In his own words, Andy Ayim MBE is a product leader and business builder who has travelled the world building relationships and experiences along the way. He moves in the world of venture capital, tech start-ups and product development. In 2010 Andy, along with his brother, Kwabz and a few friends set up Mixtape Madness, a passion project to create a central location online for people to listen to UK hip-hop and grime music.
He is currently Managing Director of the London Accelerator at Backstage Capital, that looks for investment opportunities with companies founded by those from under-represented groups, including women, people of colour, and the LGBT community.
Prior to Backstage, Andy worked in a range of product roles in companies such as WorldFirst, acquired by Ant Financial for $700m.
- 2009 – first career role with Ernst & Young as a management consultant in the new markets and then new ventures teams
- 2010 – while at Ernst and Young he launches Mixtape Madness, now the 3rd biggest media outlet platform in the UK
- 2014 – moves into product management first with Elixirr and then with World First
- 2018 – becomes Managing Director of Backstage Capital, helps launch a global accelerator programme that invested $2.5m into 25 startups led by underrepresented founders and is Financial Times top ten most influential black and minority ethnic tech leaders in the UK
- 2020 – just six months after this interview, Andy received an MBE in recognition of his contribution to diversity and technology in the UK and set up Angel Investing School, empowering a new generation of angel investors
Interview by Ian Symonds on 17 July 2019 at WCIT Hall.
Andy Ayim was born in 1988, he was raised and grew up in Tottenham, north London. He now lives in Essex with his fiancée and two-year-old daughter.
Andy’s parents originated from Ghana. His mother was a nursery nurse and has returned to Ghana where she operates a nursery. His father, who passed away a few years ago, worked in McDonalds before taking up driving mini-cabs and working for Addison Lee. Andy is the middle child with two brothers. Andy says: “We originated from Ghana and lived a very Ghanaian-influenced life here in Tottenham, London.”
Andy credits his father with giving him the insight into diversity of life. He says: “He taught me that regardless of what we do in life and what career we get into, we’re always in the relationship-building business. He made me realise the power of relationships from a young age, and he really opened up my mind to think beyond the borders of where I grew up.”
He says that he was first introduced to the idea of entrepreneurship by his aunt who owns a shop selling Ghanaian cuisine. He explains: “Just seeing her along that journey, heightened my aspirations, and it introduced me into my first steps into entrepreneurship or what it means to be an entrepreneur. It’s really interesting, because nowadays a lot of people associate with technology, VC and investment, when your bakery or your florist, all of these local businesses, are equally entrepreneurs as well.”
Andy went to the local Roman Catholic primary school, then St Ignatius College, a Jesuit college before going to LaSWAP sixth form college where he studied theology, sociology and history. He explains: “I chose very humanistic subjects because I was always fascinated in relationships, our relationship with history and with each other as humans throughout history. Even at an early age, I noticed that relationships were such an important currency in a tapestry of how we have evolved as people and whether it’s spirituality, business, food, and how we enjoy each other’s time, across social media, across physically getting into space together, how that’s changed over time and what’s really influenced that. It really helped me connect the dots and make sense of a lot of how we navigate the world as humans.”
Andy’s interest in technology and computing grew from wanting to play games but didn’t feature in his education until he reached university.
Andy describes his experience of school as very positive with very fond memories of a lot of teachers who encouraged him on his journey and installed a sense of belief in him. He says that in his early career this stood him in good stead, adding: “I had imposter syndrome because I felt that if I wasn’t getting the A grades, or if I didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge, then, maybe I’m not intelligent enough to do a certain job, or to go for a certain opportunity.” He adds: “I’m happy to say, early on in my career I broke down and demystified that myth. It’s only through working with people who went to Oxford and Cambridge, working with people who were getting those grades, that I realised that, intelligence is more than just your qualifications or the institution you go to.”
After completing his A levels Andy went to Brunel University to study accounting and business management, a four-year degree, which included a sandwich year in industry. His course included an entrepreneurship module at which Andy excelled. Together with two fellow students, Andy launched Saffirm, a project to teach employability and entrepreneurship skills to other people in colleges or at universities. Andy believes that his degree gave him a great basis of understanding how a business works, he says: “I think accounting is one of those disciplines that really get you to understand how a company fits together numerically, financially. … It got me to understand the fundamentals of how a business works.”
It was at university that Andy developed his love of travelling, taking a three-month backpacking holiday across Latin America. He has now worked and travelled in almost 60 countries, saying: “I’ve been quite fortunate across my career to work quite extensively through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Uganda, Kenya, Italy, Germany, across the US.” All of which, has helped him broaden his experience and perspectives, he adds: “Travelling heavily influences how I think about navigating the world beyond even business.”
Early Career - Ernst & Young
After university Andy took various temporary accounting jobs to save money for his trip to South America, having secured a deferred entry to Ernst & Young’s graduate advisory programme.
He believes he got the EY job as a result of the experience he gained in building a network, learning to develop relationships and gaining different perspectives. He says: “This was really important in informing and helping me come to an informed decision around what I want to go into as a career. … It taught me then that, actually, it makes such a difference when you can democratise access and opportunity because, I probably would not have got that job if not speaking to former employees introduced by his mentor Francis Mainoo. Sadly, some people are not privy to that access to those networks and relationships, and therefore are unable to break into certain careers because of it.”
At EY, Andy was placed in the New Markets team to help grow into new markets and win new clients. He worked directly with a director. Initially, Andy disliked going into work finding the experience of working one to one with a Director, a harsh experience. However, all this changed at a partner conference in Italy. He explains: “At this conference I gained such a confidence and self-esteem boost in talking to the partners and realising that they’re no different from me. They’re just humans. … It democratised and broke down these initial views that I had of partners as being really senior and hard to reach and hard to communicate to actually, they’re really reachable and they’re human. … When we got back to work, I reframed how I viewed our relationship, and I started seeing working with her as such a learning and growth opportunity.”
As a consequence of the change in attitude, Andy ended up managing other new graduates who joined the team and gained a good reputation and his Director went on to become a Partner.
Andy’s next move was into the New Ventures team. He says: “Looking back on my career today, I realise now that I’ve always been a business builder. I’ve always been a builder of relationships; winning relationships and it started at EY when I started noticing that, because, I was in a New Markets team, then a New Ventures team, all about generating ideas for new revenue streams for EY. Throughout my career I went on to build businesses again and again and again, either for myself or for other corporates. I went on to build winning relationships again and again and again. It’s probably something that I’m going to see myself continuing to do into the future.”
While at EY, Andy, along with his brother and a few friends set up a passion project to create a central location online for people to listen to UK hip-hop and grime music; an enterprise they named Mixtape Madness. He says: “Before we knew it, what started as a hobby and a passion project, turned into 70,000 registered users, and suddenly we had an audience that we had to serve. There was a long tail of artists that just wanted to keep on uploading music to our platform.” The project was monetised by the “long tail” of artists, along with advertising and subscription fees. Today Andy is still on the board but isn’t involved in the day to day running of the company.
Having established himself at EY, Andy was offered promotion into a service line around energy and infrastructure. He says: “For me, it just wasn’t a fast-enough learning experience, there wasn’t that inflection point of passion and interest. I just knew that I could do a great job and I could probably stay at EY for fifteen to twenty years and make a decent amount of money and be financially OK, but I wouldn’t be doing work that I truly enjoyed. I wouldn’t be bringing my best to work. So, I decided at that point I wanted to move to a smaller company where there was a bit more risk and a bit more skin in the game so that I could get some more ownership and responsibility at a younger age.”
Andy decided to join Elixirr, a company with 25 to 50 people. It included Elixirr Capital which was starting to invest into companies and Elixirr Foundation which was based around giving back. Andy felt these were the kind of opportunities that would suit his different interests, including travel.
Through Elixirr, Andy found himself working across South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Silicon Valley, San Francisco where he went with a single partner to build a new business. He explains: “That business was to be financed through networking with some of the leading venture capital firms out there, such as Andreessen Horowitz, Sequoia Capital, Greylock Partners, and Lightspeed Ventures. These are companies that invested into the Googles, the YouTubes, and all of the software that we know today, Facebooks, Snapchats. They’re really prominent names in the venture capital (VC) industry. I was learning almost like a fast-track MBA, from being at the table of investors of such credible companies. Again, through being exposed to a lot of the founders across their portfolio, I started learning what the role of product management was within a company.” It was at Elixirr that Andy also learned the lexicon and language to understand what VC and start-ups actually mean in practice.
Next, Andy joined start-up WorldFirst as a business analyst before becoming one of their first tech product managers. He helped to hire Marc Abraham, an experienced product manager, who taught Andy the methodology of product management including the role of a product manager, the value add in building products that customers love, and lowering, reducing, or eliminating the risk, or building something that nobody wants.
Andy explains the role of a product manager today, saying: “What we have today as a product manager is someone that, if you imagine a Venn diagram of customers, technology , and the rest of the business, a product manager sits at that intersection facilitating the stakeholder relations between the three.”
A product manager needs to understand the customer problems directly from actual users, then understand the technical feasibility of what can be built alongside business considerations such as viability and compliance. Andy goes on to discuss the merits of different project approaches including traditional waterfall versus agile. He says that when it comes to ensuring that you don’t develop a product that no one wants, Agile is often the best option, he explains: “The key difference between managing a product in an agile environment versus in a waterfall environment, is that we want to iterate early and often, and release value incrementally, so that we’re lowering the cost and the risk of building something that nobody wants. The risk of taking a waterfall approach is that I might spend nine months thinking that I’m building something for a customer, but really just going over-indexing on my own idea, and spend maybe £1.5 million doing so, and nobody wants it. That’s a very expensive cost to pay, when I could be iterating and releasing products every two weeks and making updates every two weeks or every month. That’s a much quicker feedback loop to understand if I’m on the right track in building something that a customer loves.”
In helping to recruit the product management team at WorldFirst, Andy says that the core competence they looked for was the ability to build relationships, communication and curiosity. He says: “Curiosity, asking questions, can lead to the root cause of a problem. …I want to get a feel for how enthusiastic they are about product management versus just another job because you’re willing to go a bit further when you’re a bit more passionate and have more skin in the game.”
Andy says his proudest achievements at WorldFirst include working within a mobile team; his first time working on an Android app. He had to take the team on a change management journey which he did successfully, helping them to move to an agile way of working. It was also on this project that he discovered the power of bringing customer feedback directly to the leadership team. He says: “If I could ever get senior stakeholders in the room for customer testing, or play back a recording, I would, because that always spoke volumes in terms of changing their mindsets and getting them on board, because they heard it from a customer, and not third party through myself or from customer services or sales.”
In 2018, Andy left WorldFirst to join Entrepreneur First, one of Europe’s leading accelerator programmes, with a product idea of his own that he wanted to develop.
Andy explains: “The unique thing about their programme is that you come in as an individual, without your team, and just your idea, and hopefully you have the opportunity to meet a co-founder along that programme, and then they will fund you and get you to a certain stage with your idea.” Andy’s idea was to rethink the recruitment experience for Gen Z and Millennials who are used to instant access and mobile connectivity. He says: “But in the end, the real benefit of that 3 month experience was that I wasn’t really passionate about that idea, but I gained a lot of self-awareness around this intersection that I was really passionate around, which was around VC investment, start-ups, and diversity. I decided that I wanted to double down and operate within that realm.”
Having realised his true ambition, Andy moved to Backstage Capital which specialises in investing in start-ups where at least one cofounder is a women, person of colour or LGBTQIA+. He discovered Backstage Capital through his blogging and podcast activities where he produces stories about role models from ‘underestimated’ backgrounds who global ambitions to build a business. He interviewed and wrote the story of Arlan Hamilton, Backstage Capital’s founder, and then invited her over to the UK where he arranged events to introduce her to the VC ecosystem. It was at one such meeting at EQT Ventures, that Arlan announced that she wanted Andy to become MD of her European operations. Andy adds: “We started this London accelerator programme, building up the accelerator business from scratch.”
Working together with his team, Andy and Backstage London is supporting five entrepreneurs including; Afrocenchix, gal-dem, Trim-It, Vitae London and Tambua Health. Andy says: “One of the blessings in disguise of working with founders is that they’re a lot smarter than you are in their specific domains, so you end up learning a lot really fast. I’ve learnt so much from just having these founders around and they’re all fantastic in their own different ways.”
Backstage Capital’s support is a three-month programme that includes office space, an investment of $100,000 in each start-up, access to their network including VCs, seasoned operators and mentors. Andy adds: “Finally, it’s really being almost that extension of their business, like an extra staff member. Whatever we can help you with, we will help you with.”
When the three-month programme is completed, Andy says: “We’re going to continue to support them but be less hands-on. … We’re still there to help them on their strategic challenges, we are incentivising now we’ve invested to help them grow. Making sure that they maintain a sanity, think about mental health, and have safe spaces where they can have discussions with us, about how things are going, in good and bad times. It’s in the bad times when it’s really telling what kind of relationships you have with your investor. So, that’s part and parcel of this experience with the cohort.”
Across the UK and US, Backstage Capital has around 24 companies selected from almost 1,900 applicants and nearly 2.5 million invested.
Product Tank Community
Andy is a keen member of the Mind the Product, a global community. It started with just a few product managers trading notes and has now turned into a monthly event called Product Tank, in over 140 cities across the world. Andy attends the London meet-ups when possible to trade notes, stay abreast of developments, continue learning and networking.
One of Andy’s proudest moments is seeing how the leadership, especially his brother, at Mixtape Madness, have really grown the business to a revenue of over a million. He says he’s proud of all his family, including his mum who became an entrepreneur at the age of 60 when she launched her nursery in Ghana and his younger brother who has launched a number of businesses such as Merge Marketing , AGM Talent Agency and Shea Dream. He adds: “I’m super proud of my family in general, probably most proud of my fiancée, seeing her go along her own journey of personal discovery. Being both a mother but also the evolving identity as a personal trainer; how she has evolved and grown as a person. … I guess it’s just been a beautiful journey of seeing relationships really blossom, and, actually, I’d say more proud in seeing how others have grown and how I can contribute to those journeys.”
Andy says that when he started out, he formed some core principles about his career. He explains: “One was direction over speed. I decided that it’s more important for me to dedicate myself to going in the right direction and staying the course in a certain direction, even if that road is slow. … I’ve just got to stay the course because it’s going in the right direction, regardless of the speed. Whereas, sometimes we can get fooled into going at speed, but often in the wrong direction, and exerting a lot of energy going in the wrong direction. So, I always try and favour direction over speed.”
The second principle is to dedicate himself to this game of inches. He explains: “I know that it’s a game of cumulative wins that comes from taking an inch at a time. I track my progress through a journal so that I have a track record of key things that matter to me and I can look back in six months, a year, four years, and look at these patterns of behaviours and where they led to when I’ve been following my curiosity.
It’s one thing to follow your curiosity, but it’s another thing to track the results once you start following it. These are core things that have really guided me along my journey.”
A third principle came after the death of his father a few years ago, Andy decided that no matter what the environment or situation, he was going to be his “most authentic self”. He adds: “In doing so, I’m going to do my best work. That has absolutely manifested and led me to greater opportunities than I could never imagine. For example, I got invited to go on the European arm of the Obama Foundation programme and to meet a lot of European leaders in Berlin, including President Obama himself. These are opportunities that I never wrote down as goals, or never could foresee in my life, but through doubling down on being my most authentic self, and as a result doing my best work, it’s continuing to lead to a lot of these opportunities which are just incredible.”
Andy hopes that his future will allow him to really democratise access to technology and venture capital in order to ensure that we see more representative leadership that reflects society. He says: “I think decisions made as an investor are very powerful to the course of the innovations that are created for the rest of the world. … I think the people that are shaping the technology that we’re building today should look a lot more like the society that we actually live in. So, I want to really contribute to that story in a meaningful way here across UK and Europe, but globally, essentially. I don’t really care about accolades or awards or being known on the surface for it. I don’t mind operating in the background and doing the hard graft of getting it done.”
Biggest challenges and opportunities for tech
One of the biggest challenges for society and tech in particular is to ensure as new industries emerge, such as artificial intelligence, that they should be built to reflect society. Andy points to the need for better data sets that are not biased. He explains; “If we have really narrow datasets that are biased by nature, and that’s training the machines and the computers, then they’re being trained on a very biased dataset that may exclude, for example, women and gender data, or people of colour, or minorities. We really need to influence the inputs that are going into these machines and these algorithms so that the machines are learning from data that’s representative of society.” Having read Invisible Women, Andy adds: “It reminded me about how important it is to really have evidence and data if you really want to influence change, especially on a policy level with government for example.”
Andy points to his upbringing in a multicultural area of London which he believes has given him a great deal of insight into the true nature of diversity and inclusion. He says: “I didn’t realise that I was understanding intersectionality at a level that a lot of professionals that I’ve worked with just don’t. … It got me really thinking about the layers in intersectionality and how social economic background and class, which can’t be seen on the surface, have such influence and such an impact, and effect. … I started building a lot more empathy actually for different people, from different backgrounds, and I think, it’s something that companies need to do a better job of. They really need to think about in their onboarding experiences when they’re taking on new people into their organisations. It’s something that our education system needs to do a better job of teaching at a young age, so that we have much more of an appreciation and respect for it in society as we grow.”
For those considering a career in tech today, Andy advice is: “Try and just be self-directed. Be a continuous learner; there are lessons to learn everywhere, especially in failure. Don’t be too harsh on yourself when things don’t work out. Try and quickly realise and ask ‘what did I learn from that experience?’ and how can I move more intelligently now that I know that.”
Interviewed By: Ian Symonds at the WCIT on the 17th July 2019
Transcribed By: Susan Hutton
Abstracted By: Lynda Feeley