to do some of the early mock-ups. What that meant was that as soon as I've put my hand in my pocket, it wasn't really about getting the mock-ups done; it was a check every single time I thought, "This is getting hard now. I'm not going to do it." It was, "Yeah, but you spent a few thousands of Evelyn's new wallpaper money," or "that car that we really need,"; so that was one thing. The second thing I did was, after I worked about six months on it and getting the mock-ups and all, I actually took some outside investment for the first time, with no promises that I would ever leave work. And it was a big flyer that those investors took, but in my head, it was never a flyer, because for me, it meant that I absolutely could never turn back at that point, and it was another 12 months until I left work after that, but I was never ever able to continue in the corporate life forever. Because I've taken someone else's money, I put myself in a jam.

Timothy Armoo: So I guess the jam is basically like a forcing function, right?

Paul Wickers: Yeah. Do something that will stop you from your future self.

Timothy Armoo: So then let's assume that, say, the average person listening to this probably doesn'thave a few couple grand in the account to start. So then what did they do? What's an example of a forcing function that they can actually implement in their idea? Is it synced to their fear of it starting? Because that seems a bit weak.

Paul Wickers: No. What they can do is–so what I actually should have done is, I shouldn't have taken investment money and then gone and had an outside agency build that software. What you really should do is just find someone technical that you can work with. The first thing you should do is search for some co-founders. Now in my case, that was my sister-in-law. She came on board very early; she was able, at the point of raising that investment, to drop what she was doing, because at the time, she had fewer obligations, fewer ties, and she was in a great position to do that. It was also someone that I could–and still do, of course–absolutely trust, to get on and do the day-to-day work. So that was the only reason I was able to do that, but the thing that–you know, the mistake we made was having an outside agency make that tech, because the reality is, you should just find a technical co-founder who could start to piece this together themselves. And you never ever need a high-fidelity product to validate it. That's the thing–I now know–and high-fidelity products are the ones that cost the money. Low-fi versions of it are almost always available off the shelf for a few hundred or nothing in a lot of instances.

Timothy Armoo: You've said something that was super interesting. You were able to find someone who could actually go on the co-founding journey with you. That person happened to also have no obligations.

Paul Wickers: Yeah, fewer. She had some. She still dropped a stable job and everything, but at the time, she didn't have children, for example.

Timothy Armoo: One of the big things, the paralysis that happens with so many people is actually in that thing of searching for a technical co-founder. I can't count the amount of messages I've been inundated with this. Like, "Do you know someone who's a technical coder?"; I have two questions on that. How does one avoid that being in a state of paralysis? Because you can easily convince yourself that you're working on your idea by just going to hunt for a technical co- founder. How do you actually avoid you just constantly being in that co-founder looking stage and actually act on that?

Paul Wickers: Well, there is actually a stage before that, that you can go to in the first instance, which is running a startup and running a technical startup–a technology startup, is often perceived by the outside world to be a series of massive organised successes. And the reason that happens is because people become familiar with the likes of Uber, AirBnb, etc. probably six to ten years after they first started to try to become successful, but they see them when they finally hit it. Now the reality is for a technology company that when they really hit it, the product-to-market phase, when they really hit it, they then grow very, very quickly. So there's a perception that they are massive overnight success stories. The reality is that all of those grunt years that came before was a series of–and the best analogy I've ever read about this is about onion layers. With the startup, on the first day of a startup's life, a bolt of lightning in someone's head–it's almost never–by the way, a bolt of lightning is usually an idea that forms over time. It's a series of onion layers, and each of those onion layers represents a layer of risk, a thing that you need to knock down over time. So at the start of it, the risk is, "No one will like my product. I won't be able to buy. I won't be able to sell my product. I won't be able to sell it profitably. I won't be able to build it. I won't be able to hire. I can't find office space. Every single risk imaginable exists; all you need to do is start peeling back the outermost layer over time. You can validate it by just asking people. You can then create lo-fi versions in online software that enables you to just do mock-ups if you've never had to do a technical product before. And then, you've therefore got some clickable mock-ups, and you can start to put that out. The reality is, with all technical products, if they're really going to fly, they just need to be better than what's there before, and that can be a simple mock-up if there's nothing there in your market.

Timothy Armoo: Okay, so it's almost this idea of mapping out all of the reasons why this idea could fail and then unpacking each of them.

Paul Wickers: Yeah. Unpack as many as you can. Eventually, you get to the point where you need to then create better versions of it, and then you need to find some technical co-founders, but by then, you've started to do so much stuff, that you then become very emotionally engaged with what you're doing, and you have put yourself in an emotional jam by that point. You've invested enough of your time and life and mental state to being very committed to that, and you have also incidentally then put yourself in a jam–not a financial one, like I did. You've managed to do it emotionally. I would have done it that way if I had done it all over again.

Timothy Armoo: And also, I guess there is some additional bonus in the fact that if you then go to a technical person, and you say, "Hey, I've done all of these things," it suddenly changes the dynamic from you actually needing them to them seeing you as, "Actually, this guy's going to make it happen with or without me. I might as well jump on board."

Paul Wickers: Precisely, yeah. It's always advisable in all negotiations to walk to a table with the ability to walk away from that table.

I hope you enjoyed our chat as much as we did. Paul’s journey is certainly inspiring, especially as someone who left the comfort of a corporate job behind to pursue a business idea. After all, in his own words, having an idea is pointless if you don’t do anything to validate it—and he definitely did that.

Timothy Armoo

CEO

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