Charlie Curson has been working in consultancy for a long time. For over 15 years, Charlie has helped bring fresh insight and strategic clarity to a wide range of clients, from multi-national corporations to two-person tech startups, helping them grow and achieve greater success.
He’s now taking his first steps into the startup world with Chippin – a new payment gateway that enables shoppers to split the cost of an online transaction safely and securely, enabling merchants to attract a more diverse audience.
Simpleweb have been working with the Chippin team on the MVP for the past year. We caught up with Charlie to learn more about his journey so far…
With an undergraduate degree in engineering and management studies, Charlie describes himself as a “little bit of a square peg in a round hole”. While he enjoyed engineering, his real strengths lay in the more “creative, bigger-picture, people-based activities”.
It was this discovery that led him away from more technical engineering roles and towards a career in consulting. “Why consulting? Probably because I was in the classic position of not really knowing what I wanted to do” says Charlie. Not keen on limiting himself to one thing, Charlie was attracted by the diversity of consultancy. “The bit that appealed, I suppose, was the variety and the problem solving, surrounded by extremely talented people.”
A career in consulting
While he always knew that he wanted to start his own venture, Charlie credits his early days working in large consulting firms with teaching him some of the rudimentary basics of business. “I started off in the big professional services firms” he says, “which are great for giving you a grounding as a graduate. You receive a lot of professional development, you get well looked after, you benefit from the diversity of the work and you also get a lot of exposure, which can be quite challenging at a young age.”
Charlie’s early career included working for Arthur Andersen, one of the largest accounting and business consulting firms in the world at the time when the company folded due to the infamous Enron Scandal. “That was a good learning curve in terms of who to trust, who to listen to, who you believe” says Charlie. “It gave me a good lesson in the role of branding – and how quickly a great reputation can be smashed to pieces.”
From Arthur Andersen, Charlie moved to Deloitte and from there he joined The Foundation, a growth and innovation consultancy, who worked with everyone from small startups and charities, to public sector bodies and listed corporations.
For Charlie, the time spent with The Foundation was “eye-opening”. Whereas other firms he’d worked for took a more quantitative approach to strategy and innovation consulting, The Foundation’s approach was more qualitative and geared towards helping clients become more customer-centric.
Charlie explains, “[In other firms], it was more numbers-led – you’d have big teams of bright, intelligent people working on strategic challenges and new business ideas without ever really leaving their seat. I was always curious as to why they never went out to look at a client’s situation themselves, why didn’t they go and speak to their customers directly, or better still, become one of their customers and experience their products and services directly.
“The Foundation taught me how to help create positive, long-lasting, impactful outcomes for clients by involving senior leadership teams throughout the project – and by helping to immerse them in their own customers’ worlds.”
Charlie started to specialise in innovation and proposition development, helping to conceive, develop and launch new products, services, experiences and businesses for a wide range of companies from Audi and Volkswagen, to Visa and O2, to Comic Relief and McDonalds.
“At the heart of all these successful projects, was the ability to help a group of people inside a business to step outside and see things differently – from the outside in. A lot of that is about helping teams to really engage, to generate great insight and identify and challenge their own and each others assumptions, often by helping them to really listen to what consumers need and what they really value – and that’s stayed with me ever since”.
The incredibly easy decision to start up
Speaking of his decision to go self-employed, Charlie says the time was right to start a new chapter in his life. “My wife and I were flying to Vietnam on holiday and I turned to Sally and said that I was intending to resign on our return to the UK. She simply looked up and said ‘okay!’ – and that was literally the end of that conversation.” After two weeks thinking time in the jungles of Vietnam, Charlie returned to work and true to his word, resigned. He has continued consulting freelance ever since, working as an associate to the Growth Agenda and Future Agenda, and for his own consultancy firms, Mandarin Associates, established in 2011, and Creative Sensemaking, established in 2012.
While Charlie is dedicating the majority of his time to his latest startup venture, he still makes time for consulting work. “You might have seen programs on TV where CEOs go ‘back to the floor’ to flip burgers or stack shelves” says Charlie, “I’m a fan of that sort of thing, helping to immerse teams directly and using the insight to collectively design strategies and new customer experiences.”
Charlie is also a big believer in seeing what you can learn from other industries, and helping to connect people in different industries who have tackled similar issues just in different contexts. “People working for Audi, for example, might come to meet the guys who run EasyJet or McDonalds to better understand how they solved problem X or developed opportunity Y. That’s where a lot of the innovative thinking comes from – but also the belief and confidence to do it in the first place.”
When discussing how he’s able to balance his consulting work with founding a new startup, Charlie says “I follow my heart, I follow my instinct. You do have to be well-planned and organised. But I believe that everything on one side benefits the other. Through my consulting work, I benefit – as do other members of the Chippin team – from the insights I pick up, the people I meet, the things I see, the things that make me think differently about an issue or an opportunity.”
Luxury gifting and Chippin
One of Charlie’s main drivers for going self employed was to move from advising others to actually doing it himself. “Having spent many years advising people in commerce, I was really keen to sit on the other side of the fence” he says. “That can only be a good thing.”
In 2010, Charlie was taking his wine qualifications while his business partner, Toby Rhodes, continued to enjoy a successful career in the eCommerce industry. The two noticed a pain point in the higher-end gifting market around how best to find and source unique or unusual wines and spirits – and associated gifting experiences.
“The intention was never to create an huge organisation” says Charlie, “it was more to have a go at getting something new off the ground where you deliver something of value to a niche customer group and help to meet those unmet needs.”
While researching the luxury gifting market, Charlie and Toby stumbled across the issue of sharing the cost of a gift. “You could buy one-off experiences that your loved one would cherish the memories of forever – but they came with a huge price tag, often too much for one person” says Charlie.”
Putting two and two together, Charlie and Toby came up with the concept for Chippin, a way for groups of friends or family to each ‘chip in’ for a gift by paying their money directly to the retailer.
Act your way to a new way of thinking
Charlie is hesitant about giving advice to other entrepreneurs when his own startup hasn’t fully launched yet. When we remind him that he has set up a few successful consulting businesses already, and advised many more growing startups, he shares some of what he’s learned over the years.
“I like to trust my instinct but also see and hear what others think, throwing things out there, listening to the response and taking action as a result. Someone once said to me – “act your way to a new way of thinking, don’t think your way to a new way of acting”. You’ve got to take action, be open, learn and go from there.”
Speaking of his new payment venture, Charlie says “I would love to see Chippin really take off, really help to solve a problem that so many people have. It’s not a financial thing, it’s more of a personal thing. I just have this feeling about Chippin – my co-founder remembers it, he remembers me saying right at the start, ‘you know what, there’s something in that, that’s got legs surely’. Everyone I mention the idea to has said it’s a good idea and then I get inundated with sound advice and fabulous suggestions. I just really want to get it out there and start finding out what consumers think and what really does add value to people’s worlds. If Chippin can help to take away stress and anxiety, if it can make life easier and more enjoyable – while also helping more people to give and receive better gifts more often – I think we’ve a good chance of being successful.”
Like many entrepreneurs we speak to, Charlie believes openness, humility and great relationships are key to founding a successful business. “I’m a real believer in the adage of generosity of spirit. What I mean by that is the importance of building and maintaining good relationships, surrounding yourself with great people including great mentors, and being happy to offer your help to others, and also ask for advice yourself – and when it’s given, to really listen.
“[Success takes] that willingness to never stop learning” says Charlie. “Whatever it is, just listen, learn, be open to what others think. Don’t lurch, but at the same time, listen and trust your own judgment. It’s about being aware of your own assumptions or when someone says something to you, being aware that they might be challenging a deeply held belief or assumption you didn’t realise you had.”
Visit chippin.co.uk for more information and watch this space for all the latest updates!
If you want to discuss your product or startup idea, get in touch with Simpleweb today.
If you’d like to discuss your startup or project, get in touch with Simpleweb today.