Michael Skok - a calculated success

If you’re not familiar with the world of start-ups, entrepreneurship and venture capital it can be easy to assume “it’s all about the money, money, money”. When interviewing a man who made his first million before most of us had even worked out a career path, perhaps even more so.

But what becomes apparent in conversation with Michael Skok (Production Management and Production Engineering, 1982) is that any financial success is mostly just a by-product of simple curiosity and passion.

Michael Skok

“When somebody says to me, I want to make a lot of money, I say, what do you actually like doing, and what are you passionate about? What do you care about? Because I was very lucky to be pursuing all of that and I consider it the greatest fortune that I ever had, not just to get educated, but actually to understand what to do with it.

“I’m 60 now and I don’t know how a lot of the 60-year-olds have survived their lives, because they still don’t know what they’re really excited about, or why they’re doing what they’re doing. And it’s somewhat motivated by just basically looking after their family or paying their basic utilities. That would have been hell for me.”

A formula for his future

So we’re here to glean the top tips from a man who has seen it all, done it all, sold the t-shirt. The obvious questions we all want answering are variations of what it takes to build your own business, become a successful entrepreneur and make lots of money. For Michael this comes back to his passions, which began with his father and a calculator.

“I’m very lucky to have had a father who was a production engineer, so his life was spent figuring out how to build things. I was constantly being schooled in problem solving to build things or to create things.

“One evening he brought home a programmable calculator and said, ‘if you can get this thing to calculate how to count to ten and then back down to zero, and do all that in an automated fashion, then you can keep it’. And it caused me to be challenged, and I love that, and then I of course began to think where else could that be applicable.

“I loved programming and figuring out what the tech was capable of doing. And so, that was really what I would describe as my first passion beyond just the fun things that kids do growing up.”

This passion is ultimately the genesis for all that has followed in the next 50 years for Michael. During which time he has founded, worked with and invested in hundreds of start-ups - creating thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of value - mentoring and teaching for four years at Harvard University as an “Entrepreneur in Residence” and now as co-founder and partner of venture capital business Underscore VC.

Studying at Nottingham was another of Michael’s formative experiences, this in spite of him “hating” his degree subject. Not that this means he thinks higher education doesn’t have a role to play.

“I was tempted, and it’s an easy story to tell, to not go to university, because I was making money that most kids were just astounded at. But I really committed to the degree, even though I hated it.

“But the thing that shaped me at Nottingham, was just how much more diverse the students were - and that to me is an exceptionally good example of what a great university like Nottingham can bring, is that diversity of experience.”

But what *is* an entrepreneur?

For Michael then came the ascendant stage of his career and the question which he gets asked all the time - how exactly you become an entrepreneur.

“I think you either have something in you that is determined to address a problem typically, or you have some experiences that cause you to just have a burning need to address some issue.

“But if you don’t have that, I think going to be schooled, whether it’s at Nottingham or Harvard, it doesn’t matter. It won’t cause you to become more passionate about something. But what it can do which I think is important, is it can hone the skills that might set you up to go and address the problem or to build the business, if you are going to go after it.

“The 20 and 30-something entrepreneurs are brilliant and often creating incredible companies. But if you look at the bulk of the value that’s been created, it’s mostly been created by people who are in their 40s and 50s, believe it or not, who’ve figured out how to get the balance between what’s new, and also use their experience to build and create tremendous value.”

Michael’s top 5 pearls of wisdom:

  1. I’m often asked by people, what should I do as a degree? I always say the same thing, which is, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you get to university and you get to meet people, and you get to experience the broader set of things that are part of our life, social interaction and figuring out how to make the most of who you are, and learn who you are.

  2. I would recommend to anybody, if they can get the opportunity, to go and get out of their comfort zone and meet different people, and learn not to make assumptions, but instead question everything.

  3. I absolutely could not possibly keep track of all the innovations in the different areas that we address. Everything from fintech to cloud infrastructure, there’s just way too much going on. But the jiu-jitsu move is not to try. Recognise that those that are doing that are the people you want to get to know.

  4. When do I know it’s right for me to start a business? You will not be able to sleep one more night without getting up and starting to solve the problem, or to raise the money or whatever it is.

  5. Think about what you really see as highly impactful, either in society or in technology or in the world around you. For me, it’s reduced down to one thing, which is entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship to change the world for good.

For many like Michael, whether as an entrepreneur, or any other field there comes a point where you want to reinvent yourself or take a new career path. So following 20 years as an entrepreneur it was then he became a venture investor.

“What really motivated me was the thought that the experiences that I’d had could be something that would be useful to others, for sure. But also on a personal level, I was thinking, ‘what can I do?’

“And what you can do is figure out how to create the basis for success in amongst the founders and entrepreneurs, because the really great entrepreneurs honestly don’t need you.”

And so the mission behind Michael’s latest venture Underscore VC and its Startup Secrets platform is to ensure the community frameworks exist to create this basis for those following in his footsteps.

“It’s about trying to help the next generation of founders and entrepreneurs to build their businesses, and trying to share a means for them to do that. And that’s where the idea of Startup Secrets came from. I wish I had known back then, when I was at Nottingham or even before that, what it takes to start a business, and how to scale it and create the value.”

It's about people, stupid

And behind all of this is one of the key values Michael learned here at Nottingham and still resonates the best part of 40 years later.

“When I started Underscore I spoke to over 300 entrepreneurs, asking them one simple question. ‘What do you most need to build your business successfully?’

“When you really look at what the scarce resource was, it was people, and it still is today. If you ask an entrepreneur what their biggest problem is, they might say ten other things, but at the core of it will be hiring, and how do they access people.

“All the people I’ve met at Nottingham have stayed lifelong friends, literally to the point where there’s people that I work with, there’s people that I refer to about the challenges I have in life. And so, I’m extremely grateful to Nottingham for all the experiences it gave me, and believe it or not, yes, even my degree.”

Catch up with Michael's webinar - 'Grow your investor appeal'