This is my third interview in the NEF series and today my interview is with Benjamin Wigoder. Benjamin is currently working with Skrill (formerly Moneybookers) – which is one of the largest online payments companies in the world, he currently works in the product team where he comes up with new business ideas or sometimes just tweaking existing products.
This is the interview.
Hi Ben, It’s great to finally have you on YHP, how are you doing today?
I’m very well, thank you!
How did you get into entrepreneurship? What was your first business, how did the idea came about and tell us about your experience running that?
To be honest I fell into it. When I was 11 or 12 years old we had some ICT lessons at school where we learnt the basics of building websites. I remember during break time when most of the other kids were outside playing football, I went to the computer room to keep learning how to code. I launched my own website and once I was getting thousands of visitors a day I started putting ads on the site. After about 6 months I received a cheque for $500 from one of the companies who were advertising on my site. That was a buzz. I’ve still got a copy of that cheque on my wall!
You went on to study at LSE , tell me about your experience?
It was hard work! I met some very interesting people, made some close friends, but also grew up. I think that’s what university is mainly about. Of course I learnt a lot on the course, but it was the extra-curricula activities and personal development which I think will prove to have been the greatest benefit to me going forward, as opposed to matrices and partial differentiation… There’s a lot to be said for the freedom you get as a student – you keep hearing about all these companies started by students, Facebook & Google are great examples, or if you go further back, Time Magazine was started by some Yale undergraduates – so that freedom means you have the space to be creative and try new things – so I had a great time exploring new ideas – even though I didn’t create the next big thing…
I guess there’s been a lot of talk about going to university, the value of having a degree, entrepreneurship becoming a viable option , what made you realize that this was the right choice for you?
I think before university I was in a bit of a hurry. I wanted to start work right away. My parents thought I should go to university to keep my options open – and they were right.. When I’m pitching to investors and I can say “I have a degree from LSE” it adds credibility and shows I can stick with something for a few years. I think I was pretty lucky to go to university when I did though, with the recent increase in tuition fees it’s a much more difficult decision for this generation when they come to weigh up the pros & cons of a university education.
While at LSE, you founded Sparks @LSE which is now one of the largest entrepreneurship society events in the UK, tell me about how the idea came about?
Just after I started my second year, I met Artur, who was then President of the Entrepreneurs society. I applied to run one of the existing society events, but we got chatting and decided we wanted to do something bigger. You know how sometimes you get a meeting of minds? You bounce ideas off each other and it’s totally natural – and that’s what happened.
Suddenly we wanted to launch this international event to inspire young entrepreneurs, helping them create a network, whilst raising money for a worthy cause.
So that’s how the idea came about – a brainstorm… but the end result was nothing like the initial idea. We didn’t raise the sponsorship we initially thought we would, we got turned down by many of the speakers we asked (which in hindsight was unsurprising given we were launching a brand new event that nobody had heard of), and we had a couple of last minute logistical issues which caught us by surprise!
I was very lucky to have Artur as the President – he gave me full autonomy in creating and running the event, but was also a great source of fresh ideas and sound advice. To answer your question - I don’t think I could say the whole idea came about at one time, it evolved up to the date of the inaugural conference, and with the second one on the way, and the second iteration of the management team in place, the idea has continued to grow.
I remember attending the event in 2010 and it was packed with amazing speakers, attendees, how did you manage to get all the speakers onboard, get sponsors and get such a great turnout for the event? What would you say was some of the key things you learnt from that experience?
Hard work, luck, and perseverance. I think we must have contacted 15 or 20 entrepreneurs before we got our first yes. That was pretty tough – rejection after rejection - you need to keep believing. None of us had any experience in this kind of cold-calling either – so we didn’t know what to expect. But once we got our first “yes”, that gave us the belief this was something we could do. I imagine that’s similar to what it must feel like to make your first sale – at that point you know you have something of value which other people want.
We also made use of our alumni relations to secure speakers, and in this respect the university were very helpful. Getting sponsorship was tough. We didn’t find many companies interested in spending big bucks sponsoring an entrepreneurs’ society – had we been banking or consultancy or law it might have been different. So we got creative. For example we were sponsored by some of the other student societies on campus.
We also partnered with our university radio station, who provided the audio-visual for the event.
We had to constantly adapt to changes, for example we had issues with the university venue we had originally planned to use, and had to move the event to an external venue at the last minute. So lots of things changed, I guess my biggest takeaway is that things change quickly,but it doesn’t matter provided you are prepared to stay flexible, and make the best of what you’ve got.
I remember there was a worrying moment when I met with Artur and I said: “Look, we haven’t raised the projected funds, we haven’t got the right venue, and I’m not sure we’ll be able to afford lunch for the attendees - I think we might have to cancel the event!” – to which he replied: “Look, none of this matters – get a room, chuck in the speakers, chuck in the attendees – and you have an awesome event! Of course the other things would be nice, but they don’t actually matter – it will all work out!” – he was right – the next day we secured almost £2,000 in sponsorship from the Women in Business society.
So from this I learnt that sometimes, even when all the pieces aren’t yet in place, you just need to take a leap of faith. I love the definition of an entrepreneur as being someone who jumps out of a plane with all the tools needed to build a parachute – I think that’s a pretty good analogy.
I also learnt the value of having a strong team. Within that team you need leaders, people with initiative and drive and determination to succeed – I was very lucky to have these people. Without a strong team, the event quite simply wouldn’t have been possible – these were the guys who built the parachute after I said “jump!”
How were you able to balance your time and keep focus?
That’s a tough one. I’d like to say I was disciplined and kept focussed on my university work without missing a single lecture and submitting all my work on time. But the truth is I got really caught up in the excitement around the event – and for sure in the weeks preceding the conference that was my focus (and I roped in my flat-mates also!) Actually, that’s something I’d like to add to the things I’ve learnt from the experience – there’s nothing like having close friends who can help you out when you need it most.
You were also the president of LSE entrepreneurs. Talk us through how did that happened and some of the key things you learnt from that?
So running the society wasn’t really something I had in mind – but after successfully building Sparks@LSE, Artur (the then president) and I had a chat - he suggested I think about running for election as the next President. I think what excited me was the possibly of taking on a bigger role, where I could help inspire more people and create new and even more exciting entrepreneurship events.
In my mind it was also a great chance to manage a fairly large team – which I think will come in very useful in my future career. I think at one point we had 45 people in the team (this was broken down into sub-teams of 5-10 for different projects) – along with a management team. This was really hard! When I’ve read about how to motivate employees two things they really tend to want are to be well paid, and to have job security. When the team is made up of unpaid employees, who aren’t concerned about job security, you are forced to use other techniques to motivate the team. So here I learnt about the importance of ensuring people are challenged, are enjoying their role, and are striving towards a greater purpose (a common goal) – I think these are important lessons I’ll hold on to for the future – when I come to employ people for real.
What opportunities do you think being president or being involved in the LSE entrepreneurs gave you?
I was very lucky to be elected as President – and as an unintended consequence of being involved I was fortunate to have some unique opportunities. For example, I met dozens of very successful entrepreneurs, some of whom I’m still in contact with, all of whom not only have great stories to tell, but also sound advice to pass on.
I was also able to meet lots of other aspiring entrepreneurs – who were at different stages of launching their venture – and had exposure to lots of early-stage business ideas as they evolved. This was a fantastic chance to learn from other people’s experience.
I also had fun – for example we met HRH Prince Andrew at one point – to chat about what our society was working on.
Tell us about NEF and how you got involved?
So I was in my final year – and everyone was applying for graduate jobs – but I couldn’t see a single one I was interested in. I didn’t want to be a banker, a consultant or an accountant, I didn’t want to go into marketing, and I couldn’t see a single graduate scheme which actually made me think “yes – I want to do that!”
But in March 2011 I got an email from Freshminds (a company NEF hired to help with recruiting) – asking me to let the members of LSE Entrepreneurs know about the event. I was very happy to help spread the word – but also thought “finally – this is something I would really like to do!” So I sent in my application… I was pretty enthusiastic about the programme, and after a grueling interview process I was very fortunate to be selected.
Which company are you currently working for, what do you do and how’s the experience been so far for you?
I work for Skrill (formerly Moneybookers) – which is one of the largest online payments companies in the world. I’m working in the product team, which involves coming up with new business ideas – sometimes these are tweaks to existing products – sometimes these are radical ideas for new products. Because of the entrepreneurial spirit within the company, we are very fortunate to also receive a regular stream of fantastic ideas from people working in other teams.
Once we have developed the idea, and checked it makes sense from a business point of view, we work with our designers and developers to actually build and launch the product.
What are some of the key things that you’ve learnt so far from working for Skrill?
The one thing I was really keen to learn before starting work at Skrill was how a product idea travels from inception to launch in a large organization – so when I come to launch my own technology business I will understand how to scale it. It’s one thing to have a couple of guys in a room coding and launching new products, it’s another to have more than 500 employees and more than 23m customers relying on your products – and so I’m learning how to make sure that you don’t just gain customers – but that you keep them.
I’ve learnt how to work with different teams and people from widely differing backgrounds, and how to communicate effectively when working with people to a tight deadline. There’s a ton of stuff I’m looking forward to learning going forward – when that learning curve slows down, that will probably be a sign that it’s time for me to move on to the next challenge.
Is this something that you would recommend to other aspiring entrepreneurs? What value can they get from getting accepted in NEF?
For me, personally, I’ve had a fantastic experience so far on the NEF placement. I’ve really enjoyed meeting the other graduates on the programme and attending the workshops and speakers series which have been organized for us – I love the buzz that you get when you put a bunch of entrepreneurially minded people in one room!
From talking to the other candidates on the programme, it’s clear that everybody is experiencing a completely different NEF programme. Not only does your experience depend on the company you are working in, it also depends on the entrepreneur allocated to you, the work you are being given and your own personality. For me I’ve derived value from the network I’m continuing to build through the programme, the skills I’m building from the NEF workshops, and the responsibility and autonomy I’m being given at Skrill.
What would you say has been your most memorable moment so far?
Picking one moment is extremely difficult as there have been so many memorable moments in a very short space of time. One of my early projects was putting together a web-app to enable players to buy into the European Poker Tour – I went to the Hilton in London to see it in action – seeing a product I’d worked on from inception to launch being used and working well – that was a great feeling!
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs looking to start their own business?
Find something you enjoy doing and try and find a way to turn it into a business. When you start a business it usually consumes your life – and it usually needs to in order to be successful. So it needs to be something you love, otherwise you will be probably be miserable. As long as you enjoy what you do, then the work doesn’t really feel like work – and so you will end up much happier, and your business will be much more successful. Also, try and find someone to build it with you – the ability to bounce ideas off each other and provide support when things aren’t going quite according to plan, can make all the difference between success and failure.
What are your plans after NEF programme? What can we be expecting from you in the future?
Building my own technology company is definitely the end-game. But in the meantime, I am really enjoying working at Skrill, where I am learning a huge amount from my colleagues and improving many of my skills. As hungry and impatient as I am to create my own business, the reality is that I’m still only 21 and have plenty of time to find the right opportunity and the right partners to help make it happen.