It's a pretty impressive success story; a teenager starts consulting for multi-national firms at 15, and sets up his business at 17. And although Josh Valman, now 19, was rejected from several universities to study engineering, he's certainly got the last laugh - he's now lecturing at them.
Why did you decide to start your own business? What was your inspiration?
I can’t say I ever intended to start a business. My first company, Miproto, came about as a scaling of a successful freelance career.
I began playing with engineering when I was about 10. The TV show ‘Robot Wars’ was fascinating to me. I began to compete in the engineering competition that the show is based around.
I was designing some advanced things, but had no real access to machinery. To my parents and the banks protest, I sent £500 out to China, to a factory I found on the internet.
The components came back, and I assembled the robot. It was 100mm wide and weighed 150 grams. I designed a full pressure pneumatic system in that weight class, from scratch, CNC machined from billet aluminium. After competing at a World Series event with this, I was flooded with requests to design for other people.
I began consulting on manufacturing and supply chain for multi-national firms when I was 15 to 16. Nobody asked how old I was.
Founding Miproto, an accessible way for anybody to have an idea produced, was a way to scale my freelance work. Now RPD powers design and manufacturing for companies around the world.
With RPD, companies from 1-10,000 people are able to design, prototype, manufacture and deliver with enormous efficiency, without the large investment.
How did you raise the money?
With difficulty. Why would anybody give cash to a 17 year old kid?
It took a long time to prove my worth to people. Everybody was waiting for the first person to take a risk on me. I ended up flying out to Gibraltar just before my A levels started. I closed my first investor and wrote my coursework on the flight home.
What I learnt, was that documentation is a waste of time at that stage. The right seed investor will write a cheque over dinner. They won’t read a plan, and they won’t ask for financials. The right investor believes solely in you.
What would you have done if you hadn't started up your own venture?
I was planning to study engineering at Cambridge. Although I wasn’t really academic enough to have ever got in.
I was turned down to study engineering at several universities. But I have managed to teach engineering classes at some of those same universities recently, so I don’t feel as bad!
What support did you have?
I’ve had a huge support from my family and girlfriend, they put up with the obscene hours I work.
I also have an incredible support from my investors and mentors. We were very careful to pick investors for their ambitions, their connections and their skills. Although we were raising money, it wasn’t the money we really needed.
What challenges have you faced? What have you learnt?
The biggest challenges usually turns out to be a result of restricting ourselves. If you don’t put the huge contract on the table, there is no way the client will ever sign it. We’re being much more ambitious this year. The projects that are most crazy, seem to be the most successful.
What ambitions do you have for the future?
I’m having fun. We’re building a company to continue having fun. It’s incredible how RPD has helped so many small companies compete with big firms. To have access to a global supply chain, without a seven to eight-figure investment, has completely changed what a small firm is capable of.
We’re powering six to 10-person companies and manufacturing and delivering products at the same level a 200-strong person company might, but quicker.
How well are you doing in business? Any figures you could provide?
We’ve grown 50% month on month throughout 2014 so far. We’re hiring weekly in areas of engineering, sales and marketing.
We currently work with creative agencies, product development companies and several large engineering firms.
I’m keen to get involved in more high tech engineering - we’d love to do some more work in motorsport and aerospace.
And finally, do you have any idols? Anyone you look up to?
I’m pretty driven by the stories we hear from clients. These people have built incredible businesses, doing fascinating things.Suggest a correction