I Invited Azeem over on YHP as he takes a trip down memory lane, talking about his early days starting a school paper, writing software program for friends at university to running an incubator during the first dot com bubble.
Azeem Azhar is the CEO and founder of PeerIndex and this is his story.
Azeem, I’m absolutely thrilled to finally have you on YHP, how are you doing?
I’m great thanks.
So how did it all begin, what were you earliest moments of being entrepreneurial?
While at school, I helped a friend write software to manage pharmacies in the mid-80s. Later on I wrote an accounting package over Lotus 123 on DOS, and when I was at university I made some money designing full-colour fractals and 3D rendered images that I’d print on colour laser printers, before managed print services, and sell to physics students.
Tell us a bit about life pre- PeerIndex? What entrepreneurial ventures were you involved in?
I set up a student paper while at university. I helped launch websites at the Guardian and the Economist and then I ran an incubator during the first dot com bubble. This gave me the chance to watch some amazing companies like Netscape and Yahoo! from a distance – I found that very inspiring. During the 2000s I was involved with some great entrepreneurs and interesting companies with awkward names, such as Albert (search engine), 20six (blogging platform founded by Stefan Glaenzer), and TrueKnowledge which was recently acquired. Since then I have been involved in investing in and starting up a bunch of different companies.
How did the idea for PeerIndex come about?
Since 1992 I have been interested in what happens when every person is connected to the internet and can contribute and comment. Many of the companies I have been involved in have looked at this area of “people publishing”. At Albert we built a prototype blog search engine in 2002, and 20six was a blogging platform. The trigger for me was when I started to use and understand Twitter, and I saw incredibly smart people talk about their area of expertise person-to-person.
What is PeerIndex? And what are you trying to solve?
PeerIndex is a social media analytics company that uses scientific methodology to build the Influence Graph – a unique dataset that allows us to identify who’s really influential and in which context. We have a massively scalable, real time data ingestion platform currently handle 100m+ messages per day to produce predictive analytics on community-level influence. This technology powers our influence algorithms and as a result, all our products – the PeerIndex API, consumer influence profiles, analytics for brands.
The difficulty for marketeers today is attaining social ROI. Brands have invested millions into building huge communities – they’ve become publishers, in a way – but now they need to take the next step and move from simply counting follower numbers to finding the different segments in their community and engaging with them in the right way. A lot of social media tools focus on simple keyword tracking, and we’re offering brands a solution to actually understand the people in their audience, not just what they’re saying.
It must have been tough getting a business started during those times, how did it all unfold?
Starting a company is always a challenging thing to do, it’s just important to know where you’re going and be committed to continually move forward.
What was the hardest part of setting up the business?
You know, actually the hardest part is hiring the right people for the right stage in the business. Hiring is really tough. You always aim to hire as well as you can, but there’s always lots of competition and sometimes you have to make compromises. At PeerIndex we’ve been lucky to attract some great talent though, because we’re working on something really interesting. Also, good talent gets attracted to good talent.
How were you able to fund it?
The usual way: Friends and family, followed by Angels, followed by some VCs.
Can you remember those early days, thinking of the company name, opening the company’s bank account to the first six months or so of running the business, how excited were you?
You’re right, it is exciting. It’s a thrilling moment when you have your bank account with some cash in it and you’re moving through some very clear and understood milestones. Like the start of anything, you make tons of progress very quickly, that’s exciting.
There are so many challenges that entrepreneurs go through trying to build a company, or making it successful, can you share a challenge you faced and how you overcame it?
Again, the hardest is hiring. We’re building a real technology company here and we’re looking at data not a lot of people have looked at – the technology is new. You have to find really good people, and that’s only possible with hard work and stamina.
Can you tell us some of the little things that you miss from the early days?
I worked in a small office 600 yards from the house, so my commute to work was amazing.
What do you do outside work to unwind?
I have 3 kids, so they provide sufficient distraction, particularly on weekends when they’re running round the house.
You’re also an investor in a few start-ups, what types of companies do you invest in?
Right now, I’m focused on PeerIndex. I really try to invest in areas where I have strong knowledge: consumer search, financial information products and content marketing businesses.
What are your plans for PeerIndex and yourself in the next 5 years?
World domination and FTL travel.
Before I leave you today Azeem, what advice do you have for anyone reading this interview hoping to start a business or anyone who’s perhaps already started one and is struggling for attention, investment or proof of concept?
Find a co-founder and be prepared to be patient, these things always take more time than you expect.
Thanks so much for your time Azeem