It is a sunny and bright day next to the River Thames when I meet Rahul Powar at his new home in Thomson Reuters. I’m here and excited to be meeting one of the team behind perhaps one of the most notorious of the apps, Shazam, but more crucially, a serial entrepreneur with a unique thought process and indeed, unique record of success.
Rahul has agreed to meet with me so that I can start to understand the thought process of an entrepreneur. A tall order, but as Rahul showed with effortless grace, he is the man to do it.
Perhaps what all entrepreneurs require, as absolute standard, is a natural and unembossed status as a ‘Do-er’. Rahul comments, that that is what he has always been – driven by instinct, unwavering belief in oneself, and a simple ‘get it done’ ethos. This is good to know; some people are no ‘do-ers’, their strengths lie somewhere else, but equally, if you know you are a do-er, then the emphasis is upon you to capitalise upon that quite unique mix and the privilege of genetics and personality.
It’s interesting hearing Rahul’s thoughts on how the label and status of a ‘Start Up Entrepreneur’ has shifted so dramatically in the last few years. He smiles and laughs amiably; ‘ In more recent years, the choice to run your own start up is a lifestyle choice, engendering a stock hoodie and jeans; you can hold yourself in a certain way characterised by cool’. It’s a good point, and one that I make a note of. In my day job, I encounter the occasional Start Up Entrepreneur who has subscribed to the style points, but is not serious enough about their idea and enterprise; they’re simply trying to subscribe to a fashion. Any aspiring entrepreneur would do well to remember that beyond the style and the image, there has to be a self-sustaining concept and a business plan.
Motivation is an interesting point that we cover; Rahul was only ever motivated by an interest in technology and the simply will to do something that he found interesting. Bearing the hallmarks of the successful, he confesses he was almost embarrassed at not having a ‘real job’, and being instead, a ‘Start Up Entrepreneur’. That got me thinking; should a modern day, 2013 start up entrepreneur feel a sense of duty to his or her predecessors – the men and women who have made Silicon Roundabout and Start Up Culture, a reality?
Fate is a clear facet in Rahul’s thinking; he is happy to recall how Shazam came about through a fortuitous meeting with a couple of Stanford MBAs. Initially sceptical about the dent in the universe that the app would become, he still thought it would be an interesting project, and so continued to work on it inspired purely by its ‘fun’ status; that status led to his nestling into the ‘Start Up’ role. Indeed, Rahul was working on something purely for the project itself, rather than for a ‘badge of honour’ that it can (only sometimes become). At this point in our interview, I’m scribbling furiously; I’ll remember these points next time I’m headhunting in the Start Up space.
Time has moved on, admittedly, and Rahul is involved in the Start Up communities in London and beyond. It’s a connected network, but he grins at me as he tells me ‘I’m bemused and amused by the ‘party’ ethic that goes with Tech City. How does anyone who works in a Start Up have the TIME to party?’. Rahul speaks without malice or criticism, but I can understand how someone who has been through the eye-popping 20 hour days and caffeine fuelled life on a shoestring may look upon a Shoreditch party hound with a certain degree of amusement.
Rahul’s advice is as obvious as it is simple – but that black-and-white honesty is poignant; ‘Do not be wooed by the idea of being a ‘start up’’, he says, ‘be led and inspired by ideas, instead.’. A simple truth and a gold nugget for an aspiring entrepreneur.
The other aspect that Rahul is careful to remember (and be grateful for), is the value of good timing. With both Shazam, and his subsequent venture, Apsmart, Rahul chose his moment carefully and considerately. Shazam was a game changer that the world had not seen before, but timing wise, the world was looking for new things, new concepts and a whole new way to interact with technology and creativity. Shazam neatly and elegantly filled that gap. With Apsmart, Rahul made an excellent choice to bring real time data to mobile, just as the market was itching for the same. Manage your timing, and the entrepreneurs life is a more successful one.
Rahul’s view on the Value Proposition that a Start Up has, is to remain conscious and celebratory of the point that, as a start-up, you have the flexibility to take risks. You can test the water, break boundaries, and work with original and meaningful thoughts in such a way that, when a large corporate company looks at your organisation, they can see proven, successful innovation that has delivered results. It’s an interesting point that I, for one, had not considered before; any business seeks to purchase a smaller business that they can make successful – so can you imagine how appetising and promising a prospect a start can become, if it already has desmonstrated the extent to which it is original and successful? The point resonated with me for some time, and I can see how holding that belief would allow an entrepreneur to continue to push on and continually want the best from themselves and their entrepreneurship.
One of the more striking facets of Rahul is by far, his democratic and ‘normal’ demeanour. Despite being one of the pioneers of the early millennium who really has, put a dent in the universe, he is more than comfortable in his own skin and indeed, states without question; ‘Most people can be an entrepreneur; you can compensate for any deficiencies you have by hiring well; Interact with all hiring processes and people with Consistency and Fidelity.’ It is that honesty that makes Rahul immediately calming and indeed, inspirational. So many of us view the entrepreneurs life as being one of isolation and gritty autonomy; Rahul is quite the opposite, pointing to recruitment and team building around you as a key factor in being a successful entrepreneur.
We explore that further as talk; inside the mind of this entrepreneur is not the aim of ‘being self sufficient and running the show’, but rather the more solid aim of ‘starting a business’, and in more black and white terms – get someone else to do the parts of that business that you do not want, or simply cannot, do.
Upon that basis, in the tempting ‘everything’s appealing’ start up world, Rahul heeds caution regarding the multiple founder situation; he warns quietly and realistically, that that dynamic is one to either avoid, or be prepared to navigate. It really can be very tricky and a huge task to even find co-founders who have your shared sense of vision and energy.
In terms of ideas, Rahul advocates a ‘no nonsense’ approach and to take a truly pragmatic approach to the value proposition of your ideal. Rahul’s mantra is a devastatingly clear one – that the simple usually works. With that said, a simple idea is only a starting point and that kernel does have to be nurtured and grown rather than just left, in danger of potentially fading away. On the opposite side of the spectrum though, an idea that is too complex will only weigh itself down – taking your entrepreneurial vision with it – so hit the right note and give the idea constant attention. ‘A good question to ask is, “Why hasn’t this been done yet?” ‘, Rahul tells me. He also cautions that there may be technical barriers to your idea, and a worthwhile exercise is to decide early on if your approach will be based upon your own instinct and guiding intuition, or something more evidence based. There are strengths and weaknesses to each but if you choose your methodology and reasoning perspective early, you won’t get distracted or knocked off target. The master of discretion, Rahul did not tell people for three years, about the Shazam project, observing how most people will pooh-pooh an idea that they do not have experience of themselves.
Despite his ascendancy through the ranks from start up, to successful entrepreneur, t now major division head for one of the worlds leading data groups, Rahul’s philosophy in regards to expansion and growth remain around one key tenet; Recruitment. He comments wisely, that ‘People are the only asset you have in those early days. They will define and shape your company. As you grow these people will continue to build and inculcate the culture of your organisation’. It is a widely overlooked yet so simple and obvious point, that the recruitment of ‘A Players’ can mean the difference between success and failure. I absorb this point personally (as a Technology recruiter), since you’re putting your trust into new people to join you.
The key point to remember is that recruiting technical people can be particularly tricky – especially if you are not technical yourself. You need to see these individuals in action to try and understand how they approach a problem. Indeed, Rahul is not against the recruitment of a technical Co-Founder, since non technical individuals can occasionally underestimate the deep and lasting impact that a technical person can have.
The recruitment process extends to the executive piece also, and how a non-executive, cleverly chosen, can have a huge impact upon venture capitalism in general. A non-executive with the right relationships could prove invaluable in terms of deal sourcing, or bringing specific knowledge to the table in terms of marketing or business development.
In my experience both personally and professionally, I increasingly feel quite sorry for an entrepreneur. They seem to have to walk a thin line where they thrive on autonomy and an isolationist work and ideas ethic, yet time and the pure reality of setting up and running a business mean that, invariably, power has to be wrested and the art of delegation has to be mastered. Rahul is refreshingly honest in this regard, highlighting how with hindsight, he would have perhaps listened a little more, even though his natural predilection is to learn by actively engaging himself. That said, in the fullness of time, Rahul has become more open and has learned how to be headstrong without being stubborn – another major victory assured. As a word of warning though, Rahul is quick to note that an aspiring entrepreneur should always remember that advice is contextual and therefore, imperfect; of course it is useful, but should be handled and received with that very quality that does not necessarily sit at the forefront of start up life; caution.
Rahul breaks into his trademark smile when we talk about the move from a start up into a corporate via a buyout procedure; and well he might. Rahul’s Apsmart was absorbed by the mighty Thomson Reuters, but far from being a loss to creativity, the team (who I briefly see as we walk through the office), still have that ease and familiarity endemic to a start up ‘gang’. In addition, Rahul has been impressed by the remarkable amount of resources and vision that have been given to his department since their joining. ‘Your company becomes the innovation group within the organisation’, he comments; which is both a blessing, and which also bestows a burden / duty upon the organisation. They have to constantly innovate whilst also marketing the team internally. Ergo, a start up entrepreneur has to always build their multi faceted sales skills, even after achieving the ‘acquisition’ goal.
In terms of mobile, Rahul is open about the tipping point that we’re currently working from. In that respect, we are still trying to find out what mobile really means to business. Customer relationships have shifted and now, mobile is a key part of maturing customer relationships, but to be successful, both companies and customers will embark upon a gradual and evolving ‘getting to know each other’ process. It is a new world order that Rahul succinctly labels ‘data without distance’, but any budding entrepreneur would be wise to take his guidance – that anything new has to evolve whilst still protecting its value proposition.
At the close of our meeting, I ask Rahul directly ‘what qualities should a start up entrepreneur possess?’; and the answer is distinctive and amusing. ‘Laziness’, he tells me. ‘Anyone who is clever and who is lazy will only ever look for the most efficient way to do something.’
Rahul Powar remains a keystone in arguably one of the most important apps of the 21st century; indeed, Shazam retains its exalted status as a game changer even now, yielding hours of entertainment and still possessing of a sense of enjoyment for even hardened-regular Shazam users. For Rahul though, it started from a place of innocent exploration and curious intellect, and was guided with a simple instinct for entrepreneurship and thirst for achievement.
In terms of Silicon Roundabout, Rahul observes that as a community, it offers a support network all at once emotional, physical and professional. To geographically place a focus for building relationships in a business context, it becomes much easier to scale an enthusiastic sense of mission and indeed, to help an entrepreneur to strike out alone. For the first in London’s technology history, we have an arena that single handedly conquers; perhaps this, more than any other fact, places an obligation upon entrepreneurs to doggedly and relentlessly pursue their goals. It is a spine tingling thought as inspiring as it is terrifying, but Rahul’s closing comments are wonderful ones; ‘Aim for truly disruptive ideas, and don’t be put off by the challenges of raising capital; you simply have to find the people who can see your vision, and give them as much evidence as you can to support it.
‘If you have never worked for a start up before you must appreciate how much work it is. The value you squeeze out of yourself will be phenomenal, and you only realise that once you begin’. Any yet, as we leave our little cafe at the side of Southwark Bridge there is a true aura around Rahul; and one realises that this entrepreneur, for all the blood sweat and hard work, wouldn’t have it any other way.