In my latest NEF interview series, I speak to Robert Runge. Robert is a graduate from the university of Edinburgh and currently works at Covetique - an online marketplace to buy and sell pre-owned luxury designer women’s fashion.
Hi Robert, Its great to finally have you on YHP, how are you doing today?
I’m great thanks. It’s been a busy start to the New Year, but I’m excited about the months ahead.
So Robert, tell me how you got into entrepreneurship, what was your motivation?
During my time at school I was always coming up with different ideas to make money, some of which succeeded and some of which didn’t! However, deep down I was always really excited about working for myself.
What was your first taste of entrepreneurship, running a business?
I ran a website and IT solutions business with a friend.
How did you learn how to code and design websites?
The coding was all self-taught from tutorials on the internet and books borrowed from libraries. I learnt some key design principles by trawling through hundreds of websites to understand what looked good and what didn’t.
How did you manage to turn that into a business?
We were confident that we could generate lots of leads between us through various family friends, parents of friends etc. We were doing this at time when lots of small businesses and people were only starting to adopt the idea of having a professional website. However, all we needed was our first break so we could prove our ability – that eventually came from an international architect firm. After that we generated business from referrals.
In terms of start-up costs we had all the equipment in place already, which at the time was a couple of laptops. We originally did all the coding using notepad, so when we first started out we didn’t need software like Dreamweaver! Any other software we needed, we borrowed from friends such as photoshop etc. As we won some business we started to invest a little bit in extras. Apart from that we didn’t need anything like office space – we did all the work from home and had meetings with clients in cafes and at their houses.
How did you manage to run that whilst in the university? Why did opt not to continue after you graduated from the university?
I only managed to run it for a couple of years at University as most of my clients were in London, which meant a lot of travelling down on the weekends, which wasnt feasible. And in the first couple of years there is a lot more opportunity to devote time to “extra-curricular” activities.
I learnt over the few years that my real skills laid in the ability to build good and lasting relationships with clients rather than the coding and design in itself. I decided half-way through University that it was not something I wanted to continue as a business.
So you graduated from the University of Edinburgh? what was the experience like, a lot more people are deciding to go into entrepreneurship straight after school rather going to university, what made you realise that this was the right choice for you?
Going to Edinburgh was the best 4 years of my life – I’ve made countless friends, who I’ll keep for life. I studied Classics, which ironically has turned out to be an extremely useful degree!
Looking back I believe it was the right choice because of all the doors it opened up for me. For example I won a highly coveted internship doing business consultancy in Germany through the Saltire Foundation, which would not have been possible if I didn’t go to University. And all the various jobs I had during holidays and while studying taught me skills, which have been valuable working in a start-up As I said before I’ve made many friends and contacts, who are all interesting and highly motivated, and I’m sure there will be opportunities to work together in the future.
However, if I hadn’t gone to University, and started a business instead I’m sure there are plenty of things I would have learnt and experienced, which would have been extremely valuable
Its hard to make that choice without hindsight so I think its important to think at the time what will be interesting for you.
You worked for Vodafone for over a year, tell me about your experience working there and wat role you performed?
I was accepted onto the graduate scheme at Vodafone so I did several placements. The first was as a retail adviser in the flagship store – I did absolutely everything from selling phones, managing stock, dealing with customer problems and sweeping the floors! The next was as a commercial analyst in HQ where I did financial analysis and modeling. After that I worked as an incident manager and junior investigator in our Fraud & Risk department – think CSI meets Vodafone in Newbury!
What would you say was some of the key things you learnt from that experience?
The key thing I learnt was that I didn’t want to work for a large mature company. At times I found the politics tiresome and making changes could be frustratingly too slow in that kind of environment.
But in all fairness I imagine this is a challenge all mature companies must face as they try to balance fostering an innovative environment with a complex organization. Its just not for me.
Tell us about NEF, why did you decide this was the next step for you, what was the process?
I’ve wanted to do something entrepreneurial for a while either by starting something new or joining a start-up. However, having been on the Vodafone grad programme I know how important and useful it is to continue having support and a large network. So the NEF programme immediately appealed to me.
The process was long and tough. But I didn’t expect anything less given the opportunity. I had to write an application form and send off a CV. I then had a 30 minute phone interview, followed by numerical, verbal and logical tests. After I was invited to an assessment centre where we had a group exercise to build a business plan, and then give a presentation to a panel. The last hurdle was a final interview.
After I was accepted onto the programme I had several more interviews with various placement companies but I couldn’t find a good match. In the end I decided to find a company on my own not offered by the NEF. In the end it was a good move!
What company are you currently working with and how’s the experience been so far for you?
Covetique. It is an online marketplace to buy and sell pre-owned luxury designer women’s fashion. Think Net-a-Porter meets Ebay. The experience has been excellent so far – it has been incredibly exciting being part of the launch and seeing the company evolve over the last few months
What are some of the key things that you’ve learnt so far from working for this startup?
Always be flexible. In the early stages things change so quickly and you have to react to changing priorities
Its crucial to constantly be thinking innovatively about processes, the way you work, how you deal with customers etc. Its all new territory and you constantly need to adapt.
Why did you choose to work in a startup rather being in an established company and how does it differ from your time working in Vodafone, what is so special about working in a startup?
I wanted to work in a start-up as I wanted to be part of creating something new from the ground-up where I could have lots of responsibility and opportunity, so that I could learn as much as possible.
Its special because you are creating and building something completely new, which gives a lot of personal fulfillment. You also develop great relationships with your colleagues as you work in such a close and tight-nit team.
Is this something that you would recommend to other aspiring entrepreneurs? What’s the value in it?
Definitely. Firstly there is obvious value in being able to see at first hand how an idea is practically brought to life, if you want to do something similar – everything from dealing with suppliers, creating new processes etc.
Secondly the experience in itself is important. Being in that very fast-paced constantly evolving environment teaches you a lot.
What would you say has been some of your most memorable moment so far?
Launch day. Nothing spectacular happened as we went live, but there was a great feeling of excitement about the road ahead.
What can we be expecting from you in the future?
I’m extremely excited about where I am at the moment. The founders of the company I work with are highly exceptional and successful individuals, whom Im constantly learning from. Being the first person to join the company there is plenty of opportunity for me to continue help growing the company in an extremely interesting space.