Kieran O’Neill’s rise to tech success sounds like something out of Silicon Valley – founded first company aged 15, sold it aged 19 for $1.25m, dropped out of uni, founded another company, sold it for millions … lather, rinse, repeat.
Except O’Neill’s not from The Valley, he’s from Winchester, well, he actually grew up in the slightly more exotic Bermuda, before his family moved to Hampshire when he was 14.
He always had a thing for computers and enjoyed playing around with websites, founding a video sharing platform called HolyLemon.com when he was 15, two years before YouTube got in on the scene.
“It was a hobby until it became too big to not be a business. It grew to about 5,000 users per day within a few months and my hosting company sent me a bill for about £25,000. I was 15, I had no idea what to do,” he explained.
O’Neill didn’t have a business mentor to turn to, but picked up some basic skills via his trusty friend Google search, and figured out how to make money from his site. It ticked along nicely for the next few years, until he was contacted by Disney when he was in his first year of uni and informed they were suing him for copyright infringement.
A pretty scary episode to be faced with at any age, let alone the tender age of 18. He ended up settling out of court, paying $100,000 and wiping out his savings in the process.
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“After that, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it because I didn’t want to close the site down, but I didn’t want to get sued again,” O’Neill explained.
Luckily for him, a solution was just around the corner. In 2007, he was approached by Carl Page, brother of Google co-founder Larry, with an offer to buy HolyLemon.com.
O’Neill experienced a sleepless few months negotiating the deal, flying between the UK and the west coast of the US in the midst of his second-year university exams.
“It was a horrific thing to go through, just from a body clock point of view and the amount of time it took, but it paid off in the end,” he added.
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He ended up selling the site to Page for $1.25m. Not bad for something that started as a hobby. Many 19-year-olds would go on reckless spending spree if presented with that amount of cash, but not O’Neill. Sure, he frittered some of it, and rightly so, but at that point he had the taste for entrepreneurship.
Along with school friend Seb Hayes and Ben Phillips, a software engineer he met on an internship, he created Playfire – a social networking site for gamers. The site tracked the games a user played, learning their preferences and recommending new games as well as pitting them against their friends on a leaderboard.
“I ended up dropping out of university to work on it full time, moved to London, raised $3.1m from Skype’s co-founder and others, grew it to about 1.5 million active customers and then sold it,” he explained.
The company was bought by Green Man Gaming, an independent games retailer in Europe, in 2012, but he’s tight lipped about the amount of money that changed hands.
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O’Neill and Phillips knew they wanted to work together on another project, but weren’t quite sure what. They knew they were done with the gaming space, though.
“At uni I played a lot of games, but once I was working I just didn’t have the time, so I went from being part of my company’s target market to being outside of that market. It’s really important for me that I have a passion about the thing I’m working on,” he explained.
The duo discussed the pain points in their everyday lives – trivial things that really bugged them – and realised they shared a desire to dress well, but a dislike for shopping.
“We thought about how you could combine human stylists with powerful machine algorithms and create a service better than a human could offer by themselves.”
That day in June 2012, the basic concept for Thread was born.
Thread users complete a quick quiz when they sign up and are matched to one of the company’s stylists (a real, living and breathing person). Using the data the user has entered, such as height, budget, the type of clothes they like and don’t like plus what the stylist recommends, computer algorithms are used to look through the quarter of a million products Thread’s brand partners have on offer.
The user is then emailed a selection of recommendations and they can highlight whether they like or dislike them. Based on the feedback the user gives, the algorithm adjusts getting better and better at recommending the right type of clothes for each person.
Thread was accepted on to exclusive seed accelerator programme Y Combinator early on, and raised roughly £2m shortly after. This was followed by a £4m Series A in 2014 and another £4m earlier this year.
Currently, Thread just caters for men, but O’Neill has plans to open the service up to women, and some 50,000 women have already signed up to be notified when this happens.
For now, the 29-year-old is happy to concentrate on improving the existing service, expanding his team and growing Thread’s male user base, which currently sits at around 500,000 registered users.
“Our focus right now is building a truly incredible experience. I think if we get this right, the majority of men would prefer to use a service like Thread rather than go shopping themselves,” O’Neill said.
The entrepreneur is modest about his success, but is keen to share what he has learned with other startup founders. He does so by mentoring at Seedcamp, which provides capital, advice and networking opportunities to promising founders.
O’Neill met Seedcamp founders Saul Klein and Reshma Sohoni in 2007, when he was setting up Playfire.
“They were kind enough to let me like hang out, even though I wasn’t part of Seedcamp. I even sat in on a judging session, which was really valuable,” he said.
When Playfire took off, Klein and Sohoni asked him to get involved as a mentor.
“I wanted to give back to them for helping me learn. I get to meet interesting people and I get to learn as well, because I get to hear how different mentors would approach the same situation,” O’Neill explained.
The entrepreneur said he doesn’t do as much mentoring now as he used to, as his work at Thread is more demanding than ever, but he still does the odd bit here and there.
So what pearls of wisdom does he usually share with his mentees?
The main piece of advice he shares is something he learned at Y Combinator – work to make a small number of people happy before trying to scale.
At the beginning of Thread, O’Neill and his team were making every set of recommendations by hand. They picked every item, visited websites, downloaded images, coded them into a page and emailed a page to each user every single week.
“It was a huge effort, but it meant we avoided trying to write complex software to make something scale and allowed us to really just focus on what should the experience be,” he explained.
This process meant the team could easily adapt their offering as and when they received feedback.
“It meant that when we came around to actually make it scale, we were scaling the right thing rather than what we originally thought was the right thing.”
He also regularly offers a piece of advice he once came across in a blog post – the idea is you create a spreadsheet with the names of your users, then define what makes a successfully engaged user.
“So if you have a B2B tool and your goal is for people to use it once a week, look to see if they logged in last week and if they did, mark them as green and they didn’t, mark them as red. Until you can get 10 people who are green, don’t worry about finding any more people, just focus on getting your existing users to be green,” he explained.
He encourages founders to get out there and speak to their users – call them up and find out what they do and don’t like and make the necessary changes until you can fill your spreadsheet with green boxes. Then, and only then, can you look to gain more people to add to your spreadsheet.
It’s a piece of advice worth listening to – O’Neill followed himself and, let’s face it, he’s not doing too badly at all.