I’ve been asked a few times to explain Orca Scan’s journey to future founders in the hope that it provides insights, so thought I’d share our journey here.
A bit of background
At the age of 11, I started coding – writing games on a ZX Spectrum, a computer that just celebrated its 40th anniversary. 3 years later, aged just 14, I left school with no qualifications but an intense love of programming.
I moved to Cambridge in my ‘20s (the birthplace of ZX Spectrum) and spent the next 20 years writing code for enterprise companies. I never took a full-time role; I would contract for 12 to 18 months and save as much money as I could before quitting and trying to start a business.
Over the years, I built many products and started 2 companies that failed:
❌ Convea (GSuite but in 2000) failed because:
- We were too technical (3 tech founders with no business skills).
- We waited too long to ship (coding for ~3 years without speaking to users).
- We were too early (companies did not want to store data on other people’s machines).
❌ Mammoth Workwear (wannabe Shopify) failed because:
- I went too deep/bespoke in one company (the product was not generic).
- I joined an existing husband and wife business and ignored the legals.
- I was eventually ejected with class B shares (i.e. no control).
From side project to start-up
I was working for Cambridge University’s Assessment department building mobile prototypes, when my son asked me to build an app to help with his summer job scanning barcodes.
We released it onto the app store, and it got lots of traction – so I spent the next year working on it as a side project, on evenings and weekends from Cambridge Makespace. I would attend Venture Creation weekends at the Judge to learn more about business and eventually met a commercial co-founder who joined me on the project. We bootstrapped for another 1.5 years, speaking to users and iterating the product.
We joined a startup accelerator at Cambridge Judge Business School, which helped us find a business model and start to generate revenue.
We applied to Y Combinator, a 3-month programme that invests in start-ups to help them really take off. We flew to San Francisco for the interview but got rejected. Not deterred by this, we came back to Cambridge and raised a small seed round before re-applying to YC, flying back to San Francisco… and getting rejected… again 👎
However, this time, we stayed in the valley for 3 months, working with customers to understand their needs and tweak the product. It was a really intense period, and my commercial co-founder eventually quit and returned home.
I knew that in order to make Orca Scan a success, I had to learn from my past mistakes, so I returned to the UK and begged the accelerator to help me with business skills (I’d focused too much on tech the first time around). I travelled back to the US for 6 weeks visiting customers to get to profitability, and then returned and joined Entrepreneur First to find another co-founder but failed (too far along). I tried to bring my ex co-founder back, but it didn’t work; too much had happened.
I accepted I had to be both the CEO and CTO, for now at least. The next step was to build a team, so I started by hiring people I loved working with in the past.
Orca Scan today
Orca Scan is now used by 60% of the Fortune 500. Our customers include teams at Apple, GSK, General Motors and many others. We’re a small but expanding, fully remote team who’ve spent time working the roles we needed ourselves, so we could be very clear about the skills we needed to hire. This allowed us to interview successfully – often asking one key question, how could we do this better? As a result, we’re now a team of 13 people operating across the world.
More importantly, we’re profitable with a very clear view of the future.
Lessons learned along the way
If I could go back to the early days and give myself some advice, it would be the following 👇
- Avoid the Start-up hype! Your goal is not to raise investment and appear on Tech Crunch; your goal is to solve a big problem for a lot of people in a sustainable and profitable way. To create jobs and a culture that people want to be part of, to build a company that will outlive you.
- Align your team’s interests. Have very blunt conversations with your team, try to understand exactly what they want out of this venture and try to align that with the objectives of the company - you need to create a win-win. Help develop people, not just products.
- Create the company culture you craved as an employee. I always wanted the freedom to work the hours I chose, to work from anywhere in the world, and to be able to walk my kids to school without feeling guilty or rushed. I don’t want to be micromanaged; I want clearly defined goals and to be trusted to reach those goals. Create that for your team too.
- Avoid politics at all costs. It’s healthy to have debates if they help move the team, project, or company forward. But if you find yourself burning lots of energy on internal conflicts, make changes! You have a limited amount of energy, don’t squander it on the wrong things.
- “If in doubt, there is no doubt” (Ronin, 2011). You’ll have to make lots of decisions as a founder; it will keep you up at night. You must learn to trust your gut. If you’re having second thoughts about taking investment or hiring an employee - listen to that, be decisive, and don’t second guess yourself. Sure, you’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn from them.
- Accept that not everyone will like you. You’re trying to do something different; not everyone is going to believe in you or your vision, many won’t see the bigger picture until it’s painted. Accept that and focus all your energy on building the right team to complete that picture.
- Don’t ask advisors to invest. You lose your unbiased mentors - once people have skin in the game, the relationship changes, you’re no longer able to brainstorm as freely as you once did.
- Understand that investment is fuel. Think of taking investment like strapping a rocket to your back. If you have a clear view of where you are going, you’ll get there faster. If you’re unsure, you’ll burn up.
- Be cautious with voting rights and board seats. If you backed a horse, you’d expect a view of the race, but you would not expect a seat on the horse. In my mind, investment is no different; you’re asking people to join you on a journey in exchange for a large return. You’re asking them to bet on you, but you’re not offering to be replaced as the jockey - which happens more than you think.
- “Investors are employees you cannot fire” (Peter Cowley). Bad investors bring with them intense politics. This not only acts as a major distraction but absolutely murders morale. So, ask yourself, if I could, would I hire this person forever? If the answer is no, walk away.
- Don’t sell for the sake of it; help customers solve real problems.
- Visit customers on-site - work a day in their shoes, go deep on the problem.
- Don’t focus on short-term gains. In the B2B SaaS world, there is a massive risk you become an outsourced dev team.
“Don’t be a Dick” (Stewart McTavish). Starting a company is hard; you’re going to burn out multiple times, regardless of how much you try to avoid it. Be very mindful of how you treat people around you; nobody wants to work with a dick.