Nona’s Founder Series tells the stories of startup founders – where they came from, where they’re going, and how they do what they do. Our hope is that the experiences we detail here bring new ideas and motivation to founders everywhere.
Carl Thomen: Thanks so much for joining us on the Founder Series, Ryan. So tell us: how did it all start?
Ryan Edwards: I grew up in a small town outside Wolverhampton – a working class, middle England town. Music came to me very naturally. I played everything I could get my hands on. And like most lads I naturally thought that being in a band would get me girls (laughs). And then, that rock ‘n roll thing literally happened overnight. We got booked, we went and toured, had a top ten single… and then as many stories go, we got dropped. We didn’t take it as seriously as we should have, being honest. And when that ended, I’m thinking ‘I’ve got to get a job!’
So I went to my local high street and knocked on a bunch of shop doors, and one store manager from Carphone Warehouse took pity on me. He said ‘Come in on Saturday, and I’m not going to pay you, but if you sell two phones you can have a job’. I went in, and I think I sold five, and he gave me a job. I spent the next seven years of my life in that business, moving up to assistant manager, regional manager and on up, and I always say that was my education in business. And then Carphone Warehouse was bought by Best Buy, the American electrical giant, and it was an amazing experience, seeing how to integrate a US big-box retailer into UK society. But, Best Buy entered right as the recession was kicking in, and they had to face some hard questions about where to focus. Eventually, they exited, and I was made redundant. So at this point, I’m eight years into my career, only having worked for one business, and again I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do now? Should I do the same thing, or try something different? What does that look like?’
Then, totally by chance, probably the luckiest moment in my life, I went to a wedding and sat next to a guy who knew how to build apps. And he says to me, you seem to know a lot about running a business. You should move to London and come and work with me. And that was a life-changing moment. We built apps for FIFA, we built apps for Lloyds Bank, Santander… and then two years later we sold that business for a substantial sum of money. We had fun, it was great.
After that, and even though I always said I’d never work in Financial Services, I went and worked for Visa! I looked after digital services across Visa Europe. And then, just before Audoo, I worked for a fintech business in payments and retail that combined all my professional experience, linking payment cards and loyalty cards together. So I’m three years in with that, and I’ve got this idea for Audoo on my mind, and I go out with one of the founders of that business to celebrate their latest investment, and he says to me ‘So what’s next?’ And I tell him about Audoo, and the next morning I have a bunch of texts from him telling me it’s a great idea and I’ve got to do it, and he’ll invest! And within a four-week period I’ve raised some money and done a POC.
Carl Thomen: Entrepreneurship is full of surprises. What has been the most unexpected and surprising thing to happen to you so far?
Ryan Edwards: It’s really interesting, but I’ve never really thought about myself as an entrepreneur! But I think the biggest thing for me is not holding on, not being a control freak. So the coolest thing for me is always when the team delivers something amazing. I remember saying to Jess, our marketing manager, really flippantly as well, that I wanted Audoo on the BBC and in Forbes. And then I get off a plane after being stuck in Singapore, and I get a message from Jess and it says ‘You’re in Forbes.’ And then to caveat that, because I’m often asked how I stay grounded, I phone my parents and tell them we’re in Forbes, and my mom says, ‘What’s Forbes?’ And then a month later we did a full interview on the BBC as well. So it’s those moments that keep you motivated and wanting to do more.
Carl Thomen: There is a lot of pressure being the founder of a startup business. How do you maintain a healthy balance?
Ryan Edwards: Balance is about the simple things in life, like walking my daughter to nursery every morning. And then on weekends it’s about getting away with the dog for a while. In terms of tools, it’s just about making sure the team has everything they need to do the job really well, and being able to let go confidently. It’s also about giving ourselves some time to switch off. We end slightly earlier on a Friday, and I’m being disciplined about sticking to that. Then just breathing a bit, and giving myself some space. For example, when it comes to emails, especially internal emails, if it’s not mission critical, it can probably sit there for a day. I don’t need to get to it right away.
Carl Thomen: At Nona, we believe in continuous improvement as a way of life. What has Audoo got better at in the last little while?
Ryan Edwards: On a Monday, we have a no agenda call. We don’t talk about work. We’re also building a ‘Wall of Tack’ where we put things that remind us of our journey. I think because of being remote and the impact of Covid-19, we’ve got much better at building a resilient culture. We’ve also developed a real closeness between our team and our board, so the benefit of their incredible knowledge is transferred through our business.
Carl Thomen: What is the most important thing for you to focus on right now?
Ryan Edwards: There’s two things. We weren’t able to launch our pilot because of Covid-19, so we’re doing a few extra pieces between now and our new October launch date. And then, because of the delay on that, our cash flow situation changed, so we’re looking to do a short fundraise just to make sure we’re alright up until the middle of next year.
Carl Thomen: What has been your experience of seeking investment, and what was key in that process for you? Would you have done anything differently?
Ryan Edwards: I think raising investment is horrific. Lots of investors think they’re on Dragon’s Den, and I just cut those meetings short. We’re a serious business, supported by the best people in our industry, so if you’re not up to having respectful conversation then we don’t need to do this. Also, while a VC-type arrangement can be really useful to a lot of businesses, we’ve avoided a lot of the problems associated with that model, as we’ve raised entirely through angels and family offices. We’ve been really lucky that way, as we don’t have the usual hassles from half our investors, and the other half are deeply embedded in the industry, so they’re very keen to help us in any way they can. On the whole we’ve been able to maintain a fairly low-touch relationship with our investors. I think the biggest thing is just to be really clear and open with your investors – we’ve always done that. Like when we had to postpone our launch because of Covid-19, we were open and honest about that and we were supported. We also don’t over-promise, so we always feel able to deliver on what we’ve said we’re going to deliver.
Carl Thomen: Having got to where you are now, what advice would you give yourself starting out?
Ryan Edwards: You’ve got to power through. If you’ve done your research, and you know you’re solving a problem, there are just going to be a whole bunch of people who tell you why it’s not going to work. You’ve got to just put that on mute. And then you’ve got to surround yourself with people who are going to challenge you constructively and add to what you’re doing.
Carl Thomen: Let’s talk software development for a minute. What has been your approach to development, and do you have any advice for people building new things?
Ryan Edwards: Keep your costs down. We’ve built a core team in the business, and then we’ve used an outsourced development house. They have skin in the game, and are bought into what we’re doing, so they want to see us succeed. When Covid-19 hit, we had some stuff we could put on the backburner, and so we were able to scale down our operation and reduce costs without taking drastic measures, with a partner that was also protected, as they could put people onto other projects. Looking forward, we’ll look to take more technical resources in-house for maintenance and the building of new products, but that wouldn’t make sense for us now.
Carl Thomen: Finally, what does success look like for Audoo, and where will Ryan Edwards be in 30 years?
Ryan Edwards: I’m going to be very tired (laughs)! In the next year or two we’d like to be live in two or three markets. There’s a mobile app on the horizon for the artists as well – so they can see their music being used and how it’s being used. That data is really important for them, and how we interface with that community is really important for us. I always say we’re a tech business who gets to play in the music industry – so we’re looking forward to getting invited to some gigs in the near future as well! Finally, we’d like to think that we’d exit this business to a major player who can push the transformation we’re enabling at scale, because that’s what it’s about, bringing a greater fairness to the industry. I think personally, I can go a few more times as well, and I’d love to be in the position to support a person from our team the way I was supported in my entrepreneurial journey. That would be amazing, if I could do that for someone.
At Nona, we help founders build exceptional software products and industry-leading development teams. We’re always happy to chat about where you’re headed and what we can do to help. Just book a slot with our Chief Customer Officer, Dr Carl Thomen.