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.
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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.
James started out working between Zurich, Switzerland, where he lives and doing business in London, England. Switzerland is a nice safe, beautiful place to live with a family. It’s just not as conducive to startups as London. A city that has come a long way in developing an entrepreneurial ecosystem in the past couple of years.
Today, Cognism has 150 staff members. They are distributed between London, Croatia, and Macedonia. James says he’s found the Balkans to be incredible for staffing, with low competition and strong talent.
Pre-coronavirus Cognism was big on office culture and getting their team together in-person to celebrate as a company. They didn’t make any layoffs in the first half of 2020. Though they are responding to the choices their employees want to make after this pandemic. He says 30% want to go back to the office. The rest want flexibility or just keep working from home. He admits he has been incredibly surprised at how much more productive their remote workers have been. Plus, less need for office space also means lower overhead and greater profit margins going forward.
Managing The New Workforce
One of James’ top learnings from his experience as a founder and business leader is around managing company culture and today’s young workforce.
He reminds us that while there are many mistakes you can make in developing a product and business, and can usually quickly correct and recover from them, that isn’t true when it comes to people.
Once issues arise with people, that tends to stick. It’s hard to code the glitches out of a broken relationship. However, by putting more effort in upfront, and putting better processes in place for hiring and managing talent, you can do a lot better at avoiding problems.
He also notes that even accomplished personnel managers can find big differences if they’ve only managed technical teams before, and then try to manage sales staff. It’s a different game.
There can be generational differences too. You have to really take the time to understand how new generations are different. What are their expectations? What misinformation are they being exposed to? How might they need different levels of feedback than others?
Listen in to the full podcast episode to find out more, including:
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- Recruiting and hiring new graduates
- The blue ocean of data for businesses
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- How Cognism is helping SMBs