Interview with Daniel Hulme

Daniel co-founded Satalia in 2008 and was one of the principal architects in designing and implementing the core technologies behind Satalia's new business model. Daniel has an MSci and Engineering Doctorate (EngD) in Computational Complexity from UCL. Daniel holds an international Kauffman Global Entrepreneur Scholarship and actively promotes entrepreneurship and technology innovation in the UK and US.

When did you decide that you wanted to become an entrepreneur?

If the definition of an entrepreneur is someone who organizes a business venture and assumes the risk for it, then the answer to when did I want to become an entrepreneur is ‘never’. I believe that there are broadly two types of entrepreneur, those looking to capitalize on a problem, and those looking to capitalize on a solution. If you’re looking to capitalize on any venture then you’re an entrepreneur. It’s in my nature to get excited about risk and the potential up-side in pursuing a venture… always has been, ever since I was a child.

There is an endless debate about whether entrepreneurs are born or made. It’s endless because the answer is much more complex than just binary. Anecdotally, up until 2007 I didn’t know my biological father. It turns out he’s a serial entrepreneur. However, I strongly think that it’s the ecosystem that plays the most significant role in cultivating entrepreneurship – it takes much more than a natural propensity to assume risk; it takes the right environment and a lot of luck. Would you call someone a racing driver if they were born with the requisite skills but never had the opportunity to drive a car?

I’m from the UK and I spend a lot of time in Silicon Valley. I was fortunate enough to win a Kauffman Global Scholarship in 2009 that gave me the opportunity to tour the US and try to understand how it takes technology from its universities and turns it into scalable high-tech companies. I’ve spent a long time studying the cultural differences between the UK and US, and how this culture stimulates (and sublimates) entrepreneurship and innovation. This is a topic I could talk about for hours…..

How did you know your business idea was the right idea?

I invented a solution (a technology) that I’m trying to capitalize on. I remember the day in January 2007 that I had the idea. I was asked by my PhD supervisor (at UCL) to attend some London Business School MBA electives. Reluctantly I did. In class we got the opportunity to pitch some technology ideas and build a team of scientists and MBA’s around the idea to assess its commercial potential. Because I like the sound of my own voice I pitched an idea loosely based on my doctoral research. The idea was to provide a platform that gives industry access to state-of-the-art algorithms via an API, all running on the cloud. Despite being a computer scientist, in 2007 I didn’t really know what an API was, and I’m not sure that the cloud was invented then.

During several MBA electives spanning 12 months I developed the idea further and also met my co-founder. Whilst writing up my PhD, my idea was championed by the head of the department and I was supported by the university’s tech-transfer office to build a proof-of-concept. I knew from the very beginning that the technology idea was good, but the important question was whether it was a good business idea?

What was the most difficult part in getting started?

For the business. It’s 2010 and we’re in the process of launching our beta service. Up until this point we’ve largely bootstrapped the company. Even after 3 years of building a great team and product, we still don’t have a clear value proposition. This is because our technology is very disruptive, and our business model is unique. To give a bad analogy, how could you assess the value proposition if your technology made the sun shine brighter? Clearly this should have huge value, but where do you begin to extract it? You choose a vertical that you think has a large market, and you try to reverse engineer the value from the data. What if the data isn’t available? What if you have to make the sun brighter to actually be able to generate this data? This is the position we’re in. We can solve critical and costly optimization problems faster, better and cheaper – clearly this has huge value. But to figure out the value proposition we actually have to apply the technology to a vertical pre-investment – we’re at the BR&D (Business Research and Development) stage. It’s the classic chicken-egg scenario that many start-ups face, and unfortunately many will never survive past. These two words - value proposition - are perhaps the most important words if you want to know if your idea has the possibility of being successful, and it is certainly needed if you want to raise venture capital (unless you find some angels that your idea resonates with).

So to answer the question in short: the most difficult part in getting started for us has been to raise capital to support a venture that has a disruptive technology but no current clear value proposition.

For me personally. The most difficult part was learning to accept help from others.

What is the top skill (or skills) needed to be a successful entrepreneur?

A cocktail of tenacity, unbounded-optimism, self-delusion, stubbornness, proactiveness, interpersonal-communication, rationalism, self-motivation, emotional-intelligence, honesty, ignorance, adaptability, intellect, opportunism, conviction, serendipity, integrity, arrogance, persuasiveness, stupidity, foresight, humility, focus, flexibility and vision.

What motivates you and/or keeps you motivated?

Several things. 1) I genuinely believe that this business can have a huge impact on society, and I want to make sure it fulfills its potential. 2) Not giving myself any other options but to pursue this venture 100%. 3) Probably most importantly - and this is going to sound very cheesy - but I often feel like I’m a small boat in the middle of the ocean, that it’s everyone’s belief in me (and the idea) that is the wind in my sails. Without this support I’m not sure I’d be able to do it.

What do you think is the major difference between entrepreneurs and those who work for someone else?

Honestly. Circumstance.

What has been one of your failures, and what have you learned from it?

To be decided.

I suspect that in a few years I’ll look back and realize that I’ve made numerous bad decisions that I haven’t recognized and didn’t learn from. I have a vague feeling that I pay too much attention to what other people think, and that I should follow my instincts more. However, things seem to be going well, so we’ll see…….

Walt Disney once said that "The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing." What are your thoughts on that quote?

Of course, but you should find time to do both. There should be a healthy balance between reflection and action. Talking about your ideas helps you clarify them, people can be good sound boards, and you will most likely create opportunities that you could not have imagined. I’m a strong advocate of networking.

Zig Ziglar once said "If you don't see yourself as a winner, then you cannot perform as a winner." What are your thoughts on that quote?

It depends how you perceive what winning is. It’s like climbing a mountain. Is winning reaching the top? If so, then you fail at every step. If winning, means progressing to the top, then every step you make is a positive one. There are plenty of geniuses/entrepreneurs throughout history that strived for perfection, and each day they didn’t achieve it was a day they truly suffered. Striving to create a ‘success’ can be a tortuous journey, and one that will most likely never end. However, these people forged forward to try to achieve their goal not because they saw themselves as winners, but because they had no choice; it was their passion, it was their vocation that fueled their fire, and we all get the chance to bask in the warmth of it.

What advice would you give an entrepreneur who is just starting out?

It sounds like a cliché, but it’s incredibly hard to start a successful venture. Be prepared to be humbled, be prepared to accept help, and be prepared to fail as fast as you can so you can move onto your next one. Be truly honest with yourself at all times. Talk to as many people as you can, listen and welcome criticism and support. Act on your instincts and act with integrity.

Company Description:

Satalia is changing the way industry solves optimization problems. Satalia provides 'optimization as a service'. Our core competence is in solving hard optimization problems via a unique automated process. In short, individuals/companies can send us optimization problems via Satalia's API and/or Web-Portal, we solve them using an automated solve pipeline that includes state-of-the-art techniques in problem encoding, preprocessing, algorithms, machine learning and compute management.





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