Getting to know you: Ian O’Rourke

What do you currently do?

I’m the founder and CEO of Adthena – we provide competitive intelligence to all the major search engine advertisers; think of major high street brands like Barclays, Premier Inn, Toyota and Tesco. I’m leading an exceptional team that is providing unrivalled competitive clarity to what has otherwise been a massive, but largely opaque, competitive auction for search engine advertising.

What is your inspiration in business?

Personally I’m driven by creating something where there was nothing before. Adthena is my fourth business (three successful, one failure) and I get a kick out of thinking there was previously a blank canvas, where we built something meaningful. Adthena is exciting for a number of reasons: We employ really smart, passionate people; it’s a global opportunity relevant to a huge audience; it’s based on valuable intellectual property; and it’s a highly scalable “product company” in a rapidly growing industry – all very exciting.

Who do you admire?

I’ve been very inspired by Ben Horowitz (of Andreesson Horowitz and Netscape fame) and his book “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”. What he writes is exceptionally poignant on the realities of starting and growing businesses. His advice, drawn from his own personal struggle, is invigorating, inspiring and outrageously practical.

If I could be reborn as any person, I’d choose John Lasseter of Pixar fame. He’s used his exceptional creativity to revolutionise an industry and bring joy to millions with dramatic commercial success.

Looking back would you have done things differently?

There are plenty of individual things I would have done differently, like people I kept around for too long, businesses best avoided and poor decisions often based on inexperience. I often say: “I knew more at 25 than I do at 45, all you had to do was just ask me”.

On the whole I probably would have started my first business a few years earlier than 33, and been more selective of the businesses I worked for prior to venturing out on my own. I would also look for a strong mentor as early as possible. In terms of life and business skills my parents were excellent, but in my corporate and startup jobs there was never one particular individual who was excellent. In hindsight I think I could have sought out someone inspirational and absorbed what they had to teach.

What defines your way of doing business?

I like to be as upfront as possible, egalitarian, pragmatic and casual. I had a very good formative experience early on in San Francisco which taught me that merit wasn’t about suits and ties or where you went to school. I’m sceptical about advice from people who haven’t walked in your shoes, but perhaps overly receptive of advice from those who’ve succeeded at what I’m trying to do at that point in time.

In business I want to work with really smart, challenging people that create something. I think I’ll always be involved in product companies rather than a consulting service or the like – A company where you make something like a software product. I’m obsessed with fixing and improving things and it drives me to do what I do. I also have one defining trait: I’m very, very, very, persistent. I never give up.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

Firstly, I’d recommend reading “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” and then making a really honest assessment of whether you are cut out for starting your own business. Horowitz calls it “The Struggle”, and it is very true that there is very little romance in starting your own business, and an awful lot of pain, struggle and difficulty. The stress is often acute and doesn’t sit well with most people.

I think from a purely financial perspective there are many better, lower stress options – many of my university friends are bankers, lawyers and accountants and make lots of money. To do your own thing you really need a consummate desire to create something, to take full personal responsibility, and to put it all on the line (for some crazy reason).