FROM SILICON VALLEY TO LONDON, AN INCREDIBLE JOURNEY FROM THE START OF THE INTERNET TO DIGITAL FAN CLUB INNOVATION
I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Shelley Taylor from Digital Fan Clubs. Her varied journey provided many incredible stories and great lessons learned. Shelley lead her previous business to a team of 22 and raised £5million in investment. Her wealth of experience provides an incredible and fascinating insight.
Hi Shelley, Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed, can you start by telling me a bit about your background? Where it all began?
I grew up in the 60's and had hippie parents. I was selling cherries to people on the street when I was five, so I’ve always been a salesperson. I went to University and studied Economics when I was 16, which is two years earlier than most people in the US, because I skipped two grades. I had my son when I was 19 so I was in my third year of college. I took him to class with me every day and that was the first time they had ever let anybody bring a kid to class.
How was it bringing your son to class and managing your studies?
It was great, he just sat there and if he got hungry I‘d nurse him and classes lasted only three to four hours a day. I would get babysitters on campus, other girls who went to the same university if I had an exam. But, otherwise, he came to class with me and he would just sit there in his little seat. I got two years of being with him which I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
What was your first job after University?
My first job was managing rock bands.....that did not succeed! After that I did real estate, commercial estate, shopping centres and big apartment complexes. I needed to make a lot of money because I was a single mom and I wanted my son to go to good schools.
Then I became a stockbroker, I did that for seven years. During that time I started socially responsible investment in the first brokerage houses in the US. I was a portfolio manager so I did a lot of managing people’s money but according to corporate social responsibility. Then in 1989 I came to London.
I was tired of being a fund manager so I was on a 3 month holiday and then just stayed. I needed to do something for work so I launched as a consultant. I helped launch three, or four, of the green ethical funds here. So, I launched these funds but I didn’t really want to keep doing anything with financial stuff. I did a study on corporate social responsibility, which was looking at how institutional investors make decisions based on social criteria even though they didn’t consider themselves as socially responsible. So, do they look at customers, do they look at employees, they look at umm risk. Environmental risk…and all those things. So, I kind of quantified it – their so called social concerns.
I mapped that against what companies were doing and called this study ‘the rewards of virtue’. I did a ton of consulting in that area of corporate responsibility and in that study there was this research survey which was a matrix of quantifying qualitative information and annual reports about various social issues. People loved it so much that I started doing studies and annual reports quantifying all the qualitative information in them.
I’m like a metadata categorisation fiend, I love categorising information. So you can tell, for example, that 20% of Japanese companies talked about research and development and only 3% of companies in this country did.
Then in 1994, I opened an office back in Palo Alto and that happened to be the beginning of the internet. It turned out that the first websites were annual reports online, so I’m the person at that point because I had done all that multi stakeholder research. I could say to Netscape and Sun microsystems, etc. - ‘You know, you’ve put this annual report up there but nobody can navigate your website, nobody’s going to find it. Who did you build this website for?’
I invented the language around global navigation, all those terms didn’t exist like. Somebody had to say that you should be able to get to the homepage from everywhere on the site, you should have sub-navigation, you should have contextual navigation. All the categorisation schemes that I had developed for annual reports, I had to just define them to websites. So, I helped out a lot of those websites back in the day.
Did you think the internet was just a trend or it was going to be game changing?
I had been doing this since 89, that same kind of consulting, but about annual reports. It just felt like a more modern version of that. You’re not really aware when you’re in the middle of this wave, what’s going on.
I mean that was fun being in Silicon Valley at that time but I didn’t love living there. I came back to Europe in 2000 but it was it was pretty fun time to be giving advice to people.
So can we talk about your first 'startup'?
It never really occurred to me to do my own 'startup'. I had never had a job; I only ever had my own companies. But, in 2005 I did one of my many studies on digital entertainment it was just one of 50 or 100 studies that I had done but when I was out selling that study one of the guys I met had an independent music distribution company. He said, ‘Shelley, you’ve written the bible on this. You should build your own site.' But, I was like, 'yeah, you know, I’m not into that and I don’t know anything about music.' He said, 'don’t worry, I know about music and then, I know buyers, I’ll be raising the money.' So I wasn’t really setting out to build a startup.
So in 2006 I started building this platform, which raised about £5million pounds over a couple of years. It was the first DRM free music site, we were the first ones to do that for all the major record labels. We had professional video content so, we were going up against YouTube and saying it’s much more viable to have professional content, editorial content. We also had social networking, so, it was probably one of the most ambitious sites ever built. But, we tapped all of the people, the editorial, the music and the film, to create this huge ontology, taxonomy of tagging so you could map to peoples interests across activities. It was a huge, huge platform.
That was my first tech startup. I had 22 people at the end, and 12 developers. And it was great to see that become what we set out to do. But, I had a huge tragedy and my son died. He was working in my company as Head of Business Development at that time and he was my only child.
So that was in the September, the same week as the banking crises started. I carried on that company for ten months but the banking crisis made it harder to raise money.
Then I had like a couple of years of just kind of being paralysed. I started a writing group. Then wrote two books, I made a documentary film and started my secret restaurant. I felt like I was doing nothing but, now that I look back, I was actually being productive but in a different way.
Digital Fan Clubs - The Journey
Can you talk me through how the business model works?
Basically it's a revenue sharing model. Fans can download the app of their favourite artist for free and if they want to have behind the scenes stuff and extra content they can upgrade their subscription, so we get a revenue share in that. In the app self-service model, they have a monthly fee.
What I learned from my first company was that it’s hard. To get a lot of consumer users it takes a huge amount of money. This time what I wanted to do was B2B so that I could get the massive fan uptake without having to reach millions of fans directly.
What is your big vision for the future?
I think it is the digital version of a talent agency so, I imagine that it will have hundreds or thousands of people using our apps. I’m not too worried about the future, I’m more interested in the building part. I love that. I don’t want to have a huge number of employees just about 25, I think that is a nice number. I’m not trying to get hundreds. I like to have super-efficient capital and I’d love to have each employee contributing, you know, a huge amount of revenue to the company. Those are the kinds of things that get me more excited than where I actually end up. It’s the journey.
Where is the business at right now?
I’ve got several apps out there that are live, and I have a platform now that allows me to build an app in a day. I haven’t built the Android part of it yet. Now I have to focus on building apps for some really big named people and I am building a self-service platform.
Before, what I wanted to do was go to really, really large talent who don’t want to do it themselves and give them a revenue share, i.e. people with a million fans or more. But, the VCs I’ve been talking to, ‘that’s not really scalable.’ But I’m like, ‘It’s scalable if you’ve got Rihanna on it and she has 17 million fans. You’re going to get a lot of fans if you have a bunch of these people.’ But, I think, what I realized is that they need self-service to believe it’s scalable. Even though that is not as profitable and to be honest it takes longer to get ready. So, now I’m building a self-service platform.
Hiring & Outsourcing
So you've got developers working on your current site, are they in-house?
No, I outsourced. I started off using Ukrainian developers. At this company I always choose outsourced, it’s really a challenge because you do want to get them inexpensively. It’s hard to manage them, when they’re not in the same country.
How did you find them?
On Elance. There is such a huge range of quality, people you get. It was good enough for getting started, to build the concept. I had the platform built and apps but then, they start taking the piss because you know they start getting this income coming in. They just want the income and they never want the job to finish. We had a lot of problems at the end so now I have developers in Manchester
So, how did you find your developers in Manchester?
A guy who does some freelance work for me knew them and he had worked with them before, so referred them to me. That’s going well because I can turn them off and on. I don’t need to keep them going on all the time.
So, you mentioned that you built a team of 22 in your previous business, how did it get to that and what did you learn from that?
I started by hiring some friends of friends very early on. I didn’t have very much success with recruitment companies ever. I did get somebody on board to be a third party HR for us, to do all of the contracts, to make sure we did everything by the book. Because having that person in house is just a luxury that you can’t afford. You can’t really have your full time HR person. You can’t do that, no.
Also, I would say, as a woman, there are incredible challenges at senior positions. Jealousy, competitiveness, which was surprising. I had never had that in US.
How did you motivate people?
I didn’t find that people were motivated by bonuses or shares, whereas, in the US, there’s nothing like shares. Everybody wants shares. But here, in my last company, people were motivated by having a regular pay cheque, they didn’t care about picking up bonuses. They just wanted to go home when they wanted to go home.
Co-founders & Team
So you mentioned you've never really had a co-founder, how did you realise that you work best on your own?
It was a painful realisation because I was always looking for a partnership. When I started Shelley Taylor Associates, the whole time I kept wishing that I could have a partner. I got a coach during that time to help me find the right match with people. She has this test called the Kolbe test, which is one of those great resources I’d say that everybody should have. You take these tests, like Myers-Briggs, but with this one you never change. You take it and it would stay same even 20 years later, it’s much more predictive. You figure out what type you are and then you can tell on a scale of 1 to 10 in these four areas where you are. If you’re more than 4 points different from somebody else, there is no way you would be able to communicate.
So she was also my coach and said to me like several times, before it really sunk in: ‘You are who you are. You’re always going to be a leader. You’re never going to be able to have a partner. You just need to get rid of that idea.'
With startups people always want partners and they don’t really quote or cite many companies that were done by single founders. There’s a lot of risk of partnerships going bad, that we don’t really take note of either. They just say startups fail more than they succeed but I do think a lot of it is also because of partnership failure.
How do you balance your time between fundraising and business development?
Well I’m trying to do both now but I’ve done them separately before. I find it quite difficult to do both at the same time and also build the products. I don’t think it can be done at the same time. When you’re fundraising it’s pretty much a full time job. It’s a luxury that many people don’t have. If you have a team you have to divide it so if you’re doing all the business development then your partner is doing investment.
Focus. You have to manage your whole pipeline. That’s really hard to do if your pipeline is shifting over time from one to the other. The focus is business development, fundraising and team - you have to build your team as well. So even if you’re not really ready to hire, you have to have a team of people you could potentially hire. That’s three different jobs that you have.
How do you feel about competition?
There’s a huge tool, I haven’t told you about, my report that I have published this year. It’s a matrix, I do a feature, competitive business model matrix. I do a lean feature analysis of absolutely everything on my website. It’s like hundreds of criteria for each question.
We might be competing with a company musically which has plug-ins for your website. So, they’re not a direct competitor because they don’t have any mobile apps but they’re in similar space so, I call them neighbours. Then I will look at ones that are maybe, one part of what they’re doing might be similar like Facebook e.g. which is not at all a direct competitor. Also, stay focused on how they are catching up. The reason I stay ahead is because I am able to say we have this, this, this and this.
You really, really need to be able to clearly differentiate all the time.
Women in Tech
What do you think will help more women be interested in tech, start-ups and starting their own companies? What do you think needs to change?
Well, I think it all starts with mothers teaching their children to act with integrity and that men are no different from women. I don’t think there is going to be a big change until a generation of mothers decides to do everything they possibly can to make their boys become the way they should be. Which means they can’t pick up their clothes, they can’t cook for them, they have to teach them how to cook. I think it is a multi-generational thing, before we are going to see any difference. You can’t expect guys to be different than the way they have been raised. So, women are not going to find any more openings because the culture is so persistently giving out a clear message.
I think women are their own worst enemies as well. One of my investors wrote to eight women that she knew socially, women that were investors. She said 'this is a company I have invested in if you want to take a look she [Shelley] will be out here next week.' None of them even responded. She wrote to two guys, both of them responded.
Silicon Valley vs London
What do you think are some of the biggest differences between Silicon Valley and London?
[In Silicon Valley] Everyone is working for their dream, its valued, there is encouragement for it. Nobody calls you crazy, if you’re sleeping on your couch in your office and you don’t have any place else. Or running up all your credit cards because you’re trying to finance your business. A lot of things are totally acceptable there.
Even the whole credit culture is very different. Here if you get bank credit it takes six years before it cleans up. In the US, you could clean up in a year. It’s this whole idea that we can learn from failure and admit it. Of course we all have failures, that is how we learn.
Do you think first time entrepreneurs should be moving to silicon valley to startup?
I think it is great for anybody to live in different places and that is a great environment. I think there are tons of people who go there and don’t succeed at making money from a startup. You can’t live in a fantasy that the roads are paved with gold. It is very competitive and it’s still 99% men who are going to be funded. So, you have to put all that in to perspective.
Tools & Resources
What tools and resources could you not live without?
Advice & Final Thoughts
What are the biggest challenges building a B2C product?
I think building a B2C product they don’t want to just see user growth, they want to see revenue. But, to get to revenue with consumer is quite challenging because you need a critical mass. I think it is really important to understand the market in terms of what investors are willing to fund. As well as, how much money it actually takes to get a broad consumer uptake. I mean, nothing ever really goes viral, you can’t count on your business going viral. I mean, if it happens, that is great but you really want to think in terms of what are the really creative ways of getting in front of a lot of consumers, you know, so old fashioned….like Facebook doesn’t work anymore, you can’t reach anybody on Facebook or Instagram. Umm so you’re left with old fashioned PR basically, which most people don’t seem to know much about anymore because, they were so used to everything working on Facebook.
What do you think has been your biggest success with this company so far? And your biggest success ever?
I don’t feel very successful at the moment but I feel like I've had extremely efficient use of capital to build a platform. I mean, it’s not an app. You can build an app for £5k, but my whole platform allows me to roll out apps in a day. Having done that with so little money, it feels like a huge accomplishment.
My biggest success of all was my last platform. I actually achieved everything that I set out to do but, things can never go as planned. You lose your child, you don’t expect that to happen. You don’t expect that will put you in a situation where somebody is going to try and take advantage of you. I mean these are things that you can’t plan for. But, it felt like a really great success because I’d never built a technology company and I’m not an engineer.
Finally, what advice would you give to people starting a company?
You have to be able to lighten up and not worry too much about raising money. I think it is really important to have some kind of cushion. It is hard, it is really, really hard. But, you need that support right, however, you can get that. Looking for saving that you can do on the side maybe? I think it is great if somebody has something that they do on the side. You don’t necessarily raise money to spend but when you think you need it. But you need to have a job or some side thing that generates revenue. That is a good thing.
I would say ask a lot of questions and I think that research is what gives you competitive edge. You should always be up to date on your profession. I never had any mentors so I don’t know how that works but I have met people who are willing to listen and have some experience, that is worth a lot. You could be going down a path that everybody else has gone down and you’d not know that everybody had already tried that.
Interviewee - Shelley Taylor @digitalfanclubs
Interviewer - Lauren Hine @HineLC