We’re excited to launch ECI’s podcast, “Building Successful Businesses,” in which we speak to CEOs about the building blocks of success and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. It’s not always easy but it’s always fascinating to hear about people’s different paths, navigating both the challenges and the opportunities.
In Episode 1 we chat to Gurman Hundal, co-founder and CEO of MiQ, a programmatic marketing partner that ECI backed in 2017. We chat to Gurman about what his first jobs taught him, why he decided to set up on his own, and how he learned to trust his instincts without relying on them. Find out more about what he’s discovered and the advice he’d give to entrepreneurs now.
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Fiona: Welcome to ECI’s podcast, “Building Successful Businesses,” where we speak to CEOs about the building blocks of success and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. Today, our very first guest on our very first show is Gurman Hundal, co-founder and CEO of MiQ, a programmatic marketing partner that ECI invested in, in 2017. So, welcome.
Gurman: Thanks for having me.
Fiona: I was weighing up how to describe actually what MiQ does. I said programmatic marketing partner, but that probably isn’t the best description. What does that actually mean?
Gurman: So, we effectively help brands with their digital advertising. You could say there’s three ways in which brands can advertise digitally. Firstly, they could buy ads, what’s called search, those keywords that you search for in Google. Or it’s social, so those are those ads that you see in your newsfeeds on Facebook, Instagram, etc. Or then there’s this third category we call display, which used to simply be a banner ad on websites, but now it’s also the TV ads that you see on your connected TV device, those digital out-of-home screens, or audio channels that you’re streaming.
Display is the area that we help advertisers buy adverts on. So, we take their budget, decide which are the right media outlets to buy, and the right devices to buy across. And the method we use to buy those ads is this method called programmatic, which enables you to use any data asset, any media outlet and any device.
Fiona: You set up the business 10 years ago, is that about right? So, has it always been those three categories or has it changed quite a lot over the last 10 years with advances in digital marketing?
Gurman: Digital has always been search, social, and display, actually. Display has changed massively though. In the old, old days, it was those horrible things called pop-ups. It moved on to have video ads and banners, to then mobile becoming dominant, but now the really exciting thing is what you used to call off-line advertising channels like TV, or outdoor, or radio are now all becoming online. We consume all those media now on devices connected to the internet.
You know, I walk past more outdoor signs that are digitally-enabled, not the old-school posters that you see. And most of the audio I listen to now isn’t on the traditional radio, it’s on streaming content and if it’s connected to the internet, it becomes display advertising. And the best way to buy display advertising is using this technique called programmatic, which we’re specialists at.
Fiona: Makes sense. And I mean, how’s 2020 been? At the start of the pandemic there was talk about how advertisers didn’t want to be associated with negative news stories so reduced spend. Have you seen that globally for programmatic marketing as well?
Gurman: You know, there’s a lot of unfortunate industries with what’s happened in the health crisis and the economic crisis. But I think our industry, and certainly programmatic display within the advertising ecosystem, has benefited really. So yes, businesses aren’t performing as well so they’re spending less money on advertising. But those that are spending on advertising are probably spending more on programmatic display than they were before. That’s been driven by the fact it’s a more measurable medium so they can track their returns quickly. But also, consumers have been at home and they’ve been consuming more content, be it streaming TV, podcasts or spending more time on devices connected to the internet. That has meant that programmatic display has been a good vehicle for those companies that still want to advertise.
And a lot of companies have had to pivot their businesses online. So, it’s been a bit of an acceleration. Companies that were still clinging on to the old way of doing things have just accelerated the change as they’ve had to. All of that means things have been generally pretty positive for our industry and MiQ, as a business has ended up doing very well in 2020 compared to probably a lot of businesses in this sector.
Fiona: I think you’re right, a lot of companies have actually had to rely more on their marketing departments and advertising because they’re not getting business through normal channels. If we move on to your personal business journey, one of the questions I always really like to know is about people’s first jobs – people don’t always know straight away what they want to do. So, I guess if we start right at the beginning, what was your first job and what did you learn from it?
Gurman: My parents had a shoe shop selling ladies shoes in a shopping center in Luton, so from about 3 or 4 years old, because there was nowhere to send me, I would have to go and sit in that shop all day, basically. I guess what I learned from overhearing them work, was how important cash flow was and how to manage suppliers – I’ve heard all their arguments with all their suppliers! It wasn’t a job, but it was definitely an experience. Then when I was at school, I was a waiter at Pizza Hut. I guess I learned about customer service and working in a fast-paced environment.
Fiona: I actually think everyone needs a job like that at some point because actually, it teaches you quite a lot about how to be a customer.
Gurman: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Fiona: You start to be a lot nicer.
Gurman: Yeah, that’s right. I always remember the selective selling training you used to get. So, you know, if they didn’t order a salad bowl, you’d always have to say, “Would you like a salad bowl with that?” So, that’s a sales technique. Actually, I’ll tell you, the only job I ever got fired from was I was working in a factory in a production line where it’s buy one, get one free, those little plastic sheets. I used to make about thousands of them a day. It was such a boring job. I got fired because I was talking too much to my friend who started working there. So, that just taught me I don’t want to work in a factory.
But to talk more professionally, I’ve only ever worked in this industry, in digital advertising. When I was a student, I had to do a placement year and I was applying everywhere. I just wanted to get any sort of job. So the two areas I got really far is I was going to work in the HR department for the government’s audit committee, or I had this chance to work at this, 15-person company which was an online advertising business. I was like 19 at the time, and yeah, I mean, it was such a…my life could’ve been completely different.
Fiona: Your “Sliding Doors” moment.
Gurman: Yeah, and that job was in the technical department, which was really important because digital advertising merges with the world of technology quite a lot so it’s good to be literate in the detail when it comes to how does an advert physically get displayed in front of a user. I learned a lot of that plumbing of our industry in that first year, and that’s helped me so I could build the commercial skills on top of that.
And I always used to think that you want to join an industry which is fast growth so there was no question for me like when I went back to finish my degree that I was coming back into online advertising. At that time it used to not even take 2% of a marketer’s budget, and you could see where the world was going, and now the majority of that budget is in digital.
Fiona: So, what was the transition from doing the internship to deciding to set up your own business in this space?
Gurman: I think it’s more of a personal thing; I always wanted to run my own business. I always wanted to have the ability to have an idea and make it happen. I’ve always had great leaders, learned a lot from them and had a lot of autonomy, but I think I came to the point where I wanted that accountability to be solely with myself and Lee, who is my business partner. So, there’s no excuses now. We had to come up with everything from the idea, how it sold, to collecting the cash – that whole production line of the business is reliant on us.
Separately, a big passion and purpose of mine and Lee’s is about creating an environment that people love to work in and making a big impact in people’s lives. So, we were like really keen that, okay, if we could create a framework of how a business could run so that the business would grow but it would really over-index on delivering for its people. People join us and they’re learning a lot, they’re making the best connections and friendships at this company. They’re earning really well at this company. They’re developing a lot. They’re having a lot of fun. By running your own company you’ve got more control of creating that environment.
But importantly, ensuring that environment carries on as the business scales – it’s not as easy as it sounds. That’s one of my biggest drivers today, but it was definitely a driver then. And my favorite experiences and stories at MiQ are not to do with financial milestones we might clear, it’s been more about what impact we’ve had in people’s lives. We’re not changing the world, I’m not saying that, but within our four walls of MiQ, there’s been people who’ve come in, who have had a really positive experience and managed to live great lives, you know?
Fiona: And, you know, it does change individual worlds because actually, the amount of time people spend in their jobs and the kind of confidence it can give you, it may not change maybe the world on a grand scale, but certainly on a small scale. You mentioned you had some great leaders then during your career. Do you think that’s something that they instilled in you?
Gurman: Yeah, so I was very young, right? So, an interesting story about me and my business partner was that he used to work at the company when I was an intern and he was the best seller. And then by the time I went back to uni, he’d become the head of sales. He said, “Don’t work in the technical product department, come work for me in sales.” And I was awful. I sold hardly anything for six months. In our industry, it’s a big thing to take clients out for lunch on a Friday. Well, I was always that one person in the sales team that had nobody to take out for lunch on a Friday. And yeah, so Lee would always take me out and I started to talk with him about, “Hey, I think we need to create a new product within the organization because I think….” You know, it wasn’t that I was a bad salesperson, the product obviously wasn’t very good!
Lee saw that thinking and backed it to the extent that he said, “Right, I’m going to take this to the top levels of leadership in this company and I’m going to resign from my position and I’m going to ask them to let me and you set up a subdivision within this organization.” And we did that. But six weeks into it, Lee got headhunted to do the exact same thing for this company’s biggest competitor. And, you know, I was like 22 or 23 or something at that time. But as soon as Lee resigned, I got called into the office and I got a massive promotion. The Managing Director said, “Right, now this is your gig. Go make it happen.”
I really respected him for that, actually, that he backed me. I had no experience. I had absolutely no right to take Lee’s job at that time. And it worked out. We created a great product. It sold a lot. Me and him ended up going to the Mail online group to do the exact same thing there. But I did learn from him that you can back ability, passion and drive as much as you would back experience and past achievements.
Fiona: Sometimes I do think you need to get thrown into the deep end a little bit, because actually that is when things such as passion and excitement for have you have created come to fore. Obviously, building anything from the ground up isn’t easy. What do you think the hardest lesson that you’ve learned is since setting up MiQ?
Gurman: I think, for me, certainly, if you take the position as global CEO in an organization, founder or not, you are often in the middle of the needs of the stakeholders, the investors, and the needs of the people. And you’re having to think long-term and short-term. So you’re always in the middle of balancing those needs, and they can be hugely conflicting.
So I think that day-to-day challenge of trying to make sure, “Hey, we’re still doing enough long-term, but we’re hitting today’s results. And we are hitting today’s results in a way that gives us the ability to drive long-term results. Our people are really, really happy and we’re investing enough in people to a balanced extent that we’re still delivering for shareholders, investors, etc. And we’re not jeopardizing any future opportunities we have as a business.” I think just having to manage that balance day-to-day, I do think is a challenge and there’s not, one rule. All that it is, is just your ability day-to-day to just make a thousand decisions but just enough on the correct side. This is what really makes the difference.
The big-ticket things, don’t get me wrong, and that’s what strategy is all about, they do make an impact. Like, if we didn’t go to India and develop a great team there to build our solution and our product, we wouldn’t be the business that we are now. If we didn’t go to America, we wouldn’t be at the scale we are now. They’re the big calls, but I think, for me, it’s managing that day-to-day balance of needs. I think that is the challenge that I think a lot of people who start their own business or even people who are in CEO positions live through every day.
Fiona: And obviously three years ago you were looking for an investor and chose to partner with ECI. Do you think there’s anything that has surprised you about what it’s been like having that stakeholder interest compared to when you were looking for investment?
Gurman: No, look, I’m going to be really honest here, guys, and I don’t want you to think I’m just saying this because it’s an ECI-sponsored podcast, but I have been so surprised at how much of value gets added. Like, we have Tom Wrenn, we call him the silver bullet guy. You know, there’s always the answer to a problem we have, and just having very smart people with the experience involved in your business. And it goes back to you do end up just making those micro-decisions just better. And the business just gets better and better and better. Naively, I never expected that would be the case. I was probably coming into it thinking, “Oh, you know, well, they’re going to give you lots of money, that’s nice. But then they’re going to…I don’t know, there’s this big dragon that’s going to come in and completely swallow up everything that’s good about the business.”
It’s really weird, actually, when I speak to people who have no experience in private equity or in investment that that’s the image. And I’m like, “Actually, it’s not that at all.” Our business is so much better. It’s made our business even more scalable, and stable and we’re just got a better business on all levels. And I guess I just did not expect that at all. I don’t know if that’s Tom, if that’s ECI, or if that’s just the whole industry. I guess there’s always good and bad stories. But we certainly had an amazing experience. And I would always recommend to anybody to…And again, I ain’t just saying this because it’s ECI’s podcast. Like, it’s just been a true experience for us, so be open-minded.
Fiona: It really is an important relationship, they’re going to be sitting on your board, you’re going to be talking to them a lot and it’s really important that you get on with them. MiQ is now a hugely successful, big global business, with outstanding clients. As you’ve become more successful over the last 10 years, what has that taught you about yourself?
Gurman: Well, I think, confidence in your instincts. I think it’s very easy to think, “Well, I’ve never done this before, so obviously, I won’t know what to do.” So, your confidence can drop. But I think the one benefit I’ve had is we’ve always had a board framework, not as sophisticated as now, but even before we had any form of investment, we had a chairman, for example, and having those people around you does help you make better decisions. But I’ve learned that, actually, the instincts that you develop from just being so deep in your business and running a business and all that exposure you get, is a pretty strong muscle. And learning to trust that more, I’m learning that as we scale, actually. And not just as I get older and more mature.
Having advisers around you who test that, I think that’s where that confidence builds up. I mean, when you’re scaling a business every day is, “I’ve never done this before. Oh God, this is a new challenge.” Like, you’re always thinking about when is it that it’s totally…”I’m not smart enough to know this.” But you finally rely on your instincts, and you’re stronger than you think, but you do have to test your instincts with advice.
Fiona: Did you ever find it hard to trust people? Often when someone is scaling a business quickly, there’s an element of you which wants to keep control because that way, you know everything that’s going on in your business. But that’s also impossible because, like you say, you need trusted people who know more than you. Did you find it hard to get that balance, or were you always very confident to delegate and learn?
Gurman: Yeah, my uncle, my mom’s younger brother, he said to me from a very young age, “So chief, if you want to be smart, you will learn from your mistakes… but if you want to be really, really smart, learn from other people’s mistakes first.” And one of the things I always hear about founders, and certainly founder CEOs, is that they trust their instincts too much. They don’t take any input at all and their egos almost get the best of them and ultimately end up damaging the long-term sustainability of their businesses. So, I’ve been very cognizant of that, very minded of anything I do – am I veering closer to making that mistake here?
Fiona: I saw recently that MiQ hired a head of diversity and inclusion, which I thought was really interesting. What made you invest in that area?
Gurman: You can’t build a great business unless it’s an inclusive business, you can’t. It’s actually probably one of the regrets I have is that we haven’t been quicker at taking inclusion diversity seriously and not just hiring a person but a department, like you have finance or marketing. I think we need to have it because people want transparency, they want to understand how decisions are made and they want to make sure that people have all got the equal opportunity and it’s down to their ability, not any characteristic about themselves. And most businesses would say, “Oh, yeah, absolutely, I operate like that,” or, “We operate like that.”
But I’m learning that there is a lack of awareness of day-to-day unconscious biases and stereotypes you develop your whole life, and how they can get into the system of your business. So, if you don’t have a framework to control and educate your teams around how those biases could exist without them even knowing it, then you’re not going to be as inclusive. And if you’re not that inclusive, you ain’t going to get a highly motivated workforce. And if you don’t get a highly motivated workforce, you ain’t going to drive financial growth, basically.
And so it’s interesting to me because at the start, I would have told myself I didn’t need to invest in that stuff, but now I do tell a lot of people that, like, “Hey, don’t be too late.” And that for me, for our vision, if we can just make any person who comes through the MiQ walls be that little bit more inclusive and that little bit more aware of their biases and taking that understanding of themselves and why inclusion is put in their decisions then we’ve over-delivered for our people.
Fiona: What advice would you give to entrepreneurs at the start of the journey, given what you’ve learned over the last decade?
Gurman: Do trust your instincts, but almost double down on your instincts by getting good advice around you. Because you’ll either adapt your decisions or they’ll back them and give you more confidence to follow them. So, get advice quickly and use it to help you make better decisions and grow your instinct muscle more.
The last thing is just in everything that you can do, figure out how you can just slightly over-index for delivering for your people. If you can get that level of trust – and that includes inclusion, good values, culture, good decision-making – then that is the ultimate driver of your business even if you’re strongly technology-enabled or you’ve got a unique product in the market. All of that gets built from the people or that gets sold from the people in it. So that would be it, trust your instinct, get advice around you, and over-deliver for your people.
Fiona: Thanks to you so much for joining us today. We look forward to seeing more about how MiQ goes from strength to strength in the future.