By Nick Travis, partner at Smith & Williamson
This article was originally published in Smith & Williamson’s Enterprise magazine, a thought leadership publication for entrepreneurs and growth companies.
Jay Richards’ career as an entrepreneur began when an observant business studies teacher felt that his talent for trading computer parts could be put to better use. Jay wants to make sure other youngsters get the same opportunities.
In his teenage years, Jay Richards embarked on some enterprising schemes that tested the limits of legality. Admiring the spirit, if not the execution, his business studies teacher suggested they work on finding some legitimate outlets for his instincts. His first venture was to design and sell T-shirts, making a cool £3,000 and finding his passion in the process.
At Birmingham City University, he studied business and management, but it wasn’t the standard student experience. Instead, he met a guy who sold him a nightclub. He worked on a tried-and-tested formula, inviting some of the better- looking guys from local professional football clubs and in turn they attracted the pretty girls. He fitted it around studying for his degree.
After university, he moved back to London and worked in a management consultancy group for a while, but he didn’t enjoy it and was itching to find a new opportunity. Along the way he saw talented people from ‘underestimated’ backgrounds that the current entrepreneurial ecosystem didn’t support.
At the same time, it was clear that the world’s biggest brands were desperate for insight into the next generation of consumers. If he could deliver that insight for them, he had a business.
Imagen Insights was launched with a focus on Generation Z, those born from 1995 onwards. Jay began to build a platform of 200,000 carefully-chosen young people, aged 16-24. Generation Z individuals are natural ‘co-creators’ and it was a perfect fit.
Imagen Insights helps agencies and brands like the NFL and Stella McCartney to collaborate with Generation Z for brutally honest insights about branding, marketing and products. No more guessing, they crowdsource the best talent to enable agencies and brands to build all of the above with Generation Z in the room. An “Uber for talent”.
“For most brands, the first time they meet these young people is after they’ve graduated. By that point, they’ve missed the boat.” He says, “The agencies and brands love it,” he adds, “providing them with differentiated insights into their target audience. It also works for the young people involved, who get £150 to £450 a day and the chance to work with a variety of different brands. They may be helping create content, build entire marketing campaigns or develop a new product.”
To find the right young people, Jay built close links with schools. His team delivered talks, directly to their classrooms, talking to senior leaders and head teachers to find those with real potential. That was the easy part. Schools were keen to take part and get their talented young people involved with the business.
“We wanted to help nurture talent. We wanted to take underestimated young people, from low income backgrounds, ethnic minorities or women and create opportunities for them.”
The toughest side has been financing, says Jay, particularly dealing with the high street banks: “We had a bit of a nightmare with one of the banks, which ‘lost’ a few months’ wages. We were around 20 days from not being able to pay staff.
We needed to get creative and we did everything we could to keep the lights on. Also, banks take a long time to approve finance.”
Thankfully Jay connected with some great angel investors who saw the start-up’s potential and took a risk. Now one of Forbes 30 Under 30, Jay has changed his perspective too: “When I started out as an entrepreneur, my whole idea was to start up and exit by my mid-thirties, but I’ve gone through a real mindset shift. I’m in it for the long-term. I want to create a brand that will outlast me on my deathbed. This shift has been powerful – rather than ‘what can I do for you now?’, it’s all about building long-term relationships.”
He believes this adaptability is part and parcel of good entrepreneurship:
“Don’t be scared to pivot. It used to be that it was seen as a weakness, but I believe not pivoting is a weakness. You are pivoting because you are learning what needs to be done. I see pivoting as a strength.”
Just as important for Jay is building a great team and then trusting them to get on with things: “You could be a control freak, but setting clear targets and leaving them to get on with it is more powerful. It also frees you up to focus on other things.”
His advice to those young people with a burning idea? “Research your market. People often think their idea is gold, but until you ask people, it might only solve a problem for five people. Then the other thing is just to get started. It is only by getting started that they can work out whether it can be done.”