Marcus Taylor is the Founder & CEO of Venture Harbour, a digital innovation studio based in Oxfordshire that has built over nine profitable online ventures, including SaaS tools, financial comparison sites, and artificial intelligence chatbots. Marcus founded Venture Harbour with no funding and less than £500 in his bank - today, at age 26, his portfolio of online ventures is worth over £3 million and reaches more than 7.4 million people in 195 countries.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I coded my first website at age 10, as my dad felt it important for me to learn how to write HTML and use Microsoft FrontPage. By age 15, my friends and I had built a network of websites running ads that we'd all click on during lunchtime at school to generate each other an extra £2-3 pocket money per week. My first proper business was a record label I launched when I was 16. While it didn't achieve the level of success I had hoped for, it did introduce me to the world of digital marketing, which ultimately led to creating Venture Harbour.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship is about creating something from nothing. It's playing the alchemist by taking multiple ideas that previously existed and smelting them into something new. The word entrepreneur is thrown around a lot these days, often synonymous for 'self-employed', but to me, it's really about the creation of something new that pushes humanity forward in some way big or small.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
Venture Harbour started off as a digital marketing consulting service and eventually evolved into a digital innovation studio that solely focuses on building online ventures. I knew the idea would take off when I was trying to build one of my early ventures and I was so distracted by getting emails from friends asking me to help them with their digital marketing. Over time, though, I realised that selling your time makes it very difficult to build a scalable business as you only have so many hours in the day that you can sell. That's why we pivoted from being a product company that sell hours towards building products that scale without a reliance on our time.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
It's tempting to list arbitrary skills like 'persistence' and 'vision', but my experience meeting countless successful entrepreneurs tells me that just like answering what makes someone a great friend or a successful parent, there are so many permutations of strengths and weaknesses that can combine to make someone successful in entrepreneurship. There are a few common ones though:
1) Curiosity - Curiosity is at the heart of why we learn, innovate and create. Without it, it's near impossible to have the motivation to refine our knowledge, skills, or product. Fortunately, I haven't met too many Oxfordian's lacking curiosity!
2) Motivation - Entrepreneurship can be a brutal and humbling experience, especially in the early days. Without a big picture dream, vision or 'fire in your belly' type of motivation pushing you through the hard times, it'll be challenging not to take the easy way out and accept that high-paid consulting gig when things get tough.
3) Get out of your comfort zone - Entrepreneurs are constantly forced outside of their comfort zone whether they like it or not, but if you're proactive in getting out of your comfort zone rather than reactive, you'll grow faster and the challenges will be relatively easier to deal with. I always encourage any entrepreneur to do one little thing every week or month that gets you out of your comfort zone - you'll soon notice how it changes your mind set.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
There are a lot of things I love about being an entrepreneur, but the most enduring buzz has to come from developing a team. There's something amazing about providing opportunities for others to develop their skills and get out of their comfort zone, while enabling them to provide for their families and have a healthy work-life balance. We're fortunate to have a world-class team of smart people at Venture Harbour that I'm still learning new things from every day. That's awesome.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
My biggest inspirations are David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried of Basecamp. I'm a fan of their work because they're challenging a lot of clichés and outdated models of thinking that are generally accepted in business. For example, here are DHH's thoughts on the idea that companies should be like a family:
"The best companies aren’t families. They’re supporters of families. Allies of families. There to provide healthy, fulfilling work environments so when workers shut their laptops at a reasonable hour, they’re the best husbands, wives, parents, siblings, and children they can be."
I couldn't agree more strongly with this. We have a lot of uncommon philosophies at Venture Harbour around culture and the future of work, and I find both Jason Fried and DHH to be among the wisest and most questioning leaders in the tech community who I look up to as an example of how I'd like to run Venture Harbour.
If you had 5 minutes with the above indiv/company/org, what would you want to ask or discuss?
Besides discussing generally what companies might look like 20-30 years in the future, I'd be particularly interested in discussing the relationship between time and quality of work:
Great work takes a lot of time but the results of great work endure well beyond mediocre work. Take Picasso's paintings, St Paul's Cathedral, and the Crown Jewels as an example. These are exceptional pieces of work that are still remarked upon every minute. In modern organisations, there is an increasing emphasis on hitting (often arbitrary) deadlines that, as a side effect, encourage work to be good enough rather than exceptional. Should we go back to building cathedrals? What would be the pros and cons of allowing workers to spend as much time on a project and consider it done when they're truly proud of it?
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
While it's a bit cliché, I like to think you either win or you learn a lesson. Like all entrepreneurs, I've had my fair share of lessons learned, from business ideas that didn't work out to hiring staff that weren't a good fit. The most valuable lesson I've learnt is to just reduce your risk. While people like to think of entrepreneurs as bold risk takers, the best entrepreneurs are bold risk-mitigators. Take Richard Branson for example.
Why did Richard Branson incorporate Virgin's 300+ companies as separate limited companies? So that if any of his companies got sued it would only affect the one company and not bring the other 299 down with it. Richard Branson often talks about how he repeatedly asks himself 'what's the worst thing that could happen right now?' and then he creates a plan to mitigate that risk. Most entrepreneurs wait until it's too late, but when you identify problems upstream you give yourself the luxury of time to create yourself a different path to a better outcome.
How have you funded your ideas?
Venture Harbour and the nine companies it has built are entirely bootstrapped. I started Venture Harbour with about £500 in the bank and a beat-up laptop in a cafe on George St, and have since grown it to a portfolio of online business worth over £3M without taking on any funding.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
In 2012, I won a grant from The Awesome Foundation for developing the world's first scientifically-valid tool for measuring a person's 'comfort zone'. The recognition from this led to me giving talks on the topic of getting out of your comfort zone at events like TEDx, OneWorld Summit, and Mindvalley events all around the world. I also won 'Young Professional of the Year' at the UK Search Awards held at the Emirates Stadium in London, and 'Young Visionary of the Year' at MIDEM in Cannes. Both of these awards were a huge honour and led to some invaluable connections and opportunities.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Let's start with the obvious - In Oxfordshire, you're surrounded by incredible talent. If you need to hire or collaborate with talented developers, designers, economists or whoever you might need to get your idea off the ground, you have the luxury of having some of the best people on the planet an your doorstep. Another fantastic thing about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire is the level of support that's available in the form of co-working space, meetups, and accelerators.
The biggest challenge I've found with being an entrepreneur in Oxford is that, being a city of hard-working 'head-down' types, Oxford doesn't have a strong networking culture. If you want to build your network, meet like-minded people for coffee, and learn from others you have to really go out of your way to do so here. I'd love to see more of a push to encourage entrepreneurs to get out and arrange coffees. I'll do my bit to kick this off by inviting anyone in Oxford who wants to meet for coffee in the city to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
My top three podcasts: Mixergy, Growth Everywhere, Noah Kagan's podcast
My top three books: Think & Grow Rich, Good to Great, Oversubscribed
Entrepreneur Resources in Oxfordshire:
1) The Said Business School has some great things lined up around co-working space and events that are worth keeping a close eye on.
2) Optimise Oxford is my favourite Oxford-based meetup on digital marketing
3) Society Cafe / Jericho Coffee Traders - Because how many great ideas were not fuelled by coffee? Exactly.
Any last words of advice?
Go get 'em tiger.