Justin Ibbett

Dr Diter Veldsman (1)

Justin Ibbett, founder of Focaldata, is a wise owl who worked in AI before it was cool.

Focaldata provides research and insights on public opinion for brands or organisations: what their consumers think, feel and do. That can mean anything from brand tracking to message testing and content optimization.

I spoke to Justin about his learning curve as a founder, taking risks when building teams and the five interview questions he swears by.

Cecily Motley: What do you think has helped you be successful as a founder?

Justin Ibbett: So much of startup success is about persistence. If you figure things out a little more each week and stay at it long enough, you normally reach a place where you can survive. I’ve also realised that being mission driven really matters, because you need to keep up the motivation and energy over years. That’s a bit of a magic trick when it comes to startups, I think, and it’s really not spoken about that much. It’s one thing to have a cool idea, but do you love the problem enough to stay with it for three years?

CM: Today, you manage about 38 people. When it comes to managing and building teams, what has been your rosiest success?

JI: The two engineers who have built Focaldata joined us as interns. Being a startup, we didn’t have a network of engineers when we first got going. These two were smart and hard-working with exceptional academic credentials, but they had no previous experience of building software. We had to take real risks on people. They have turned out to be essential in driving this company to success. I think that’s because it’s more important to find people who are going to diligently work on a problem with you, who are all in on that journey, than it is to get someone with the most ‘impressive’ CV. Seeing those two grow and learn, but also stay with us, is a real source of pride for me.

CM: And what have been the hardest things about building a team?

JI: When I found my original co-founder, I’d lean over and see him just swiping on dating apps. when I was paying him to build software. But I was so inexperienced I didn’t know how to call him out. So one of the hardest things was knowing how to create the culture that I wanted when recruiting that early team. When you’re inexperienced, you don’t have the confidence or know-how to enforce the behaviour you want. You don’t even know what culture is, to be honest. You’re like, should I tell them what to do? But I don’t know what the f*** I’m doing. They’re adults too.

CM: What’s your slam-dunk interview question?

JI: I focus on motivation in interviews. Most people are smart enough to do the job, but do they have the drive to make a success of it? There are five questions I tend to ask:

  1. What are your three non-negotiables for this role? I’m interested in whether they have really thought about how it’s going to fit in with their world.
  2. Where do you want to be in 3 years?
  3. What’s the one thing you don’t want to do in your next job?
  4. What defines a startup? I want to find out if they get what working in a startup involves; the chaos and all that.
  5. Finally, what can I tell you about working here?

CM: Those are super useful. And what is the bane of your professional life?

JI: If the founder doesn’t drive the urgency, no one does. I spend too much time driving people about, trying to move faster and uphold standards. Mentally, that can be quite exhausting. I need to build a senior team who can really carry that torch with me.

CM: What would you pay good money to know about your peers and competitors?

JI: I'd love to know their product roadmap, what their go to market strategy was and how expensive effective different channels were. I’d also love to know the 10 biggest things they've learned from customers over the past three months.

CM: And do you think Ai is going to take your job?

Not my job, luckily. I think companies will continue to be run by people but I'm very bullish on attacking middle level service jobs where text is the primary sort of input and output. We’re also seeing AI being able to plan far more effectively. I think companies will continue to be bookended by people, but middle level project delivery will be AI. That will probably manifest as dramatic productivity increases in certain sectors as companies realise they can do a lot more with a lot less.

I think companies will continue to be bookended by people, but middle level project delivery will be AI.

CM: What is your most frequently used ChatGPT prompt?

JI: I use code interpreter a lot to do quick analysis, so I’ll say: imagine you're a data scientist working for the CEO. Here's some data. What are the three things I need to look out for? I've been very impressed about how good it's been.

CM: Do you have a life hack you’re proud of?

JI: If I do, they’re not really working! I try and put my phone out of my bedroom so I don’t check it in the morning. And is putting the office near where I live a hack?

CM: That’s a great hack. What book should we be reading and why?

JI: Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari was an interesting one, especially as AI evolves. On management stuff, all the Y Combinator content and essays by Paul Graham are as good as you’ll find anywhere. But I really think people should just read what they want. If you have the motivation to read something then it’s probably worth it. If you’re just consuming random books and hoping to distil their knowledge and become a great decision-maker… It doesn’t work like that.