Can business school support an entrepreneurial venture? [Show summary]
James Chance, a 2019 London Business School MBA graduate, reveals how his experience at LBS impacted his path as an entrepreneur, along with how he’s transforming online privacy protection through his startup, yourself.online.
Learn how entrepreneur James Chance launched his start-up while at London Business School. [Show notes]
James Chance graduated from the University of Bristol in 2011 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He then worked as a strategy consultant for Accenture UK, until he joined Google in 2016. He earned his MBA at London Business School in 2019, which is where he also launched yourself.online, his startup. We’re going to learn more about James’s MBA path and experience, as well as about the launching of yourself.online and how it can help you maintain your privacy.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background, where you grew up, and what you like to do for fun? [2:03]
I grew up in Central London, not too far from the City, the financial district, right in the center, quite close to St. Paul’s. That was a real eye-opener in terms of this very fast-paced world, and growing up, I was fortunate enough to, from that experience, see a lot of things, arts, culture, different businesses, all sorts of different stuff as a kid and as a teenager. When I reached the end of secondary school, then I decided I wanted to get out of London and go to the University of Bristol, as a change of scenery.
In terms of what I like to do for fun, I’ve always been really passionate about traveling. I was fortunate enough to have a few occasions where I’ve traveled for work and worked in different countries, the US, Australia. But then I’ve also done more adventurous travels as well. I was fortunate enough, with a friend of mine in 2011, after I graduated from college, to drive halfway around the world from London to Mongolia in a car we bought on eBay for just under a thousand dollars. It’s an adventure called the Mongol Rally, which was great fun. And I’ve always been trying to find those sorts of, not quite as adventurous, but trips that are a little bit off the beaten track. But unfortunately that’s all on hold this year, but big plans for next year, hopefully. Next year, post-pandemic, I’d really like to do more of South America, since it’s not really somewhere I’ve explored much. I’d really like to do some of the Argentina, Brazil, bits of Peru as well.
You worked as a strategy consultant for Accenture for almost four years, then for Google as an analytical consultant, and also in e-commerce for a family business in Norway. With all these different experiences, why did you decide you wanted or needed an MBA? [3:50]
I first started to think about doing an MBA when I was in consulting. This is something throughout, really: I had come into business coming from an engineering background, so coming from a technical background, where my quantitative skills and analytical skills were good, but I didn’t have that much grounding in terms of finance, management, stuff like that. And I was fine for probably, I would say, the first few years of my career. But I found when I was at Google, I was fortunate enough to be brought into some really high-profile meetings with some of our senior clients, the CMOs of some of the largest e-commerce companies in the world, and stuff like that. Fantastic experience, but I was sitting at some of these meetings and I thought, I don’t know how you work out marketing ROI. There were things that I just didn’t have the fundamental business knowledge around. I could do the maths and things like that, and solve problems, but there were broader things I’d like to expand my skill base at and expand my fundamental background knowledge.
And then on top of that, I’d always had throughout my business days a kind of back-burner list of ideas. I’d maintained in an old notebook or in the back of my diary little business ideas I had for different things. And I thought, well, is there an opportunity to find a course that will allow me to explore some of these ideas at the same time? That was one of the things that led me to sealing the deal on applying for an MBA.
Are you glad you did it now that you’re on the other end of it? [5:43]
Oh, definitely. I think the time to have two years for really focused self-development, and also being in an environment where you’re around fantastic people, is like nothing else. It’s quite self-indulgent. I’m very glad I did it, and I think that the investment is worthwhile. I’m really glad I spent the time.
Let’s think back to when you applied. Was there anything particularly challenging about the application process for you? [6:09]
The application process did take me a while, and I spent quite a lot of time on research. The bit that I found that really helped, and the bit that I struggled with but then I had this kind of eureka moment about, was making sure that everything fit together into a coherent and cohesive story. That was the thing that I realized: That feeling that you’ve got to first understand the schools that you resonate with, but also those that align with the journey you’re trying to take. And then being able to package that into a coherent story that makes sense, that somebody can read on an application and say, “Ah, I get it.” They can see where you’re going and how the school will get you there. That was one of the things that I had this kind of eureka moment with. That wasn’t initially clear at first, but when I actually started to think more about it and get feedback on the applications, it was a real takeaway for me.
Some of the more pragmatic schools really look at it like that. They’re looking at it for, “Where’s this person going? Where’s this person come from? How does our experience get them there?” It’s not a case of putting tick box answers in things. It’s actually how it all hangs together.
What did you like best about London Business School in your experience there? [7:51]
It has to be, by far, the international mix. We had over 70 different nationalities, and as a Brit and a domestic student, I was almost in a minority. From memory, we had something like 30 Brits in our class of about 400, so we’re less than 10%. And to still be in the UK and also have this fantastic mix of people from such diverse backgrounds, and mixed in the way the classes were organized and the way the study groups were organized, you just have this super diverse experience. For example, in my study group I had a gentleman from Korea, a lady from Peru, a lady from the US, a guy from India, and a guy from Spain. It’s just a fantastic mix. That was probably it. Having that kind of international mix and melting pot, was really amazing.
What would you have liked to see improved while you were at London Business School? [8:50]
Good question. It’s funny. When you’re there at the time, you naturally grumble about things when you’re in a course. Then you come out and look at it afterwards, and actually, you think, yeah, they did a pretty good job in the circumstances. I think one thing that they could do better at is managing allocations of electives. When you go into the second year and you have the elective portfolio, that’s open to all the other programs. It’s open at an MBA level, including executive MBAs. And then you find with that, some of the courses get really oversubscribed, and they could do a better job at trying to manage that demand. But it just means that you have to be mindful in your second year about if you are really wanting to do a certain course. You either have to optimize for your courses or your time. You can’t do both.
You started working on yourself.online, your startup, in May 2018 while a first year student at London Business School. How did London Business School help you get yourself.online off the ground? [9:52]
That’s a good story, how it all came about. I had this idea, a bunch of different ideas, and the first term I was there, I started to meet a few people that were entrepreneurially-minded. We met at a few entrepreneurship clubs events. We then got together after class and would be kicking around ideas on a whiteboard, and thinking about how we could look at them and things like that. Then in the beginning of our second term in first year, they had a hackathon competition. About a week or two before the competition, one of my friends said, “Hey, you should really enter one of your ideas in here and just see how it goes.” And one of those things: Do you tell people about it, or do you go and do it? For me, the opportunity to road test something like that at some of the events they organized was fantastic.
I went to the hackathon event. You pitch an idea at the beginning. There were about 50 people there. I stood on stage and said my 30 second pitch of this crazy idea, this idea for the product. And then I was fortunate enough to get voted in to the competition. And then we worked. I found a couple of other students during the event, we worked together, and then we pitched it at the end. We were fortunate enough to win £3,000 from that and, moreover, the validation of the judges and all the students on some of the research we’d done that actually, this is something. This is a problem that we should spend a bit more time looking at and working on.
Then I took the idea to a program that LBS runs as an elective over the summer, between first year and second year, called Entrepreneurship Summer School. It’s a hybrid course of lectures and mentoring. It’s really a structured road test of a business idea. So everyone in the class – there were about 50 of us – got together in the first week, and we’d have a series of lectures, and then we’d be introduced to a mentor that would be assigned. Then we’d have a couple of weeks to go away and do some research, and then come back for some more lectures, and then at the end we’d do a final presentation. The aim of this presentation was really to say, is this a viable idea or not? And you’re encouraged to both prove and disprove the hypothesis. That gave me some more validation and some structure for six weeks to really work at researching the idea and validating it. I thought about how I could then spend some more time after first year to try and work on the idea some more.
You were given validation both from professors and from students, both through this course and outside of this course, correct? And, I assume, suggestions to refine your idea? [12:45]
There was a real focus in the course on external research and doing as many customer interviews as you could do. I think, over the course of that summer, I must have spoken to almost 50 people about the idea in some form, different people who sit in different customer groups, or things like that. It was a very valuable, experiential approach to testing out a business.
Did London Business School play any role in prepping you both to compete in and ultimately to win the South by Southwest March 2019 pitch competition? And if so, how? [13:24]
It did. It was very fortunate that through my time at London Business School, I also did an exchange at the University of Texas in Austin. That was where I took the idea, and that gave me an opportunity to connect with the US tech ecosystem and really develop the idea and make connections there. South by Southwest has a number of different pitch competitions, and this was one for students and graduate students, and I was fortunate enough to be invited back to present at that and represent LBS, which was fantastic. In terms of the help, apart from setting me up, I think some of the classes I’ve taken both at LBS and also UT, just in terms of things like business planning, business modeling, and new startup development, there’s definitely quite a lot of theory that definitely went into that pitch and helped set me up for it.
I remember the week before I went to South by Southwest last year, I was running around school, trying to practice my five-minute presentation with anyone who could see it. And I booked a meeting room, and it’s amazing the power of the network and the power of the class. Some of the people I managed to rope into help were phenomenal. I remember I was sitting there with a girl called Carmella, who’s now one of my good friends. We barely really knew each other, and she volunteered to help because she was part of the corporate communications team at Twitter and has helped coach some of their executives doing their big presentations. And then I had also somebody who came from an acting background and did some coaching as well. It’s amazing. It comes back to how diverse a school it was, how you can find these people from these different backgrounds. Also, when you make the request and say, “Hey, I need some help with this,” it’s amazing some of the people that will put their hands up, and say, “Hey, I can help you in this way,” which was really cool.
Did you know you wanted to start a business when you arrived at London Business School, or is that something that you thought about doing after you left? Or did you know you wanted to do it at all? [15:41]
I had these ideas, and at the stage of going to apply for the MBA, they were very much a list in the back of a notebook, or in the back of my diary. I had an idea of, yeah, I think it would be cool to check one of these out. I think at the time, I’d gone into the MBA primarily saying, how can I try and gain skills and connections to really accelerate my career further? And the new business was validation, the new business research bit on the side was saying, “Okay, plan for plan A. Look at plan B. And if I see something that’s actually got legs here, let’s do that. But I want to make sure that if I’m going to start a business after LBS or after doing my MBA, I want to really make sure that I’ve spent the time researching it, and I’m comfortable to make the investment in terms of my time and the opportunity cost on the back of doing an MBA.”
That is something that you’ve got to be upfront with people about. You have your friends that will go and start these new consulting jobs at BCG or Bain. They’ll be sitting there with their startup bonuses and all of their branded merch and their new Patagonia gear and all of that stuff and their nice salaries. And you’re like, “Oh well, I’ve just raised some investment. I can just about afford to pay myself something.” To be fair, my investors are realistic about how doing an MBA means that you do have certain costs that you need to pay back and financial loans and all that sort of stuff, so I can pay myself a reasonable amount, but there is a big trade off compared to the others’ potential salaries. It’s something that you just need to be sure of before you jump into it.
What is yourself.online? What does it do? [17:36]
We call it “Yourself Online,” and we normally drop the dot in the middle, but either one works. Our brand name and our website is just yourself.online. We’re a service to help individuals manage their own privacy and their online persona. We help people understand the information that’s about them on different social media websites, on different accounts, on different data brokers, things like that. What is their public and also their private online footprint, and what are some of the things they can do to manage that, and also to monitor it as well?
The idea behind it was something I saw when I was working in tech beforehand. I was starting to see that the lives people live online and the trail they leave behind are actually more and more being used to make deductions about who they are. What I was starting to see were these new services that were being used to vet people, trying to find all the information on a person, and then trying to make a decision about whether they could be a good applicant for a job, or insurance, or credit, or even more broadly things, trying to figure out somebody’s personality by what they leave behind on the web. I thought, this is just crazy, because people are being judged by things that maybe they’ve forgotten about or don’t know is out there. They’re not aware of the control they could have about it, or even in some cases, that they need more control.
This was the motivator for setting up the business and what we’ve been working on. Our vision is really to say, how can we build a service that is a consumer service, that puts customers at the heart of what we do, that’s transparent and trustworthy, that helps people to manage the information they share on the web?
What does it cost? [19:24]
We launched in April of this year. Our current pricing is $39, and that includes six months usage, and that’s upfront access to it. And what do people get? It’s an online service on the web, and you basically get an online dashboard where you’re able to manage your different social media accounts, review for any potentially damaging content, find and manage old accounts, and then also check for involvement in any data breaches as well, where potentially an old account of yours has been compromised and your details are out there.
There are other companies out there on the web that promise to protect privacy or audit social media. What is different and better about yourself.online? [20:28]
It’s really twofold. We’re looking to build a product that is more holistic, that has all the features people need. And in some cases, when we look at some of our competitors, there’s one for Twitter, or there’s one that does Facebook, or there’s one that does dark web breaches. We’re bringing those together into one product.
At the same time, what we’re trying to do and the way we’re building the company is really by being this online guardian to our customers, where we’re clear, we’re transparent, we’re not intimidating. We’re not trying to build a service that will intimidate you into paying. We have a free preview function that people can use to see it, and we have a lot of information on our blog pages as well. We have a lot of advice that we’re trying to put out into the market, really trying to be that trusted guardian. We’re just clear and transparent and open, helping people to manage this problem, rather than necessarily being scary or intimidating like some of our competitors are. We’re giving people the tools that we think they need.
Is yourself.online available anywhere in the world? [21:46]
It is available anywhere. We mainly focus on the main social media networks: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. We operate across those markets. In terms of our social media review, we are mainly focused on English language, but we have a translation function as well. We can do all the languages, but we are primarily, in terms of the way the site is built, it’s primarily English language.
How do you see yourself.online growing? [22:15]
In terms of our journey after business school, I have been working full-time on the business after I graduated last year, and I was fortunate enough to close a small round of angel investment funding at the end of last year. We also closed a sales partnership this year. We’re just really trying to grow the business and also close additional funding to fund that growth.
Where I see what’s next for us is moving the service beyond just being a website and into being a mobile app and continuing to build out features that some of our customers have been asking for. We’re looking to try and go beyond the existing features we have right now, to be able to say, how can we protect people as they sign up to new services and as they sign up to new accounts? Protecting more of the information they share as they use the web? And how can we do that on an ongoing basis as well?
Is there anything you would have liked me to ask you, or anything you want to add to what we’ve discussed? [23:20]
One of the things I found from my time doing the MBA was that it’s such a fantastic time for experimentation in terms of new business ideas, trying new careers, and really taking a test-and-learn approach, saying, okay, how can I go and try this, perhaps think about how I can validate it, and then see if it’s a go? I think that’s my experience. Some of my friends that I’ve seen go on to do great, really good career changes, or people who have accelerated their careers, are taking this very iterative approach of saying, “Okay, I’m going to go try and do a short internship here, or I’m going to do these courses and try this thing.” They really take that experimentation approach.
Also, I think the thing that was helpful for me on the journey was really having a plan that I was checking myself off against as I was going through, to provide some structure. One of the things I would find is that I felt I needed to give myself a plan and a bit of a map going into the MBA and when I was in courses to provide some structure and help as I was building out the business on the side. That’s one reflection I’ve had from the journey that might be useful to your listeners, to be able to chart their own course in the way they’re experimenting, pulled together into a plan towards some goals.
Where can listeners find out more about yourself.online and protecting their privacy? [25:20]
You can find out more information about what we do on our website, yourself.online. You’re welcome to try the service. We have a free preview where you can sign up to try the product and check your Facebook for free. I welcome any feedback as well. Please get in touch. My details are on the website.
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