Business · interviews · Sunday Times

How I Made It: Alicia Navarro, co-founder of Skimlinks

AFTER two failed attempts to start her own company, Alicia Navarro did what any self-respecting Australian would have done — she strapped on her backpack and went walkabout.

Her first venture had fallen flat and the second attracted just one paying customer. “I was starting to get very panicky,” said Navarro.

She travelled across Europe to London, where in 2007 she sought advice from an old university friend and entrepreneur, Joe Stepniewski. Together they turned her consumer shopping website into a marketing service called Skimlinks.

“I realised Australia was no place to run a start-up,” said Navarro, who emigrated to London the following year to co-found the remodelled company. “I sold my car, my furniture, quit my job and said goodbye to my family and friends to be a penniless entrepreneur.”

Skimlinks enables businesses to earn a commission on web links and content when they redirect customers to other retail sites. It automatically creates these traceable links by identifying affiliate brand names and products.

The technology generates 300m clicks a month across 18,000 shopping platforms, including Amazon and eBay. It had sales of £8.5m in 2012 and expects to report revenues of £13.3m when the 2013 accounts are filed in June.

The company, which has 250 staff, is based near “Silicon Roundabout”, the hotbed of hi-tech firms in east London, and has offices in San Francisco. “When I started it was a totally different concept. It has not been an easy journey,” she said.

Navarro, 37, founded the original company, Skimbits, in Sydney in 2006 with A$60,000 (£33,000). She and developers in Romania created a technology that would skim a web page for items of interest. Consumers could then share the information and come to a purchasing decision in a way “similar to Pinterest”.

The model wasn’t making money, so she changed her approach. “I focused on other businesses instead,” she said. In 2007 Stepniewski suggested Navarro license use of her decision-making tool to other website owners for a fee. She pitched the concept to Wedding TV, a women’s lifestyle channel, and won a contract. “I hadn’t built it yet but I pretended I had and that I lived in the UK. I had to borrow a friend’s business suit,” she said.

Navarro spent a year trying to secure a second customer to no avail. With options running out, she went backpacking again for six weeks around Germany, Romania, Austria and Spain to find inspiration. “In a moment of panic, I realised that if I wanted to survive I would have to dump everything I had built,” she said.

While creating the second business model, Navarro had invented a way of automatically turning web links into affiliate links, meaning businesses could see which websites led customers to their products. “Potential customers and investors were more interested in this unsexy money-making technology,” she said.

To confirm her suspicion, she called AB Forums, a blogging site she had been using to choose a television. Would they pay for the technology? “They said yes, so I started Skimlinks. I was saved at the brink of bankruptcy,” she said.

Her father fled the Cuban revolution in the 1950s and moved to Spain, where he met Navarro’s mother. In the 1970s the couple emigrated to Australia, where Navarro and her younger sister were born. The sisters attended a convent school in Sydney. “We were very poor but my parents were big on education,” she said.

Her father saved for their first home computer, a Commodore 64, on which Navarro learnt to code at the age of nine. “I loved technology. I would do coding for fun after school and spend my lunchtimes working out how to use a modem. It was all very geeky,” she said.

Her passion won her a scholarship to study computer sciences at the University of Technology in Sydney. She turned it down to pursue a journalism degree but dropped out after six months. “It was lots of women talking about post-modernism,” she said.

Navarro successfully reapplied for her scholarship in 1995 and after three years secured a graduate consultant position at IBM. She left in 2000 to attempt an early start-up, Fun & Fearless Computing, a learning program for senior citizens.

“I did it for three months until I ran out of money,” she said. Navarro finished a research project with one of her old clients from IBM, Optus, before travelling to London in 2001 for a working holiday.

“I went with high hopes of a great technology career but the dotcom bubble burst and I was unemployed for three months. It was a very stressful time,” she said. She secured a position as product manager for Vodafone before joining a start-up in mobile internet applications. “It was all old-school stuff,” she said.

Navarro returned to Australia in 2005 to pursue her dream of starting a business and worked for Fairfax Media while putting together Skimbits. The personal cost has been high. “People who start a business believing the hype — that it will be this empowering, thrilling, validating journey — will be disappointed,” she said. “It’s wonderful, but you will probably never sleep or date normally again.”

Navarro won entrepreneur of the year at this year’s FDM everywoman in technology awards. She lives in central London with her boyfriend, Aaron Ross, who runs a start-up. Her advice to budding entrepreneurs is: “Do a lot with very little. You can do incredible things with almost no money if you have an inventive and resourceful team.”

Link to article in the Sunday Times

PDF – Alicia Navarro of Skimlinks

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