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Lessons Learned with Andy Aitken, Co-Founder & CEO at Honest Mobile


Lessons Learned, hosted by Wes Rashid, is where entrepreneurs from a wide range of industries share their personal stories.

In this episode, we speak to Andy Aitken, Co Founder & CEO at Honest Mobile - the world's first carbon negative mobile network.

Having an entrepreneurial spirit from a young age, Andy shares:

  • Building a career at one of the Big Four (Deloitte)

  • Advice on making the switch from Corporate to Startup

  • The importance of brand, sales and marketing

  • Why Honest Mobile decided to become a B Corp

Andy Aitken, Lessons Learned

Building a career at one of the big four

Andy Aitken:

In Deloitte, there were a couple of partners who were really supportive of doing weird and wonderful things. There was one person, Richard buck, who ran a programme on the IT team. He felt like having a bunch of 50 year old men running the IT team wasn't going to be the right way to come up with any innovative ideas.

So, they got eight of us, who were at the time 19, to come and spend the summer going and speaking to people and finding out what IT worked, and what didn’t.

We were going and hanging out at Google HQ and apple HQ, finding out what cool tech was coming along and then pitching it back to the Deloitte executives - that this is what your IT strategy should be.

I then thought that if I qualified as an accountant, it was a pretty safe thing to do and it would set me up for life. And if I ever fell on hard times, most people need an accountant at some point. I ended up qualifying and spent five years working in telecoms with a focus on fraud, which I didn't think would ever be very useful in my future career…but it turns out is very handy if you run a mobile network.

Making the switch from corporate to startup

Andy Aitken:

In 2016 as I ended that project, I had friends who were running startups in London saying “do you want to come and be our CFO?”, and I thought it sounded like a lot of fun.

But, they were a team of six and the last thing they needed was CFO. They actually needed a team of people, plus someone who was financially literate.

So, I ended up pitching this idea internally to Deloitte, like “hey why don't we set up a team that works with high growth businesses in a somehow more affordable manner?”. As it turned out, someone else was already doing it.

There was a team of three people who were getting this business off the ground, but they didn't have an accountant. I became accountant number one in that team and that was a lot of fun.

We had to pitch for funding, come up with a brand, recruit a bunch of people and set up new offices. So, I got to run a mini startup whilst keeping the warm embrace of Deloitte around me.

I ended up getting frustrated by trying to run a startup inside of a corporate, so I decided to leave to set up Honest with Josh, one of my old school friends.

The importance of brand, sales and marketing

Wes Rashid:

Having made the transition, what kind of advice would you give to other people who work in corporate jobs that are thinking of starting their own business?

Andy Aitken:

This might be a function of working at Deloitte, but I used to undervalue the importance of brand, sales and marketing. If you're a big global player, people come to you every day saying “please will you do things for us and we will pay you”. Sales in a big organisation like that is much easier than one where you haven't got anyone coming inbound. So, you need to prioritise activity that helps make that happen.

I used to do sales at Deloitte, and I felt like I was alright at it, but it's much easier when people are turning up asking you to do the job, rather than having to find them out of thin air. So I'd get better at that, and prioritise finding people to help with those things.

Why Honest Mobile decided to become a B Corp

Wes Rashid:

So a conversation with Joshua led to the idea behind Honest Mobile, but what came first, was it the sustainability aspect of building this telecoms/tech company, or was it to deliver a better service for customers?

Andy Aitken:

It was all about the service to start with. At Deloitte, we’d seen loads of businesses becoming B corps or becoming carbon neutral. Loads of food and drinks businesses had done those things recently and lots of other kinds of startup food brands were seeing it as a good way to differentiate.

We saw this as a good thing, and we wouldn't want to do anything that was counter to what B Corps stand for. It’s effectively about triple bottom line reporting.

That’s profit, people and planet.

You should be balancing those things as a director. Equally, I think it's important that we acknowledge the climate crisis and that we do our part as a business to be net zero.

We were talking about setting up a business that was a really great mobile network. On literally day three of the B Corps survey, we decided that we wanted to be carbon neutral and we wanted B Corps. But, those things were much easier to do as a three day old business than a 300 year old business.

We thought if we did them really early it would set us up and it would mean that we would be those things forever.

We didn't really think it would be a big thing that customers would be interested in. But we were idiots.

Sustainability is one of the most common reasons that people sign up for us.

6-12 months in, we were starting to run more ads and look at our brand, that's where we put more emphasis on sustainability.

The key is, we want to be the great mobile network that happens to be green, not the green mobile network.

I think people often use sustainability as an excuse for why they’re not as good technically, or not as cheap. I think the reality is, with lots of businesses, you can be great and be green. You're much better off and you'll have much happier customers if your product is unbelievable and sustainable, rather than being sustainable and offering a kind of 1/2 baked product.

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Lessons Learned is an ongoing podcast series on School of Startups, dedicated to sharing the stories of startup founders.
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