Sarah Wood: The importance of a 'kick-ass' product

Sarah Wood left her teaching post at the University of Sussex to start up her own tech company, Unruly.


Sarah Wood: choose your co-founders carefully

What occupation is the opposite of "entrepreneur"? I suspect many would say "academic". But Sarah Wood, 41, disagrees. Academia and start-ups especially in the technology sector share many similarities, she says, such as the importance of "getting things done" and of "working with smart people".

Unfortunately, the one big difference (apart from the sums of money involved) was the bureaucracy, says Wood. It was the constant stream of applications, assessments and funding reviews that convinced her to leave her job as a lecturer in American studies at the University of Sussex in late 2005, in favour of starting up a dotcom business.

Although social networking was still in its infancy, Wood had picked up on the trend, and believed that the internet was moving from being an "information superhighway", with people passively seeking out information, to a social web based around sharing content.

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She hit upon the idea of developing a platform that could quantitatively measure the impact of a video or advertisement. Specifically, she found that while advertisers were focused on views (or "eyeballs"), the number of times an ad was shared was far more important.

Working with two other founders, Scott Button and Matthew Cooke, the trio incorporated Unruly in 2006, hiring co-working space in the former Truman Brewery on London's Brick Lane, which "gave us the flexibility we needed".

They faced plenty of challenges. Relatively low UK broadband speeds (London still has slower broadband than other European cities) meant that uploading videos "took enough time to make a cup of tea". But other disadvantages, such as the fact that she didn't have any advertising experience, were in fact helpful it meant she was able to "do things differently".

More importantly, Unruly had "a kick-ass product". Within days of its launch, "brands and agencies were calling us up". While no single client represented a tipping point, sales have grown very strongly over the past nine years. Unruly has moved into bigger offices in London, and opened branches around the world, most recently in Sydney. In 2014, the company had sales of $43m, and it currently works with around 85% of the most important brands.

Despite her business success, Wood stays close to her academic roots. As well as her role as chief operating officer of Unruly, she teaches a course at Cambridge (where she did a degree in English) on "online video culture". This has helped her company too many students have become interns or even employees.

She also is involved with the "City Unrulyversity", an informal "pop-up university", where tech entrepreneurs meet to discuss business basics. Unruly also works with Cass Business School and Wharton School, and Wood is involved with Your Life, a programme to get more students (especially women) to choose maths and physics at A-Level.

Despite her role as a lecturer, she is not a big believer in giving explicit business advice. But she says that entrepreneurs should "choose their co-founders carefully", since "you'll have to rely on them and trust them". And perhaps surprisingly for an academic she warns against "overthinking". "Have confidence in yourself and your decisions."

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

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