He took a fairly non-conventional route to get to where he is now. Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin began his entrepreneurial journey as an eight-year-old selling sunscreen along Australia’s beaches for 50 cents a squirt. He then joined the Australian Navy as a Weapons Officer for 10 years, developed technology for drones and extraterrestrial aircraft navigation, then launched his first tech startup, sold it, and eventually became the founder of BlueChilli.
The company’s all about empowering early-stage startup founders to build great, impactful businesses, and has been around for just over five years. BlueChilli has invested in 113 companies and has just announced its partnership with Singapore’s Hatcher+, a data-driven venture investment platform. We caught up with Eckersley-Maslin at the recent YPO Edge convention, and here he shares with us what there is to know to succeed as an entrepreneur.
How crucial is the go-to market strategy for the success of a startup?
It is everything — 42 per cent of startups fail because they build the wrong technology, and the wrong technology is something that no one wants to buy. The go-to market strategy is building what someone wants. Make the smallest thing you can and then iterate on that feature set to work out exactly what the customers want. Get early adoption and interest, and build on from that.
When should one say no to an investor?
Hah! That’s a good question. Raising capital is a very interesting. It is a fun but exhausting and depressing challenge. We’ve raised capital for over 60 companies now, and one thing that I share with all my entrepreneurs is that you need to raise capital when you don’t need it. Because ultimately, raising capital is about setting a market price for your business. It’s about establishing a demand for investors to come in and negotiating with them to set a value in your business.
Investors want to invest in your business and get their returns. Your business could do really well, or they can always negotiate to get your down. The latter will challenge all the entrepreneurs to drive the value of the business down, which is a very daunting experience for many. It’s a bit of a game, and eventually you will settle at a market price. But if you don’t need the money now, that’s the time to do it, because you’ve got leverage — you’ll be able to negotiate harder because you’re not desperate. The worst thing you can do is wait till you’ve got two or three weeks left of cash flow and then start raising funds.
What’s a good company structure?
It’s flat all across BlueChilli. It’s ironic because I come from a very much hierarchical leadership structure from being in the military, which was very much about command and control. That works, but even in the military, people find that you need small teams empowered to make global decisions. When you’re on the right path, information is transferred a lot quicker. Your feedback loop for seeing information and responding is much shorter, which you need in a modern company. We are measuring decisions on seconds and minutes, and if you don’t have the right information on hand, you’re going to miss out on something. This holds true for companies big and small.
What are the cons of a flat structure?
There is the problem of having too many decision makers. (laughs) A flat structure might also mean that you may end up with two teams doing the exact same thing without realising it. The challenge is this: How do you enable the team to understand what they have, without overloading them with information that they don’t need?
As a global firm, how do you work to bring unified goals and people together?
One of the things that I learned from the military was that I could lead by my rank on my shoulder and people would have to do what I told them. But it was far more effective if I led by example and let them take courage and ownership of the task. I try to apply that in what I do now. My role as CEO of a global company is to inspire and enable other people to make decisions. It’s about having the right individuals who are professionally and personally motivated to succeed, and those who are equipped to make decisions and calls. If I am making all the decisions, then something is wrong.
How do you go global?
Australia is a country with around 23 million people and is inherently disconnected from the rest of the world. So you have to think global by establishing strong partnerships and networks. I fundamentally believe that even in a technology-based business, it’s still about people. You need connections, you need to work with others, and you need to find people who share your vision. It will mean a lot of flights, but it also means establishing these great partnerships around the world.
Besides partnerships for work, what else do you support?
I support mainly Club Kidpreneur, a not-for-profit organisation that was founded by serial Australian entrepreneur Creel Price. I only came along very early in its journey, but I really do believe in it. The vision at Club Kidpreneur is to enable a generation of young entrepreneurs to be born. Entrepreneurship is something that needs to be nurtured, encouraged and grown, and the club aims to give kids aged six to eight the toolset to develop strategies and learn how to run a micro business. Kids will learn how to build something that can be sold, and they will need to know what it’s like to sell as it is getting rejected.
SEE ALSO: VIDEO: When C-suites give back
How much of an a** should one be to be successful?
I like that you used a** and not d*ck, because I believe in being gender neutral even when it comes to calling people an a**hole. (laughs) You need to be courageous and confident, but you don’t need to be an a**. Sometimes confidence can be perceived as arrogance, which is a very similar trait to being an asshole. It’s a fine line. There are many successful entrepreneurs with a reputation for being very difficult to work with. They are successful because they are driven, and they attract people who work well with that. Me? I’m a bit more of an egalitarian. I prefer empowering people to do well and getting the right people around me. My leadership style is a lot more support-driven.
Lastly, do entrepreneurs make their own luck?
Luck is preparation without a plan. But if you’re prepared, and you do the work better, then that is perceived as luck by other people. Luck is only capitalised if you have done preparation beforehand.