Eleven years ago he was just a kid that saw an opportunity.
Now he’s the CEO that you should know about.
Meet James Gill, co-founder of GoSquared and one of our entrepreneurs featured in the #Future15 this year!
We sat down with this ‘one to watch’ last month to find out what has kept him motivated over the years and why he’s sticking with GoSquared.
Abby: First off, congratulations on being named as part of this years #Future15! The YENA team first heard about you a few months ago, but obviously you’ve been growing GoSquared for much longer than that. What inspired you, Geoff and JT, to start something at just fifteen years old?
James: The main thing to bear in mind is that the Internet was quite a different place when we were younger. For anyone that was interested, there was opportunity everywhere. Facebook was just taking off, the iPhone had just launched and there still wasn’t such a thing as the mobile web. It was just this massively level playing field and even though we were a bunch of kids in a shed, we could compete with companies that had hundreds of people.
A: So what did GoSquared start out life as?
J: At first it was just us learning how to build a website. We’d seen the million dollar home page, which was pretty ugly and garish, but we figured that if this guy (Alex Tew) could make a million dollars then we may as well give it a go! From that we decided that instead of selling 1,000 pixels at a dollar each we’d sell squares and that’s where the name came from. You could click an email link and then we could put the ad up, but we soon realised that no one cared because no one knew we existed.
What it did teach us was the importance of knowing how to build a community, audience and customer base, and everything else has just snowballed from there.
A: Looking back, what’s been the biggest milestone that you’ve had since launching?
J: I guess one of the biggest highlights for me was raising money from Passion Capital. Not only was it the first round we raised, but we were also the youngest founders that they’d ever backed at just 19 and 20 years old at the time. More than that though, it forced us to make a decision as to whether to go to university or not.
Since then, another big turning point was when we had the opportunity to sell and we said no. For us it proved that we were doing something that people really valued and that it had huge potential.
A: You’ve been running for more than eleven years now, but has there ever been a time when you thought you’d had enough?
J: Every other day [*laughter*]. I think everyone who runs their own business knows that you go up and down all of the time, but the key moment was when we had the buyout offer. It forced us to genuinely consider selling and made us realise that we’d rather be founders than employees.
A: As CEO, there is a lot of pressure on you to deliver for your team and your investors. How do you deal with that?
J: I have in the past let the pressure get to me and that’s something that I’ve tried to work quite hard on. When you have a team you’re always trying to do the best job you can to ensure everybody loves what they’re doing –without a great team, you’re screwed. Whereas I used to bury my head in the sand, I now try and touch base with every person every other week and we can just talk about whatever. It allows you to build a connection.
A: How about more personally? How do you manage your own anxiety?
J: I used to have a terrible routine. We had a gap year without a schedule and, as teenage guys, that meant that we got up at 11 and went to bed at 2. I’ve really focused on trying to improve that because it sets you up for the rest of the day. I’ve tried meditation and, to be honest, I’m not great at it, but I think that if you can take five minutes out everyday to just breath it can really help to just chill yourself out.
A: Clearly you love design and GoSquared is a manifestation of that. Why is it such a passion of yours?
J: I’ve always been really into art. I remember drawing a picture of a fire engine that they put up in our local station and it made me so proud. My mum worked in a design agency so I was introduced to Photoshop and Illustrator from a young age. Then when my dad’s company was throwing out an old Mac, I convinced them to give it me and that was the first time that I had a proper tool for creative work – that’s what made me fall in love with computers as a medium for creativity
As I’ve grown up I’ve always wanted to surround myself with nicely designed stuff. When you think about it you can really look around and realise why things are a certain way and you start to question whether they’re designed well. It often astonishes me how little thought has gone into every day products and it really frustrates me.
A: If you could be designing anything, what would it be?
J: As much as I love designing and building software, I would also love to do something more in the physical world. I haven’t got a clue about how to actually produce hardware products, but when you think about the amount of obsessive work that has gone into making something like an iPhone, I find it really beautiful.
Other products have really only had a tiny fraction of that effort so I think there are so many other areas that are ripe for disruption. Even things like light-switches and toothbrushes could be so much smarter.
A: Obviously GoSquared has evolved over the years and will continue to into the future. Beyond that, where do you see yourself as well as your business in five years?
J: Five years is a really long time. I think with GoSquared we have this tremendous opportunity to improve the way that businesses communicate with their customers. It’s not just thousands of businesses we can help, it’s millions upon millions of consumers too There’s so much potential to build great software that genuinely helps millions of people every day and that global impact gets us very excited.
My personal future is totally tied to where we take GoSquared. I’ve always wanted to run a company that I was proud of and I never really thought about a career ladder. Success to me isn’t really about the financial side, it’s more about building something great and earning respect from the industry.
At the end of the day, there’s way more to life than who drives the fastest car, and at the start of the journey I didn’t necessarily realise that. Now, to me, chucking away everything in your life just to make a financially successful business doesn’t make much sense. I just want us to be able to look back and say we were pleased and proud with what we achieved.