Meet Helena Wasserman, Founding Team member and Director of Business Development at Big Data for Humans, the Customer Marketing Platform that helps travel and retail businesses better understand their customers and increase their lifetime value. Helena rebelled against the norm early in her career when refusing to follow her fellow London School of Economics friends into the world of consultancy, yet she has come out with no other place than on top. After working in both New York City and Kuala Lumpur, Helena landed an incredible career in London with the famous accelerator Techstars, before going on to join Big Data for Humans Founders Peter Ellen and Steven Rose to build what is now one of the fastest growing and best funded big data analytics startups in the UK.
The company was founded by the same people that founded Maxymiser which was sold to Oracle last summer. Helena & Peter took the product to market only 18 months ago and are now expanding from the UK to Asia. Helena’s tenacity and determination have proven to result in success, yet she claims none of it would have been possible without the bullish leadership of her fellow Co-Founder, Peter Ellen. Here’s everything you need to know about her habits, mindset and journey to date…
Getting to Know Helena
How did you approach entrepreneurship?
I began my career working for the Clinton Foundation and Ashoka in the USA so I initially approached my career through social entrepreneurship. Both organisations are creating unparalleled social impact yet from the inside, my impact felt too slow. I think it’s the feeling of impatience which caused me to turn to the fast moving tech start-up world and to Techstars, where I saw it was possible to quickly build an innovative company from scratch.
Working at Techstars in London was an extraordinary experience. Whilst starting a business is very challenging, there are important lessons to learn which can help accelerate the growth of a business. There is indeed method in the madness! I met the Big Data for Humans founding team at Techstars, who offered me the opportunity to join them in the very early stages of the business as a founding team member. It felt like a risk worth taking because I knew that Peter and Steven were too clever and obsessed by their idea to give up on it. They also knew the market better than anyone else and had experienced first hand the gap that needed to be filled. It has been amazing seeing the company go from 3 to more than 20 employees in 18 months and now we’re getting ready to tackle the very large Asian market.
What values were instilled in you as a child?
Growing up we hung out with artists, entrepreneurs, fashion designers, people from all walks of life. We never felt like we belonged to any group at the same time we felt comfortable almost everywhere. My parents also instilled in us that we had a responsibility to contribute to the world, to make it better. And because we never fitted into a group, we grew determined to do things differently. My grandfather, Renee Wasserman, founded Eutectic-Castolin, the global leader in welding and metallurgy which was sold to Messer Group in 2000. My father is also a visionary – he founded the Zermatt Summit to harness the power of business for the common good as well as Terolab Surface, one of the first European B corporations. Eager to leave a strong legacy behind me, I also intend to do things differently.
“Growing up we hung out with artists, entrepreneurs, fashion designers, people from all walks of life. We never felt like we belonged to any group at the same time we felt comfortable almost everywhere.”
What has been one of your most defining moments in life?
4 years ago my brother who suffered from mental illness passed away. Experiencing life’s fragility was a wake up call not to waste a single moment doing something I didn’t care about or learned something from. This perspective has helped me greatly in entrepreneurship to focus on the vision I have for my life and the world and care less about security because I know too well that it could all be over any minute.
“4 years ago my brother who suffered from mental illness passed away. Experiencing life’s fragility was a wake up call not to waste a single moment doing something I didn’t care about or learned something from.”
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken?
Deciding to work at Techstars felt like a risk back in the day; I had just obtained an MSc from LSE to redirect my career to business. All my classmates were going into banking or consultancy which felt like the right way to get the most out of the degree which was a significant financial investment. You didn’t need a masters to join Techstars and even less to start your own company. Going into something so different felt like a big risk at the time, but on reflection I 100% believe it was the best decision I could have made.
“Going into something so different felt like a big risk at the time, but on reflection I 100% believe it was the best decision I could have made.”
What scares you most about what you’re doing?
That at any day it could be over. If you don’t get out of bed, it could all end there and then. Especially the first year I felt that very strongly. In a startup as soon as one person doesn’t do the work properly the entire company feels it which is why you can’t afford to hire the wrong people.
What’s your biggest regret?
No regrets so far.
What habits and mindsets have you adopted in light of entrepreneurship?
In terms of habits, two things. I meditate every morning and set intentions for the day. It helps me gain perspective and stay focused.
Entrepreneurship is difficult and without a resilient mindset, you will give up. People will tell you you’re doing it wrong and that it won’t work. Your high energy and confidence will be your best allies..
“Entrepreneurship is difficult and without a resilient mindset, you will give up. People will tell you you’re doing it wrong and that it won’t work. Your high energy and confidence will be your best allies.”
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Tim Ferris’s Pareto law applied to productivity which simply says that 80 percent of your impact and revenue usually comes from just 20% of your work has been very helpful to make sure to concentrate on what is really important every day. There are many things you could be doing but you need to pick what’s really important right now.
The 10’000 hours rule is also a good one. Researchers have found that 10’000 hours is the approximate numbers of hours one should spend on something to become very good at it. You need to know your sector better than anyone else and that takes time!
My dear friend Baroness Marion Lambert taught me to “set the bar high and never take no for an answer”. I will never forget this. I was also told by someone else that ‘business can be fun’, which has also stuck well with me. It really can be fun.
What is your personal idea of success and how do you measure it?
My definition of success has evolved over the years and it continues to do so. Recently it’s been based around 3 things. Number 1 is impact and innovation. Do I feel like our business is impacting and innovating the analytics field? I measure that by counting how many businesses are impacted by our company and how many people we touch. Number 2 is happiness. Am I feeling happy most days about my choices? I have witnessed that someone can be incredibly successful and still feel empty inside. I learned early on that true happiness is something much deeper often unrelated to external success. Usually the way I feel when I wake up is a pretty good barometer to know how happy I am! Number 3 is money. Money isn’t freedom but it does contributes to freedom significantly.
I’d encourage everyone else to define and revisit their own definition of success and not let others define it for them.
Rebel Wrap Up
What advice would you give others on the journey of entrepreneurship?
Find out what it is that you want to do, to me that is the hardest part. Find out what makes you tick, what you are the most passionate about. It doesn’t mean it will be the same for the rest of your life but what are you excited about today? Have a clear vision in your head of where you want to go and break it down in milestones. At the end of the day, being an entrepreneur is a lot about persistence. Most people give up along the way. For me it’s also about lateral thinking. Thinking differently about a product, a service, a field. To think differently you need to read a lot, engage in creative activities and hang out with people from different disciplines that think outside the box. My best ideas usually come when I’m attending a concert, walking in the streets or talking to an artist not when I’m sitting at my desk.
“Have a clear vision in your head of where you want to go and break it down in milestones.”