“How my family’s cash-and-carry inspired me to build a multimillion-pound tech start-up”

As a child in his parent’s humble shop, Vishal Marria, learned big lessons that have been fundamental to the success of his company, Quantexa…

“Most six-year-olds went home after school. I went to mum and dad’s South London cash-and-carry,” laughs Vishal Marria, founder and CEO of tech start-up Quantexa, which recorded a 2017 turnover of £5m and 400% year-on-year growth. “My parents moved to London from India in the 1960s and they worked from 8am till 6pm seven days a week. Growing up around that work ethic and seeing how they ran their business taught me so much.”

Their appetite for work clearly rubbed off on their youngest son. After gaining a first-class degree and masters with distinction in computer science at Royal Holloway University, Vishal joined BAE Systems Applied Intelligence (then called Detica), where he became the company’s youngest ever director – age 28 – running a team of 150. He was headhunted by EY and it was while working for the Big Four firm as an executive director that he spotted a gap in the market.

Talking to EY’s banking clients, Vishal noticed that they shared a common problem. They had no easy way of instantly forming a clear view of who their customers were at the click of a mouse. “Chatting to clients, it became obvious they wanted to understand their customers better,” explains Vishal. “Who is that customer? What’s good or bad about them? What’s their context?”

Vishal likens this gathering of customer insight to buying a house. “You don’t buy a house by looking through the letterbox,” he says. “You walk in, see each room, assess whether it’s right for you. You build up the context of the house. At Quantexa, we help our clients to do the same thing with their customers – our technology uses internal and external data in real time to let them instantly build up an accurate image of both who they’re dealing with and what that person’s network is, which means they can make better decisions.”

Demand for Quantexa’s products is high. In March 2017, Vishal and his team raised $3.3m, led by HSBC, and today clients include: big banks, insurers, travel and transport, and oil and gas providers. The plan is to increase turnover eight-fold to £40m over the next four years, and with offices already in London, Brussels, New York and Sydney, Quantexa looks well set.

The reason the company is so well positioned is not just down to its impressive, dizzying technology. Quantexa is undoubtedly a cutting-edge, fast-growth tech business, but Vishal does not obsess over the tech. He’s clear he’s built his business using the lessons he first learned behind the counter of his family cash and carry, he says: “Dad taught me the first rule of business: be relevant. That’s key. Dad constantly tried to make his shop relevant by buying the right products at the right time and evolving them in tune with demand. That’s exactly what we do at Quantexa.”

Vishal rediscovered the power of this fundamental lesson throughout his career. “The key thing for all businesses is to be relevant to clients,” he says. “That means talking to them, understanding their problems, understanding them as people. Being relevant is not rocket science – you just need the ability to listen, and not be stubborn when it comes to innovation. Innovation is critical if you want to stay relevant – you don’t want to end up being a Nokia or a Blackberry. If you’re not innovating and not listening, you soon become irrelevant.”

Vishal learned many more powerful lessons during his time in industry. “Life is a journey and you’re always learning: the companies I have worked for have each provided me with huge insights.

“For example, understanding how to make a big organisation back your initiatives was an important lesson I learnt. At BAE Systems and SAS you only had to speak to maybe three or four people and you could then push forward an initiative. But at a Big Four firm like EY you’ve got to get many more people behind you. Doing that is a skill in itself. Also, the governance and rigour that a Big Four firm drills into you is powerful. It helps you become more structured. My varied career also allowed me to forge relationships with lots of organisations, too. That was critical to the next stage of my life.”

Twenty-five years ago, on his dad’s shop floor in South London, a 10-year-old Vishal absorbed another big lesson. As he watched stock come in, helped stack shelves and saw what customers were buying, he came to understand the power of focus. With so many possible paths to go down, he realised how easy it is for his dad’s shop – or any business – to take a wrong turn, to chase the wrong customer, to become irrelevant. And so he came to recognise that the only way to stay on track – to remain relevant – is to be focused.

“Focus is critical in business,” he says. “You have to look constantly at your mission. There’ll be road humps along the way, absolutely, but you need to focus on why you created this thing, this business, this technology. I regularly remind myself why I set up Quantexa, because when you recruit talented people, and when you work in an innovative market, you get pushed down lots of different avenues. You sometimes need to say: ‘Guys, that’s not good business, we should not be going down that route because it’s not part of the mission.’ Every morning after waking up at 5am, the first thing I do, after kissing my wife and baby daughter, is look at the mission.”

At first glance, a South London cash-and-carry has nothing in common with a multimillion-pound fast-growth tech company. Yet Vishal learned the two biggest business lessons of his life there – lessons he still relies on today. Stay relevant. Focus on your mission. In today’s tech-driven, fast-paced, often-bewildering world, maybe more companies would do well to heed these two invaluable pieces of business wisdom.

Disclaimer: The statements made by our interviewees are an expression of their own views and opinions and in no way reflect FEBE Ventures’ views or opinions, nor are such views or opinions endorsed or supported by us.