How I Did It - I Left PwC To Join An Artificial Intelligence Startup

5 Min Read

In our How I Did It Series, we profile entrepreneurs whom we admire at Solid State Group, especially those who’ve made the leap from corporate life to founding their own businesses, or go above and beyond to support London’s tech industry.

I spent just forty minutes chatting to Tor Gisvold about his long career and came out feeling ten years’ wiser. His journey encompasses League Of Legends, PwC, News International, the fight against ebola, the Panama Papers, and now the Artificial Intellligence startup Adarga.

Here’s how he did it.

Why take the chance on a startup?

I’ve got ten years left to work. I am financially stable, my kids are gone. I want to do something fun and I’ve had enough of corporates. I can do something for myself now, and I was given the opportunity with Adarga.

Was Adarga founded as an AI business looking for a problem or a problem which uses AI…?

It’s definitely the latter. My founder has a very unusual background but he was deeply frustrated by the common problem of never being able to find the information that he needed to make decisions. He had that frustration himself in two scenarios, one was while doing counter terrorism in Iraq, and the second was at JP Morgan. In Iraq, he needed to leverage tens of thousands of names and documents to stop Al Qaeda in Baghdad.

… At JP Morgan he could never find the information to do his powerpoints.

Same problem. Different realities.

Your CV has some massive names, News International, The Economist, Capgemini and PwC, League of Legends, what was going through your mind on Day 1 of joining a startup?

“This is fun.” It’s that simple. I’m driven by a simple ethos. When I get up in the morning, if I feel it’s a hassle going to work, I quit. I will continue to use that ethos except for one thing, if I have a shedload of employees that depend on me.

What skills from your corporate life do you rely heavily on now?

Two examples, one is that PwC taught me the value of getting paid for what you do, which is also about organisational change. Most startups sell from the bottom up. They should sell to the board or managing director because having good technology is never enough to be successful, you need to make sure the organisation changes.

Number 2, Riot Games [who make League Of Legends] taught me to be incredibly customer focused. Everyone had to spend time on the helpdesk, everyone had to play the game, otherwise how do you know what your product is? We had Senior Management Play Evenings. The COO took days out of his calendar when new games came out so he could see the competition. Customer-focused.

Riot taught me a hell of a lot and we pioneered a whole lot of things, micropayments, in-game payments, we pioneered esports.

In a startup, the biggest challenge is getting people to own the company, and not just be employees

Here’s a stat not in the public domain yet. When League of Legends went live, we used 4% of world’s total internet bandwidth. We expected 20,000 but we got 160 million.

Riot had several “do or dies”. Once our payment systems went down, we discovered it would take five days to fix and my job was to make that quicker so the company could survive. Riot has many great examples of handling process and publicity around security problems. All this helps me now.

You’ve hired many technical people, what’s your advice for others doing the same?

For me having a good all rounder is ideal. If you hire a good person you get a good product. But, it’s so hard getting the chemistry right and it’s a gamble. For example at PwC in 6 months I read 2500 CVs. I interviewed hundreds and I hired fifty of them, and some of them were still wrong, even though we had all the procedures. It is incredibly hard.

In a startup, the biggest challenge is getting people to own the company, and not just be employees. They need to act like they own it.

What should someone be looking for in their CTO?

Get someone who’s hands-on. The CTO has to be able to code as well, not necessarily to production standard but they have to walk the walk.

A CTO role in a startup is extremely multifaceted, you’ll spend as much time on sales and business development and pricing strategies as on hiring and technology architecture. The CTO needs to do all those things while able to spin all the plates and take the pressure. I learnt how to handle pressure by being shouted at by every editor at The Sun, The Times and all that. If you survive that you can handle pressure!

How does someone get a CTO like you?

By having an interesting story. My founder and I met when I was working on the Panama Papers. He had forty people reading the papers and I said to myself there must be better ways of doing this.

My co-director went into the meeting room and after that hard meeting said “ok another ten people died while we were bickering.”

You don’t get someone like me with money. There has to be a moral behind it, my best project was fighting Ebola for WHO. There is a buzz from doing it and it is its own reward, and everyone wants to do it one more time. We were facing issues and my co-director went into the meeting room and after that hard meeting said “ok another ten people died while we were bickering.” That made people sit up and focus. I’m still good friends with that man.

Do you see common mistakes startups make when looking to build tech businesses serving corporate clients?

Startups not understanding what their services are worth. Founders are desperate to get the product out and they don’t think about making money. It’s too easy to say “I have money for two years I don’t have to get paid for it”.

They think there’s a bottomless pit of money at a corporate they can eventually tap into, but if the corporate is using it for free there’s no skin in the game.

We then had a more general chat and Tor told me about one of his favourite things about working in IT.

The best thing about working in IT is the extreme range of background, though less so now than twenty years ago. I come from a society where there were more women than men, and most of my colleagues and friends never started out in IT, so the backgrounds were so diverse. At Adarga our lead on AI is a woman who comes from a linguistic background, which helps with NLP.

About diverse companies - one of my bosses was a President of Salesforce and he had also been an officer in the Royal Navy when they introduced mixed gender boats. He said he could tell within five minutes whether there were women on that boat or not, even without going downstairs. The atmosphere was so different!

We’ve interviewed more of London’s fantastic entrepreneurs who left a corporate career to found high growth businesses. Visit our blog to see other stories from ex-lawyers, consultants, accountants and more.

For more digital transformation, startup news, and technology innovation, sign up below to our monthly Issues and get our next research straight to your inbox.