History buff and HomeHero COO Chris Burke knows a thing or two about business. In fact, this brainiac has been in the thick of it from before even entering the university halls of Cambridge, with a career from 18 years old spanning consulting in FTSE companies to leading operational strategy in a number of UK startups. Here’s his story.
First Consultant, Then Student
My professional career actually started before my university one. When I left school I had a place to do Engineering at Cambridge and, as part of that course, you had to do a work placement. So I decided to take a gap year to work at Cambridge Consultants Ltd. (CCL) . This was an experience! The company is an outstanding UK success story and has spun out several $1bn+ technology companies since their founding in 1960. These include: Cambridge Silicon Radio (whose IP and products are probably in the device you’re using to read this!), Domino Printing and Xaar. Along with ARM, CCL are regarded as a founding member of the Cambridge Cluster and Silicon Fen, the UK’s answer to Silicon Valley.
The bulk of the work I did at CCL was for the Highways Agency, making sure electronic Motorway gantry signs worked correctly, and for Ionica, who were at the time rolling out a nationwide microwave-based telephone system to rival BT. I also led a project to roll out Europe’s largest DECT system internally, allowing us to run our own secure private mobile network across the campus buildings. I was only 18 at the time and for my first proper job running an RFP process and then commissioning and running a £700,000 capex project was exciting stuff! CLL went on to sponsor me throughout uni and I carried on working for them in most of the holidays and sometimes during term too.
Falling For Business
In my third year of studies I elected to do some Business Modules, as part of my Engineering course, at the newly opened Cambridge Judge Business School (now world famous for its MBA courses), which focussed on how you actually run a business, how you hire the right people, how do you protect your IP and how you scale. I was really interested in learning more about the business side of engineering after this so I joined L.E.K. Consulting, a strategic consultancy group, on a summer placement. They must have liked what they saw as they gave me an unconditional job offer at the end of the placement for when I eventually left uni. I started looking at and benchmarking other companies like BP and Shell in my fourth year and, after considering a potentially bleak life on offshore oil rigs in the North Sea as a process engineer, ended up going with a career at L.E.K. in the City instead.
From there I had the opportunity to jump into big national & multinational companies both private and listed at a senior level – from Virgin Media, to BT and then to Paddy Power. What I found most interesting – and still do – was the interaction between human psychology and numbers; the opportunities created between where people perceive value and where a company actually delivers it. For example, very small things that cost a business little to deliver may end up being valued the most by customers; and big experiences you work really hard to deliver sometimes just don’t land with the customer at all. That value perception mismatch first intrigued me back when I was a student, where I first took part in test studies led by the MRC Cognition & Brain Sciences unit around how the brain interprets – or fails to properly compute – what’s right in front of it and drives a lot of what I do in business to this day.
My Founder Journey
I got into the startup world 10 years ago through Rated People, the UK’s #1 online marketplace for tradespeople, and kept in touch with the founder of that business, Andy Skipwith, after we both had left. When I bumped into him again at a shareholder meeting some years later we started talking about a new business idea he had had. He’d taken some time off to go sailing for a year or two, and had been thinking about an idea for a product that would help him find people to go sailing with, facilitate the payments and bookings, and make the trip happen. I, more of a cycling fan myself, could also see the concept working more broadly, generally getting people together at a specific time and in a specific place, helping them easily split payments, and taking away all the boring admin. Just like a plumber or builder, leisure sector workers like personal trainers, art teachers and dance teachers are constantly looking for new customers and therein lay a great opportunity to provide them with just that! We thought we could create a new type of leisure marketplace the same way Rated People had for the blue-collar sector.
A key change we made this time though was to make sure we were in the payments flow from the very beginning to control how we monetised it right at the start, having learned lessons the hard way the first time around. I initially started as a more financial co-founder, but when they were looking for a COO, and a contract of mine had ended, I doubled down on my investment and took the role full time myself.
If I hadn’t taken the Rated People job I wouldn’t have stepped into the world of startups, where I’ve now seen and done literally every single bit of running and growing a company over the years – from fundraising to accounting to hiring people to fighting every fire imaginable. I’ve acquired a really wide experience set that’s prevented me from being pigeonholed in a particular silo as I might have been as a senior executive in a FTSE company. COOs by nature tend to be a Jack of All Trades, and some might say uncharitably “master of none”, but I enjoy the variability and daily challenges.
In general, at startups there is always more to do than the time available and resources are limited, but with that comes flexibility and variety in your day-to-day work. The trick as you scale up is to try and keep the agility and nimbleness of a startup, whilst scrabbling to secure the resources to implement what you want to do and stay true to the founding vision.
The Art of War (and Business)
My dad was always interested in military history and dragged me along to various museums over the years, like Duxford, the air branch of the Imperial War Museum. A lot of it was engineering-based, which is probably what peaked my early interest in the field. In fact, I’ve read a lot of military books over the years and I find it fascinating how people just never really learn from history; they make the same mistakes again and again. Someone once said “learn from your mistakes but better yet learn from the mistakes of others” and never is that more true than in a startup where your ability to keep making mistakes and continue to survive is limited.
Many entrepreneurs like to relate war strategies to business, but there is a fundamental difference. With military objectives, you have a strategy, tactics, and a defined end goal and, in general, it’s very clear whether you won or lost. However with business, you never really ‘win’ as there’s usually no end to a vision; just an ongoing slog day in, day out! If you put yourself in an “end” focussed mindset, then you’re destined to get disillusioned and give up on the way. In business, it’s often hard to even tell if you’ve made the right choice until much later! Onwards and upwards is really the only path you can take to ‘win’.
The Need For Speed
When I was 18, I made the classic move of hiring a moped in Greece and ended up with quite serious scars, which I still have to this day. However, it didn’t put me off activities with a bit of risk and velocity. Since then I have unexpectedly come off even more two-wheeled conveyances, including having a bike frame snap underneath me at 20 odd miles an hour going around Regent’s Park and leaving a fair amount of skin on the road.
Generally, I like finding something new to challenge me physically and mentally every few years and though some are now a bit slower in nature, like mountaineering in Kyrgyzstan (and getting to name a mountain!), others are still pretty speedy, like obstacle course racing (OCR) and more recently stepping into the world of kickboxing and powerlifting. Change keeps the mind and body fresh and stops you from getting lazy.
A Book I Thoroughly Recommend
In line with my interest in military history, I can recommend The Bloody White Baron. This is a fascinating non-fiction book about how the most unlikely and unsuitable person can get into a position of absolute power. It focuses on the story of Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, a White general in the Russian revolution and the last man to successfully invade Mongolia on horseback. It’s a totally bonkers true story, that I can’t believe hasn’t been made into a film yet. I can just see Nicholas Cage in a career crowning role as the lead, blending his past performances in Face/Off and Bad Lieutenant to deliver a new take on unhinged fanaticism to maximum effect. If that hasn’t piqued your interest in a book nothing will! Well worth a read.
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