Hi Mike. To get us started, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Okay, well… Hello, I’m Mike. I’ve been sitting in this seat for a few years now and the context of that in the business is, I’m the Managing Director of the Beans Group. I’m married, I’ve got an amazing wife and two fantastic kids who are four and seven. These are the two big areas in my life, my family, the business and I guess that’s me really.
Can you give us a brief overview of your career journey at Student Beans?
I set up the business with my brother James when we left university around 11 years ago. James and I ran the business side by side for the first 8 years and then James began focusing on other ideas he’d been working on, at which point I took over as the Managing Director. I have always been focused very much on building the team, product development, engineering and developing ideas for growth. Over the years, I have had the pleasure of working on developing lots of ideas, but over the past 3 years, I’d say we’ve very much been focusing on some of the core concepts that initially drove us to set up the company in the first place. So, in that sense, we’ve gone in a full circle over the past decade and we’ve really gone back to our roots, so that’s where we are right now.
So, what is Student Beans?
The best way to describe Student Beans… We are a platform that connects students with brands and we provide a verification service that gives students access to loyalty programs run by brands. In really simple terms, we help to empower students to thrive by giving them access to special, often magical, discounts and offers from the amazing brands we work with.
So, when exactly did the idea for Student Beans come about and how?
So, the initial idea behind Student Beans actually came out of a dissertation that James wrote, when he was at university in Birmingham. I was a student in Nottingham and I saw the paper, he actually shared with me, what he had submitted and I could really relate to the underlying idea. I saw it as a real problem, the fundamental issue being that, students wanted a good deal and brands wanted to try and engage more students. Student Beans was effectively going to solve that problem. Using technology at a point in time, when essentially, smartphones didn’t really exist, was an ambitious challenge. It was all desktop internet based and wasn’t what it is now but that’s basically where the idea came from and how it grew into what it is today.
How did you come up with the name ‘Student Beans’?
Fantastic question, it was a very long and arduous exercise. The short answer is, it was the only domain name available, even after about 4 weeks of brainstorming. This is obviously, going back quite a while ago but tying that in with our core focus; Baked beans, certainly when I was at university, were considered to be the staple diet of students. I don’t know, but I think that’s probably evolved slightly, in fact, I’m pretty sure it’s noodles now! But, the underlying reason was that beans were cheap and cheerful and we found that students could ultimately relate to them. So, there was a budget connotation around them and we also liked the branding concepts that you could build around them.
So, what were you doing before Student beans?
I read economics at university and I was fascinated with financial markets. My dream job when I was at university is a million miles away from what I actually ended up doing after uni and what I do now. I really wanted to go into the world of investment banking and become a trader. A couple of summers before we set up the business, I was desperate to get a job in one of the big banks, to see what it’s like. I was fortunate to get a few internship offers, I ended up going to work at JP Morgan on the trading floor and I had a very adventurous summer of working very hard and I got offered a job at the end of the 12 weeks. Afterwards, I very much felt like, okay, that box is now ticked, I’ve experienced it, I’ve got a job but, I really had worked myself very hard and it was a huge wake up call as to whether I wanted to continue doing that after I graduated or, whether there were other opportunities worth exploring. I realised just how hard I’d be working and I just wanted to make sure that I’d be getting as much out of it as I possibly could. Incidentally, this was pre-financial (2008) crisis time, and with the benefit of hindsight, I think it was probably wise not to go into it. Much to everyone’s distaste, I phoned JP Morgan up after I graduated and said “Please can I have a year off?”, you know, because I’d just worked really hard doing my degree and we’d both agreed that we probably want to work with each other but I just wanted to have a bit of a break. With that, I bought myself a window of opportunity to explore other things and that’s when the opportunity which was Student Beans, came up with James. We basically gave ourselves 6 months to establish the business and we agreed that if it was going to work then I’d have to put my investment banking career on hold, indefinitely.
Just before I set up the business with James, I also dipped my toe into the water of eBay. I was selling products for kids, which I was importing from China. They were wristbands, I don’t know if anyone remembers but there was a huge craze for these wristbands in school playgrounds back in 2004 to 2005 and I did a great job there. I built up a bit of money which in turn, enabled me to invest in the business and set it up. So that was me, kind of testing the water in the entrepreneurial world and also getting to understand a bit more about the internet. So, I learnt a bit about HTML programming, if you can call it programming, but basically building up and marking up web pages and that gave me the bug and a bit of confidence to start thinking about the idea of creating an internet-based business. We had a successful first few months and I actually never went back to JP Morgan, so maybe the job is still open!
What about the business are you most proud of?
I am, genuinely, most proud of the team. The people here. We are now, just over 50 people and I can’t think of a group of people who I’d like to work with and share the journey with more. I’ve realised over the years that, if you put your mind to something as a group of people, you can achieve anything and it’s not about the individual, it’s very much about the team and the team spirit. So, definitely, the thing I’m most proud of is bringing together this amazing, diverse group of people, that operate in multiple locations, in multiple countries and seeing them work together. It’s why I like to dedicate so much of my time towards building our teams and the on-boarding of new talent into the business, helping new and existing people understand who we are and what we do. The real pleasure is when I can see in their eyes that, they get it and they can go off and build on what we’ve got, contribute to the business and make things happen. It’s incredible.
When searching for new talent, what sort of people do you look for?
So, we have our company values that provide a compass for the decisions that we make and they certainly are, very important benchmarks for the type of people that we want to have in the company. I think it’s fair to say that there’s not a mould of someone that we’re explicitly looking for but as long as we can see that they are reliant to our beliefs and values then that’s the key factor for us.
What’s the best part of the week for you?
The best part of the week for me is, easily, our weekly standup huddle that we have, where all parts of the business get together. So, every Tuesday, 12:45, we in London and all of our offices across the UK and in other parts of the world get together over Google Hangout and we share our good news and highlights of the week that ultimately, connect with our quarterly strategic plans. It’s great to be able to realign around what’s important and get people together and celebrate our success. I actually get really giddy with excitement, bringing everyone together, I don’t orchestrate it, it’s just wonderful to hear what all the teams in different parts of the business have been up to in the past week and how it relates to the journey we’re on.
What would you say is, one of Student Beans’ greatest achievements so far?
Ah, but there are so many! One of the things that stands out, in terms of explicit achievements is us winning Digital Business of the year and we were against some great competition. To be acknowledged for our focus and dedication in the digital marketing space was quite an achievement for us.
Tell us, what’s one of the biggest challenges you often face in the business?
Our biggest challenge is finding the right people that want to come on the journey. We’re very ambitious with our focus now and although there’s that real sense of protecting what we’ve already got, it’s vital to the business that we continue to grow. We have our cultural alignments and it’s always been important that we reference those and our values when considering the right people to join us. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve grown our internal recruitment team, to enable that to happen and ensure that we can cast the net out as wide as possible.
So, what have you found to be most challenging about your role in particular?
The biggest challenge, I find, is often saying ‘no’. When things are going well in the business, there’s a misconception that you can do more and more things but paradoxically I’ve realised that you’ve got to double down more on what works rather than exposing yourself on areas that don’t necessarily work well. Trying to be an entrepreneur, if I can even call myself that, has proved that it’s all about taking risks but also, wanting to make sure that you balance the risks that you take with trying to protect what you’ve already got and what works. The challenge really is, being bold, understanding when to say no but also when say to yes. Looking back, I’d say our success is much more a function of us saying no to things, which, in hindsight, they were very easy decisions, but in the moment, they could certainly cause a lot of frustration and disillusionment for myself and also other people in the business. Sometimes your decisions can really go against the grain, but more often than not, it’s those tough decisions that are the most significant in both business and just life in general. So, saying no, but remember that it is for the greater good, even if other people don’t agree or believe it at the time.
Building on that then, what is one key piece of advice you’d give to anyone wanting to start their own business?
I’ve probably got about 50 pieces of advice… but if I have to give just one, be persistent.
I’ve realised that the magic bullet of business and being successful in business, is being persistent. Working, pushing through adversity and honestly, yes be persistent but it’s also good to know when to put your foot down and also, knowing when to let go when something really isn’t working. It’s not about driving yourself nuts, in fact one of my favourite quotes that I use to help me ensure I’m being persistent in the right way is, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, I believe it was Albert Einstein who said that. It’s that caveat that you’ve got to be persistent, you’ve got to push through but when you’re getting repeated no’s, it doesn’t mean you’ve got to give up, it just means that potentially, you’ve got to try a different way. Be persistent but don’t knock yourself out with it. You’ve got to be visionary, you’ve got to be able to see through the problem and understand that the problem you’re trying to overcome is just a bump in the road and you’ve got to work out the best way to overcome it. Whether it’s over it, under it, around it or smashing through it, you’ve got to find that way. The magic is, if you believe that then you can overcome any challenge that presents itself to you and remember, it often won’t be pretty either. You’ve got to think laterally and sometimes even say ‘stuff the process’, as long as you’ve got that vision in mind, you can get through anything.
Who is your business role model and why?
I’m going to have to cheat slightly and say it’s definitely more than one person. They’re going to be the usual suspects really… Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. I’m not wanting to pigeonhole them because they’re all very very different and they’ve all achieved great things within their own rights, they have and will transcend history with what they’ve achieved. But, as a collective, they have all pushed through adversity and they’ve all been at least one time, told they’re crazy or insane. Yet they’ve always had real belief and purpose behind what they’re doing. With hindsight and through reading their work or watching them on YouTube, they’ve all taught me that it’s okay to challenge the status quo. My lesson from them; if someone says you’re crazy then it probably means you’re onto a winner. So, be persistent and carry on going until people realise that what you’re doing can and will make a difference and is for the greater good.
To end on a light note, share with us your top Student Beans highlight:
My favourite highlight… One of my favourite highlights over the past year is going away with the team in the summer for our annual weekend away. It’s so great being able to spend a few days of real quality time with colleagues and seeing everyone having fun together and being confident enough to let their hair down and show themselves as they really are. It’s a great way for us to all get to know each other a little better and see how passionate people are about our culture and what we’re trying to do here. Of course, it’s mostly about celebrating everyone’s success here and celebrating a fantastic year together. It’s fabulous.