Meet Alex Vaidya, previously Head of the entire digital function at Porsche and now Founder of StoryStream, a start-up empowering brands to tell their story with clients including Nike, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, BMW, Adidas and more. Alex has gone from delivering countless pioneering projects at Porsche – where he worked his way up to Head of Digital from being a Marketing Research Specialist, Product Manager and Consulting Digital Strategist – to ruling the roost as Founder and CEO of his own company employing over 20 people. Throughout his career Alex has been fascinated with innovative and disruptive technology, particularly how it changes behaviour and relationship between brands and the consumer. How did he do it? We found out for you…
Getting to Know Alex
Is your family entrepreneurial?
Half of my family are very technical as many of my relatives are engineers, scientists and physicists. The other half are more creative and artistic, creating the perfect left hemisphere, right hemisphere combination! As a kid I was always encouraged to be creating, designing and building things rather than playing video games and watching TV for hours on end. I was very inquisitive and forever interested in how things worked. Naturally, I began to question why things worked the way they did and how they could be improved. My sister and I were both very outgoing which enabled me to be confidently curious, encouraging growth.
What was your perception of money growing up?
As a family we were all very grounded. We were fortunate enough to have a comfortable upbringing, understanding that money is the result of hard work and slog. Good work ethic was instilled into us from a young age.
“We were fortunate enough to have a comfortable upbringing, understanding that money is the result of hard work and slog. Good work ethic was instilled into us from a young age.”
What made you leave Porsche to pursue entrepreneurship?
Head of Digital at Porsche was a dream job for me as I’m a huge car fan and absolutely love the Porsche brand, but from a very young age there has always been something within me that wanted to chase the excitement of building and creating from scratch. Setting up StoryStream meant I was able to continue the enjoyable elements of my job at Porsche but without the frustration; at Porsche we were investing increasingly more in creating our own content yet we faced barriers of time and cost for the scale we needed.
Why did you build StoryStream HQ in Brighton?
Brighton has an incredibly vibrant creative and tech scene. It has a good history of gaming and computer development with lots of creative studios for smaller agencies which means there’s a good vibe. As a business we actually came together with an agency who were based down here and built the early version of our product. I live in London and commute down. It’s lovely being by the sea and it’s definitely what I’d call our spiritual home. The future will mean taking the essence of what we have now in terms of our office workspace and culture and cookie cutting it into wherever else we need to be.
The cost of hiring and recruitment isn’t significantly lower in Brighton than it is in London, but the location is incredibly more refreshing, so it’s more about the environment for us than the financial differences. Moving into a bigger workspace is always a consideration but we would much rather invest in our product and people than in office space.
How would you grow whilst maintaining your current work style?
Our challenge is to figure out how to operate a dispersed organisation with added flexibility whilst maintaining clear direction and goals. Our team now manages themselves around a new flexible working arrangement where people hotdesk; we only ever have around two thirds of our workforce in the office as the other third will be out and about. If we can produce a similar arrangement in a different city it would be a strategic way of scaling quickly without having to take on the cost of bigger office space. We also embrace communication technologies such as Slack, meaning we’re always contactable and so far it’s going well.
How do you create a productive workforce?
The key is to empower your team. One of our mantras as a business is to get everyone to be the best that they can be. If you’re at work and are forced to work 9.00 – 5.30, there will be days you’re not on top form. Whereas with flexible working, if you allow your employees to go on a run at a time they feel distracted to come back feeling more focused, they are going to be ten times more productive. The important thing is that your team meets strategic goals and objectives, not that they are pinned to their desk during traditional work hours. We’ve found that it’s about supporting people to the point that the business breeds initiative and enthusiasm. You rarely see flexible work patterns in big businesses as they are too far down the line to change their culture; it’s a tough arrangement to adopt.
“if you allow your employees to go on a run at a time they feel distracted to come back feeling more focused, they are going to be ten times more productive.”
How did you build enough momentum for StoryStream to allow you to leave Porsche?
By having conviction. You have a grand vision of idea changing the world. There is no A – B plan, it’s a case of continuing to get one step closer to that grand vision as you go. You have to navigate in a way that will facilitate growth and ensure you hit each goal you set. The things that were challenging two or three years ago you wouldn’t even break sweat over today. Now, we face challenges of a whole other scale. There is no doubt that pursuing your idea and turning it into a business poses financial risk and risk when it comes to relationships, but there is something inside you that drives you forward and won’t allow you to let go, despite the hardships that come with it.
“pursuing your idea and turning it into a business poses financial risk and risk when it comes to relationships, but there is something inside you that drives you forward and won’t allow you to let go, despite the hardships that come with it.”
How do you tell stories in an authentic manner without a big budget?
It must firstly be said that to grow an audience at scale costs a large amount of money. The first thing is to understand what content resonates. You initially need a small group of loyal readers to enable the audience to grow from there onwards. Social allows this to amplify quickly. People no longer care for flashy over produced video footage when it comes to telling a story; they want something authentic. Newsletter and e-mails are also extremely underestimated in terms of engaging with people in and amongst the flurry of new technical tools. They’re a very powerful tool for growing your audience and telling your story.
What are your coping mechanisms as a Founder?
Belligerence. Not in an addictive sense, but more in the sense that I truly love what I’m doing. I also take extra care to look after my body and exercise. The worst thing you can do if you’re super stressed and super worried is to be drinking every night. You then tend to not sleep well, your diet goes out of the window and it gets on top of your ability to work effectively. Running is probably my number 1 coping mechanism because you’re outside, switched off and have clarity of thought. As much as you may perceive it as ‘taking a break’, you’re actually gaining better perspective on any work related issues so going for that run is more productive for your work than you think. Running can give you a better result in half an hour than a whole day behind a desk.
I also play guitar which gives a similar release. Things like exercise and music allow you to remove yourself to the extent required to de-stress, but also emphasise and enhance the passion and fire within you that makes you the entrepreneur you are. I’m a true believer in doing your best work when you feel like doing your best work. You don’t have to be up at 5am and doing a 10 mile run because that’s what entrepreneurs are told to do; each person is different and you must adopt a work schedule that suits you best.
“Running is probably my number 1 coping mechanism because you’re outside, switched off and have clarity of thought. As much as you may perceive it as ‘taking a break’, you’re actually gaining better perspective on any work related issues so going for that run is more productive for your work than you think. Running can give you a better result in half an hour than a whole day behind a desk.”
Do you have any productivity hacks?
I remove, what I like to call, ‘treacle’ from life. By treacle I mean the things that slow you down, but will not burn you in the way hot lava would. You won’t go under as a business because of these issues, yet they take up a disproportionate amount of time. It’s important to recognise which problems are like treacle and which problems are like hot lava so you can either remove them and not waste time on them or pay them to attention required.
On a daily basis I’m very task list focused. I have a vision of where I want to be by the end of the week and write a list to get me to that place. In the longer term I have a quarterly schedule of product launches. This means people always know exactly what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and where it’s going to take us. You then build backwards from each quarter thinking what you need to do each week and each day to hit the product launch at the end of that cycle. The team also creates their own productivity hacks. As mentioned, we now use Slack which had reduced our e-mails by 80%. Slack is one of the products that really does live up to the hype. If you are disciplined enough with productivity hacks like this you can buy yourself time in the evening to relax.
“If you are disciplined enough with productivity hacks you can buy yourself time in the evening to relax.”
Rebel Wrap Up
If you could go back to any point in your life what would it be?
I would go back to when I was starting up and I’d tell myself ‘it’s going to be ok’. It can be a lonely place as an entrepreneur, but I’m a big believer in fate. What will be will be. So I guess I could have had more faith that the journey will work out just fine.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
To find patterns in things. You need to figure out what works and what doesn’t and follow the patterns that are working well. It’s very easy to switch on to autopilot. A lot of businesses get it wrong when they get stuck in daily routines, failing to take a step back and reassess. You also need to make decisions fast. Use data to help you do this. There is so much of it and it can be incredibly effective if you just remember to use it appropriately and allow it to feed into your decision making.
“You need to figure out what works and what doesn’t and follow the patterns that are working well. It’s very easy to switch on to autopilot. A lot of businesses get it wrong when they get stuck in daily routines, failing to take a step back and reassess.”
Who inspires you when it comes to disruptive entrepreneurs?
The people innovating in healthcare and biomedicine. They are the ones changing the course of humanity. Many in this field are unsung heroes, including Jack Andraka, a 15 year old who built a device to detect pancreatic cancer with 100% accuracy. We might be innovating in tech but it’s entrepreneurs like Jack who will change and save lives.