Start-up Advice: Eoghan O’Sullivan, Von Bismark

3 Sep 2015

Eoghan O'Sullivan, founder and CEO, Von Bismark

Von Bismark, led by entrepreneur Eoghan O’Sullivan, is on a mission to transform the future of shopping. The Microsoft Ventures-backed company recently raised £201,000 on CrowdBnk to drive its e-commerce shopping experience called The Mall, which will launch on Xbox One this Autumn.

Von Bismark, a previous Start-up of the Week, was established three years ago by serial entrepreneur Eoghan O’Sullivan from Cork and is headquartered in London with offices in Dublin.

The company recently exceeded its target of £199,879.92 on Crowdbnk with 56 days to go for 8.1pc of the company.

Von Bismark originally drew upon Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect 3D, and its skeletal tracking technology to create virtual wardrobes and mirrors for shoppers is already backed by Microsoft Ventures and Enterprise Ireland.

Last year, in a world first, the company secured a deal with Microsoft to build and publish a marketplace that allows retailers to sell their inventory to the 13m Xbox One users worldwide.

In your opinion, which areas of technology hold the greatest scope for opportunities?

Like everything, the answer is highly subjective to my field and realm of knowledge but for me the most interesting area of technology at the moment is that of connected devices and their applications. We are seeing more and more hardware coming out that is capable of communicating with us and the cloud that can both enhance our lifestyles and merge the physical and digital.

There are so many areas in connected devices at the moment that I see huge opportunities in, whether it is the burgeoning boom in the internet of things encapsulated by Nest and smartwatches, virtual reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift or augmented reality such as Hololens.

‘For 60 years the TV has been the centre of the family living room yet has been, up until now, a dumb terminal feeding people content in one direction’

That’s not even considering more futuristic applications that are already on the market like $100 brainwave monitors. The advancements in hardware are one part of this and then building the software that takes advantage of this hardware and computing revolution is the second part.

From a personal point of view, the TV is where I am most interested. For 60 years, the TV has been the centre of the family living room yet has been, up until now, a dumb terminal feeding people content in one direction. That is all changing, with 200m connected or smart TVs in the US alone, so building software that creates more immersive, interactive and transactional experiences using the biggest piece of visual real estate you own is somewhere that I see huge scope for change.

Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

Nature vs nurture!? I think a good entrepreneur has to have some of the basic building blocks within their personality. You need a baseline of intelligence and instinct that you won’t be able to make it without but from there then it all comes down to access to opportunity, support structures such as family and friends and education. So without fudging the answer too much I think a large amount of people have the baselines needed to be entrepreneurs from birth but only a small percentage of those become good entrepreneurs based on a myriad of factors to do with the environment.

What are the qualities of a good founder?

The common traits I come across most are all to do with mentality. It doesn’t matter how smart or creative you are if you don’t have a bull-headed stubborn streak in you. All founders face adversity and challenges that look insurmountable on numerous occasions and the ability to not give up is by far the most important character trait in my opinion. When you are banging your head against a brick wall sometimes it’s the wall that caves in first.

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?

Get out of their comfort zone. There are certain things that all entrepreneurs will prefer doing. As the leader of a team though and someone vital to the success of the overall strategy of the company you have to be impartial to your own personal enjoyment sometimes. I know for me my favourite part of the journey is always when creating, scoping and building out a new product. I became an entrepreneur to fulfill my creative impulses and I’m always most content during the creative process and I’d happily stay in that bubble forever.

Unfortunately, though, a company needs to generate revenue and that requires the hiring of new people, making payroll, releasing the product to an unforgiving public, taking on board client criticism, administrating everything from office space to mobile phone contracts, pitching to investors and clients and dealing with the endless other small problems that arrive from trying to bring your dream to the masses. All of this needs an entrepreneur to be a leader and deal with problems positively when they need to be dealt with rather than hiding behind their passion for a certain aspect of the company.

What resources and tools are an absolute must for your arsenal?

I love my [Microsoft] Surface! It’s small enough to be a tablet, powerful enough to be a high-end computer and with the stylus you can take notes, sketch and design. In terms of software, we are big fans of One Note in Von Bismark as a central repository for all the information the team takes in every day. Photoshop is also a tool I use every day. Because of my background in 3D and design I end up doing most of the daily design work in Von Bismark for my sins, so Photoshop lets me churn out things quickly.

How do you assemble a good team?

One thing I’ve learned is you have to be flexible with your workforce. I subscribed to the idea for years that your employees should mould to the organisations requirements, however, I’ve done a complete 360 on that thought process and now think that it should be the exact reverse. Everyone works in a different way and we all have things that make us tick and different motivation points.

So once you start from a point of mutual trust – that as an employer you are going to give your employees an environment where they can flourish and express themselves professionally and that employees in return will always give their company an honest day’s work – then I think you can be flexible with your team.

‘It comes back to the circular thought process of Steve Blank — learn, build, measure and repeat. This needs all parts of the business functioning to create an iteration loop and drive the company forward’

Some people need routine and structure, others prefer to work long hours when they are ‘in the zone’. Once the whole team understands that they can choose what’s best for them and that they trust the other team members to execute their workload, then you can create an environment that gets the best out of everyone and doesn’t create unnecessary jealousies, frictions or tension.

What is the critical ingredient to start-up success?

Honestly, I don’t think there is any ‘one’ thing that is always critical. I guess everyone has to pull in the one direction so everyone needs to know what that direction is. For some companies it will be profit, others might see building a beautiful product as the end goal or achieving a goal that is beneficial for society. Once the whole start-up understands this end goal then it is easier to all work together in synergy towards it.

What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?

I would probably go back to my earlier point about getting out of your comfort zone. Usually, the biggest mistakes are focusing on parts of the business and not the whole e.g. on spending too long building the product without bringing it to market for real customer input or spending too long talking about the product with investors without actually building it.

You need to spin all of the plates at once as fast as you can. If you don’t you won’t know where the holes are in the business and how to improve on them. It comes back to the circular thought process of Steve Blank — learn, build, measure and repeat. This needs all parts of the business functioning to create an iteration loop and drive the company forward.

Who is your business hero and why?

I don’t really subscribe to the idea of having a hero to emulate. Everyone has their own way that works for them so trying to follow in someone else’s footsteps can be a fool’s errand. If I had to pick someone it would probably be my father, who gave me the entrepreneur bug. He set up his own business 30 years ago and, growing up, [the conversation at] the family dinner table would often revolve around the trials and tribulations of that business. I think it was there that I fell in love with the process of building and problem-solving in a business of your own making.

Whats the No 1 piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs?

Keep at it and keep calm! The best way to find a solution is through perseverance! I can’t count the amount of times over the years where all has looked lost, where everyone around me has told me to quit and I’ve ignored them! That said — the jury is still out on whether they were right or not!