Meet Mike: Student Beans' Managing Director

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Mike Eder is the Managing Director of Student Beans, and 13 years after he co-founded the business with brother James, he is now leading a team of over 70 people with offices across Europe, America and Australia. We sat him down for a chat about his Student Beans story so far and vision for the future.

Can you give us a brief overview of your career journey at Student Beans?

I set up the business with my brother James when we left university around 13 years ago. James and I ran the business side by side for the first 8 years, and then James began focusing on other ideas he’d been working on, at which point I took over as the Managing Director. I have always been focused very much on building the team, product development, engineering and developing ideas for growth.

How has your vision for the company changed over the years?

Over the past 3 years, we’ve actually been focusing on some of the core concepts that initially drove us to set up the company in the first place. So, in that sense, we’ve gone full circle over the past decade and really gone back to our roots. This has opened up huge growth opportunities for us.

This year we’ve focused more than ever on international expansion, having opened our North America and APAC HQs in New York and Melbourne. This brings new challenges, such as finding meeting times that work across time zones, and ensuring our company culture and values aren’t lost as the team grows. However, dealing with issues like these and seeing the results when we get it right is one of the things that keeps me excited to come into work every day.

When you meet someone new, how do you describe Student Beans?

We are a platform that connects students with brands and we provide a verification service that gives students access to loyalty programs run by brands. In really simple terms, we help to empower students to thrive by giving them access to special discounts and offers from the amazing brands we work with.

When did the idea for Student Beans come about and how?

The initial idea behind Student Beans actually came out of a dissertation that James wrote when he was at university in Birmingham. I was a student in Nottingham and I saw the paper and could really relate to the underlying idea. The fundamental issue was that students wanted a good deal and brands wanted to try and engage more students. Student Beans was effectively going to solve that problem using technology.

How did you come up with the name ‘Student Beans’?

It was a very long and arduous exercise! The short answer is, it was the only domain name available, even after about 4 weeks of brainstorming. Baked beans, certainly when I was at university, were considered to be the staple diet of students. I’m pretty sure it’s noodles now! But, the underlying reason was that beans were cheap and cheerful and we found that students could ultimately relate to them. So, there was a budget connotation around them, and we also liked the branding concepts that you could build around them.

What were you doing before Student Beans?

I read economics at university and I was fascinated with financial markets. My dream job when I was at university was a million miles away from what I actually ended up doing. I really wanted to go into the world of investment banking and become a trader. A couple of summers before we set up the business, I was desperate to get a job in one of the big banks, to see what it’s like. I was fortunate to get a few internship offers and I ended up going to work at JP Morgan on the trading floor. I had a very adventurous summer of working very hard and I got offered a job at the end of the 12 weeks.

It was a huge wake up call as to whether I wanted to continue doing that after I graduated, or whether there were other opportunities worth exploring. Much to everyone’s distaste, I phoned JP Morgan up after I graduated and said “Please can I have a year off?” With that, I bought myself a window of opportunity to explore other things and that’s when the opportunity of Student Beans came up with James. We basically gave ourselves six months to establish the business and we agreed that if it was going to work then I’d have to put my investment banking career on hold indefinitely.

Just before I set up the business with James, I also dipped my toe into the water of eBay. I was selling products for kids, which I was importing from China. There was a huge craze for these wristbands in school playgrounds back in 2004 to 2005 and I built up a bit of money which in turn enabled me to invest in the business and set it up. So that was me, kind of testing the water in the entrepreneurial world and also getting to understand a bit more about the internet. I learnt a bit about HTML programming, basically building up and marking up web pages and that gave me the bug and a bit of confidence to start thinking about the idea of creating an internet-based business. We had a successful first few months and I actually never went back to JP Morgan.

What about the business are you most proud of?

I am, genuinely, most proud of the team. The people here. We are now just over 70 people and I can’t think of a group of people who I’d like to work with and share the journey with more. I’ve realised over the years that, if you put your mind to something as a group of people, you can achieve anything and it’s not about the individual, it’s very much about the team and the team spirit. So, definitely, the thing I’m most proud of is bringing together this amazing, diverse group of people, that operate in multiple locations, in multiple countries and seeing them work together. It’s why I like to dedicate so much of my time towards building our teams and the on-boarding of new talent into the business, helping new and existing people understand who we are and what we do. The real pleasure is when I can see in their eyes that they get it and they can go off and build on what we’ve got, contribute to the business and make things happen. It’s incredible.

When searching for new talent, what sort of people do you look for?

We have our company values that provide a compass for the decisions that we make and they certainly are very important benchmarks for the type of people that we want to have in the company. I think it’s fair to say that there’s not a mould of someone that we’re explicitly looking for but as long as we can see that they connect with our beliefs and values then that’s the key factor for us.

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What’s the best part of the week for you?

The best part of the week for me is, easily, our weekly standup huddle where all parts of the business get together. So, every Tuesday at 2pm, we in London and all of our offices across the UK and in other parts of the world get together over Google Hangouts and we share our good news and highlights of the week that ultimately connect with our quarterly strategic plans. It’s great to be able to realign around what’s important and get people together and celebrate our success. I actually get really giddy with excitement, bringing everyone together. It’s wonderful to hear what all the teams in different parts of the business have been up to in the past week and how it relates to the journey we’re on.

What would you say is one of Student Beans’ greatest achievements so far?

Ah, but there are so many! One of the things that stands out is us winning Digital Business of the Year. We were up against some great competition, and to be acknowledged for our focus and dedication in the digital marketing space was quite an achievement for us.

What’s one of the biggest challenges you often face in the business?

Our biggest challenge is finding the right people that want to come on the journey. We’re very ambitious with our focus now and although there’s that real sense of protecting what we’ve already got, it’s vital to the business that we continue to grow. We have our cultural alignments and it’s always been important that we reference those and our values when considering the right people to join us. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve grown our internal recruitment team, to enable that to happen and ensure that we can cast the net out as wide as possible.

What have you found to be most challenging about your role in particular?

The biggest challenge is often saying ‘no’. When things are going well in the business, there’s a misconception that you can do more and more things, but paradoxically I’ve realised that you’ve got to double down more on what works rather than exposing yourself on areas that don’t necessarily work well. Trying to be an entrepreneur, if I can even call myself that, has proven that it’s all about taking risks but also wanting to make sure that you balance the risks that you take with trying to protect what you’ve already got and what works. The challenge really is being bold, understanding when to say no but also when say to yes.

Looking back, I’d say our success is much more a result of us saying no to things. In hindsight, they were very easy decisions, but in the moment they could certainly cause a lot of frustration and disillusionment for myself and other people in the business. Sometimes your decisions can really go against the grain, but more often than not, it’s those tough decisions that are the most significant in both business and just life in general. So, saying no, but remember that it is for the greater good, even if other people don’t agree or believe it at the time.

Building on that, what is one key piece of advice you’d give to anyone wanting to start their own business?

I’ve probably got about 50 pieces of advice… but if I have to give just one: be persistent.

However, it’s good to know when to put your foot down and when to let go if something really isn’t working. It’s not about driving yourself nuts - in fact one of my favourite quotes that I use to help me ensure I’m being persistent in the right way is: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I believe it was Albert Einstein who said that. It’s that caveat that you’ve got to be persistent, you’ve got to push through, but when you’re getting repeated “no”s, it doesn’t mean you’ve got to give up. It just means that potentially, you’ve got to try a different way.

You’ve got to be visionary, you’ve got to be able to see through the problem and understand that the problem you’re trying to overcome is just a bump in the road and you’ve got to work out the best way to overcome it. Whether it’s over it, under it, around it or smashing through it, you’ve got to find that way. The magic is, if you believe that then you can overcome any challenge that presents itself to you and remember, it often won’t be pretty either. You’ve got to think laterally and sometimes even say “stuff the process,” as long as you’ve got that vision in mind, you can get through anything.

Who is your business role model and why?

I’m going to have to cheat slightly and say more than one person. They’re going to be the usual suspects really… Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. I’m not wanting to pigeonhole them because they’re all very different and they’ve all achieved great things in their own right, they have and will transcend history with what they’ve achieved. But, as a collective, they have all pushed through adversity and they’ve all been told at least once that they’re insane. Yet they’ve always had real belief and purpose behind what they’re doing.

With hindsight and through reading their work or watching them on YouTube, they’ve all taught me that it’s okay to challenge the status quo. My lesson from them is that if someone says you’re crazy then it probably means you’re onto a winner. So, be persistent and carry on going until people realise that what you’re doing can and will make a difference and is for the greater good.

And finally, what has been your favourite moment at Student Beans this year?

One of my favourite highlights over the past year was going away with the team in the summer for our annual weekend away. It’s so great being able to spend a few days of real quality time with colleagues, seeing everyone having fun together and being confident enough to let their hair down and show themselves as they really are. It’s a great way for us to all get to know each other a little better and see how passionate people are about our culture and what we’re trying to do here. Of course, it’s mostly about celebrating everyone’s success and a fantastic year together. It’s fabulous.

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