Tycoons of Tomorrow #4: Kieran O'Neill

David Langer meets Kieran O'Neil, who sold his first company for $1.25M at the age of 19.
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Kieran is our final Tycoon of Tomorrow - and the biggest hitting yet. He was born in Bermuda and moved to England at the age of 14. A year later he started HolyLemon.com, a video sharing website focused on funny videos and at the age of 19 sold this to a US company for $1.25M. Last year, at the age of 20, he left his Management degree at Bath University to found his third company, Playfire.com, for which he has already raised $1M in venture capital investment.

What was it like to sell a company for over a million dollars at the age of 19? What did you do with the money?

It was very surreal! After the exit became public, I did 10 different radio interviews, was on the front-page of the local paper, on the BBC website and the ITV evening news. It's odd seeing and hearing yourself in that way! My life didn't change very much after the sale. I went on holiday with my girlfriend, and bought a MacBook Pro, but that was about it! The best thing is that I have capital to self-fund future ventures in the early days, and it's a credibility stamp when meeting more experienced successful entrepreneurs.

What is Playfire? Why did you choose this idea for your third venture?

Playfire is a social web application for gamers. You can build a cool profile to show off your games & stats, connect with similar gamers and chat about titles with other fans.

I chose this as my third venture as I love gaming, I love social apps, and there were tens of millions of gamers who wanted a better way to connect and share their gaming experiences.

You chose to base Playfire in London. Why did you opt for here over Silicon Valley?

I spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley last year, and got to understand first hand the many benefits of being located there - easy access to capital, lots of young founders and skilled employees, and nearby acquirers. However, London has a great collection of investors, many talented developers (without hiring competition from the likes of Google and Facebook), and is generally a fun, thriving place to live.

It is definitely rarer to start a successful tech company in London than in the Valley, however, I think that is mostly down to much fewer people doing it! All the resources a budding entrepreneur needs are here, and the community is evolving a rapid pace. The founding team all lived here, so with no solid reason to be anywhere else, it was a no-brainer.

You've assembled a world-class group of investors for Playfire. Are there any tips you can give our readers on raising investment for their business?

  1. Be passionate & obsessive; know everything there is to know about your business, your customers, competition, the industry and the unique quirks that make it run. Investors are going to want to see someone who has spent a lot of time learning the opportunity inside out.

  2. Team up with great tech people as opposed to outsourcing a web development company. Dev shops cost lots of money, force you to be rigid and inflexible, and despite what the sales guys say, the people making your site won't give a **** about you.

  3. Network like crazy. Meet tons of funded entrepreneurs, and then ask ones that you get on well with for an introduction or two to an investor. Then ask these investors, in the course of putting a round together, if there's anyone they'd like to bring in. Make it easy for the entrepreneurs to make the introduction by being friendly, having a good idea, a concise URL, and a 5 page PowerPoint presentation that they can forward on.

How many people now work for you? What challenges have you faced while managing them?

Playfire is 7 people. The most important thing we've had to learn is how to co-ordinate development, design and product management to move at the fastest pace. This is not something you can really work on until you're there doing it, and it changes every time you add someone new, as the balance of speed shifts again.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started your first business?

Find a super smart technical co-founder. Keep costs ultra lean, and hack away at solving a huge problem.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years time? What about 15 years time?

Very tough questions, as things change so much year to year. If I had to guess, I'd say 5 years time: continuing to grow and develop Playfire, changing the face of the video games industry by connecting gamers from all around the world in one central place. In 15 years time the world will be a very different place, but however it changes, I hope to be at the forefront of it.

Do you have any favourite books or blogs?

I'm currently reading "Think and Grow Rich" by Napoleon Hill. I had two people worth $500M+ independently recommend me that book last week, so you can be sure I bought it pretty quickly! All-time favourites include "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie, and "Purple Cow" by Seth Godin.

For blogs, I read TechCrunch and news.ycombinator.com.

Finally, a question I'm going to ask every entrepreneur in this interview series. If you could give one fortune cookie to every budding student entrepreneur in the country, what would it say?

"You learn far more running a business than in a graduate scheme" or "Pick a more ambitious idea". Students always pick really small-scale ideas, myself included. While you're young you should take the biggest swings.

This was the last interview in our Tycoons of Tomorrow series. You can read more about young entrepreneurs on David Langer's blog "Freed from The Matrix" at www.davidlanger.co.uk

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