Meet 18 year old James Anderson, one of London’s most humble yet successful entrepreneurs. Aged 15 he founded Thinkspace, inspiring tens of thousands of students to learn to code or start up their own business. He did this with the support of Richard Branson, Stephen Fry, Steve Wozniak and more. Aged 17, he quit secondary school to found Zest; a smartphone app where you order and pay for food and beverages from independent cafes before you arrive, at the tap of a button. He received investment from John Lewis and L Marks. We asked him all the questions you want to know the answers to…
Getting to Know James
Does your family have an entrepreneurial background?
Ironically, both of my parents work at the local university in my hometown, Plymouth. Obviously they were really keen for me to go on to university, but in sixth form I was fully focused on Thinkspace and didn’t see school as being as relevant as it’s made out to be. All I could think was that I’d rather be doing something that’s going to help people in the real world.
In the end I got an E in Computing at A-Level and I ended up dropping out of school early. I don’t believe academic grades are a true reflection on anybody’s ability and potential in life. Yes, I may have got an E in computing, but I’m also running an organisation which teaches young people how to code! I now use this grade to my advantage, proudly showing it in school talks to prove that a grade alone shouldn’t determine your future — you make your dreams happen.
“In the end I got an E in Computing at A-Level and I ended up dropping out of school early. I don’t believe academic grades are a true reflection on anybody’s ability and potential in life.”
Initially my parents were against the idea of not going to university, but they gradually came around when they started going to conferences I was invited to when I was about 14/15. I’ll always remember my Dad coming to an event in London with me and saying “this is like a whole different world”. It’s crazy to think about how much technology and the scene for entrepreneurship has grown in the past 10 years. My parents’ generation just haven’t been exposed to it which is why, initially, they took some convincing!
What are the benefits of building a business at such a young age?
At the moment being young is incredibly beneficial in terms of spreading the word about anything I’m working on. At my age there’s little risk involved, but when you’re 30 or 40 I guess you have more to lose so the risk is greater. On a personal level, I’m glad I’m a little naïve because I think it is a good way of thinking; you’re not consumed by being too socially aware or too consumed by the thoughts and opinions of others.
“The whole of society is telling you how you should behave, which path you should take and what you should believe. You have to fight with everything you’ve got to push against it and stay true to yourself.”
My biggest fear is becoming cynical or skeptical of new ideas, of change. It’s also very difficult to develop new ideas in the midst of cynicism and skepticism. It really scares me because it’s so easy to fall into that trap. The whole of society is telling you how you should behave, which path you should take and what you should believe. You have to fight with everything you’ve got to push against it and stay true to yourself.
How do people react to your age?
People become a little scared because I’m not afraid to question what they’re doing. I’ve been into large corporates and told them my opinion and they’ve been quite shocked to say the least. Corporates are far too complacent; they need a wake-up call from the younger generation who are bold enough to say what needs to be said.
Start-ups like Airbnb are well aware of this… they have an ‘entrepreneur in residence’ where they offer a young person free office space and access to their company resources in order to encourage employees to engage with a young mindset. They get it; they know young people are the future leaders.
What are your entrepreneurial traits?
Time and time again I hear the question, ‘Are you born an entrepreneur’? I don’t believe you are. What I do believe is that you’re born with entrepreneurial qualities, such as problem solving for example. When I founded Thinkspace, I simply saw a problem and found a solution for it. I wasn’t sat in a bedroom thinking ‘I want to start a business’; I was sat in classroom thinking ‘there is a problem and I want to solve it’.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit Google and Facebook’s offices at a young age, but for those who weren’t as lucky, I wanted to create a similar experience for them in school. So many young people make up their mind as to what they want to do before they hit 6th form, so I felt a strong desire to broaden their horizons by offering them the opportunity to learn how to code before they committed to a certain career path.
How did your idea to set up Zest come about?
When I was working on Thinkspace, I spent a lot of time at my local coffee shop and I’d see the frustration of customers who came in every day and knew what they wanted to order, but still had to wait for it. I couldn’t help but think, ‘what if they could just pre-order what they wanted through an app’? So, I came up with a solution by creating a smartphone app where you can order and pay for food and beverages from independent cafes and restaurants, before you arrive, at the tap of a button. I’d always loved the idea of merging the physical and digital worlds.
I founded Zest with one of my friends, George Streten; we started building an early prototype which took about a year. We then launched a trial in Central London which was a success and we’re now expanding across London. We’re currently in 7 of 32 boroughs and by the end of 2016 we plan to be in all 32. Essentially, we aim to take over London!
What was the first step you took to approach Richard Branson and Stephen Fry to gain their support?
I’ve been building various projects ever since I can remember. When I was 13 I built my first app and I was trying to spread the word, so I tweeted Stephen Fry. I didn’t expect him to share the tweet but not only did he share it, he told everybody to download it… at the time he had 8 million followers. Everything exploded and my website completely crashed. He’s been following my journey ever since then and has been incredibly kind – he has said on numerous occasions ‘if you need anything, just ask’.
“I tweeted Stephen Fry. I didn’t expect him to share the tweet but he not only shared it, he told everybody to download it… at the time he had 8 million followers. Everything exploded and my website completely crashed.”
So by the time I set up Thinkspace, he noticed it. Richard Branson did too and tweeted us, as I’d previously written for Virgin Media’s PR team as a blogger. I only intended for Thinkspace to exist in my own school in Plymouth, but then with support from the likes of Stephen Fry, it became clear we had enough force behind us to spread the concept to lots of other schools. So I started contacting various tech firms; cold emails asking them to support the venture and they were happy to.
I did get a huge amount of press from the likes of WIRED, Google and TEDxTeen, in addition to the opportunity to meet incredible influencers, but it’s important for me to point out that maintaining integrity was crucial throughout it all – you have to love what you’re doing and be sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. You must remain true to your passion and ultimate purpose in life.
What advantage do you have over other 18 year olds?
I made the decision not to drink alcohol… ever. Everybody told me I was mad. But I hate the current drinking culture in the UK and there are actually more young people than you’d think avoiding alcohol because of it. Alcohol is a poison that you drink until you fully lose control of your own body. It’s used when people feel socially uncomfortable. They escape that feeling by drinking too much, when instead they could be learning more about themselves and their self confidence which would teach them how to handle the situation in a better way. Drinking and smoking is “doing drugs” as far as I’m concerned. I have complete disrespect for anybody who intentionally harms their own body due to lack of confidence in social situations.
That being said (and coming back to my earlier point) it is extremely difficult for the average person to stick to abstaining from alcohol when so much of social life for start-ups is centred on drinking. Social pressure is a very big and very real problem and you have to be strong not to conform.
“I made the decision not to drink alcohol… ever. Everybody told me I was mad. But I hate the current drinking culture in the UK…”
What’s been your biggest challenge?
I think it would be maintaining integrity and standing up for something you believe in… going against the flow of society. Whenever you introduce a new concept you are always going to face cynical people. You have to constantly remind these people why you are saying and doing certain things and why they should support it. It’s tough work, but 100% necessary if you’re going to pursue an idea and make things happen. Your self-belief and confidence are your greatest assets; you must protect them with everything you’ve got.
Why do you think some people might struggle to achieve their goals?
It’s probably that they’re chasing the wrong thing. Your success chances are much greater if you do something because it makes you happy, than if you do something because you think it’ll earn you a ton of money. You have to believe in the true purpose of your business and think about not only what it means to you, but also what it can do for others. You have the chance to make an impact on the world, so go ahead, decide what it will be and take action.
So long as you make a basic income, have a positive impact and are happy, you’ll be doing great. If you’re pursuing the ‘get rich quick’ scheme and expecting to become a millionaire, then chances are you’re going to be disappointed. You shouldn’t run a company to make money; money is the by-product of you homing in on your strengths and passions.
“Your success chances are much greater if you do something because it makes you happy, than if you do something because you think it’ll earn you a ton of money.”
What enabled you to secure investment from John Lewis and L Marks?
People skills and having a product. Our investment came about as a result of a networking event I went to. When I was there I met one of our advisors who is a co-founder of iwantoneofthose.com (which he sold for £10 million a few years ago). He happened to be friends with the former Chairman of John Lewis and offered us an introduction to them. We weren’t specifically looking for investment at the time, but it all fit into place rather nicely as it has enabled us to grow much faster.
“When we then met with our investors, it wasn’t so much about having lots of solid facts and figures; they were more interested in us as individuals, first and foremost, and also how the product actually works.”
When we then met with our investors, it wasn’t so much about having lots of solid facts and figures; they were more interested in us as individuals, first and foremost, and also how the product actually works. This was great for us because we’d already created the product; we had something to show them, rather than explaining a concept. Everybody has an idea, but few make it happen.
How do you maintain a normal social life alongside work?
I update my Snapchat every day with what I’m doing (I have built up quite a young crowd of followers). This morning I posted at 4am saying I’d just finished working on Zest’s new update, which people are shocked at, but it’s pretty normal for me… the majority of my time is spent working, including Saturdays, Sundays and even Christmas Day. The grind is 24/7. But I hate to use the word ‘work’ because it has such negative connotations; there’s a common misconception that ‘work’ means doing something you don’t want to do. This isn’t the case if you’re working on something you’re passionate about and I wish people would think about this more when it comes to entrepreneurship. I enjoy every aspect of my job because I focus on the things I’m good at and delegate the things I’m not.
Rebel Wrap Up
Who do you admire the most?
Anybody who’s doing something meaningful to them. I admire not one person in particular; but all people who have kept their head down, working hard for years without a penny in sight and then one day, they have made it. I have a lot of respect for these people; they are the ones who inspire me.
What are you most grateful for?
I’m probably most grateful to be alive. Not enough people appreciate that. Everybody is always complaining and making excuses. If you’re feeling that you need to change something in your life, then change it. If you find yourself dreading Mondays, then do something about it. You’re only here for a certain amount of time and you have to make something of it. If you don’t, you’ll never know the huge opportunities you’ve missed out on. If you start to have gratitude, trust me, you will become a lot happier and things will get a lot easier. Don’t be restrained by circumstance and stay there by churning out a million excuses. You control your own destiny, so you must take action and hold yourself accountable.
“I’m probably most grateful to be alive. Not enough people appreciate that. Everyone is always complaining and making excuses. If you’re feeling that you need to change something in your life, then change it.”
If anything was possible, what would your future look like?
It’s a dangerous thing to plan too far into the future. I like throwing myself in the deep end and dealing with the unexpected. As long as I’m doing something that makes me happy (and not working for a big corporate) I’ll be doing great.
If you could give anyone of any age one piece of advice, what would it be?
Stick to your strengths. Far too many people will waste the next 20, 30, 40 years of their lives trying to tick all the boxes in life. Instead, focus on what it is you’re good at. At school I would see people who hated certain subjects and therefore performed badly in them. They would get tutors to try and improve in that subject and I could never understand why. So, I’ll leave everybody with one question… why would you want to improve something you’re really bad at when you could instead excel in something you’re already good at?
“…why would you want to improve something you’re really bad at when you could instead excel in something you’re already good at?”