Ed Bussey, the founder of digital start up Quill, talks to Rachel Bridge at Drax about tech, dot coms and having an unlikely CV
Looked at purely objectively, Ed Bussey’s CV does not make a lot of sense. He joined the Royal Navy at the age of 17 and studied natural science at Cambridge University, where he started a tiny publishing business in his spare time. After serving with the Navy, he then spent eight years working overseas as a diplomat in military and counter-terrorism positions. In 2000, however, he decided to revisit his interest in entrepreneurship and at the age of 32 joined one of the UK’s early dotcom start ups.
As Ed himself admits: “When you try to piece it together it doesn’t make a whole load of sense and I sometimes find it very hard to explain why I have made the career choices I have. Ultimately I have always followed what I think is going to be an exciting opportunity.”
Fortunately this lack of career coherence has been more than made up for in fortuitous timing. His first dotcom venture became online retailer Figleaves, where as its head of marketing Ed found himself at the front line of digital marketing just as it was being created.
He says: “I literally learnt everything as it emerged for the first time – there were no books, courses or mentors to learn from. We were Google Adword’s fifth customer in the UK and the first non-US business to go live on the Amazon marketplace. We clocked up so many firsts.”
When Figleaves was sold to retailing business N Brown, Ed joined another digital start up, this time in the mobile telecoms market. He became COO for a Copenhagen-based company called ZYB which created apps for mobile phones. At the time no-one knew what an app was – but then the iPhone appeared and suddenly smartphones and apps became part of everyday life. Just 18 months after it launched, ZYB was sold to Vodafone for €32 million, making a considerable amount of money for shareholders in a short space of time.
By now Ed knew that he wanted to create a digital start-up of his own. He says: “I had a strong sense that there was going to be a convergence between content and commerce because at this point they were operating unsustainably in very separate worlds. The world of commerce had almost no content and the world of content was really bad at commercialising what it created. I thought this was inevitably going to change.”
He adds: “At Figleaves we had hundreds of thousands of products but almost no content to help consumers make an informed purchasing choice, and when we looked at trying to solve that problem internally, it was an operational nightmare. We just didn’t have the resources to create product-related content at the speed, scale and quality that we needed. After researching the market, I realised that there were no external solutions either, and that therefore we needed to create a completely new business model.”
So he launched Quill in 2011 to provide high-quality, multi-language content for ecommerce businesses, such as product descriptions for retailers and destination guides for travel firms. Quill has now produced content for over 170 clients including Google, eBay and John Lewis, with its freelance content creators collectively writing 400 words a minute in over 40 languages.
Ed says there are two big challenges with running a tech-led business such as Quill. “The first challenge is to persuade a client to do things in a very different way than they have been used to. The second challenge is to find the right investors. You need investors who are comfortable with the ambiguity of going to market with a product that doesn’t have a fully defined market fit and the risk that goes with that.”
Ed funded the business himself for the first two and half years and has since raised £10 million from angel investors and two VC firms, Smedvig Capital and Panoramic Capital.
He says there are two secrets to success. The first is to stay obsessively focussed on the opportunity. He says: “The market moves incredibly fast and you just can’t take your eye off the ball for a second. New businesses are constantly emerging and disruptors have always got to be mindful that they are about to be disrupted themselves.”
The second is to hire only the best people. He says: “I am really uncompromising about the talent. I personally interview every single employee and we will delay a hire if we can’t find the right person. The difference between an OK team and a really high-performance team is the quality of the people and the cultural values that they align around.”
Drax sector lead: Ruby Sheera
Partner, Technology and Tech-enabled businesses
Tel: 0203 949 9555