Cheyne Tan graduated from London Business School's MBA programme in 2010. He co-founded BlikBook to address an issue that he and his three co-founders had themselves experienced: inefficiency in the way information was shared between students. The genesis of BlikBook – ‘Blik’ being a hybrid of ‘bouncing’ and ‘flicking’ between textbook pages – flowed from a desire to help spread information fairly.
In 2010, Tan teamed up with fellow MBA students Barnaby Voss and Deepak Colluru. They quickly enlisted the technical expertise of UCL computer science PhD student Ben Hall. The four co-founders entered LBS’s Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (IIE) incubator, where they developed their idea.
Tan notes: “We started with textbooks. We could make them more affordable, more accessible. We could chop them up into chapters, make them rentable in e-formats – so we struck deals with major publishers.”
In 2011, BlikBook raised £500,000 in seed funding. As it scaled, the founders realised that students were engaging in discussion more than they were consuming books.
The initial platform was designed to encourage better discussion between professors and students and students and their peers. But the entrepreneurs soon found that by interpreting the data on the students’ behaviour, lecturers could predict which students would need extra help. Tan says: “At that point, we pivoted away from the textbooks and doubled down on the collaboration tool. That's what took off.”
By 2014, BlikBook was being used at a third of UK universities and the majority of Irish institutions. On average, students accessed the platform for 1.5 to three hours each day, two to three times a week. That year the start-up raised US$1.3 million (£972,842) to support the growth of the business including the move of the headquarters to Dublin, Ireland.
In 2015, the BlikBook team sold their business to Civitas Learning, a US-based predictive analytics Software-as-a-Service innovator. “BlikBook had helped solve an important part of the student-success equation – increasing and improving student engagement,” Tan explains. But Civitas, with its deep data-science platform capabilities, could take that mission further and empower universities with insights to attract, retain and graduate more students.
Tan remained with Civitas for two more years as managing director, spearheading the international arm of the business. In 2017, he handed over the reins and moved on.
Sharing first-hand lessons
Telling self-starters these days that entrepreneurship takes grit, courage and a dose of luck is a bit like saying that oxygen is necessary to breathe. But Tan has journeyed through the end-to-end process of taking an idea, scaling it up and selling a business on. Whether you’re an early-stage entrepreneur or an innovator transforming a large corporate from the inside out, here are some of the lessons Tan has uncovered along the way. He notes: “You never stop learning; it’s an essential ingredient of any successful business.”
1. Discover the art of focus
At some point early on, Tan discovered that success would be defined by what his team chose not to do rather than what they chose to do. “It would have been easy with a blank piece of paper to say, ‘After offering textbooks, we’ll sell additional learning material and then supplementary teaching’ – it's so easy to cook up adjacencies and theoretically grow your business in this way,” says Tan. But the real art, he found, was to focus and cut out the noise. The decision to drop textbooks was not an easy one, the founders had struck up deals with publishers, investing their personal reputation in doing so – they had promised that BlikBook would help publishers build their businesses. “Focus is about hard choices,” says Tan. It forced the self-starters to say, “We’re either going to be great at textbooks or great at collaboration.” That focus, in the long run, really paid off.
2. Never assume
When Tan co-created the business, he knew that listening to the market would make or break the venture’s thesis. “But,” he cautions, “building a market-driven strategy requires you to look for the right signals.” It can be easy to succumb to asking your personal network – friends, family, colleagues – what they think about your idea and forget to focus on your future customers, claims Tan. Your network may tell you what you want to hear but true market insight comes from your customers. Tan learnt to never assume. He admits that he presumed he understood the lifestyle and consumption habits of 19-year-olds, BlikBook’s target market: he was in his thirties at the time. He laughs, “I was way off the mark!” The best way to solve a problem that people want to pay for is to ask them. Pound the pavements. Examine consumer behaviour. Find out what people really want.
3. Thank your biggest supporters, often
Steve Jobs famously said: “Here’s to the crazy ones … they push the human race forward.” Building a company can be brutal. “I don't think I could have emerged from some really tough times without the support and understanding of family – particularly my wife. Support at home is critical because when you’re on this journey, you’re taking risks, you’re a pioneer and logic is stacked against you.” People called him crazy. They told him he could earn better money elsewhere and that disrupting the market was nonsensical, yet, he and his founders kept plugging away. “I remember working on a book deal to distribute textbooks, walking into multinationals with nothing but a couple of slides and trying to negotiate access to their content. One company executive said, ‘Listen, Cheyne, thanks for your time but next week Apple is coming to talk, why would we work with you?!’” With persistence, BlikBook closed some of the first deals in Europe with the world’s largest publishers. What made the difference to Tan was having a supportive network that understood the insanity of what he was doing.
4. Be genuine
Stay true to who you are, says Tan. “So much of being an entrepreneur is about people – gaining buy-in, hiring, inspiring – so you need to instil belief.” People can easily see through a façade. It shines through when innovators want to change the world for the better in some way. Being genuine is about bravery and challenging convention, says Tan, but it’s also about being a good person. Authenticity is like a magnet: “You never know who you’re sitting next to. When I met Ben [who was on exchange from UCL], we hit it off and he offered to help screen potential technical co-founders. After six or seven interviews, we hadn’t found the right person or team chemistry so I asked Ben to become the chief technology officer.”
5. Draw out people’s best
Learning how to get the best out of the people is a major lesson – and one that Tan admits he hasn’t always nailed first time. “Being a leader doesn’t mean being the smartest person in the room,” he says. Rather, it means drawing out people’s best, enabling the flow of ideas and empowering capability. “In some cases, it means giving people the latitude to make mistakes and allowing them freedom and independence. It involves treading a fine line between irreverence and apathy. In other cases, it means offering more structured feedback.” Striking the right note takes time, patience and practice.
6. Don’t give up
Start-ups don’t die, they commit suicide. Tan says: “If idea execution was easy, everyone would do it well. It’s hard to make ideas a reality because, by their very nature, ideas are incomplete.” Many early-stage entrepreneurs give themselves away because they aren’t willing to share their precious thinking. Experienced entrepreneurs don’t say, “I have an idea, but wait, I can’t tell you about it.” They say, “Hey! I have an idea, let me tell you about it. Tell me why it’s wrong, tell me why it’s crazy, tell me how I can make it better.” Tan learnt that if the barrier to entry was low enough to fear someone else could easily replicate the idea, then it was probably an idea worth killing.
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