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Episode 56
Arjo Ghosh Interview. Backstory of Entrepreneurial success

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This week’s episode is a stimulating chat with entrepreneur, Arjo Ghosh. One of the earliest entrants into the digital marketing space and now working on a new venture. Chris Lawson and Samuel Monnie interview Arjo through his key moments in his career and what really drove him to become a better entrepreneur. “Challenging questions” is a key theme to driving success, both personally and in business. Contact: https://www.marketingtransformed.com/

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  • Unconventional upbringings and why questioning isn’t taught enough in schools

  • What’s next in Arjo’s story? And the opportunity of electrification.

  • After entrepreneurial success the challenges of how to follow success

  • Creating change “Isn’t there a woman that could do that panel instead of me?”

  • Is being an entrepreneur socially acceptable?

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Transcripts:

CHRIS:

Welcome to across the pond. My name is Chris Lawson over in the UK, and I'm joined across the pond by Samuel Monnie. Say hello, Sam. 

 

SAM:

Hey Chris, how are you, sir? 

 

CHRIS:

Good. Yeah, very well. Thank you.

 

SAM:

Excellent. I'm super excited. We've got a great guest lined up for today's show. So I'm really looking forward to getting into it.

 

CHRIS:

We Have indeed, yeah. We've got our Arjo Ghosh. I met Arjo, I would say probably about 2002, 2003. So a long, old time ago now, a really inspirational guy, sets him out as an entrepreneur and non-executive director. He's got a great new startup, which we're getting into called electric together.com and that helps people make better decisions about buying electric cars and associated products. But where I met him was a company called Spanner Works, right at the advent of the digital wave. And it went on to do incredible things. And he'd take you through a bit of our story and coming out of that, then he's also gone on a really interesting path as well, doing a lot of work with the University of Sussex as a member of their council and also trustee of  audio active, a Brighton based charity that does work with young people and helping them with music skills, experience and talent development. So Arjo, welcome. 

 

ARJO:

Thank you. Thanks, Chris and hi Samuel. 

 

Am I Un-mentorable?

 

SAM:

I was just reading through your profile there. And there were just some fascinating things and you seem to have been at the cutting edge of all things, search and internet and finding that gap in the market, but I'll let Chris kick us off and let's get into it.

 

CHRIS:

So I remember those early days of that first digital wave and I was at EMAP at the time,  looking after digital marketing activity. And there was this thing called Google coming around the corner. And I thought, actually, we need some expertise and help in terms of understanding, search marketing. And, that's, that's how we got to know each other. But why don't you take us through that first digital way than how you anticipated that SEO trend and tell us what happened then? 

 

ARJO:

Well, I mean, my kind of internet story started in 96, 97 when I was working in a desktop publishing studio in Covent garden in central London called Neal's Yard DTP. And whilst it sort of had an auspicious name and a few macs in it, it turned out to be really seminal for lots of people that worked there because it was the first time that desktop user interfaces, if you like democratize the use of PCs. Right. Which was the advent of Apple. And in that studio, we had graphic designers and, filmmakers doing credits. We had people doing magazines, books. I once worked on the backdrop for the Royal Opera House when they first started doing some digital stuff. So we had this real kind of mishmash of technology of print, moving to digital. And the man that owned the studio had a, quite a radical story of his own. He shared an internet connection with a local anarchist, and it was this cable across a couple of rooms in Covent Garden and came down through our window. And that was my first experience of sort of watching Usenet groups load incredibly slowly. And at that point there, it was an incredible feeling of being connected and. You know, just thinking, wow, there's all this information out there, which in those days was clearly not a lot, but it was so much more than what you could access via four TV channels and a very controlled set of radio waves. So we didn't have that many routes. So things started to explode for me the moment I, I saw the internet. But I didn't think it would at that stage grow as rapidly because of course we had a lot of technical problems and things were slow and not everyone had connections. So it was very, very early on that I saw an opportunity, but I didn't quite know how fast it would go, but there was something that really excited me. 

 

CHRIS:

How did you refine that down and think, right where am I going to focus? 

 

ARJO:

Yeah, well,  I was very unemployable really, I guess always, but certainly a lot of people when you talk about being kind of, I call it I'm un-mentorable actually. Now I don't really try to mentor anyone else. I do obviously young people. It's great to mentor them but at that stage I was not looking for work. Cause I didn't feel like I wanted to work for anyone else. And I carried on going down the technical route because that's the bit that excited me that I could kind of hide behind a screen a bit if you like, but we could start coding. And we started coding. We started building websites and learning HTML from the ground up, which I did. And we quickly saw that the website design stuff, although it was interesting, was, incredibly limited. And we went into much more  heavier coding. And that's really the precursor to the moment where I saw search as this incredible opportunity because we were doing coding and we understood if you like the bolts and nuts, the pile of wires on the floor, which people imagined as the internet, which you didn't know where the two end points where we kind of understood the technicalities and how it worked. And that really helped understand how search works. 

 

CHRIS:

Was there a feeling then when you thought  actually we're onto something or did you still feel you were muddling along until a little bit later? 

 

ARJO:

That's a great question. So Google launched in 98 and in 96, 97, we were doing some quite heavy duty Java programming. We built some immersive technology  from the ground up, but this amazing Russian programmer that I met in a sweet shop and he built this Java based immersive software. Then one day after sort of losing sleep around the business model of coding, in that you never really made money until you're 85% and upwards utilized because you're paying high salaries. And of course, a lot, a lot of time is wasted too. And I asked and there were five of us at the time. And I said, what  search engine were you  using? And everyone was using Google around the office. And although the amount of information and it was limited and AltaVista still maybe had more to begin with, or Yahoo still had a kind of comfort blanket of a classified ad system that you knew where you were clicking. Google was obviously just a game changer and literally that night I decided to change the business model of me and a few coders into being kind of tech marketing people. And I decided that the business model would be about us connecting consumers to big brands. And I also decided that they would pay us by results and pay us on performance and not by kind of project fees. So that was in, that was in 1998. 

 

Being an Entrepreneur is socially acceptable

 

SAM:

So this entrepreneurial spirit seemed to be intrinsic to you. And, and tell us a bit more about how you define that. If you say you're an entrepreneur, how do you respond to that when people accuse you of it? 

 

ARJO:

Yeah. So a really good question. It's, it's become a kind of thing that's now socially acceptable. Isn't it to be an entrepreneur. It's even positive, you're not really kind of this weirdo that doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the, you know, career life that we  aspire to. Well, I went to a hippie primary school, which we'll talk about later, but it was wild. And my secondary school was an inner city comprehensive in an area of London that was very economically deprived or they're culturally very rich. I mean, I went to the Polytechnic, which, which is now called university, but then it was Polytechnic in Liverpool and they wanted to put a plaque on the school saying I've got to university basically. Well, because no one did from our school. But in our first school assembly, they were telling us about, O levels, which are now called GCSEs. And they were saying, we need to be thinking about what you're doing because when you get a job for people, these exams will be very, very important. And I put my hand up in this assembly of three or 400 kids, I had long hair, sandals on, I looked wild, I mean, I looked like Mowgli at the time I put my hand up and I said, I'm not going to work for anybody else, I’m going to  work for myself. I didn't even really know what that meant. But I certainly had a spirit in me from 11 years old that was kind of, I couldn't deny it. That's why I say I was unemployable. And I think the internet catered for  quite a lot of this, into that, you know, quite a lot of similar people, the internet gave a home for.

 

SAM:

Well, tell us a bit more about how your upbringing influenced your career path or the choices you made. 


 

ARJO:

So, I mean, I kind of believe in genetics without knowing anything about them that much, but I'm from a mixed parentage. So my father was Indian and came over in the late fifties to the UK and my mother British and yeah, they separated when I was really young, under three years old. So I didn't know my father that much until I was older. And I went back to India regularly and saw him from the age of 16 onwards. And I always felt that I had a mixture of the two things. There was a kind of freedom of spirit on the English side, which represented itself when my parents split up, my mum went kind of down the hippie route. My dad was a chartered accountant and a finance director in a company. So they couldn't be more different. And it was probably good that they did separate. And I felt that the two sides of me have always been that  my mum went down this wild hippie route, where we went to the school that was created in south London called Kirkdale school. And it was  what was called a free school, which meant that the children ran the school. And this is a primary school we're talking about. So for those that don't know that you get the primary system from age five to 11. So young children. And the teachers didn't really mediate that much between lots of stuff. They let us get on with it. So at worst, there was all sorts of bullying and kind of risky behavior, at best we had crazy things like marriages. We had gay marriages. Where kids are, professing  love to each other, and then they'd have a wedding . But then we had women's rights stuff going on. We had a really strong sense of self-responsibility. So if you did something wrong, you would be brought up at the school meeting and the other kids would decide what your recompense was. And that stayed with me. And every action I had, had a personal responsibility, if you like. And then I went to secondary school, which was in the state school system, and I couldn't believe how self-responsibility didn't seem to be a thing at all. It all seemed to be blaming someone else. And fight the teachers and don't listen in class and mess about as much as you can, which I did a lot of that, but it was quite shocking actually, culturally, to move from kind of a hippie kind of freedom of doing what you want, which included a lot of learning, but learning by play and then into a system where no one wanted to learn. 

 

SAM:

If you think about those experiences of the, sort of the freedom and the self-directed to perhaps more institutional and structured, which parts of those experiences do you think you tap into now that have helped you in your endeavors? 

 

ARJO:

Well, I left London in late 96/97. I left London. I came to Brighton and Brighton had a whole kind of community of older hippies and people I recognized from my childhood. If you like, I felt I understood where they were coming from and it had quite an alternative Bohemian culture. It still does to a certain extent. And here I felt that there was a very lax approach to work in a lot of companies here. And I founded Spanner Works here and my feelings around self responsibility. I always, I think practiced in that you know, we'd all go out and party hard after work some nights and the next morning I'd be the first in. And I wouldn't really suffer in my work kind of mode, I wouldn't really suffer excuses too much because I felt that you make your choices and it's down to you to be good at what you do. We were kind of, if you like the culture United out of Silicon valley from big tech where you have kind of, you know, fruit bowls and massages and a million other kinds of staff perks, which came out of that needing to retain expensive, highly you know, rare to find programmers  essentially. That has dissipated into the whole kind of agency community, which I'm sure you're both kind of recognized in as it's all about the culture of the agency. And I strongly felt that it was all about the work the agency did and the culture would come with it. So we just set out to do great work for clients and stay very client centric.

 

CHRIS:

I think it's really interesting because you came from a quiet an unstructured approach. Some people would argue in some ways, however, that can be really tight towards those principles and that determination, I think really sort of shines though and Spanner Works then you sort of took that on so it almost became a sort of a full service agency and you sold it to iCrossing

 

ARJO:

Yes, that's right. Yeah. So we built out, we brought in the whole social media side to what we did, because you could see that search was evolving. We used to research the IP that Google filed in America to see what they were thinking of. And we could see where kind of content was going if you like. And then social media. So we sold to a company called iCrossing, which we then became part of a very large independently owned agency. So it was about 1100 of us, I think, at that stage. Across, I think there were seven or eight offices in the U S and we had UK and we bought an agency in Germany and we started building that out. So that was 2007. And I exited ICrossing in 2010 when we sold into Hearst. So ICrossing is now subsumed into the Hearst corporation. 


 

Marketing Transformation today

CHRIS:

So what's next, then Arjo what's the next big marketing transformation. Do you keep yourself awake at night? Thinking, God, I got that one right? Am I going to get the next one, right?

 

ARJO:

Yeah. I mean, look, where are we at the moment?  I think we can learn a lot from politics. I think that, you know, news and current affairs and how politics is morphing kind of adapting to the digital age is a bit like in the first phase of the internet financial services and travel were the two sectors, if we exclude pornography, which clearly got its act together very quickly online, followed the money, but travel and financial services, very much with the first kind of big corporate, if you like success stories. So you could book a flight and you could pick a holiday and you can take out your car insurance, et cetera. And there was a transactional nature of that. But if we look at it now, we see that obviously it's a way of life, it's normal, it's normalized. It's in everything that we do. And now I'm interested in seeing how information travels throughout the internet, because I think the biggest threat to if you like brand -  traditional marketing. And there are still many, many people coming out of marketing courses and marketing degrees in schools that still perhaps don't understand the data and the customer data as much as they need to. But in example, where online marketing is still in its infancy is if I go and buy something, a pair of trainers, I still get chased around the internet after my purchase with adverts trying to sell me that pair of trainers, it's insane. And that is decades on, we are now 20 years on and that stuff's still happening. And if you look at conversion rates in e-commerce, they are still very, very low. So that suggests to me that there's still enormous problems in the way that we market. So I think if we look into politics, what we see is so much information going into private networks, into peer encrypted messaging, into inter-closed groups. And I think that is a very, very interesting trend for marketers to understand. 

 

CHRIS:

Did you  feel, obviously something that you did was incredible success and then you  came out of that corporate life. Did it almost feel right? I've got a difficult second album now. What's next? Or did you take time to reflect or just jump straight back in?

 

ARJO:

No, I found it a really difficult transition. I was always about the company and the success of the company, and I pushed myself very hard through that time. And I didn't really, you could say, enjoy the journey. I didn't really, you know, stop and do other things. I really put everything into the company.  After that, and I think anyone that exits out of a kind of an entrepreneurial life then suddenly gets some money, which I'd never had. That took quite a lot of adaptation actually, I thought oh, that'd be great , you'd have time free and pay what could go wrong? You know? And actually what I missed was just working, you know, so I built up a kind of portfolio career and in coaching and advising kind of executives, people in agencies, obviously, and latterly went on to sort of charitable boards. And as you mentioned earlier, the university and things like that. That was very, very rewarding. I don't necessarily want to be that person, anymore. So, that's quite a big change, Chris. 


 

The surge of electrical cars - Elon Musk knows what he’s doing

SAM:

I was hoping you were going to tell the story of buying a yacht or something like that. And, you know, blowing 80% on boats and things, but I didn't hear that. So it seems like you're reasonably sensible with it.  Back to this new endeavor that you've set up is doing more work in the green tech and using tech for good space. That seems to be front of mind for you. So can you talk a little bit about what's driving those efforts?

 

ARJO:

Right. So I've been a big petrol head all my life. I love cars. I love race cars. Here's your yacht's answer. I raced cars for about five years after I left the business. And you go around in circles, you drive fast, you crash a lot and spend a lot of money fixing the car that you've crashed. It was great fun, right? I've always been interested in the car industry. We've worked with lots of big car brands, when we were doing the digital world. I went to a trade show at the end of 2019. And, another one in early 2020, it was a trade show around electric cars and energy and energy products and suppliers, particularly cars. For the last couple of years, I felt that there's something really big brewing with cars and electrification. I went to this conference and I was there for an hour or two, and I told a colleague of mine  "look, you've got to go to this conference".  He went, we were working with the clients as well, a big energy supplier.  After a couple of hours we met up and I said, "tell me, how does this feel?" He said he felt like the internet did in the late nineties. And that's exactly how I felt. I had goosebumps at that conference.  I thought, 'wow, there's something really interesting happening here'.  It's not about cars, really. Although, they are the things that we will buy. They are the impact that they will have.

Right. I never felt, I don't know about you, but in my family, changing our light bulbs, didn't really engage my children into climate change. But as soon as you start looking at the electrification of cars and transport, especially in public transport, fleets of freight, you know what DHL and UPS and Amazon are doing around electrification will have material impact on air quality on CO2 emissions, etc. So I just felt, wow, this is a bit like the iPhone coming into telecommunications, in an electric car is smart, it's connected, it's full of data. Elon Musk obviously shows the way there because he understands that the car is a starting point to many other connected products.

 

SAM:

Tell us a bit more about this feeling because that's an interesting insight there. In terms of when you went to an event, you had an experience and you kind of look around and say, "hang on a minute, this feels different". Talk us through how that  happens and what you do when that happens. 

 

ARJO:

So for example, one of the British unicorn energy companies is called octopus energy and octopus is one of the challenger kinds of energy utility companies who have come up, out of really nowhere, by selling sustainable energy or guaranteed from green sources. And they do it in a really entrepreneurial, really kind of rule-breaking way, if you like. They haven't got the most sophisticated front end and customer experience, but it's really good, it's really agile and they're constantly innovating. I got the feeling that there were a lot of people willing to break the rules and there was space for challenge and enormous disruption. So we're starting to see a lot of disruption in that market. Where, what will a car manufacturer, an OEM, an original equipment manufacturer - what will, what will Mercedes be in the future? What will Volkswagen  be in the future? The huge car manufacturers who have clearly been caught behind the curve, are pledging to move fully electric in many, many cases; huge car companies. So, that will spawn a huge era of disruption around energy insurance. The  impact it has on your family. Because when I drove in my electric car, my kids for the first time were interested in this sort of stuff. They're interested in pollution and CO2 and our energy usage because they can see it happening as we drive.


 

It’s not about knowledge, it’s about asking the right questions

SAM:

As I'm listening to you and thinking about earlier parts of your career, you seem  to be really good at asking questions. Right? You ask the question and then  try to solve them. So getting those fundamental questions right early on in your career about what search do you use? You know, and getting those answers.  Now you're asking the questions about what the people want and different setups. It seems that is the multiplier right now, getting that great question, propels the solution or the path that you follow.

 

ARJO:

You know, what's so interesting there is, I had a conversation with my daughter this morning about knowledge and about whether or not we needed to remember much. If we need to retain a lot of knowledge now. I said to her, well I don't retain a lot of knowledge anymore. I just know that I can ask the right question.  I can normally find the knowledge then if I asked the right question and I think Samuel, what you said there is, if you like the heart of entrepreneurial-ism, if you're an entrepreneur you're constantly trying to solve and outwit and take shortcuts and adapt, but you're doing that through seeking an answer to a challenge.  That's very different from a career in many ways where you might have a much more kind of corporate approach to what's being solved. 

 

CHRIS:

Did the success of Spanner Works change you for better or worse? Do you think?

 

ARJO:

The thing about running your own company, especially a high growth company with lots of people that haven't done what you're doing as well. Because we couldn't get people that were trained in what we did. So personal development was kind of at the heart of everything.  I think it changed me for the better, but it was a rocky journey . 

 

SAM:

What excites you about entrepreneurs today?

 

ARJO:

I mean, I love the feeling that's emerging now. The UK in terms of the startup ecosystem is doing really well. Right? It was America. Obviously Israel's booming. The UK is booming on this. I work as a non-exec director at a coworking company as well. You see a lot of young people with kind of the confidence that we didn't have when we were 18, 19. And in that I include a lot of young women that have got enormous confidence and don't see limitations to what they can achieve and that questions the way you approach things as well, because here are these young people, but they've got the tools now they can sit down and prototype their own idea and lay it out and design it in a package and then go and pitch that themselves. And they can do it really quickly and almost  for nothing. That's phenomenal. That's the phenomenal tool set that they have now. So I know some of your other episodes around agile and lean, all this stuff is really now understood in a kind of native way by young people. Whereas we've had to learn a lot of that, we've retrofitted a lot to the way we do business. Whereas they're just coming into it and that's how they work.


 

“Isn’t there a woman that could be on that panel instead of me?”

CHRIS:

How do you bring diversity into the mix as well? That diversity of ideas.

 

ARJO:

I think as men, I'm in my early fifties as a man, I now turn down quite a lot of panel invitations and I always challenge them and say, "have you got a woman that can do that instead of me?"  that's one way that we can start to make change happen, that we disrupt our own comfort if you like. So I think that's happening more and more, but you still see conference panels and things and behavior by men, especially my age group is still dominating conversations.  I think we have to look at our own daily practice at work and see how we react to things. I think we have to be prepared to be challenged because as I say, the younger people that are coming through will challenge us and that's got to be welcomed.    I think if you want to encourage diversity at the heart of it is almost like accepting that I'm probably going to be wrong about a lot of things - that opens you up to a diversity of challenge and a diversity of thought. We do struggle with it still. Obviously, there is a lot of herd mentality. There's a lot of companies that hire people like themselves. You have to bake it in and challenge it in a very deep level. And it often comes after the fact, because in the first year or two, you're just surviving aren't you? You're winning customers, you're building the company, it's exciting.    Then it's like, "oh,arel we diverse enough?" 

 

SAM:

so the final question I have for you is: what's your biggest marketing regret?

 

ARJO:

So that really depends on whether or not I'm measuring it by: would I have made more money from it? Would be more famous for it? Would I have helped more people? We had values in the way that we ran Spanner Works.  I believed for a long time that the media side and the paid media side of marketing was not something I wanted to do. I wanted it to be earned media. I wanted us to stand by our content and earn the attraction, if you like. So we didn't do media. I think actually in retrospect, had we done that earlier with the smart people that we had in the room, we could have done some brilliant stuff at scale. We were working with huge organizations; bank of America and British Airways and  huge list of big organisations. But we weren't doing the paid media side very much at all. So I think we probably could have built that and helped define that and challenge it because it's still not where it should be. 

 

CHRIS:

Arjo we've run  out of time today.  That's been fascinating. Absolutely brilliant story. I'm really glad that we had you on thanks for your time and I'm really looking forward to seeing the success of your new startup over time as well.

 

ARJO:

Thank you guys. Thank you, Chris. Thank you, Samuel. I'm really delighted that you invited me on and it's been a pleasure. 

 

SAM:

Without further ado, have a great week across the pond.