Start-up accelerators and consultancies are two business models in desperate need of a reboot, according to Sal Mohammed. He speaks to Compelo.com editor Dan Robinson about his plans for innovating both in his new company QTA – with a little help from the brains at Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook
Any fledgling start-up would no doubt move heaven and earth to have an ex-Google or Amazon whiz kid among their ranks to help them shoot for the stars.
Unfortunately, such talent isn’t exactly queuing up for a job to be a subordinate at a lesser business than their former employer.
But former staff of the so-called Big Four tech companies – Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook – are there if you happen to have the right connections.
One man with that enviable contacts book is Sal Mohammed, an ex-Google employee in London who has now gone out on his own to set up QTA.
An acronym for Quick to Act, his start-up wants to disrupt the consultancy and accelerator business models by supplying Big Four alumni to act as consultants to companies of all sizes – at a tiny fraction of the usual fee commanded by the consultancy sector.
“The golden question is ‘how much would you pay for a Googler to come in and help you with your business?’” says Sal.
“People would usually say ‘a lot more than it should cost’. But we’ve built a platform that gives small businesses access to people who have worked at the biggest companies on the planet.
“We’re making consultancy useful and helping ambitious companies grow by creating a network of some of the best business talent in the world.
“And the service is at a price point everyone can afford. At the moment, business have to either pay stupid fees for consultants or there’s a wild west of random rogue people calling themselves business gurus, where you don’t know if they’re going to deliver on what they say.
“So we’re coming in at the middle to help everyone.”
Fixing the ‘broken’ consultancy model
The idea for QTA has been with Sal for the past six months, but it was borne out of a process of realisation that the consultancy model is broken.
“From everything I saw and everyone I talked to, it just reinforced the idea even more,” says the 28-year-old, who also recently launched a Crowdfunder campaign for his new tech-based charity Connected Homeless – an app that allows users to convert cash into a digital currency that can be used by homeless people to access services such as food and shelter.
“The idea became impossible to ignore – not just for the opportunity that it has from a business point of view but the impact it can have on companies across the world.”
He describes QTA as an acceleration consultancy that has a two-pronged approach.
First up is the accelerator side. For every Dropbox, Airbnb and Reddit - which began life in tech accelerator and incubator programmes that provided financial backing, co-working spaces and growth advice - there are numerous start-ups that fall by the wayside.
Sal, who eventually plans to take his business global, says: “They sell a dream saying you’ll get a lot of help, contacts and expertise but actually, what’s happening is you get taught very bland, generic business principles.
“They aren’t going to do some data crunching or look at industry trends for you, they’re just going to use their experience and give you a bit of guidance.”
What they could really do with is some tailored advice that helps them break through barriers that are unique to each company – which leads Sal to consultancies.
It’s an industry where money is thrown around almost blindly, with large companies often happy to part with five-figure sums for each day of service they receive.
For smaller businesses, that’s just patently unaffordable.
“I’ve hardly met anyone who thinks consultancy works well,” claims Sal. “Ask any SME if they’d go to a McKinsey, Bain or Boston Consulting Group – the big three consulting firms – for help and it wouldn’t even be something they’d think about because the price point is just incredibly high.
“Also, the value they could add isn’t that great because, really, a lot of organisations just use consultancies to validate what they already want to do.
“And the advice is usually from people who haven’t even done anything relevant to the client.
“Even though the consultancy could be charging something like £10,000 per day, they’re bringing in a graduate who’s on maybe £200 a day to do the work – it’s quite a perplexing model.”
The second thing Sal noticed was that freelance consultants armed with sharp suits and slick presentation slides were no longer talking about how, for example, General Electric became a global conglomerate by only entering markets in which it would be number one.
Instead, they made speeches on how Google gets a monopoly of new tech, Facebook engages with customers, Amazon trumps in distribution and Apple builds the best products – despite having never received a pay cheque from any of those companies.
“So it was clear to me that you could just get people from those four companies into your business,” explains Sal.
“Everyone then obviously says ‘that would be great, but how? There’s not a database of these people’.
“But that’s something that can be overcome by building the infrastructure and platform for them.”
Google expertise at a fraction of the price
The vastness of London’s tech community means there is ample opportunity to make key industry contacts.
Despite only working at Google for about 18 months, Sal is now able to call upon about 20 veterans of the Big Four companies, which all have a significant presence in the UK capital.
Like him, they have decided to go out on their own but, while they get to grips with setting up their businesses, can earn a stable income offering consultancy services using the QTA platform.
They will receive a fair slice of the £1,500 fee charged by the company – an affordable figure for clients that reflects the huge amount of room to play with in this “broken” sector.
For that investment, businesses will receive their tailored advice via a four-stage process within seven days – the “quick to act” approach it says on the tin.
It starts with a brief phone call in which Sal’s full-time team, based in an office within London’s Holborn area, find out what the client’s challenges are.
The team will then design a bespoke questionnaire to determine the type of support and information needed.
QTA will ask for access to relevant accounts, such as Google AdWords, and data sets that will help it to crunch the numbers and offer in-depth analysis.
All this is used to create a customised growth plan using top-of-the-range insight technology, which is delivered in person during a half-day workshop.
“Our model works for everyone,” says Sal, who regularly finds new consultants on an ex-Google employees network known as Xoogler.
“We use data to analyse your problems and then help you to grow.
“We can work with companies of any size but we want to be working with those that are ambitious and want to grow.
“The average venture capital-backed start-up grows at 120% year-on-year. We want every company to grow at those stupid rates and the VC-backed companies to grow even quicker.”
Sal believes every business needs a great media and marketing strategy, great tech to enable growth, and a great commercial understanding and plan.
He adds: “Most businesses have one or two of those, but they need all three to really succeed.
“They might be a tech company with two founders who love building tech but when it comes to talking to a customer, they’re scared for their lives.
“Scared companies can do a lot of expensive things. They might hire a head of business but they didn’t need to, they just needed to know what they’re doing.
“The questionnaire is the guiding start for that. If you told me you have five developers and are strong on tech, we won’t tell you what you already know. We want to make it useful.”
Working life at Google
Sal, who holds a master’s degree in international business at the University of Nottingham, admits he has always had an entrepreneurial instinct.
But, like many of us, he still sought the comfort of working for another company at first, joining telecoms giant O2’s Telefonica graduate scheme in October 2012.
He worked his way up the company to become head of business commerce, before he was headhunted by Google to work on its strategic partnerships scheme in July 2016, working at its King’s Cross UK headquarters in London.
“When Google builds products, in order for people to use them they need to work with another company, like when an agency helps businesses to use AdWords.
“But we’d strike deals with companies like O2 and say ‘you have millions of customers, why don’t we help you set up and then you can resell the products we have and make a margin.
“So if Vodafone came in and offered one of O2’s clients a contract that’s £15 a month cheaper, they wouldn’t want to move because they’re also doing their marketing for them.”
Sal executed multi-million pound partnerships and product launches with some of the world’s biggest companies and won an award for bringing in the highest revenue from new partners across Europe, the Middle East and Asia in 2017.
When it comes to a job, he admits there is no topping a company like Google.
“It was an incredible place to work,” he admits. “O2 is an amazing company as well, and we’d get to take clients into boxes for the likes of Adele at the O2 Arena or to watch England at Twickenham.
“But Google is one level above everyone else. Last year, I flew to 15 countries in every continent of the world.
“It treats people unbelievably well. There’s two gyms so you could work out and do classes during your working day, while there’s also free massages and relaxation pods.
“The food is amazing. We’d have cooking schools with Jamie Oliver’s ex-head chef and special demonstrations by Michel Roux, a two-star Michelin chef.
“He’d cook a three-course meal in front of us and when we turned around at the end, our chefs and his chefs had been making the dishes for us to try.
“The people are probably the best part though. You’re literally surrounded by the smartest people you’ve ever met – everyone feels smarter and more accomplished than you.
“Speaking four languages isn’t even a thing at Google – no one would bat an eyelid.
“Google has seven different properties each with a billion users – including YouTube, Google Maps and Android – so if you want impact and an amazing place to be, there’s no better company to work for.”
But the burning desire to be his own boss led to Sal leaving behind one of the best workplaces in the world in February this year.
“I was driven by something different,” he says. “It’s inherent in the DNA of companies like Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook that people want to do their own thing – they’re very entrepreneurial.
“They may even get acquired by Google and then want to go off on their own again.
“Most people in the tech industry don’t just want to be at a Google, they want to be a Google themselves.
“They like the hard work and challenge of doing it – there’s so many people who have left Google and started their own billion-dollar companies.
“For me, I wanted to see how far I can push things for myself.
“I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur – I was on a delayed path where I’ve built the skills and experience, but it gets to the point where if I don’t do it now, when will I do it?”