Brian Liston Entrepreneur of The Month
For our very first feature of Entrepreneur of the Month, ISEF made contact with Brian Liston, co-founder of Seed CX. A former UCD student, Brian graduated in 2014 with a degree in Economics and Finance before moving on to complete a masters of finance in MIT in 2015. During his time in MIT, Brian co-founded Seed CX, a platform to facilitate the trading of emerging agricultural commodities, with a current focus on the legal cannabis industry. Brian spoke to us about his plans for Seed CX, work life balance as a company founder, and offered some advice for young aspiring entrepreneurs.
+ For those who haven’t heard of Seed CX, can you provide a brief overview of the company and what it aims to achieve. Where did the idea come from initially, and what were your first steps towards getting the project off the ground?
Seed CX is the financial infrastructure for emerging commodities. We provide research, pricing indices, a futures exchange and the delivery logistics for emerging agriculture, thereby providing these markets wider accessibility, transparency and security. We are launching with industrial hemp and will soon thereafter target organics and non-gmo products.
Seed was cofounded by Brian Liston and Edward Woodford, based on some research that was done whilst we were completing our graduate degrees at MIT. We both have a passion for developing new markets, and the research showed that there was a strong need for marketplace infrastructure in the legal cannabis industry. The MIT community is incredibly supportive of startups and innovation, so we were encouraged to develop out the business model. We won some initial capital which helped us get started, and the alumni network was very eager to help and share insights. Without that support we wouldn’t be here.
+ Can you give us a quick overview of your background - education, interests, relevant experience in the entrepreneurial world? Is Seed CX your first venture?
I completed a BSc in Economics and Finance at UCD in 2014 and then continued onto MIT to complete a Master of Finance. As you can probably tell, I have an interest in economics and financial markets, and the concept of market creation. I also have a big interest in technology and entrepreneurship more generally. I started another venture called Helpers in Dublin just before graduating and getting accepted into my masters programme, which aimed to provide a workforce of students to complete odd jobs for people around the city. It was going well but I left when I got into my masters.
+ For the students reading this, was there anything you did during college which helped prepare you for setting up your own company?
I tried to get involved with as much as possible. Without a doubt, the best thing I did whilst at UCD was taking advantage of the internship programmes that were on offer. I took a year out to work at Skype in Luxembourg, right after it was acquired by Microsoft. It taught me a lot about myself and the type of work environment I enjoy working in. Skype was still quite young at the time, despite its Microsoft acquisition, which meant I also had visibility across the entire company, which gave me a unique perspective into how I fit into the bigger picture. This made me realize that working at a very large company isn’t really for me.
Throughout UCD I also tried to take advantage of the various business case competitions and debates that were sponsored by the various societies and clubs. They were all slightly different, but together they taught me a structured way to identify and address issues around business development.
Beyond UCD, Starting Helpers taught me a lot about entrepreneurship. I had worked on a number of business case competitions at UCD, so I had a pretty good understanding on how to conceptualize a business model. But some of the stuff I hadn’t considered about starting a company included equity distribution, the pros/cons of working with friends and the amount of time and commitment really needed to get something off the ground. There are so many moving parts to a startup and you are fighting an uphill battle from day 1. You need to give it 100% to have any chance of success.
Finally, MIT is a firehose of information and opportunity. I joined a number of entrepreneurship clubs and attended as many networking events as I could. I took a number of large research projects throughout the year, one of which was at a venture capital fund. I was lucky enough to have that transition into a part-time analyst role for the rest of the year. As an analyst, I was given access to hundreds of deals and prospect companies. Having this level of visibility into how venture funds has helped tremendously in raising capital for Seed. I know what to include in the slides and how to present our model most effectively.
+ Seed CX recently received regulatory approval from the CFTC - What are the immediate plans for the company now that this milestone has been achieved?
That’s a huge milestone, but ultimately it is just one of many needed to launch a successful futures contract. We are currently finalising some of our tech and on-boarding customers. We don’t want to launch until we have a critical mass of traders ready to go. We are also recruiting some new staff members to help with operations post-launch.
+ How do you manage to maintain a work life balance given the demanding nature of setting up your own business?
To be honest, it’s difficult. I live with my co-founder and work just 5 minutes from my house. That means I live in a pretty tight bubble. I don’t think you can effectively maintain a work life balance in the first year of a startup.
+ In your opinion, what is the best and worst thing about working for yourself?
Best thing is flexibility and passion. Whilst it’s difficult to maintain a work life balance, having the flexibility to work when I want is fantastic. I don’t actually end up taking much time off, but working to my own deadline is very freeing. And I’m passionate about what I do. Granted, you could be passionate working for someone else too, but right now this is where my passion lies so is great to be able to execute on a vision.
The worst thing is that if I don’t work, a project will get held up. That’s more true because we are a small team than it is because I work for myself, but ultimately there are some decisions that I will need to make.
+ If you were to give one piece of advice to aspiring entrepreneurs, what would it be?
The unknown unknowns are going to be your biggest risk. Type II error exists when you simply don’t factor into the equation an unknown issue, which ends up being mission critical. That means you need to be nimble and prepared. If you expect something to cost $100, budget for $200 or more.
This is going to sound generic, but second most important piece of advice is leverage your network and ask questions. The alumni network for MIT was invaluable for Seed to start. We reached out to everyone in the industry and did a lot of research. It takes time to understand the problems you are attempting to address, so speaking to people in different areas of the industry will be critical to success. Customer feedback and primary research is cheap. Use it.