During their time at UCL School of Management, MSc Entrepreneurship alumni Ali Youssef and Jan Gasiewski co-founded Skillwork, a London-based software house that provides tailored software solutions for organisations and SMEs across all industries. By their own admission, Jan and Ali entered the Entrepreneurship programme with limited professional work experience and a small network, and in the three years since their graduation, they have built an international company with a staff of 20.
For Skillwork, 2022 saw the opening of offices in Bulgaria and preparations to launch in the Middle East, as well as becoming a finalist in the StartUp Awards National Series. We recently caught up with Ali and Jan to find out more about Skillwork’s goals for 2023, as well as their entrepreneurial journeys and the ways in which UCL School of Management’s Entrepreneurship programme has supported their professional ambitions.
can you tell us about yourselves?
I grew up in Poland in a family of lawyers, narrowly missing a career in law in Poland. I did my undergraduate degree in Business Administration at Lancaster University, and an MSc in Entrepreneurship at UCL School of Management in London. I’ve always been interested in science and technology, but I could never find a specific focus. When the time came to pick a path I decided to go for a more general business education, which meant that I didn’t need to commit to a specific scientific or technical topic, whilst still giving me the exposure to those areas. At some point, most likely due to the mobile app market boom, I decided to focus on managing technology and digital innovation.
As cliché as it sounds, for as long as I can remember, my goal was to run my own business. My dad created and ran a few successful companies that may have had an influence on me when I was young, helping me to develop initiatives but also a tolerance for risk and stress. At some point while doing my placement year in HPE, I deemed myself unemployable and decided that my only hope for a ‘happy’ career would probably involve running something of my own.
At Skillwork I am the ‘operations guy’ and I’m probably the only person in the group that enjoys working with Excel. I love machines. My dad and I are building a project car back in Poland, and I’ve always seen organisations as a special type of machine. In very simplistic terms, they can be designed to run smoothly and almost autonomously, producing maximised value with minimised energy expense. Being able to control that high-level design is where I find my passion. Ali is very different to me in his thinking, bringing a more ‘chaotic’ (but very much needed) approach, which is why we work so well together.
I am ethnically Palestinian and was born in Lebanon but grew up in Bulgaria. When I was born, I was classified as a Palestinian refugee and my parents had just recently moved there to seek a better future for us. Both of my parents were raised in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon and grew up in poverty. As I grew up, I got to witness firsthand what it’s like trying to build a business from nothing by looking at my dad. He went from a refugee living in Lebanon who barely made ends meet to a successful and reputable businessman. This firsthand experience led me to develop a passion for entrepreneurship, which resulted in me trying out small ventures while growing up. Furthermore, I have always been a tinkerer and have had a love for technology, so I have always tried to combine the two.
I eventually earned an undergraduate degree in Software Engineering from the University of Northampton with the hope of becoming a software engineer. But after graduating and getting the opportunity to work as a software developer at a Fintech, I quickly realised that this wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I decided to turn down the job, even though my parents were strongly against it, and pursue an MSc in Entrepreneurship at UCL School of Management. I was initially intimidated by the programme and my peers, as I was one of the few who came from a non-business background. But as the programme progressed, I fell in love with the whole digital startup ecosystem and product development side of things. The Entrepreneurship programme made me realise that my dream of combining entrepreneurship with technology is definitely possible, which led me to co-found Skillwork with Jan.
At Skillwork, I am the business development person - or the ‘people guy’ - as I love the human aspect of growing a business. I love the rush that comes with trying to acquire new B2B clients, holding negotiations, and having to think more strategically about how to build human connections. The great thing about my partnership with Jan is that we are complete opposites, so we complement each other, and this has allowed us to play to each of our strengths and meet in the middle.
what is skillwork?
We registered Skillwork with HMRC at one of our Marketing lectures during our time at UCLSoM. Much like our peers on the programme, we’ve been dreaming of building a unicorn - going through massive funding rounds and living the startup lifestyle. Because of this, the initial idea for Skillwork was very much different to what it is now, we planned to create a remote, nearshore network of interns and young freelancers to engage with businesses in the UK. We started testing the idea, helping out a few founders we knew with admin and SEO tasks when things took a different turn.
At the beginning of 2020, we were invited to build an ed-tech platform for an Erasmus-funded project in Bulgaria (Ali’s home country), which allowed us to hire our first developer. This opportunity not only gave us a much needed financial and professional boost, but completely transformed our thinking and perception of business. We were brought up on stories of enormous startups burning through endless piles of cash and this seemed to be the pinnacle of success for every aspiring entrepreneur. However, what noone talked about were the smaller, more traditional businesses, which in many cases, were much more successful than those high-flying startups, which can still be a source of great innovation and pride for the founders. Our strategy shifted and we decided that we wanted to begin with a more traditional tech company, providing us with cash, a greater network, teams of engineers, and the experience required to build our own IP or products in the future.
We hadn’t abandoned our dreams for a Unicorn - we simply redefined what a more successful execution may look like.
Skillwork started as a software development agency, with both of us spending the entirety of 2020 trying to expand our non-existent network, elevate our experience - of which we had none, especially in this space - and survive in what was essentially our first real job. Due to our start-up backgrounds and thanks to the advice of one of our lecturers and mentors, we decided that Skillwork is supposed to answer one question: how we can build an organisation that excels in working with start-ups? We started with 1 Freelance Developer at the end of 2020, and fastforward just 2 years and we’ve managed to create a team of almost 20 people. Many agencies are built by Developers or Project Managers with years of experience in the space and a vast network of clients, so we are particularly proud that we have managed to achieve success almost immediately after graduating. Currently, we have managed to develop Skillwork into an Innovation Lab, with the capabilities to support our clients across their entire journey. We are working with successful founders, such as SkinDoc, but also with big companies such as GSK to build entire digital products. We operate in multiple countries, including the UK, Bulgaria, Poland, Serbia, the UAE (Dubai), and Qatar. We are excited for the future and have big plans for launching our own products.
have you always shown signs of entrepreneurial talent?
I believe I did when I was a child - I was setting up a shop at my house, selling hand crafted decorations to my parents. In high school and throughout my undergraduate degree, I’ve created my first mobile app with a friend of mine, and tried my best at creating a modular furniture start-up. When I was growing up, while my friends were playing shooting games on their consoles, I got deeply engaged with strategy and simulation games. At one point, I spent hours running a software company simulation called Software inc. My dad was a successful business owner himself, which is probably what influenced me the most. Skillwork, however, was my first real attempt at building my own company with workforce and significant cash flow.
Definitely. My first entrepreneurial venture started when I was around 13 years old. At that time, I had just developed a love for computers after my dad bought me my first one. I spent hours playing video games and taught myself how to code, in order to cheat in the games. One game that particularly caught my attention was Minecraft. I created a server where my friends and I could play together after school, and eventually, the server grew a substantial user base with a peak of 200 active players at the same time. This led me to create a more professional server setup and start coding exclusive features that users could access by paying a monthly subscription fee. This gave me the capital I needed to improve the server while earning somewhere between £200-300 per month. Eventually, I grew tired of Minecraft and started playing a lot of Counter Strike. I wanted to buy skins for my weapons, so I started a service where I would set up game servers for others in exchange for a subscription fee. This made me a game server reseller, and I earned good money at 16 years old. I also tried other ventures, such as starting my own clothing brand in Bulgaria, before heading off to university at 18. Although none of these ventures were exceptionally successful or scalable, the journey taught me a lot.
what has been your biggest accomplishment as an entrepreneur to date?
I think Skillwork is most probably my biggest accomplishment to date. Taking it off the ground was a massive effort and costed us a great deal of stress and time, but I feel like I’ve managed to compress decades of experience and learnings into the past 3 years. I feel proud every time we are treated as equals when speaking with highly successful CEOs, Managers, or Founders, connecting with them over similar experiences. I also feel proud when people (some of them from UCLSoM) come to us for advice or to discuss their ideas. It’s great to know that I can work with some of the smartest people I know, and that we can follow the same goal and vision. There is still a long way for us to go, but I strongly believe that the first steps we took in building this company may have been the hardest.
Like Jan, I think Skillwork is probably my biggest accomplishment to date. Starting a company like ours takes a massive amount of effort and leads to a high level of stress. The beauty of Skillwork is that the hard work has paid off. We have reached a point where we are talking to highly successful people and are treated as equals. If we had taken a normal job, we would likely have been interns at best. I am proud of the fact that Jan and I have accelerated our careers and created a business network that would take some people a lifetime to build. It’s amazing that we get to work with some of the world’s biggest companies and be a key partner in their successful projects.
How did the ucl school of management’s entrepreneurship programme support your ambitions?
MSc Entrepreneurship at UCL has been transformative to our journey. We found some of our longest and most supporting mentors among our lecturers. One of our fellow students became our closest partner, friend, and mentor, putting his trust in us at the very beginning of our journey. We are still in touch with many of our former students, discussing the hardships but also joys of entrepreneurship. Thanks to Hatchery, we’ve managed to kickstart our network in London, and our connection and access to UCLSoM is still proving valuable. Having our London office on Level39 of One Canada Square, we frequently visit UCLSoM and try to help out with what we’ve learned as much as we can.
Being taught by active founders and lecturers who designed a more practical curriculum, has definitely been helpful. To this day, our extensive cash flow model utilises approaches from the modules, and we finally understand why ‘cash is king’. The programme gave us a solid foundation for running Skillwork, and a massive boost to our network, the value of which we appreciate enormously. Most importantly, however, the programme provided myself and Jan with an environment in which to meet and bond over meaningful work, creating the partnership without which Skillwork wouldn’t have existed.
what was your time like at ucl school of management overall?
It was definitely a simpler time when compared to our current days. It was a time when we had blank paper in front of us and an ability to go in whatever direction we wanted to. As previously noted, it was also a sandbox environment where Jan and I managed to create our bond and partnership, build trust, and understand our strengths and weaknesses when working together on coursworks and assignments. This definitely has been a cornerstone of our success and for that we are very grateful.
what would be your top three tips for any aspiring entrepreneur?
- Find a great co-founder that will, most importantly, supplement your skills. Chances are that you will be spending 24/7 with that person and your relationship will be fundamental for the success of the business.
- Prioritise your wellbeing. Running a business is stressful and draining and without taking steps to look out for your mental health, you will quickly burn out. Having something on your own gives you the ultimate flexibility, but comes with a big price tag.
- Endurance and resilience is key. Prepare yourself for everything to take longer than expected with many challenges and failures along the way.
- Cash is King, Planning is Queen - special shoutout to Simon Hulme who constantly repeated that to us!
what’s next for skillwork?
We are working with bigger companies on more complex projects, which means that there is still a long way for us to go to hit the celling in terms of growth. However, we are slowly thinking about internally building our first product. Without giving away any spoilers, we want to tackle the planning and documentation process that many young and first time founders will go through when looking to develop their digital MVPs.
We are also starting to gain traction in the Middle East, specifically in Dubai and Qatar. This year, we want to expand to those regions after seeing some amazing and well-funded innovative projects being delivered there. Our strength lies in our ability to leverage access to multiple countries, and we intend to make good use of it.