The Thoughtful Business Owner - An Interview With Amrit Santhirasenan
For Beyond The Balance Sheet – Series 2 we interviewed Amrit Santhirasenan, Co-founder and CEO of Hyperexponential (HX), a London based tech start-up that’s transforming the world of insurance. Amrit is also a proud father and the host of the Start-up Dads podcast, a show navigating the highs and lows of building a business while also raising a family at the same time.
Amrit’s story proves that it is possible to scale a start-up whilst maintaining a healthy work life balance, if you have a team of people who are dedicated to driving the business forward. Fuelled by the love of both his business and his family, Amrit’s advice is just as relevant to professionals as it is to entrepreneurs.
“My biggest success is the team,” says the co-founder of HX. “All our financial success and our growth and all those things are great, but I see them as vanity metrics. I'm incredibly lucky that I would pay good money to get to hang out with these people on a day-to-day basis.”
As an entrepreneur that’s fast becoming an influential figure in the world of FinTech, Amrit has transformed HX from a 2-person team working out of his kitchen, to a multi-million-pound business with more than 20 team members since its inception in 2017.
Amrit’s story on how he started HX was very much a ‘cheesy founder eureka moment’. After working in the insurance industry for 15 years, Amrit spent a lot of his time trying to build and use models that did tricky and complex things with data to help people make better decisions in the financial sector. Amrit soon ended up running a team in one of the largest insurance companies in the city, and in that time, he realised that there was no software available to help them do their jobs efficiently.
Amrit explained, “I found myself scratching my head and saying, this a $700 billion industry, $700 billion is the financial sector. It's not small so why they don't they have the tools to allow me to do my job as best as I can, because the decisions that we help people make in the financial sector could have a huge impact.”
He continued, “I was like, well, I can do this. I've worked in the industry. I understand my client's needs, you know, it's a small industry despite being really, really big. I've got a technical background and I've got great people and friends.”
Amrit saw a gap in the market and had the technical skills and the optimism to build a business that could fill it, however transitioning from employee status to Co-founder status is not easy. “I'll tell you right now, it's the hardest job I've ever done. You become a founder and you realise you've got no bloody idea what you're doing most days.”
He reinforced the point: “Coming from a career and then suddenly you're responsible for the overall organisation and there's no longer a box where you're in charge of one particular area. I'll never forget, in the first couple of weeks I remember sitting at the back of the 85 bus writing our HR policy. Suddenly you must become a master of so many domains. And that was a massive shock to the system, yet a huge learning opportunity.”
So, how did they transition HX from a 2-man band to a multi-million-pound company? First, he had to build a culture that attracted the world’s leading professionals who had the right mentality and mindset to support them on their journey.
“I'm a massive believer that the right mentality is everything, and you can see that the difference between people who succeed and don't succeed at HX in any other start-up is mindset.
You know, some people are all about bringing people with experience in who've done it before. And I think that's really valuable and don't get me wrong, a different stages of a start-ups life I think those people are really, really valuable, but we see extremely clearly the difference between people with employee mentality and owner mentality.” To drive the owner mentality at HX, every permanent team member has the opportunity to receive equity in the business.
The next element of creating a culture that fuels growth is how to help yourself and your team maintain a healthy work life balance, an area that Amrit struggled with when becoming a new father.
“I'll never forget I was on the call to a potential investor while I was bathing my daughter, he called me up and he was like, ‘are you okay?’ And I was like, I'm fine, but it's 7.30am and you called me, it's not me splashing about in the bath, it’s baby girl, but if you want to have a chat now then you’ll have to listen to her splashing.”
For Amrit, it took time to get used to dealing with interruptions and time being consumed in ways that were difficult to fathom before he started his own business. However, he focussed on being a ‘thoughtful business owner’, and building the right team who would allow him to be less hands on in the workplace.
“I'm now spending more time doing the jobs that I'm better at and I'm designed to do. I have HX and I have my family, and these are the two things that I'm incredibly blessed to have.”
Balancing the two entities lead Amrit to launch and host the Start-up Dads podcast, which provided him with a platform to speak to founders at different stages of the business cycle who speak candidly about how they fit together their work and their personal lives. What Amrit soon came to discover through hosting the podcast, was that there was an incredibly strong synergy between setting up a start-up business and having a child.
“You’ll never forget the first time the mid-wife gives you your baby. And you're like oh boy, I can't give this to anyone now it's mine and I'm responsible for it. Then for the first couple of weeks you're like, ok, I just to keep this thing alive. I could probably sub-out words in that sentence to talk about the transition from being an employee to a founder.”
“And it’s true, the things you have to learn when you have a child, dealing with uncertainty, things growing and changing. That feeling of having to learn a new set of skills every few weeks, it has huge parallels with the process of starting and scaling a business and it's been an absolute gift to talk to lots of entrepreneurs about this.”
When asked what advice Amrit would give for other business owners starting out, the response was simple:
1. Leverage Flexibility
If we have learnt anything from the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s that the world didn’t come crashing down when things got tough. Gone are the days where we go to work at the beginning of the day and don’t get home until the end, if you can leverage flexibility, you’ll have a much more vibrant workforce and a healthier balance for yourself.
2. Leverage Your Network
Founders need help. Found yourself a mentor, speak to other founders, family, friends and make sure you aren’t afraid to ask for help when needed. Amrit stresses the importance of finding a mentor that has been there and done it before. Ultimately, whilst what you are doing in your business is unique, there are many areas that are not unique, such as your go to market strategy, your hiring strategy, your product roadmap strategy therefore, at the early stages you don’t need to spend time reinventing the wheel when there is a great mentor in your space who has been there and done it before.
3. Don’t Take Yourself to seriously.
Your children do not care whether you’re a Co-founder or Chief Executive Officer. They will dismantle your podcast microphone and throw it across the room. They'll laugh in your face when you’re practicing your investor pitch. It’s important for founders to embrace these moments and realise that ultimately, nothing is ever that serious.
4. Build An Amazing Team.
It’s really hard to grow your business and generate new leads and gain new clients, but it’s actually much harder to build a team. When you are a start-up, how do you find brilliant people who are super smart, super hard working and get them to want to work with you when they could go anywhere else? You have got to be able to persuade them to get onboard with your vision and mission, but once you do that, you will be fuelled with the talent to achieve anything you want to.
“You're the average of all the people you surround yourself with? So, it's a slam dunk that you make them all really great people.”
Amrit is exceptionally good at getting people excited about the future of HX, his passion comes through naturally because he believes deeply in the potential of what they can achieve as people, as a team and as a business.
Whether you are an entrepreneur just starting out or someone with an interest in business, Amrit’s journey and the story of HX proves that if you can build a support system of energetic, enthusiastic and motivated people then wonderful things can happen across the whole business. But, perhaps the most relevant lesson relates to the learnings we can get from our own personal lives, such as starting a family, and how you can use those learnings to make you an even better business owner, manager, parent and friend.
If you like the sound of Amrit’s story, it’s just a taste of what you’ll discover in episode 5 of Beyond The Balance Sheet series 2.