Secrets of Success: Alastair Mitchell

There are some “rules” of business success most entrepreneurs abide by. But many also have their own “secrets”—things they do or believe that helped them achieve success. In “Secrets of Success,” a weekly interview series here at’s Small Business Forum, I ask some of today’s smartest, most innovative, most successful business owners to share their insights and success secrets with you.

Meet: Alastair Mitchell, the CEO and cofounder of Huddle. Mitchell, a serial entrepreneur, and Andy McLoughlin teamed up to start Huddle, a enterprise-level content collaboration system, because Mitchell was frustrated by existing enterprise technology’s inability to help people work together. Spending millions of dollars on a SharePoint implementation, only to watch it fail dismally, was the final straw. He realized “collaboration apps in our social lives just worked,” and as a result, Huddle was born in 2006.

Today Huddle has about 170 employees in London, San Francisco, New York and Washington, DC and has raised more than $40 million in funding. Sales have doubled year-on-year.

Mitchell first entered the world of entrepreneurship by starting an online media business. Then he moved into online exchanges and built the first global soft commodities marketplace. After selling that company he moved to Dunnhumby, a customer-service firm based in the United Kingdom, where he “led its Web-based marketing intelligence product from zero to $60 million sales within four years.” After Dunnhumby was purchased by Tesco, Mitchell started Huddle.

Mitchell is a passionate supporter of other entrepreneurs and the London start-up scene, and co-founded the popular DrinkTank event. He spends his free time investing in and mentoring other start-ups.

Rieva Lesonsky: What did you want to be when you grew up?

Alastair Mitchell: I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. It was my grandfather who inspired me to be an entrepreneur and not be afraid to do something different when I was a young kid. One of my earliest memories—I think I was about five years old—was traveling over the Humber Bridge in the U.K. and feeling proud that my grandfather’s construction firm, which he’d started from Australia, was the civil engineering firm that had built this incredible structure. In fact, Huddle’s holding company—Ninian Solutions—is named after the Ninian Central Platform, which was built by my grandfather in the mid-20th century. It’s an oil rig—the biggest concrete platform ever built. At the time, it was the world’s largest man-made movable object before it was towed to the North Sea—where it still stands today—and was fixed to the sea bed.

Lesonsky: Why did you start your own business?

Mitchell: As I mentioned, my grandfather was key to this decision. As gifts, he would give homegrown vegetables and a share certificate rather than the usual presents; that is what made me decide what I wanted to do. At school I was always buying and selling things and loved inventing stuff—especially if it was technological. All I knew back then was that I wanted to invent and build something.

Lesonsky: Did you experience a pivotal moment on your way to success?

Mitchell: For me, I learned after my first two startups that confidence is absolutely key. In college, I had a media and ecommerce startup, which I still believe was a great idea, but I didn’t have the confidence to see it through the first dotcom boom and bust.

You have to learn to have the confidence to back and act on your own ideas and abilities—if you don’t, who will?

Lesonsky: What’s the best small business advice you ever gave and/or received?

Mitchell: One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received is stay focused and be uncompromising on your vision. Don’t add to the endless list of bad products in the world, and trust your gut feeling. Companies live and die by their products, so you have to focus on building the very best product you can.

While you can certainly seek and take advice from trusted advisers and mentors, don’t dilute your product too much. Andy and I had a very clear goal when we set up Huddle: to help people get their jobs done and work better together. This remains the foundation of the business today.

I would give other people the same piece of advice, but [add that you must] have confidence in your own idea. You’re never too young to start.

Lesonsky: What’s one “best practice” more entrepreneurs should be embracing?

Mitchell: Don’t try to do everything yourself. While you may have experience in many different fields, you won’t be an expert in absolutely everything. You need to hire a team of people that can deliver the expertise, and who are the top of their field, whether it’s development, sales or marketing.

Lesonsky: Do you have a 2015 small business prediction?

Mitchell: I think ecommerce is set to become huge again. We’re also going to see intelligent analysis and machine-learning techniques, which are so prevalent in the consumer world, increasingly infiltrate the workplace as people need more insight and context around enterprise data.

Lesonsky: What’s your favorite book?

Mitchell: At the moment it’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz.

Lesonsky: Is there a quote you find particularly inspiring?

Mitchell: “Try Not. Do. Or do not. There is no try” – Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

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Rieva Lesonsky

Rieva Lesonsky is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media and custom content company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship. Email Rieva at [email protected], follow her on Google+ and, and visit her website,, to get the scoop on business trends and sign up for Rieva’s free TrendCast reports.