What makes an entrepreneur? Some insights from watching Rehan Haque build Metatalent.ai, written by an insider.
They say that some people are born to be entrepreneurs. And other people dream of being entrepreneurs but don’t know how. I have come to think otherwise.
I first met Rehan Haque three years ago in late 2019, when we were both working at BMI Group. ( https://www.bmigroup.com/ ) We were in a meeting room with a table large enough to hold two laptops. There was space for a third person if they hung upside down from the ceiling.
The subject was cyber security, and the task was to complete a checklist of impenetrable technical and organisational questions. I’d been putting the meeting off for weeks, and everyone else had avoided it.
My first impressions of Rehan were of his smile and cheerfulness, despite the dry subject, and as we started work I realised how helpful he was. We finished five minutes under the hour. Enough time to talk. “Rehan,” I said, “you’re very passionate about cyber security.”
“It’s my job,” he replied, “but it wasn’t what I intended. We get pushed into respectable careers after university and then it all just follows. It shouldn’t be this way. We should be free to make our own destiny.”
Yes. I reflected on the series of coincidences in my own career.
“I wish,” he continued, “I could do something to help young people at the beginning of their careers.” Words. Lots of us want to make the world a better place. So we talk about it. And most people do nothing.
2020 started with reports of a rare infection from a food market in a Chinese city that most of us had never heard of. But we were busy with our day jobs.
And then suddenly the world shut down, and the prison doors locked on our houses, and our lives became virtual. In the months that followed, mental health became a major challenge for many people. We had meetings with colleagues where their kids were screaming in the background, and parents were working erratic hours to help support their children with schoolwork. And the people leaving university were left with the darkest of thoughts – the ones they told no-one.
And from that depth, Metatalent.ai was born – or Chipkoo Labs, as it was initially called.
2: Rehan Haque, the awakening
Metatalent.ai began as a volunteer action, bringing mentors to help virtual interns. The entire organisation was voluntary effort, and the students were charged nothing.
Rehan approached me at the start, asking for help with mentoring. “Adrian, you’ve got so much experience they’d love to hear. Even an hour a week would help.”
Okay, I have weaknesses. One of which is wanting to help people with their careers. Perhaps I should be a selfish bastard and put my own career above other people.
During those final months of 2020 we helped 40 interns, scattered from different parts of the globe. It was fun, but also revealing. University had taught them how to learn, but it had provided only the basics of their different professions. They knew nothing about office life and how to promote themselves to employers. And their soft skills were so under-developed that they’d be a liability to their employers.
I met with Rehan periodically. They were virtual meetings. I’d be sitting at my desk with the shelves behind me stuffed with books, and he’d be sitting in a coffee shop. We talked about the increasing skills gap in industry, and his aspirations to build Metatalent.ai (Chipkoo) into something large. “Think of the good we could do.” He was strong on we’s. “We just need money to expand.”
I’d been down this road before, almost twenty years earlier with a different company. Hard reality: Rehan, you have to make a choice. Only governments and foundations give money for noble visions, and they give little and then get bored. If you want to make it big, it’s got to make profit. Goals one and two are profit and growth. Helping the world is a by-product.
“Adrian, do you think I should go down that route?”
I’m not giving recommendations. This must be your choice because if you go down that route, you have to put everything of yourself into it. You have to change into a different person. The financial cost becomes much higher than you imagine now. And there’s no easy route back. I don’t know whether you’ll make the journey and become an entrepreneur, but I can help get you started.
“That means a lot to me,” he replied. But he didn’t make a decision. Not then.
And I had my secondary agenda. The exchange with interns was giving me ideas for new micro stories I could add to this website.
While Rehan was thinking about the future, the mentoring continued. For me, often with a conference call with a virtual room full of students.
My own tipping point came after a mentoring call about “Mental health in the Workplace”. I was born in a generation where there were taboo subjects: mental health was one (and sex was another). Nowadays it’s changed because the workplace has become intense in the knowledge-based professions, and we are regularly pushed to our limits. But it’s still hard talking about it to an audience.
On the mentoring call, what I hadn’t counted on was hearing so many of the interns say that they’d never talked about their mental health before, even to their families and friends. And when they started talking, it was obvious there’s a deep problem. There are reports that nearly half of students experience depression or anxiety. (For example, see https://www.verywellhealth.com/college-students-mental-health-survey-5115273 )
Rehan was right. Graduates are badly prepared for the workplace. He had a vision of how to resolve it, and a string of ideas of how to achieve that.
Rehan’s answer about not-for-profit versus profit came after that mental health discussion. It was a huge milestone. Since I and Nick Jones were both with him for that moment, I guess that’s why he refers to Nick and I as the co-founders, though really the achievement belongs to one person: Rehan Haque.
3: Coming of age
I’ve no idea how Rehan found the time to build his business while also working, except that I received messages from him at 3 a.m.; and when he appeared on the virtual meeting he had the over-acted enthusiasm of someone whose body is tired and they’re forcing themselves. Chipkoo had emerged from a dream and volunteer exercise, into the early shape of a business.
The recurrence of Covid-19 restrictions created new opportunities for a virtual business like this, and there were government initiatives that could be used to finance trainees and career starters. With a growing team, it allowed Rehan to pursue different ways of making money from his idea.
His fascination with multiple products was mightily distracting for cheerleaders, like me. I sat, staring at the video window, and trying to get my mind around each new idea and how it could be brought to market and made profitable. I wasn’t even sure I understood some of the ideas.
Some worked, and some never got started properly. Goodness knows how Rehan felt with the ups and downs of each idea. At times he looked pale.
With hindsight, there were three things happening during that period. One was that he was building a small core team that understood the business and would help keep the operations going smoothly. What I love, is that they’re recent graduates. What a way to start a career! There’s so much that can be learnt in a start-up when you have to do a range of tasks instead of specialising on one narrow area.
The second thing that happened was that the unique features of Metatalent.ai began to evolve.
- Unlike the alternatives, Metatalent.ai was providing end-to-end support for people from their final months in their degree, through internship, to starting their careers.
- It was providing interns with different types of soft skill, and customising courses to their individual needs.
- And its business model wasn’t just a simple replication of existing systems, but a hybrid between a jobs marketplace and a commercial service for graduates to help them develop themselves.
It would be cute to say it was planned like that from the start because Rehan is a super-genius who could see the future. But it wasn’t like that. The understanding of what was needed came as a result of the wild experiments, and the feedback from the interns and companies. The point is, it grew naturally to fit the market, rather than mimicking existing offerings.
The success also came because of Rehan’s perseverance and his focus. That was the third thing that happened: Rehan Haque’s development into a business leader.
In January of this year (2022) I met Rehan face-to-face in Windsor. In a world of virtual meetings, there’s a joy of actually meeting a friend you haven’t seen for a year and can’t entirely recognise when their head is not surrounded by an oblong computer window. We walked down the high street, past quirky old shops, the towering stone walls of Windsor Castle, and then along the river lined with willow trees that leant out into the river. A bevvy of swans seemed to pause to look at us. Occasionally a boat past.
Rehan’s talk had changed. This was no longer the cyber specialist. It was the language of business ventures that I hear at the senior level of enterprises. Entrepreneurial. He talked about how he saw the company developing, and his ideas for its new name (Metatalent.ai instead of Chipkoo Labs). He talked-the-talk, and after the previous year he already knew how to walk-the-walk.
As the sun dipped below the treeline and the sky went deep blue, I knew that he’d passed a new milestone. He’s ready to run an aspiring and growing business.
4: Rehan Haque, entrepreneur
Metatalent.ai is evolving again, building on all that’s come before. I’ve been privileged to see the detail of the new business, and to be asked for advice on everything from technology to business, and marketing to delivery. (Well, my professional interest is in the practical detail of turning visions into operational detail.)
And I’m still left with the question of whether entrepreneurs are born. I watch Rehan, and I’ve seen others go down this route. It comes one painful, hard step at a time. They fall in the mud and climb back up, and find smarter ways of working. They become adept at finding tools to help them on their journey, and they surround themselves with specialists who are better than them. They learn how to turn vision into operation detail. But they’re always after their vision, and how to make profit for their investors. They discover that the personal price is higher than they expected. And some complete the personal journey, and develop into entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurs are not born. They make themselves.
- Metatalent.ai: https://metatalent.ai/
- Rehan Haque on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/rehan-haque/
- TrendScout article on Rehan Haque, https://www.trendscoutuk.com/blog/startup-founder-spotlight-with-metatalent/