Lessons from one of the UK’s top young entrepreneurs

Teenage years are when most people are thinking about which class to take at university or where to travel to for their gap year. Josh Valman, however is not your regular teen. At 19, he’s founded and is CEO of a million pound engineering, consultancy and global supply chain company, RPD International, working on a wide range of projects from jet engines to foam cows. Josh tells Your Ready Business about the lessons he’s learnt from building a business, managing people and his passion for engineering.

What was the motivation for setting up your first company at 15?

Whilst in school I was already designing and creating things for clients. I started contacting some factories and building a supply chain in China. I didn’t intend to create a business at first, it was just a scaling up, to create a structure around what I was already doing.

Having grown up with the internet and mobile phones, what makes you different to the older generation of entrepreneurs?

I don’t see geography and boundaries between countries as an issue. I started in China, because I didn’t see a reason not to, whereas 10-15 years ago, entrepreneurs were more focused on location and China would have felt like a different world. Our whole company is based on the notion that talent and skills are not localised to destinations that are easily accessible.

Being a digital native also definitely changes how I work. I am completely incapable of switching off. If the phone goes off at 3am, I’ll answer it because that’s my connection to the world.

What is the biggest life lesson you’ve learned so far?

People. Everything we do is dependent on people. I’ve spent the last 5 years building up my network of friends who give me the validation and credibility in what we do. I know that I have support, and I know that I have a way into wherever I want to be.

I did a social experiment where I handed out my business card to 250 people when we were starting RPD International and documented who they introduced me to. I then lined these connections up with the development of the company. Everything that has been achieved in the business was because somebody connected me to someone, who knew somebody else, who did me a favour. It’s who you meet, not what you do.

Being such a young business leader – what have you learnt about managing a business?

It’s one thing to connect to people but it’s another thing to manage people. You don’t engineer a culture, a culture just happens. I’m still learning. The most important thing is that everybody in the office is happy to be there.

When we hire people, I always ask what their ideal job would be. If I can’t offer them that job, we don’t hire them. Because if we can’t offer you what you want, or at least a stepping stone to what you want, then you wouldn’t really be committed to what you’re doing.

Every morning we have a quick conference call with our teams around the world to go through all projects’ status. We all need to work on the same wavelength and understand the bigger picture.

I like to be in touch with what we’re doing. If the project is interesting I want to work on it as I love engineering, but I don’t always have the time. So, I work Sundays as a Junior Engineer because I’m not qualified (laughs).

How can entrepreneurs find the necessary funding to get their business idea off the ground?

Once again, funding is about people. We were oversubscribed by people who wanted to invest in our company. We could’ve raised all of the money from a single person. Instead we raised it from several – everything from expert sales people to well connected CEOs – because they have different interests in the company. It’s not about raising the money; it’s about finding the help and support.

You should look at what you really need, past the money. Analyse if you are struggling in sales or product design, or marketing, and find people within those spaces. You shouldn’t be looking for one billionaire who can spare £10 million and will write a cheque. You need to look for 10 people who can help you and can write £10,000,  £20,000 or £100,000 cheques without flinching too much.

Finding these people is a case of networking. Know who you want to find and surround yourself with people who will be excited about your project. It’s broader than sharing your passion, not everyone here loves engineering. But a lot of people here like the challenge of invention and being a little bit unorthodox in how things are done. It’s not just about engineering, it’s about what we’re trying to achieve.

What excites and inspires you about product engineering and what makes today such an exciting time for this?

With the internet and everything being increasingly more connected, product design and manufacturing has already become quite accessible. We’re trying to make it even more accessible. Thanks to our solution, all those ideas that would previously just fritter away are starting to get realised.

I think in the next 10-20 years, bigger companies will struggle: they can’t innovate at the same pace. This means smaller companies will be able to compete with the bigger ones, and in a lot of cases, win.

Innovation still thrives in big companies, but it’s controlled, because of how big they are and how much liability they have. You’ll see a lot of anonymous investment from big companies in start-ups to help them succeed, but also allowing them to risk failing without ruining their brand.

It used to take months or years to set up a viable supply chain, now it seems that companies like yours are making it happen in days and weeks. What do you think drives this? How do you see this evolving?

The general mindset of people is changing. Everybody wants everything yesterday, whether it’s a sandwich or a new product in 100,000 units. Companies need to move quicker. If you put a factory within 100 miles of your distribution centre, you might save two weeks in shipping time, and that’s worth millions. Clients would rather spend millions to save millions than wait two weeks for a product.

There needs to be a higher conversion from research to development. A very cost efficient prototype in supply chain is very beneficial. It is incredible to have projects that come to us that otherwise wouldn’t have gone ahead; we’re quite proud to drive innovation in companies.

Time is worth more than money. Big companies realise now that they need to invest in developing quicker to keep up with smaller companies, and smaller companies need to develop quicker because they want to be in a position to accept money. That is what is creating a market for RPD.

RPD talks about Distributed Creativity Model. Explain what it is and how it works.

It is the idea that expertise, experience, creativity, and skills aren’t localised to certain places. You’ll never find the best people two miles from your office, so we look and appoint people around the world who are focused on certain fields and then we match them together. For example, we get submarine engineers to create and redesign something that works for an airline. We create something successful that the airline itself wouldn’t be able to create on its own.

We do the same for manufacturing. We have manufacturers who are very focused in certain things. Knowing that, we can create a supply chain that is very cheap, quick and local to where you need to be. We are leveraging the volume of orders we have across all of our clients. It gives us a lot of purchasing power, and hence very strong relationships with our factories. When we want something urgently, it can happen. Manufacturers know there is money in the bulk of our orders; hence they don’t look at each project for its own profitability.

Everyday we think: if that took 13 seconds, how do we get it down to 12 and so on. To the point where a traditional agency might spend three weeks in project management, we might spend three hours. That’s our core technology.

Do you feel conditions are ripe for entrepreneurs in the UK in 2014/15? And what needs to happen to make us more competitive in this area in the next five years?

 I think anything is possible in any economic circumstance. The government is very much in support of entrepreneurs. We need to be exporting more, which doesn’t necessarily mean bringing manufacturing back, but creating some kind of output – whether that’s service or product – to the rest of Europe and the world.

Lots of money goes into grants and schemes in order to push for innovation here and stop people moving from the UK to the Silicon Valley. Companies move there because they think it’s a better place to build a company, but I think that’s slowly changing, more corporations are creating innovation and technology arms to support that here.

We’ve done a lot of work with manufacturers within the UK to benefit the economy in terms of jobs and exports. At the moment we have a very large supply chain here, with products exported to the US, Europe, Brazil, and even to China. There needs to be some changes to tax breaks in the UK to make it more enticing. It is still much more beneficial to be based in Dublin or Zurich. But things are changing.

What are your long-term plans?

I’d like to see if we could make a measurable impact for large and small companies. I want to say we launched X number of new companies through our supply chain. There’s a lot that we can do in engineering with software, so we’re looking to find a partner who can help us build a platform which would take us from idea all the way to mass manufacturing in an even more efficient format. I think that would be a fascinating thing, whether you’re a consumer, small business or large corporation.

You’ll have consumers who want to design products themselves – like a chair for instance – but most people are too busy or aren’t interested enough in the creative. They’re quite happy to go to a store and pick one out. So retailers could be able to release new ranges every month without too much hassle because we can make that process so efficient, quick and easy for them. If we can find the right partner to do this with us, that’s where we will go.

Watch Josh speak about challenging convention at the TedXTeen event: