Apr 2015

Founder stories: Andrew Hughes

Andrew Hughes, AbZorba Games

Hiring and managing a talented senior team should be a critical area of focus for any founder of a high-growth tech company. In this series of interviews, we talk to successful founders about how they’ve tackled their talent challenges.

Andrew Hughes is a founder, CEO, advisor and mentor. A veteran of the start-up world, his track record includes multiple co-founder roles of mobile technology companies in both the UK and Europe.

Today, he is CEO and Co-Founder of AbZorba Games, a mobile social casino games studio that has recently been acquired by Greentube, the global interactive unit of the Novomatic Group; and a founding board member of the London based, globally-recognised International Social Games Association (ISGA) – an entity Andrew helped create to engage in the commercial and regulatory interests of the industry.

His experience encompasses founding, funding and taking a number of start-up businesses to exit via trade acquisition as well as co-founding the Mobile Marketing Association.

Given your involvement in multiple start-ups, how much importance do you place on having the right people on board to build the business?

This is the easiest question I have to answer when asked about start-ups: it is, singularly, the most important aspect of building a business.

In my experience, as well as in discussion with other entrepreneurs, the euphoria of taking the first steps to building a company with the original founding team can rapidly ebb away. That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but what it can do is reveal some interesting differences and personality traits that may not have been visible previously. Stresses, in business as in an aircraft, are the same in that they can cause hairline fractures that continue to fatigue and eventually fail unless addressed.

The ultimately successful team will work smartly together to be constantly aware of, and ready to adjust to, those stresses. Whether you’re a founder or the latest junior recruit, clear communication is vital.

Finally, recognising and making the right team-related decisions at the right time of the evolution is critical. This may mean letting someone go or promoting someone; this, of course, includes everyone – even the founders.

How important is creating and maintaining a strong company culture?

A strong company ‘identity’ comes from a shared vision and goal that everyone participates in.

I don’t know if it’s the same as culture, but I believe in a strong company identity within which everyone can recognise their contributions and, therefore, their impact. For that, there has to be a cohesive approach to achieving results; it has to be a credible ethos and not a spurious mission statement. Simply put, the culture must be inclusive – demonstrating we own our combined future and are rewarded for that success.

An example of a cultural ethos in AbZorba Games is ‘quality’. It is imbued in all our code, games and gamer experiences, it is how we achieved all the successes resulting in our acquisition. It may be an obvious ‘cultural’ or ‘identity’ target but if it is truly there in all that the team does and not just a hollow statement, it brings all the results and rewards we set ourselves when we started. All of us in AbZorba identify with that.

What are the main talent-related challenges you have faced?

Generally, I have always found start-ups struggle to find talent if the funding is not in place or the business model is wrong. The thing I love about entrepreneurialism is its raw nature and, just like in the wild, the hunters and hunted rely entirely on instincts and experience. So, if the business is ‘wounded’ in any way, the herd will know and leave you behind to be picked off.

At AbZorba we have been incredibly lucky with our team talent, we have found the right people at the right time, retaining all those we wanted to, and those who have left still made a contribution before doing so. The challenges could have been amplified as we have our entire tech team in Athens but this has so far not proved to be an issue. Talent attracts talent and success too. Scaling the business post-acquisition will be interesting but there is a significant local buzz about our company so let’s see how it plays out.

How much of an issue is skills scarcity and/or competition in a fast-growing sector such as mobile and gaming technology?

This depends on location as much as anything else. In the main hubs such as London, The Valley, even Berlin, supply and demand drive up costs. In The Valley there are agreements between the big employers not to poach, but it happens. I hear Google and Facebook offer up to $500K in cash and shares to grads straight out of Stanford! Those same high-paying names make it extremely hard for start-ups to compete, and impossible if you’re not funded, so creating businesses in centers away from the obvious hubs can often help in the recruitment drive, especially if you’re building games where the barriers to entry are lower.

Interestingly, the ecosystem of apps has grown so rapidly in recent years – more than any other tech and content business at the same time – that it has driven a vast pool of engineers and developers to emerge. Considering that producing a global hit game has such a low barrier to entry, it has prompted young talent to educate themselves and give it a try.

Given the economic downturn and the lack of jobs, we should hugely encourage the global youth to join in this revolution.

What is the most valuable lesson(s) you have learned – talent-related or otherwise – in starting and scaling up a business?

When raising angel funding always ask for double what you are offered, even if the offer is double what you had in mind, you may just get it!

Team. Team. Team… And if you have a partner; include them in that description. A solid buy-in from them and staunch belief in your business is vital – believe me you will need it.

Andrew Hughes’s insights:

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In light of this, we have drawn upon our latest research to create an e-Book, explaining how, and why, start-ups can leverage their executive teams in order to grow their business.

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