“Start-ups and start-overs” with Richard Russell
Down the Tracks: From Lincoln To Luxembourg
Last week, Richard Russell cycled 80km through the borders of three countries: Luxembourg, Germany and France. He cooks regularly – good meals he assures me – and sometimes cures his own bacon. He can look at his life like this. He’s planted a tree, renovated a house, started a business, got married once and become a father twice over.
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Richard first lived at Lincoln from 1999 to 2000, and studied Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of Adelaide. He describes his path after university as “fairly complex” and “winding”. I say he’s being modest.
His first start-up attempt, Richard made a product to help small businesses manage their IT. This was in 1999. He was living as a tutor in Lincoln’s Keith Murray Building, and had started Honours at university. He tried a software development job working for the SA Government, but when neither Honours nor the start-up worked out, he became an independent technical consultant.
“I left Honours because I wasn’t motivated to continue with it. I found the relative lack of structure around the thesis to be difficult to deal with, and wanted to do work that people would actually value and use (and pay me for), rather than producing things that get marked and then thrown away or put on a shelf. With hindsight, I would have benefited from persevering and getting it done – building a track record of perseverance is one of the more valuable things we do at University, particularly with something like thesis-writing.”
Leaving Lincoln in 2000, he returned as Vice Principal in 2002. At the same time, he taught at TAFE, and ran events for a computing club called LinuxSA. As for his job as a consultant: “It wasn’t going so well, despite my technical skills.”
Richard had to recognise when it was time to move on.
“I learned a lot about taking responsibility for myself,” Richard reflects on his time at Lincoln. “Like many people, it was my first experience living away from my parents, and the failures and successes I had were great learning experiences.”
Departing the role of VP, Richard applied to work at a local company before discovering the job no longer existed. They offered him another, though it had a catch. Richard rushed to organise the passport he didn’t have. He was faced with an uncertain change – having to visit London for a month, maybe two, a couple times of the year.
The client was Deutsche Bank, with Richard helping to run the world’s largest foreign exchange trading platform. Needless to say, he learned a great deal technically. He also got an insider’s perspective on how the financial markets work, and how to work with clients. After a year operating there, he made the move to London permanently, still at Deutsche Bank, on a Bonds and Derivative trading system.
Two years on, Richard applies for a job at Google, where he’d work for six years. He helped to put public transport and live traffic data on Google Maps, and launch Google Checkout. He never stops learning. His time with Google taught him about business, negotiations, and management, as well as what makes a product successful.
Richard’s second start-up taught him all about what makes a product not successful. “It turns out that you need more than a great idea,” Richard reflects. “You need to find customers who want to give you money to solve a problem they think is important.”
At that stage, Richard had his first child: “I wasn’t willing to take more risks with the start-up.” He joined a listed mobile commerce start-up, one that had found the customers he’d been missing. But, in becoming responsible for Product and Engineering after he joined, discovered the problem hadn’t been solved, and the solution they were selling didn’t exist. Richard changed the team, added new people, and started building a viable product. But, “It was impossible to solve the problem in a profitable and reliable way.” The company was losing money too fast, and went under within a year.
Richard’s next move was to Luxembourg, where he’d spend two years running a localisation team at Amazon. The job of his team was to adapt a product or content to a specific local market. They translated 10 million product listings per day, adding secondary languages to Amazon websites around the world.
About 18 months ago, Richard left Amazon to start up a company of his own.
Richard is now a Luxembourg-based independent consultant, focusing on digital transformation and innovation.
“I coach start-ups through an accelerator program called Fit4Start. I help them discover their customer needs, identify a problem worth solving, identify a solution to that problem, and then build a business which can generate a profit by solving that problem for their customers.”
Richard also works with Luxair, the national airline of Luxembourg, where he uses his digital focus to sell products more efficiently, providing a better customer experience, and giving Luxair access to data about their customer behaviour and preferences. “In the last year, I’ve launched three websites for Luxair, and am working on a new personalisation system.”
Richard has spent most of his career learning, but considers his time at university important because of the deep understanding it gave him of the tools he uses to transform businesses, and credibility with those who build and operate software.
Richard has three pieces of advice for students.
Firstly, surround yourself with good people. Tomorrow’s circumstances are the result of the path you take today. Surround yourself with people who are going to the places you want to go. It will rub off on you, and you’ll soon find yourself in a good position, and going to good places. The opposite is equally true.
Secondly, control the inputs. Understand the relationship between inputs and outputs. Control the inputs and the outputs will look after themselves. If you want a healthy body, eat moderate amounts of good food, don’t drink too much too often, and get some exercise (to be fair, I’m still learning this at 40 – better to learn it now). This applies in your study, your career or business, and your relationships as well.
Finally, save before you spend. Aim to have a few spare weeks, months or even years worth of expenses saved up. It will enable you to take the risks that lead to future success. You can’t start a business if you depend on the next pay check for food and rent. Saving means you can travel, start a business, or buy a car when you need one.