September 4, 2016

Episode 61 – Abadesi Osunsade


Co-Founder of Nuanced/ Hustle Crew, Groupon & Amazon Alumni

Tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born in DC originally. My dad’s from Nigeria and my mom is from the Philippines. My father who’s retired now was an economist for the IMF, and their HQ is in DC. Since he was a diplomat, I spent a lot of my childhood moving around. When I was in year nine, I came to boarding school in the UK, and that’s how I met my co-founder, Natalie [episode 43].

How long have you been working together?

We’ve known each other since school, and I came on board full time with Nuanced this summer.

Tell me a little bit about Nuanced. What do you guys do and what’s your involvement in the company?

Nuanced is a strategy consultancy and training company. What we want to do is leverage our unique life experiences to help brands and people connect with underrepresented groups, similar to the work you guys do. We feel that a lot of people want to be more inclusive either as a brand or as an organization. If you’re not a minority group yourself, it can be tough to know how to communicate authentically with those people. We thought that there was a gap in the market regarding consulting on a strategic front whether that’s communication strategy, growth strategy, and product strategy for brands.

Nuanced at work

Nuanced at work

What was your career path before you joined up with Natalie at Nuanced?

I studied economics and government at LSE, here in London, which was great. I loved studying in London. I graduated in 2009 which was probably the worst time to be a graduate.

After eighteen months working as an intern at the Financial Times and at a media company in the city, I heard about this company called Groupon. Apparently, it was the fastest growing start-up in the world.  I thought this sounded promising. I managed to leverage my network to get an intro to the UK founder which then led to an interview with the director of partner management, and suddenly I was partner manager number eleven or twelve at Groupon, a year before the IPO. Every Monday a new batch of thirty employees would join the company and a proportion of those were joining partner management, so that was my first step into the tech world. In a way, it was such a unique opportunity because Groupon was the fastest growing start-up of our time, and had a sixteen billion dollar IPO. Over my three years at Groupon, I was able to play a vital role not only in partner management but also in operations, working directly with merchants to help them maximize what was a relatively new technology. There was no such thing as daily deals before Groupon, and the platform that we ran the business off and the tools that the merchants could manage their sales offer on, were all revolutionary. For me to be able to be a part of that journey and be a part of letting that movement grow in the UK, and allowing merchants access to that movement to grow their business was inspiring. It’s something that I still try to do today. We have a history at Nuanced of enabling others and enabling businesses, and I learned that at Groupon.

What’s it like being in a company the day or the week before an IPO?

It’s exciting, but it’s also terrifying. After Groupon, I went to Amazon for a year, and it couldn’t have been any more of a polar opposite. Groupon was just hectic craziness all the time but in many ways I think we all became addicted to that buzz, in a way an athlete might become addicted to the adrenaline rush. Once we knew that IPO was on the table, the stakes did go up a lot because it meant that we could make fewer mistakes. When you’re a private company if a deal falls through or a client gets annoyed because you’ve made a mistake, you can sweep those things under the rug and keep moving on. But once an IPO is on the table, you know that every number, every target, every interaction suddenly becomes public knowledge and public data. So, leading up to the IPO there was a lot of cleaning up going on. We were quite a scrappy company, Groupon in the UK was initially a Rocket Internet business. Rocket Internet companies are famous for scaling fast. It’s like you break things along the way but you learn to get it done, and all we care about is growth, growth, and growth. It’s like, screw the processes, if they’re not perfect it doesn’t matter, as long as we are scaling up. Once an IPO was on the table, we realized we had to depart quickly from that Rocket Internet way of doing things and prepare for the due diligence that all the banks and investors would be doing. It was tough because at the same time targets were still growing. There was still an expectation that we had to keep selling more, and building more, and getting more and more merchants to re-feature, at the same time implementing all these new rules and regulations. It was a challenging period for us, especially people like myself and my friends, who all had targets against them because we felt this pressure to do well.

If my memory serves me right after the IPO the company ran into some trouble? What was that like on the ground when that happened?

Similar to Uber and Airbnb any new technology that pioneers in this space finds itself operating where there are no rules or regulations, so the government is often playing catch up, and the Groupon was in a very similar position. The OFT [Office of Fair Trading] started investigating Groupon while I was there. For people on the ground it was troubling because, on the one hand, you felt like “when my shares cash out I’m going to be balling” you get all excited, and then suddenly it’s like, “Oh wow, the company could be shut down.” There were highs and lows, one day it’s like, “Woo-hoo we made the cover of TechCrunch again, look at this amazing stuff we’ve achieved.” Everyone’s praising you on the blogs, on the news, on the podcast and then the next day everyone’s talking about you in a negative way. In a way as first-time founders now we’re very cautious of the role that media plays because it can both make you and break you. I learned that at Groupon because it was this runaway success, and that meant that all eyes were on the company, and the minute you no longer perform people will be the first to criticize you as well. So, that was tough and obviously being client facing a lot of our customers would be concerned saying, “Oh! I’ve been reading that you guys are in trouble. I’ve been reading that the share prices are down. Should I be concerned?” Suddenly you’re experiencing the knock on effects on the strength of the brand.

Did they give you a company line to say it to people, if the clients are questioning about anything?

Yeah. By this point in time, I was one of the senior account managers; I was managing a team of seven or eight people. Every Monday morning I would go into a meeting with other executives, and we would say, “OK! Here’s the new disaster, or drama, or crisis. How do we keep things calm so we can carry on?” And together we would hash out one page of FAQ like if a client asks this say that, just in line with whatever our PR director had told the press, just to make sure we’re all aligned as a company. Probably what saved us then as things didn’t go so well for the company, were the personal relationships we had built as account managers because the trust was there we could say, “Hey look, in a way we’re all in the same boat, right. My job is tied to this company just like the way your businesses success is linked to this company. So, I want this to work as much as you do and as an insider, I can tell you that if there was ever anything you needed to worry about I’d be the first to let you know, and that’s not the case.” Many moons later Groupon is still okay; it’s still trading. It’s got a market cap of three point three billion dollars which is insane.

How would you contrast your experience at Amazon with your time at Groupon?

After spending three years at Groupon which is probably the equivalent of double the time at any other regular company. I thought it would be great to go to Amazon. I was approached by a recruiter on LinkedIn, I thought now I’ve done a start-up, let me go to best in class and see how a company that employs one hundred thousand people around the world works. The first thing I noticed was the change of pace. Even though Groupon was already maturing by the time I left, it was still five or six years old as a company versus Amazon which had been in the UK for around ten years or so. Things moved a lot slower. There was just a lot more layers of bureaucracy, and layers of administration and I guess in many ways you could be scrappy, but then to solve that scrappiness you need to create processes and create rules, but by setting up those processes and roles it just means that decision making slows down a lot. One of the things that I found a challenge moving from Groupon to Amazon was that Groupon was a daily deals company, on any given day I would be getting ten or more deals live and off the ground. Suddenly I moved to Amazon as an account manager where the sales cycle was a lot slower, so one of the first negotiations I worked on Amazon, a multi-million-pound deal, took nine months to close eventually and get the contract signed. So, that was a change of pace for me. Amazon isn’t a start-up, and it felt like it wasn’t a start-up, it was a more mature technology company. After a year at Amazon, I enjoyed it but I just missed the energy of start-ups, and that’s actually when I went to work at Hotel Tonight which is the last role I did before coming on to Nuanced full time.

Is Hotel Tonight like an aggregator of hotels that you can book, right?

Yeah, exactly. It doesn’t aggregate so much as it curates the lists, so that relationship is direct with Hotel Tonight, between the hotel and the app, but mobile app only for booking last minute hotel rooms around the world.

Everything that you learned in that period, how do you take that on to the company that you are a co-founder of?

I was grateful to get lots of learnings because I was hired in Hotel Tonight to launch the app in new markets. That’s such good training for being a first-time founder because when I was traveling to Manchester or Edinburgh and meeting with the general managers of hotels who had not heard of our app, they’d heard of our competitors who are famous. I’m just there almost like the underdog, like, “Hey, why don’t you work with us.” And they were like, “Who are you?” It was excellent training because that is the type of sales and the kind of growth hacking strategies that every first-time founder will have to do. It was good training. It was just good practice to go to a potential key client and do all of the objection handlings and make a case for why they need to work for you and justify the value that you can bring. I spent a whole year doing that for the app, and it was excellent. I think it was also a good way to learn about pitching new technology to an older audience, which is a challenge that lots of tech founders will face at the end of the day. We can’t only make products for ourselves, and the millennial, and the generation after. The biggest spenders in our economy are our parents’ age, right. They are the ones that don’t have student debt anymore and have money to pay, earn a bit more. But at the same time they didn’t grow up with smartphones, they didn’t grow up with social media. A lot of our products incorporate concepts and things that they’re not familiar with. So, even me going to Manchester and trying to get a hotel to sign up to Hotel Tonight, they would pull up their laptop and go, “OK! Cool, where is the website?” I would say, “Well actually it’s a mobile app.” And they are like, “So, you can only book on your mobile phone?” I would then have to educate them on the fact that sixty percent of transactions in the last year happened on mobile, not on the desktop, and suddenly you’re not only selling you’re educating as well, but I think that’s a unique opportunity that we as tech founders have. If people can’t understand the value of a product because nothing like it has ever existed yet, that’s not a challenge; that’s an exciting way to show how much of an innovator you are.

Hotel Tonight was great practice for that, and I brought lots of those sales tactics learnings, launching new markets learnings into Nuanced.

Our latest product is called Hustle Crew, and it’s an invite only community which enables people to take control of their careers. One of the things that we’ve noticed working in tech, working in a start-up is the line between life and labor has become blurred in a way that previous generations would never really understand because there’s so much emphasis put on culture fit, accountability. It feels a bit like many individuals don’t have the time to focus on their personal priorities when it comes to work, the priorities of their job, and the priorities of their life are becoming more and more mixed up. One of the things we wanted to do through building Hustle Crew has created a safe space where individuals can interact with like-minded ambitious people to reassess their life goals, re-evaluate their career goals, and make sure that they’re staying on track with them while still working hard at work. They can still do their jobs well but what we want to do is create an opportunity for them to get advice from a community of experts as well as friends and kind of say, “Actually I think this is my five-year plan. How do I get to that five-year plan?”

At nuanced you guys do client work, and you also work on your products as well?

Exactly, yes. This is like the next chapter. In all start-ups it’s important to continue to innovate, so our latest innovation is this product Hustle Crew, and more products will come as time goes on.

What type of advice would you give to someone in your position maybe five or ten years ago, a younger version of yourself?

I think what I would start off by doing is advising someone to take a step back and do introspection, just think based on all the experiences they have so far. What have they enjoyed the most and how can they apply that to what they want to do next? So, do you enjoy working in a team or do you enjoy working on your own? Do you enjoy building or do you enjoy numbers and data analysis? Try and create a profile of the kind of job you want to do before you start looking for a job. The reason I say that is that a lot of us mainly me coming from an Asian-African background has almost the expectations of work projected onto us by our parents. My parents were like, “Look for the job where you can earn the most money, or look for the job as the most prestige.” If I had listened to them then I would have never ended up where I am today because actually by deciding to leave the city and join Groupon I took a huge risk and Groupon could have failed, but it didn’t. Because I took that chance I could then get the job at Amazon, Hotel Tonight, and now find myself as a first-time founder at the age of twenty-nine. So, what I do more now that I didn’t do as much of then is listen to myself, and let my personal ambitions, and personal desires, and personal expectations determine the type of opportunities I’m seeking. I think more and more people should do that. I’m writing a book at the moment based on my experiences working in the start-up world. I’m writing it so people can get to where I am now a lot quicker. I think more and more people should be founders, and more and more people should be entrepreneurs, but a lot of people are discouraged from taking the risk. The reality is if you’ve got a great idea and you’ve got the energy and the drive to make it happen, its better to do it sooner rather than later because that aversion to risk only grows as you get older. So, listen to yourself and take a risk while you are young.

Michael Berhane

Co-founder and CEO of & Also the co-host of the #Techish podcast! Full Stack JavaScript developer by trade.

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