Becoming a resilient entrepreneur with James Henderson

I first met James at a startup pitch where I later discovered he had won. Charismatic, friendly and confident are immediate observations from his personality, however I wanted to find out if there were other factors that lead him to take the path of entrepreneurship at the ripe age of 22. Juggling university studies and a bartending gig, he founded the nightlife loyalty app Ambi.


How did the idea of Ambi come about?

Ambi actually started from a coffee loyalty business, funnily enough. Basically it was like a Go Card, so it’s an RFID chip card. When you went to coffee shops, you would scan it on a piece of hardware that we were creating, tap it on that and it just ticks up your loyalty. We gamified it, so we were having if you went to, say, three coffee shops—different ones—in a week, you would be classed as a particular kind of label, like you go to a lot of different places, so you’re a Nomad Level 1, or if you go to five places in a week you’d be Nomad Level 2 or something like that. And then there was also a reward for frequency, so we had all these gamified systems that we were starting to implement. But then I found out that there was a competitor that already came into the Brisbane market called Rewardle. You might have heard of Rewardle. They use a QR code and you tap that on… It was the same sort of business based on the Coffee Card, and it was all tracked through an app, so you could see what coffee shops got on that you haven’t been to, and how many more coffees ’til you get your free one.

They showed us that we couldn’t compete with those guys. They just wiped it all out. So we had about a month there where we were working out what we were going to do next. At the very beginning, I had the idea for the Coffee Card, I brought Amy on, and then in two weeks we brought someone else. At the very beginning, I saw all these areas where loyalty can be done much better. There’s actually no system in nightlife that has loyalty. None. So that’s why we set out to do that. So when Rewardle came in and got us to change our path and pivot, we went, “Okay. Let’s do nightlife. Let’s just go to nightlife now.” We took away this RFID card, like a Go Card, and we went to the idea of just an app, and it was basically an app that we found a way to track time inside a venue, so that’s the system that we used. And now we have Ambi, which rewards people for spending time in venues.


How is Ambi funded at the moment? 

We had some capital behind us, but we will be looking for some more in the future. That’s always an option that’s available, but we’re finding a way to bootstrap it at the moment connecting with the right people and being able to cut deals that make it cheap for us. Because it’s a data business, we feel that the value is going to be much greater if we can delay making money. It’s not about just generating revenue. It’s not a lifestyle business by any means. Ambi requires a lot of work for no payoff at the moment. But when it pays off, because it is data business, it’s going to be a lot of pay. So hopefully, that will be able to fund any living expenses for me. But that’s all that I’m looking for at the moment until I can grow it further. All I need to do, personally, is fund my basic level of operation, like eat, sleep, gym, and then I’m all sweet.


Are you still studying at UQ at the moment?

I am at UQ.


You’ve also done a few internships. How did you decide that you didn’t want to do the 9 to 5 corporate job and build your own thing?

That’s a good question. Over the last four years, I met plenty of different people through uni, and all the guys who thought the way that I was thinking were mostly consultants. At the time, that’s the only people who I was exposed to. Originally I started uni thinking, “I want to be an accountant like my dad.” And then in first year, I was exposed to a lot of different people older than me who had a bit of time to digest this concept of working in the finance industry, and every ambitious person wanted to become an investment banker” In business school, finance people are seen as the very alpha male, dominant, ambitious dudes. So that’s what I wanted to be.

But over time, I learned that that’s not what I wanted at all. This is funny—I thought that I couldn’t hack the hours in investment banking, because they’re crazy. They’re like 80-hour work weeks. Too much, right? Funnily enough, ironically, I work much more than that now. But I’m doing something completely different — I’m fulfilling my own vision. My own vision is coming to fruition. I achieve my own goals, my own aspirations are achieved, and that’s my objective is to be able to have the freedom to do what I want to do.

For me, ultimately what I’m trying to achieve is freedom to choose what I want to do every day. And in that choosing, it means that I can empower other people to be able to choose what they want. I think everyone should be able to choose what they want to do, because being able to choose what you want to do means that you can be happy doing whatever it is that you’re doing.

Because for me, it’s never been about making money. That was another thing that kind of deterred me from banking. Because all those people are very money-driven. In the world, people have very different things that they value and money is not something that I specifically value. For me, money and wealth is just a tool to achieve more freedom and to assist other people in achieving that freedom, opportunity and choice as well.


Was it a gradual process of discovering that this was what you wanted to do and just rule everything else out?

So, I met all those people over those four years and I went from accounting to banking and then realised that I didn’t fit in banking and I wanted to be a consultant because I liked the strategy matter of perspective and I wanted to be able to advise people. I wanted to be dealing with boards and I wanted to be dealing with decision-makers—big people, big decisions, and big stuff. I loved public speaking. I wanted to pitch to people every day. I wanted to meet new people. I wanted to negotiate. I wanted to do all these things. And I do all that now. At the time I thought consulting was the way to go. But then it was freedom and control of my own life, achieving my own goals and achieving my own dream which drove me to become an entrepreneur.

I still see myself as a marketer and not necessarily a salesman, although some people would describe me as a salesman. I see myself as someone who conveys a message. Like if I think something’s awesome, I’m going to tell people about it. I’m going to promote what I think is awesome. I just tell people about that and if you, as someone who does that, you get good at that and you become good at convincing people that yes, what you think is awesome is awesome and they believe you and they come along with you on the journey of believing something is awesome. But I don’t necessarily think of it as something that I’m good at; I just tell people about what I think is awesome!


Comes about naturally. You don’t have to push like typical salespeople have to do. You have to sell if you’ve got your own product, but you kind of go about it intrinsically.

Yes. It is sales, but salesmen have to learn new product and then they are taught that this product is the one that they need to sell, but when you’ve created something, you do intrinsically believe that that product is awesome, because you’ve literally put sweat and tears into the business. Businesses have a term called “sweat equity.” Sometimes you do literally sweat working hard on something. Sweat and tears at least, but not blood.


It makes it much easier for you to tell people about what you do because you created it yourself. You know all the hard work that goes into it.

Yes. It’s awesome. It’s really good to just make something that you own. You believe in it because you made it. You can think about it like any product, like if you built a chair or something and you love that chair, then you’re going to tell people that chair’s the best chair. We hope so. You hope that you’re going to tell people that, because otherwise you’re not doing your job at promoting your product, or maybe you don’t believe in it. I think that to convince people, you have to truly believe it, because people who get pitched a lot know who believes and who doesn’t believe in their product. And especially other salesmen can see right through you if you’re pitching something you don’t believe in.


Is that exactly how you stay disciplined…your passion, your drive to make it what it is?

I kind of lost my way a little bit over the last six months, so I’ve kind of come back to the sort of mentality that I realise that I needed to be in it. Like with a lot of things, you don’t realise you’re on the wrong track ’til you’re off the track.

To stay disciplined, I need what I describe as three things. I call it PIC, which is Physical, Intellectual and Cultural. Now, Physical is obviously something you do, so for me that’s the gym. I make sure that I’m physically active and always stimulating my body. Intellectual is obviously stimulating mind, making sure that you’re always questioning things and pushing yourself, pushing your boundaries, so for me, that’s I’ve been trying to do a lot more reading. I love philosophy. I really like questioning things. I like talking to people and challenging my ideas, learning. They’re the sort of things that I love to do. And then Cultural sums up anything that is beyond those two, so for some people that’s religion, some people it’s art, or some people it’s—for me—it’s music. Music is my cultural outlet. I think to be a very well-rounded person, you need to have all three of those things.

What I realised is if I ever let any of those slip then I start to kind of lose my way. When I become stressed out, I know that all I need to do is have some time to myself and play guitar. I’m reading a book on philosophy at the moment. I read a little bit of that and start to question some of these bigger things and thinking about mindset and that’s ultimately if you come back to who you are and getting in the mindset that you need to be—that’s how I stay disciplined.


What’s a typical day in the life of James Henderson like?

I can be doing anything really, I can hang out with friends. I go to the gym. I just learned how to play guitar. I’m trying to read more, recently. Just trying to become a bit more…develop my introspective view and learn more about how I operate, and then that will enable me to perform better. Because if you know how you are, then you know how you react in certain situations and how you can do best in situations.


It seems that in order to be productive, effective or to discipline yourself, there’s always going to be a sacrifice there. I know there are probably plenty of 22 year old guys who could easily spend a day just playing video games and get nothing done. That can affect the rest of the week as well. So do you have to fight a lot of those battles as well to kind of indulge. Is that something…maybe it’s not part of your personality…maybe it’s a battle as well that you have to fight as well?

Certainly. It’s certainly part of me. I don’t play video games in a very long time. I wanted to go out and meet new people. I did that instead of playing video games. So I don’t really have that urge to play games now. When I was younger, I used to play PlayStation, Xbox, I used to play all of these games as a bit of an outlet, like an escape. It was an escape for me. I’d watch movies and play games and stuff because…well, I suppose a lot of people have difficult upbringings, but I had a difficult upbringing and it was an escape for me, so that was something that I did. I played a lot of videos.


Do you think there were a lot of maybe naysayers in your journey of entrepreneurship? In what way was it difficult?

In my more recent history, there’s certainly been naysayers. My dad’s actually someone who wasn’t very encouraging of my business pursuits simply because it’s not something that he really understands. You have to stay true to who you are and continue on your path. When I say “path,” I mean, I don’t believe in destiny; I believe in free will. Your path is what you decide is going to be where you’re going, your trajectory. It’s what you choose. Sometimes you get shifted.

I suppose if you think about a trajectory—if you fly something, there’s going to be wind resistance and you might get blown to the side. All sorts of stuff. But you know that you’re heading on this path, to go this direction. And that’s ultimately a very good analogy, I believe, for that. You’re trying to head in this direction, you’re going to get pushed. But if you keep going, then you’re going to get there.


So, clear focus is essential. Anything else?

Three of the most important things that I believe in for success are to have a good vision, ultimately. You have to have focus on what you’re doing and on your vision. And then third is what we just touched upon now, which is resilience. Resilience is, for me, is just about making sure no one can falter your path. So if you know where you’re going and you stay resilient, you don’t let any naysayers or all these other people who come into your life—or who have always been in your life and tried to stop you from going the direction you want to go—you have to stay resilient. You have to stay true to who you are and what you want to achieve, and if you have a good vision and you remain focused, then if you remain resilient, you will ultimately achieve your visions.


You kind of figured out who you are, which a lot of people our age are still on that journey, figuring out who we are through our experiences and what we like and things like that. Some of us are still experiencing this. What tips could you give to anyone who hasn’t quite figured it out yet. What can you do to find out what your path is? How can you be so sure about it?

I think no one really knows. That’s part of the magic of it though. Despite what somebody might tell you. No one can tell the future. I think if you literally have no idea what you want to do, then just try different things and don’t ever think that just because you’re not good at something when you try it for the first time, doesn’t mean that that’s not something you’re going to be awesome at.

Just try things. And if you really like something, then do that. You can always change. You can always change and do something else. Do whatever you want. You need to be happy with your life because it’s your life. People can tell you to do things, but ultimately, it’s your time and your life. What you do. It’s you. So you need to be happy doing what you’re doing, because you only have a short time in the world, so you might as well be happy doing it and be happy here.

Now looking back, I would never, work for example, in a bank for just a few years because I’m already planning on leaving. A lot of these people talk about getting a job after, like “Yeah! I’m going to work at Goldman Sachs and work there for three years and then I’m going to leave and do my own thing.” There is a single argument against this that I can materialize. I’ll explain my argument first. Why would you work somewhere that you’re already planning on leaving? That’s the point I’m going…but people talk about that there’s all these connections that you can make and you’re going to meet all these people. But does it fulfil your purpose that you give yourself for your life? Because I don’t believe in destiny; I believe in free will. I don’t believe that we’re given an ultimate purpose, but I believe that every person provides a person to themselves. So if you provide yourself with a purpose, that what you are providing yourself with to do. So make it happen. That’s what I try to do.

I had a lot of trouble trying to find a career because I wanted to be very logical and very creative at the same time, so I didn’t know what I was going to do. When I was in grade 8, I really got involved in a lot of music. I wanted to pursue a career in music, I loved it. I was like yes, I wanna go to the conservatorium, I wanna be a singer, I wanna do something, I wanted to do music. But as I got older, I wanted to appeal to both sides of my mind; I wanted to be logical and creative. But I didn’t know how to do that. It took me many years to realise that entrepreneurship is the perfect balance of creativity and logic. I’m solving problems in a creative way and there’s nothing better, that’s what I wanted to do.


It’s not exactly stable, so that’s why you went to uni to study.

For me, going to uni wasn’t even a question, it was always taught to me — that’s what you do. You go to school, you go to uni, you get a job, you work that job, you have a family… that’s your life. But I didn’t like that I didn’t have control. It’s not just about control, it’s about being able to determine what happens in my life. Because it’s my life, I don’t want someone else to plan my life out. I don’t want that to be the way that I’m going to live. So I choose what I want to do so I do that, so that’s what I’m doing.


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