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The onus of paying six-figure tuition fees and the stress involved in balancing two years of studying with work commitments are enough to convince most executive MBA students to stick with their employers at least until they have graduated, but not Christer Holloman. Just four months into the EMBA programme at Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, he left his job as senior business development manager at the European arm of Glassdoor, the jobs website, to co-found Divido, an online payments business.
Striking out on his own in a tech start-up was not as big a leap for Holloman as it might be for other EMBA students since he had already spent a decade helping other companies build digital businesses. “The temptation to set-up my own venture was always looming,” Holloman admits. “The strength of the Divido proposition made the decision easy to make.”
The EMBA was the catalyst to consider a career change, he adds.
Holloman is still completing the 21-month programme, but claims that what he learns in the classroom helps him develop the skills he needs for his new life as a founder.
“Every EMBA week in Oxford is like a think-week where you are able to disconnect from work and the people in your day-to-day life to discover fresh thinking,” he explains. “And you get 16 of these opportunities over nearly two years.”
Divido enables retailers to allow their customers to gain zero per cent or very low-cost finance on their purchases online and in store. One of the selling points of the service is that merchants offering instant finance at the point of sale increase average order values by 15 to 25 per cent, according to Holloman.
Although it is still early days for Divido, which employs 10 people, the business has secured £1m in funding from early stage investors, including Seedcamp, a pan-European incubator programme created to help young tech companies with promise.
Divido has also built an advisory board of experienced tech industry executives, including Kevin Dallas, chief product officer at WorldPay, Carsten Egeriis, the chief risk officer for personal and corporate banking at Barclays, and Jonathan Rogers, a partner at law firm Taylor Wessing.
It is not just the teaching on the EMBA course that helps when founding a business, Holloman says. The alumni community at Saïd is also a valuable resource for an entrepreneur in need of contacts — Oxford students share an immense amount of trust. Holloman claims, for example, that he was only able to get hold of the managing director of a chain of music shops, who previously had not returned his emails, because a fellow student he had met at an Oxford university event was able to introduce them to each other.
“Some professors are also happy to get involved in student-run businesses they believe in, offering equity for an advisory board role,” Holloman notes.
He recently met Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder, during a week-long visit to Palo Alto, part of his entrepreneurial finance elective module. This was a particular high point for Holloman. “He is a hero for us at Divido,” he admits.
Another perk of studying at Saïd is the ability to access online the full range of periodicals and reports held by Oxford’s libraries that otherwise would cost thousands of pounds to access.
Course assignments have provided an opportunity to research the Divido business plan. “The entrepreneurial project on the Oxford EMBA runs over several months and is a chance to develop and test a complete business plan with input and advice from expert faculty,” Holloman says.
“It is done in groups of three to five students to sell your vision to some people you get on with and use the collective intelligence of the group to define your business case, validate the market, launch your MVP [minimum viable product] and perhaps even raise some money.”
Holloman also found support from the Oxford Entrepreneurs student society, with more than 10,000 members, which runs events to help inspire and develop business ideas.
Holloman praises Saïd’s incubator programme, called The Oxford Launchpad, which offers free office space to student start-ups, and the SBS Seed Fund, which provides small amounts of start-up capital.
Divido is now looking to enlarge its team, hiring sales and account management experts.
Jargon buster: decacorns
The creators of business words have long shown themselves to be animal lovers. Stock markets are an enclosure for bulls and bears, industries are dominated by 800-pound gorillas and company board meetings are made more difficult by elephants in the room. It is a jungle out there.
In the upbeat world of entrepreneurship, where anything is possible, the limits of the actual animal kingdom are inadequate for the purpose of describing the most exciting new companies. This is why any venture capitalist of note believes that there is a realistic prospect these days of tracking down a unicorn.
This description, reserved for companies that quickly achieve a billion-dollar valuation, gained their moniker because they are considered magical and rare. Or rather they were when the term was coined by Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee in 2013.
Now even unicorns are too common, so a new quest has begun to find companies capable of hitting a $10bn valuation and a new term, decacorn, has entered the small talk at tech industry gatherings in San Francisco and London.
In doing so the start-up community has moved beyond the realms of fantasy to spawn a creature that cannot even be found on a Dungeons & Dragons board. Far from reminding me of the multiplied worth of the company, however, it seems to me only appropriate because uttering the unnatural word decacorn is 10 times more irritating than saying unicorn.