This interview with Andy McLoughlin is taken from the January 2012 Issue of our YHP Magazine. View and download the full YHP Magazine.
Huddle is an online collaboration and content management company based on the ‘Silicon Roundabout’. Founded in 2006 by Andy McLoughlin and Alistair Mitchell, Huddle has grown into one of the most successful startups in Europe, winning multiple awards and growing from 2 people to over 70 employees (disclosure: including me) on their way to global domination. Here is my interview with Andy:
How did you come up with the name Huddle?
When we first started the business we knew what we wanted the app to do but didn't know what to call it. The company is actually called Ninian Solutions, after the oil platform that Alistair’s grandfather built. While we still had our ‘proper jobs’ where we had to wear suits, we would give each other jobs; I was wire framing the application and one of Ali’s jobs was to come up with a name. He came back one day with a spreadsheet with 50 possible names and most of them where crap or boring but there was one in the middle that shone out and that was Huddle. As I looked at it I knew it was the one. It’s a great name that embodies what we do. Very few company names truly embody not only the purpose but also the feel of what it is.
So how did you fund yourself initially?
Ali and I both put our money in at the start. We agreed from the very beginning that if this was ever going to be an equitable business we would both have to have the same amount of money in. I think when people are starting their business as a partnership, you have to make sure that both partners are equal. Our savings allowed us to hire a development company to help build the first version of the app. Shortly afterwards we decided to go for a bit of Angel money. In my first job out of university, I worked at Fibernet and the co-founder and CEO there was Charles McGregor, who I got on really well with - he was a geek at heart. So we approached him about investing. Now I didn’t have his contact details, apart from his email, and that was looked after by his secretary. I didn’t know his secretary very well but I had read a book called ‘The Beer Mat Entrepreneur’, which is a great book if people haven’t read it, full of useful practical business tips and one tip was if you want access to a rich man, do it via his PA ! So I called Cathy up and said I want to pitch our idea to Charles, so she checked and he said he would love to catch up. So when I met him, I walked through the business plan and at the end he said, “Yeah, sounds great!” So he invested £150,000 and that was the catalyst that allowed us to leave our jobs, take an office, hire a couple people and really go at it.
So in the early days you started a networking event for entrepreneurs called DrinkTank. Can you tell us more?
The reason behind it was that we just felt that there were not any good, impartial events for tech entrepreneurs to meet. This was an event by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs. Ali and I were at an event in Paris and we were having a glass of wine with a couple of other entrepreneurs and we thought it was crazy that we had to be in Paris in order to talk about business problems and what we are doing with people who are based a mile away from our office. That was the catalyst for DrinkTank. How do you feel being a part of this start-up community has helped you and the company? I think that it’s having access to people who are going through the same things and having the same issues. You can spend a day researching anything, whether it’s the best tool for PPC , online analytics or the best offer for some software, but that’s a day out of your time where you should be working on building your business. If you can talk to someone you know who has done it before, all of a sudden they can give you a recommendation. Last year you opened an office in San Francisco.
What were your biggest challenges when moving over to the US?
I think the 12 months before we moving over we were kind of spoilt in that we had a really good reputation in the UK; people knew who Huddle were and we’re pretty big on the start-up scene. You move over there and all of a sudden it’s like 2007 all over again. So trying to build that brand from scratch out there was pretty tough. Then there is all the other stuff like getting visas, getting the company setup, the formation, tax, pensions, dealing with US employment law and healthcare, etc. It is a bit of a minefield because stuff that you take for granted in the UK is a lot harder over there and you know some of the stuff that is really easy over there is really hard here.
How do you feel seeing your baby grow into a 70+ employee company sitting in the middle of Silicon Roundabout?
I feel like it’s an ugly teenager right now. It’s incredible, sometimes you have to stop and have a look around and pinch yourself to realise this is all real. New people are joining every week, I look around and there are faces that I don’t recognise and I always pride myself on knowing everyone in the business but that’s not always going to be possible as we continue to grow into a 150, 250 or 450+ people company.
Huddle is a very social company - you have quarterly company socials and a Thursday drink club, how important is this side to the business?
We always said we wanted to build a company that we would want to work at. If you can build a company where people love being there and spending time with each other, you can make it like a family and you have a greater chance of finding and retaining people. As a start-up, you are never going to be able to compete on salary necessarily or super fancy offices in the middle of the city or other benefits but we can offer an atmosphere that is fun. We can also offer you the chance to be part of something special from the early days.
What would you say has been your biggest mistake along the way and what did you learn from it?
When you run a tech business you have to be laser focused on that product. The best product businesses I know are the ones that have been devilishly focused on doing one thing really, really well. In the product as well, we probably tried to do too much too soon and that meant that we had this big product. I think that’s been the hardest part about Huddle and probably the best thing. Building a big product with lots of stuff is great because we can sell it to lots of companies for lots of money - terrific, but it is also more expensive to maintain, to run and to hire a lot of developers to write code on it! Both of you were working full time prior to Huddle. At what point did you feel you had to make the jump from the comfort of having a full time job to quitting and concentrating on your start-up full time? Ali and I started talking about Huddle in early 2006, when it was just project x. It wasn’t until it had a name that it became serious. As soon as we then put our money into it, that’s when we made the decision that this was it. We have always had the mantra ‘go big or go home.’ No point in half arsing stuff, if you ever do it, do it properly. I know too many entrepreneurs who do too many things or have never really left their day job or have a project on the side and think they are an entrepreneur, but an entrepreneur is someone who is willing to give up all the comforts and benefits of a regular life to pursue their dream, that they think they can be truly world-changing.
What was your first piece of office equipment when you moved into your first office?
It was a printer. We called it the third founder, because it was the only thing we had other than Ali and myself. For a long time it didn't have a name, then it was called Allen because a guy who was supposed to be speaking at a government event ended up getting drunk at DrinkTank. Someone from the government wasn't too happy with Huddle as their speaker didn't turn up to the event and said, “It was because of one of the founders, I think it was Allen.” So at that point the 3rd founder became Allen. In fact, when Allen died the new printer became ‘son of Allen’ which is still sitting in the office now. So what has been your greatest moment? Winning awards is always nice, but for me though the best moment was when I came back from the SF office to our big new office in London and saw it for the first time with people in it. Seeing how big the team was, seeing all of the buzz and excitement and all of the really happy people was incredible.
So who in business do you look up to most?
Charles McGregor - our chairman and first investor. He built a great business himself and was prepared to put some of that money back into other businesses.
Reid Hoffman - CEO of LinkedIn is a great example of why Silicon Valley works. Here’s a guy who made some money on Paypal, and rather than sodding off and living the life, he decided to reinvest into other companies and to help them with the advice and mentorship they needed to succeed. When you look at Reid’s portfolio, it’s basically a who’s who of companies that are doing great things.
Naval from Angelist - he built an easy way for companies to raise funding from angel investors where they might otherwise not be able to have access too.