As the founder of a startup, you are your company’s brand. After all, people back the entrepreneur as much as they do the business idea, if not more. As such, it can be easy to paint all entrepreneurs with the same brush:
Why did you become an entrepreneur? I wanted to do something that had never been done before. What is your goal? To exit within three years. What does your working week look like? I’m basically slaving away 7–11.
And with the entrepreneur accepted as being a very singular breed, the nuances of the person behind the founder can be lost.
With that in mind, I’m excited to bring you this refreshingly candid interview with Geektastic CEO and Co-founder Rick Brownlow. In it, Rick discusses the frustrations fuelling his business, times when his pitch fell flat and why he values a strong work–life balance.
SR: What’s your background?
Rick: I worked in the insurance industry in the 90s and then the gambling industry in the 00s. As soon as the internet started to take off, I saw the opportunities it offered and pushed hard to be part of that explosion.
I started my first startup in 2002 (quickly learning how hard it is to raise cash with no product). I’ve held both Product Director and Business Development Director roles, selling and delivering mobile tech into the largest betting operators in the UK (partly responsible for the shift from online to mobile across the industry).
In around 2010 I jumped from poacher to gamekeeper, taking on the newly formed position of Head of Mobile at Sportingbet Plc. I took mobile revenues from zero to £12m ARR in two years, and it was here that I saw the pains of hiring good software engineers. Whilst at Sportingbet, I had the exciting opportunity to set up and become CEO of Bonza Gaming, a social/real-money Facebook-integrated slots application. We grew the team to about 20 and again had firsthand experience of hiring our software engineering team – it took me the best part of six months to find our CTO, Charles, which was well worth the wait as we went on to co-found Geektastic together!
What gave you the idea for Geektastic and what differentiates it from existing platforms?
It was very much born out of frustration. Myself and Charles sat down and asked ourselves what pain would we like to have removed from our day-to-day at Bonza. What could we improve that would take away that pain? Could we then do the same for other companies?
We always felt that humans were better at carrying our code reviews. They could see the nuances in the code – something that machines simply can’t do. There are machine-based systems out there that ‘screen’ code, but they don’t ensure the candidate is properly assessed – good candidates are eliminated from the process through silly errors, while other developers, who have mastered these types of challenges, make it through and turn out not to be very good when you delve a little deeper. That is why we created the Geektastic platform based on the tried and tested scientific approach of peer reviews.
What was your main inspiration for founding Geektastic?
So that’s why we created Geektastic: to provide a service to recruiters to help them thoroughly evaluate their candidates.
We were hugely disappointed when we took the product to our first set of recruiters. It fell flat. Some got it, believing in quality assurance, but others – the ‘old school’ – just laughed. ‘But Rick, if your community evaluates my candidates, you’ll tell me some aren’t right for the roles I’m putting them forward for’ – to which I agreed. ‘But Rick, that means I won’t earn any money from them!’ – to which I replied, yes, but if they’re not right for the job, they’ll leave; they won’t be happy, the client won’t be happy. ‘Yeah, but I will!’ he replied. I rest my case.
That is why we took the product directly to the hiring teams. They are the ones feeling the pain, spending hours each week doing code reviews and face-to-face interviews with candidates entirely unsuited to the role.
Do you and your Co-founder, Charles, get on well?
Yes, we get on very well; we have to. Whilst our skills are very different (Charles is the technical brains, I am the multitasking hustler), I am constantly impressed how closely aligned we are on most things and, even when we don’t agree 100%, how quickly we find common ground.
As anyone who has been involved in a startup knows, it’s stressful. You are living in each other’s pockets, spending huge amounts of time in each other’s company, dealing with the highs and lows together. I would say it’s one of the most important factors in whether you make it past the first few months, even years.
How would you describe your office culture, and what do you look for when hiring?
We’re still defining it, but I would expect it to feel very similar to our last startup, Bonza. We are always looking for team players; we want people who can interact well, can problem solve as a team, but be diverse in every way to allow us to get alternative points of view. We will operate a flexible working environment encompassing remote team members as well as office based. Even though we are a tech business, we want a strong community spirit which will flow from our in-house team all the way through to our global community.
Being an entrepreneur is no easy life and requires you to tackle new challenges on a daily basis. What helps you day-to-day and motivates you to keep going?
There’s a number of things. I get to see the kids every morning and make breakfast. There are so many companies that don’t give their employees the flexibility of working hours; there are plenty of parents I know that don’t get to see their kids all week. That’s nuts! We want to build a company that provides that flexibility.
Then there’s the feeling that you a making a difference. First of all, it was just meeting potential clients and hearing their pains were the same as ours. Then it was signing them up – signing clients like Skyscanner and Accenture as a small seed-funded startup is amazing. Then, when you hear we are actually making an impact on their business, that this isn’t just some dream we had, but a reality – that’s an amazing feeling.
And then there’s the global play. I love the fact we have people sign up all over the world to join our community, because they believe what we believe – that recruitment is broken and machine-based code-challenge platforms are an unfair way to screen job applicants, and that we can do something about that. Ultimately we want to change the way software engineers are hired, and step by step we’re doing that.
Do you have any major hobbies? How do these tie in to your professional life?
I love going to the gym. I am a gymbox regular – no free weights, just classes. It’s the only time I can forget about the stresses of work for 45 mins (whilst trying not to be sick). Other than that, my family is my focus. I’m either at the gym, working or spending time with them. My Dad came from an older generation that didn’t focus on their life–work balance and I didn’t get much time with him as a child. I know that startups take more out of you than a lot of jobs, but I’m determined to spend as much time with my family as possible – and if I can get them into developing through toys like Dash and Dot, all the better!
Success is wonderful, but failure builds character. What mistakes have you learned from in your journey to establish Geektastic?
Don’t assume just because you know you can solve someone’s problem that they’ll buy your solution.
We created Geektastic to solve a problem. Recruitment is broken. There are some recruiters out there that think like us – that quality is more important that quantity, that candidates are not commodities or a database to spam (and we have the pleasure of working with some of them). But even though we know we can fix this, it doesn’t mean everyone knocks down your door on day one. You need to build up credibility, to build up market position, and that takes time. Not something you have a huge amount of when you’re a bootstrapped startup!
What is the best piece of entrepreneurial advice you’ve ever received, and what’s the best you’ve given?
I can’t remember who said this originally, but Evan Hoff at Velo Partners repeated it to me: ‘All startups only fail for one reason: they run out of cash.’ It’s so true; cash is king. If you have cash and perseverance, you can keep iterating and pivoting until you find product–market fit (even if it’s not what you started with).
My advice is, make sure you are doing something you are passionate about. You have to think about it 24/7; you will be knocked back all the time. You need to be 100% sure of what you are doing and believe in it more than anyone else.
What is your vision for Geektastic’s future?
To be synonymous with technically assessing candidates. To be the first thing people think of when they think of a software engineering candidate – ‘What does their Geektastic profile look like? What did Geektastic say?’
Geektastic is currently raising on SyndicateRoom.