As part of the recent Startup Iceland conference, our Founder and Executive Chairman Julian Ranger shared the lessons he has learned as an entrepreneur.
He told the assembled crowd that he had been lucky enough to be an entrepreneur almost since he left home at 16.
One of the most important things, he said, was having dreams – these can change over time, but it’s important to know what they are so that you have something to reach forward to.
His at six (inspired by Biggles!) were to work in aviation, go round the world and go to space.
And he said those have anchored him in his working life – allowing him to know what he is trying to do and why he’s trying to do it.
He took the audience through his early career – from his first job working as a farm labourer on turkey farm, then through various jobs supporting himself as he studied for first A-levels and then a degree in Aeronautical Engineering
His first job after graduating saw him working on the Tornado F3 fighter aircraft, which he said was a dream come true.
He said it was a case of being in the right place at the right time, and spoke about what he called the ‘luck bus’, which he said was going by us all the time, but which you can only see if you have your head up.
In this role, he did the first integration of what is now the military internet into an F3 fighter aircraft, and became a world expert on this as he was just moving over to 22.
So, naturally, he said, he set up his own military systems consultancy at 23, to tell the world how to do this job he had only been doing for 18 months or so. Again, he said, he was lucky, had the vision for where this was going and looked ahead to fix problems, coming up with iSmart to creat an interoperable system.
By the early 90s, the UK was better at interoperability than anywhere in the world, and could talk to both the US Air Force and Navy, although they couldn’t talk to each other. It is still a US Defense Department and NATO standard, and used throughout the world.
iSmart became the foundation of his company Stasys, which he sold to Lockheed Martin in 2005 for “a fair amount of money”. He worked for them for two years as a VP of Strategy, before having to take them to the High Court, where he and his business partner won on 10.5 out of 11 points. This sparked another key lesson for the assembled entrepreneurs at Startup Iceland – always be ethical and tell the truth, he said.
The world was then, he said, “his oyster” – and he conceded he was probably a little big-headed, although he didn’t realise that at the time. But he lost quite a bit of money on a venture trying to bring two water companies together, which was a “good lesson that I knew some things but I didn’t know everything”.
But other ventures were more successful. He was the earliest investor in Astrobotic, which is still going, and also invested in Datasift and Hailo. He spent 18 months going around the world, and has bought a ticket to go into space with Virgin Galactic. So you can get your dreams. Mission Accomplished, right? Not quite, as it turned out…
So what did he learn from all of that?
That a learning mindset is the most important thing. He said: “I knew nothing about business when I started, but I was prepared to learn and I’m still prepared to learn.” By learning, you’re prepared to accept the fact that you might make mistakes.
He also said that entrepreneurs live in a cartoon world: “We live on the edge of cliffs, a moment away from danger and unless you, as an entrepreneur, are happy to live in that environment, climbing over obstacles, you won’t be successful…you have to have the perseverance to deal with whatever comes up. And you have to like it.”
He said, at some point, all entrepreneurs come to the point where they are walking along and come to a crevice – you can’t go round it, you can’t jump it and there’s no bridge – so you have to deal with the unexpected and you have to find a way. If you’re comfortable with that landscape, then you’ll be comfortable as an entrepreneuur.
Think of the edge as when you run out of money, or run out of resources to carry on – when that happens, who are you going to be? In the cartoons with Wile E. Coyote, for example, Road Runner looks over the cliff and scrambles but never falls. Wile E. Coyote goes over the cliff or gets blown up – so fails every time.
It seems, then, that you would want to be Road Runner, but you also want to be Wile E. Coyote, because whenever he falls off the edge and goes smack, he dusts himself off and starts trying to catch Road Runner again.
In summary, he said, being an entrepreneur is the best job in the world. A learning mindset is key, along with perseverance and knowing your dreams so you can reach them.
Quite often, you’ll end up doing it all again (Julian got bored in retirement and has set up several companies, most notably digi.me) but never forget you’re always marketing youself and your business, wherever you may be!