“I was on the overachiever path, where you keep going without thinking about what you want. You’re focused on what other people want.”
Imran Amed is explaining his unlikely and dramatic career shift to a rapt London audience–me and five Fast Company/Virgin Atlantic contest winners. A mere 24 hours or so earlier (and some 5,400 miles away), these intrepid creativity scouts (meet the gang here) met at Virgin Atlantic’s Clubhouse at Los Angeles International Airport. The airline flew us to London to put its “Business is an Adventure” mantra into action by exploring the fast-growing tech scene. On our whirlwind tour, we’re getting to know some of the city’s most creative and influential players. Our first lesson: how some of them used their status as outsiders as a competitive advantage.
Amed went from the fast track at the global management firm McKinsey & Co., to a couch-based blog that ultimately launched The Business of Fashion, a global must-read media outlet. We speak with him over lunch in the trendy neighborhood of Shoreditch.
Tramshed, a cavernous chicken-and-steak joint, couldn’t be a more appropriate setting. We’re discussing taking creative leaps and differentiating your business while eating in the shadow of a massive Damien Hirst installation that has to be seen to be believed: a cockerel riding atop a Hereford cow, both encased in greenish formaldehyde in an aquarium-like tank elevated a hair shy of the rafters.
Amed is the embodiment of an outsider who scaled the castle wall. At McKinsey, he thrived for years as a consultant solving problems in various industries. While the firm was eager to discuss the path to partner, he longed for more fulfilling work. He left in 2006. During a meditation tour in South Africa, including 10 days of total silence, he had an epiphany: he wanted to apply his analytical skills to a creative field.
In fashion, Amed found an industry badly lacking in business acumen. “All these designers I’d meet had no idea how to lead a business,” says Amed, who grew up in Canada and has an MBA from Harvard. “No one expects designers to run financial models, but my insight was if you’re going to work in fashion, you should understand the mechanics of how a fashion business works.”
He started a personal blog in which he dissected, advised, and critiqued players large and small with the rigor of a steely-eyed consultant. After he made it public, the fashion elite wanted to meet Amed and hear more. “The way the media tends to cover fashion is as this superfluous, vacuous industry,” he says. “They focus on models and shows, but behind all that is a massive global industry.”
Today, The Business of Fashion is an ultra-popular site and monthly magazine that at times scoops the traditional fashion press. Amed teaches what he says is the industry’s only business course on fashion at Central St. Martins, an arts college in London. As the company has grown, he’s hired others with an outside take. A lawyer. A scientist. A Ph.D. in German poetry. “We’re the fashion nerds,” he boasts.
It’s London Technology Week, and one of our stops is part of the agenda, my conversation with Eileen Burbidge, a partner at Passion Capital. Delayed by notorious London traffic, we arrive at a General Assembly pop-up space underneath the Old Street Station, above the rumble of the London Underground, to find Burbidge already fielding questions from the crowd. No surprise. She’s one of the most influential VCs in London—“Silicon Roundabout’s real reigning queen,” The Telegraph dubbed her.
Like Amed, she, too, brings an outsider’s perspective. Burbidge is a London transplant; she moved here from Silicon Valley 11 years ago. And she came to venture capital by way of technology, not finance. For years, she worked in product management. Prior to Passion Capital, Burbidge was head of product for Skype.
But managing developers gives her invaluable insight as an investor assessing early-stage tech startups. “With tech founders, I can relate to the proposition quickly and visualize what they need to do to get to market,” she says. “More cynically, I also have a good BS filter. Teams can walk in with some VC’s and talk about great architecture without the VCs discerning what that means.”
Her Passion partners, Robert Dighero and Stefan Glaenzer, aren’t conventional VCs, either. They embrace a variety of different approaches: using a term sheet stripped of legalese (“We write it the way we write email,” she says); not charging clients for Passion’s legal fees (“Otherwise, you’re investing in a company and then taking money right back out.”); and operating a co-working space, White Bear Yard, for clients and other companies (BuzzFeed and Stripe were there at one time). “I worked at an incubator in the Valley,” says Burbidge. “It’s that same idea: our teams benefit from being around other teams.”
Over dinner at Soho House, the private members’ club for media movers and shakers, we get a surprise cameo from yet another successful outsider: Andy Chen, the former CEO of Tidal, the music streaming service acquired this spring by the rapper and entertainment mogul Jay Z. “We were a Swedish mobile tech company that no one paid attention to,” says Chen as if he still can’t fathom the abrupt turn of events.
Aspiro Group, which developed Tidal, was determined to differentiate itself from the growing number of competitors. The team focused on building the first streaming service with high-fidelity sound quality. “You want to be No.1 at something,” Chen says.
It’s a message that resonates with Clint Schaff, a member of our group. In addition to working as the U.S. general manager for the integrated marketing and communications agency Dare, Schaff advises Peri, a startup that hopes to stand out with an iPhone case equipped with high-definition speakers.
By offering superior audio and a premium-only service, says Chen, Aspiro’s CEO at the time, the company intentionally narrowed its audience. The service wasn’t for everyone. But it went beyond audiophiles. They also sought the growing number of music lovers plucking down hundreds on top-tier headphones. “As a rule, 15% to 20% of consumers want a premium experience,” he says. “We offered four times the audio quality for twice the price.”
The strategy paid off. Aspiro raised enough money to expand from five markets to 50. By December, Tidal had 500,000 paying subscribers. The industry took notice. “Bank of America called and said a very prominent American businessman was interested,” Chen says. “I learned two days before the meeting it was Jay Z.”
In March, Jay Z bought Tidal for $56 million and, with a who’s who of fellow investors (Usher, Rihanna, Madonna, and others), touted it as the only artist-owned streaming service.
Although the deal was undeniably good for Aspiro investors, it remains to be seen if music fans will benefit. Chen stepped down as CEO in April, followed by his replacement in June, leaving Tidal awash in uncertainty. Jay Z, the ultimate insider, finds himself on the outside looking for a way in.
In the next dispatch on our great London adventure, we’ll explore how companies and entrepreneurs are building technology to enable creative work, such as software to make you better at brainstorming.
Chuck Salter for FastCo.Works, Fast Company’s custom studio.