An entrepreneur’s journey is often about survival and getting to profitability so that near-death situations do not threaten his venture’s existence. Michael talks about his team’s long, often treacherous, path through troubled waters.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start at the very beginning of your personal journey. Where are you from? Where were you born, raised, and in what kind of background?
Michael Hughes: I grew up in Wales, United Kingdom in a town of 170,000 people. I was there for the first 18 years of my life.
Sramana Mitra: What did you do for your education?
Michael Hughes: To be very honest with you, I actually was a dyslexic kid and was doing relatively poorly in education until about 12 or so when I was luckily discovered by a random IQ test to be not quite as dumb as people thought. That allowed me to get a bit of help and support, which got me a scholarship to get out of the public schooling system and into private education with the help of my parents.
I ended up going down the typical pre-engineering route with a lot of mathematics, chemistry, and physics. I followed that path. When I decided to go to university, I took the opportunity to do, what they call, a six-sandwich course where you get some hands-on practical experience working for a company before you go off to university. I chose to study Aeronautical Engineering at Imperial College. I got sponsored through that experience by what was then known as Westland Helicopters, Britain’s only helicopter manufacturer.
I spent a year working in various departments of Westland Helicopters. Every summer, I went back to Westland for a bit of experience. While at Imperial, I got interested in doing some stuff that was a little bit more computational. I ended up doing my thesis work for my Engineering Master’s in Barcelona.
Sramana Mitra: What years are we talking?
Michael Hughes: That is ’86, I went to Westland and I graduated from Imperial in 1992.
Sramana Mitra: What happens after this?
Michael Hughes: From the experience of actually working in an engineering company, I discovered that engineering was actually quite hard. Westland was laying off a whole bunch of people when I was there. I ended up writing a memo to the Managing Director. I marched into his office to suggest that they’re missing a trick with all the capabilities they had with all these interns running around.
As a result of that odd conversation, I ended up working for the Deputy Managing Director as a sort of a special projects sidekick. That was my first exposure to business outside of my normal day-to-day engineering experiences. When I came to graduate from the Engineering Master’s program, I thought I’d quite like to do something a little bit more on the business side. I applied to a bunch of Strategic Management consulting firms, and ended up working with a group called Monitor, which at that time, was a small UK-based group of professors out of Harvard Business School – the most notable of which is Michael Porter.
Sramana Mitra: I remember Monitor.
Michael Hughes: Before their untimely demise, I worked with them out of the London office but spent almost no time in London at all. I ended up working in Spain for quite a bit. Then I spent just over a year working in Portugal with the Portuguese government on this broad-ranging, national competitiveness project, which was inspired by a book that Michael Porter called The Competitive Advantage of Nations. I was doing, essentially, public policy work for 14 months. I did that for a bit.
I did a similar thing in the Middle East working in Abu Dhabi trying to help them use the offset money that they had from buying all the weaponry from the Americans to actually build something that would be a little bit more long-standing. Then I worked in Northern Ireland on the precursor of the Peace Accords trying to build economic activity between northern and southern Ireland. After that, I went to Stanford Business School. That’s where I met Steve Flavell, who’s my business partner to this day and Andy Scott who ended up being our financial sugar daddy through the experience of LoopUp.