James Isilay’s startup has raised over $20M so that other companies can get better and more relevant data during sales so that they can grow.
During our interview on the DealMakers Podcast, James shared his inspiration for becoming an entrepreneur, where to find the help you need to get going, how the world of work is changing after COVID-19, the difference in where you start your startup, and his tips on managing millennials, workplace culture and using regulations to your advantage.
The Journey To Becoming An Entrepreneur
James Isilay was born in Manchester in the UK. His dad had a couple of businesses of his own, including a chemical company and comic book store.
James was always a bit of a geek, and both enjoyed and was good at computers and math. Even before university, this got him recruited to a program with the Ministry of Defense. He learned project management as a procurement officer for the UK’s air force, navy, and army.
Even while studying Information Systems at Imperial College, the government would have him working with NATO or some branch of the military during summer breaks.
He was graduating in 2001 when there wasn’t much of a startup and venture capital scene in London. The vast majority of his fellow schoolmates were going into investment banking. So, he began on that career path as a software engineer at UBS. It was a safe and logical career path.
James had a friend with a fintech startup. He describes the moments visiting his office as being a stark contrast to the corporate environment he was used to. It had real energy. The employees were much happier. It gave him the entrepreneurial bug and inspiration to launch a startup of his own.
Before Seedcamp and Y Combinator were as popular as they are now, there was Boston’s nonprofit startup incubator, Fintech Sandbox. They helped James nurture and develop his business idea. He found it a perfect fit, as it didn’t require being there full time. A great perk given he was still working a job in Europe at the time.
After pivoting, Cognism emerged as a SaaS startup providing data for B2B sales, for SMBs. They provide targeted data for sales prospecting.
Turning Regulations Into An Advantage
James saw the impact of GDPR coming. For most, regulations and especially new regulations mean a lot of pain, can keep them out of a market and associate a lot of roadblocks with trying to innovate.
This founder took a different approach. He went at it with the mindset that, even though there was a lot of compliance and legal investment involved, these barriers could actually become a moat and protect their business from competitors. So, they tackled it head-on and used it to their benefit.
It may seem crazy that while some were building billion-dollar startups completely remotely, that even a few months ago big Silicon Valley VCs still wanted startups to be local to get funded.
COVID-19 has certainly lit a fire under everyone to adapt to the new world of work.
Cognism has already raised $20M. Storytelling is everything which is something that James was able to master. Being able to capture the essence of what you are doing in 15 to 20 slides is the key. For a winning deck, take a look at the pitch deck template created by Silicon Valley legend, Peter Thiel (see it here) where the most critical slides are highlighted.
Remember to unlock the pitch deck template that is being used by founders around the world to raise millions below.
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