For people involved in London's techie start-up scene, Richard Moross needs no introduction. Even if they don't know him personally, they are likely to carry one of the distinctive mini Moo cards his company produces and pass it to peers at industry events. Without the word-of-mouth effect of social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook, Moo would never have become the multi-million-pound turnover company it is today. This is one wave that Moross has ridden perfectly.
After beginning as a small fish in a big pond, printing company Moo now produces millions of business cards that are shipped to more than 180 countries. Customers swoon over its immaculately packaged products knowing that they were co-creators, having added their own photos and graphics to customise the cards. Freelancers comprise a large part of its customer base, as photographers and other artistic types can display their work on both sides of their Moo card. Its core businesses are in the US and in the UK, accounting for 40% and 30% of revenues respectively. Moross is notoriously secretive about revenue, but will say that the company has been profitable since last year.
But success hasn't always come easily to the 32-year-old London-based entrepreneur. 'As a kid, I was crap at writing, crap at studying and crap at exams. In order to do what I wanted to do - create something and bring it to the market - I needed to be entrepreneurial,' he says. 'No one was going to hire and promote me. I had to do it myself.'
As Moross sits in Moo's offices on Old Street discussing his early years, he pulls out a school report from when he was 15. Leafing through its pages, it soon becomes apparent that the young Moross wasn't much of a scholar. 'I was mainly getting scores of 55% or 50%,' he says quietly. But he pauses when he gets to the page written by his art teacher. 'His work reveals an advanced sense of design and composition,' it reads.
Since school wasn't Moross' natural habitat, perhaps business was. He recalls a dinner party with his parents and some of their friends when he was 15. Present was Richard Joseph, a co-founder of Books Etc, and Moross watched keenly as the businessman interrupted the evening to take calls on his mobile. 'Richard spent half the night on the phone talking business. It was quite a seminal moment for me, because I remember thinking that when I grow up I want to be preoccupied by something that important.'
This chance meeting with Joseph also led to a job at Books Etc during Moross's gap year before he headed off to Sussex University to read philosophy and politics. After a couple of years working for a start-up, Moross found himself jobless in a rather shaky employment market in 2001. He was keen to get on to a graduate training scheme at a large advertising company and managed to get interviews at 10 of the top agencies in London - swiftly followed by 10 rejection letters. 'I've still got them all,' he grins. 'I'm a bit of a hoarder'.
But this gave him the impetus he needed to prove to himself and others that he could be a success. Along with a couple of friends, he founded a small business called Modern Organisation, which produced creative content for companies. The business ticked along nicely, yet Moross felt a yearning to work in advertising. 'The company generated some cash but it wasn't a career, it was a CV exercise,' he explains. 'It was enough to pay us - keep us in beer,' he smiles.
And it paid off. Six months later he got a job at global design and events company Imagination.
It was during his two-year stint at Imagination that he came up with the idea for the company that has become Moo. 'I had a sleepless night and I came up with the first version of the business - which is really different from what Moo is today.' It incorporated the mini-cards with which Moo has since become synonymous, but it also included a social network similar to Facebook where you could store all your contact details online. Customers could then hand out their Moo cards and the recipients could log on to the site to download further contact details. 'I was interested in how a business card meets the web, especially at a time when the web was becoming social,' he recalls. 'The natural progression was to build a business card for your social life.'
Although he had been involved with a couple of start-ups before, Moross wanted some advice - and, more importantly, some cash - to kick-start the company. First, he pitched it to the directors of Imagination, who liked the idea - but not enough to invest. So in early 2004, he left the firm to pursue his entrepreneurial ambition. He credits his family for bankrolling him in the early days before he raised £150,000 in August 2004 with Robin Klein of VC firm Accelerator. Moross fondly recalls the day he first pitched to them. 'I had a 200-page PowerPoint to explain this very simple idea,' he says. 'They subsequently made me cut it down to about five slides - and quite rightly so.'
From this point, it was full steam ahead. Moross worked alone on the website and the design of the physical product. He'd learned a lot from his entrepreneurial exploits along the way, so was comfortable handling most aspects of the project and designed everything personally - from website pages to the Logic software for the printing technology. This was an important task, because when a customer prints something with Moo, each card can have a different design or photo on it, so the quality was vital.
When the website was launched soon after, in 2005, it quickly became clear that the response was mixed. 'The major wins were that people loved the design of things and they liked using the cards. But they didn't really like the online product at all.' Unfortunately, it was 'nigh on impossible' to make any changes, as Moross was using an agency to code the site. By late 2005, the business had burned through the lion's share of the capital that Moross had raised from Accelerator.
It would have been easy for Moross - by now completely broke - to give up. Instead, fuelled by credit cards, he flew out to the Etech conference in the US with new business partner Stefan Magdalinski, to whom he'd been introduced by his father. At this time, the two men were little more than strangers but, owing to the constraints on their finances, they were obliged to share a hotel room. 'It was this bizarre low-rent trip,' he recalls, laughing. 'I remember rolling over in the morning and seeing Stef's bare buttocks and thinking, it has to get better than this.'
And it did. The first breakthrough came when the company forged a partnership with flickr.com, the photosharing website. This meant that customers would be able to download photos from their Flickr accounts straight onto the cards. The partnership also helped them secure their first round of institutional investment in April 2006 - £2.75m from Index and Atlas.
Another pivotal moment came when Moross renamed the business. The company had been operating under the dubious name of Pleasure Cards. 'It was the worst name ever, one of the main failings of the business,' Moross admits. He changed it to Moo because it was 'short, had two lucky o's in it and it was stupid and memorable'.
The company subsequently relaunched as Moo.com in September 2006. Moross had no idea how well the product would be received - but he needn't have worried. 'We made more money in the first hour than we had made in the first two years,' he says incredulously.
Demand was so fierce that the site went down on the first day and staff had to work round the clock and at weekends just to keep on top of packing and shipping orders. And it wasn't just the UK that had an appetite for Moo's wares, either: demand came from all over the world. The company processed orders from more than 100 countries in the first two weeks of going live.
Since launch, the business has grown - by at least 100% year on year - and added to a product range that now includes postcards and greeting cards. Yet Moross continues to operate the business on a shoestring. He doesn't have a PA and claims still to fly economy - and all 60 employees use gmail. The firm's core technology is all proprietary - management developed it themselves to keep costs to a minimum. Moross says the company's biggest overhead is staff. 'We've had to spend money hiring really top-class people,' he says proudly. 'The executive team here are an incredibly talented bunch.'
But Moross is not so admiring of the calibre of ideas coming out of the UK in general. 'I'd love to see the UK pioneering new technologies, not just copying America,' he says. This is clearly something he feels strongly about: he goes on to list the UK's engineering triumphs, from the Concorde to the Dyson vacuum cleaner. 'I don't understand why we aren't making more interesting things using technology,' he adds.
The answer? More entrepreneurship in education, he suggests. 'It should be seen as a genuine career choice.'