Interview with Nick Holzherr, Serial Entrepreneur and CEO of Air and Whisk.com
This week I have the pleasure of sharing my interview with Nick Holzherr. Nick is a serial entrepreneur and the CEO of HR software company Air (www.joinair.com) and food tech company Whisk.com. He raised over $2m in funding from technology investors and pitched Whisk.com to Lord Sugar after getting to the final of the BBC Apprentice 2012, where he achieved the series’ best task-win record.
Nick was recently awarded an honorary doctorate in enterprise from Aston University. Nick and his businesses have been featured in leading publications including Newsweek, The Guardian, The Telegraph, bbc.co.uk and The Next Web and have won multiple awards including a Cisco BIG award, The Drum’s “One to Watch” honours and The Grocer’s “Top New Talent” award.
Hi Nick, can you give me an overview of your career to date? What’s your story?
I studied business at Aston University and I started my first business while still there – “Co-Go Coffee”. The idea was to sell ethical coffee at cut prices in cups that contained news and adverts on the side. The idea was good on paper (we won a few business plan competitions) but in the real world there were a few flaws – like where to store 20,000 cup orders that we shipped over from China! I did a year at Deutsche Bank (the investment bank) in Frankfurt and then went on to build a tech startup in the mobile content management space. That business had 5 people in it when I was approached to go onto the BBC Apprentice as a contestant pitching for £250k of Lord Alan Sugar’s money. Despite advice against going onto the show (it can ruin careers!) I thought it would be fun and figured it would help my businesses. The process was a once-in-a-lifetime experience – fun and full on. I achieved the series best task-win record, winning all my tasks as a project manager (including the first task). I got to the final but didn’t get Lord Sugar’s money. Coming off the show – I was approached by various investors who wanted to back Whisk.com and we raised £180k to kick things off – raising $2m in total over the following few years. The more I worked with teams and had to handle the HR admin involved with running companies – the more I realised someone had to build something to make things easier and more seamless for company owners. That’s how the idea for Air was born.
What are you currently working on?
Air is a smart HR platform that eliminate HR admin by automating things like people record management, time-off booking/management and expenses. When you bring in smart technology into the space – the benefits are quick to realise – for example – you don’t forget people’s time-off / birthdays anymore. Longer term, Air will be doing more and more to help companies build great cultures and happy employees. We strongly believe that happy employees translates pretty directly into successful businesses – and that we can make a big difference for SME’s in that area.
What’s been the biggest OSM (Oh S**t Moment) in your career so far and what happened as a result of it?
I think the biggest real Oh S**t moment is when you realise you have monthly business expenses of £10/£20/£50/£100k per month and you need to pay for that somehow. We had some investment money originally – which helped delay that Oh S**t moment – but it catches you pretty quick. We’re now in a lucky position where we bring in revenue reliably to cover our expenses.
Can you talk a little about how you spot opportunities in business and then how you turn those opportunities into something more tangible?
The key is solving problems. I try and observe my own problems and those of friends / businesses around me. Then, I try to evaluate whether there’s a big business opportunity here (will people pay to solve this problem? how many people will pay? How much will it cost me to reach the customer to tell them about it? etc). Once these questions are answered – the next part is about hiring brilliant people, motivating them and getting out of the way.
What do you think are the key traits of an entrepreneur?
I think you need to have a lot of perseverance. Often things don’t work out early on – and you need to stick in there to get through those moments. Outside that – you need to be a good generalist and be able to cover all bases / gaps.
There’s a lot of talk about AI and it’s impact on the future of work at the moment, what’s your take on it?
I think a huge amount of what we do will long-term be replaced by AI. The things I think about most are the things that will be first. In HR – I think there’s a big opportunity for AI to help out. Most smaller businesses (i.e. with less than 250 employees) don’t find time to look at HR data and working out what’s going on, what will happen and what they should do to improve things / what the ROI of doing so will be. With some pretty basic AI and some pre-requisite well-formatted data (which Air has) – we should be able to deliver some pretty compelling “recommendations” and further automation of HR.
There are however some things that are best done with humans. People management has a large human element in it – and I think it’s very important. There’s unfortunately often not enough time for HR professionals and managers to spend enough time on those things – I’m hoping Air can provide the tools to save time and provide insight – helping HR professionals and managers be much better at what they do.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career?
My answer to that question changes every year as I learn more and different advice helps me move to the next level. Overall -I think it’s important to do a job you care about – because you spend so much time working.
What drives you and how do you keep motivated?
I care about making a difference. I choose the things I care about (e.g. food and people management) and work how I can make a difference.
If you were given £5,000 to invest in a Start Up business what would it be and why?
There’s a lot of great stuff being done by startups working in the charity / nonprofit sector. I’d probably invest it there so it does good for the world.
Is there anything else you want to share or you think we should talk about?
I’d love to hear what your readers think about Air – I’m always looking feedback from people in the industry! www.joinair.com.
Thanks Nick, great to talk to you.