Ammad Ahmad on how consulting skills helped him build Atheneum

21 September 2018 Authored by Consultancy.uk

Last week Atheneum co-founder Ammad Ahmad unveiled that the global knowledge sharing platform has closed a €10 million investment. The company, which has 10 offices including in London, New York and Berlin, will use the financial injection to help accelerate the growth of the business. Consultancy.uk sat down with former management consultant Ahmad, asking him about his period in consulting and how consultancy skills have helped him build such a successful company. 

Why did you quit your role as a management consultant?

I graduated with a Computer Science degree and after doing a few stints in industry I began my management consulting career with Kaiser Associates in Washington DC. Having successfully been on the consulting path for a few years, the economic recession hit the markets and I felt it was a good time to go back to full time education. I knew that a European master’s degree would give me a competitive edge over my peers in the US so I moved to Germany for a joint master’s degree at the WHU School of Management, combining an MBA and Law programme with the Bucerius Law School. This all came in very handy later as an entrepreneur. I could still do freelance consulting while studying and managed to retain Kaiser Associates as a client. I really had the best of all worlds. 

It was through the school’s entrepreneurial networks that I met Michael Brehm and Mathias Wengeler, who also had a background in management consulting. He previously worked for L.E.K. Consulting in Munich and Boston, working in transactions and M&A, and for Oliver Wyman in Munich and Dubai, as well as for a major investment bank. Together we founded Atheneum – our experience overlapped in so many areas it really helped us get the business off the ground. 

What skills did you learn during your in-house consulting career?

As a management consultant the best thing you can learn is structured communication and working with a problem solving attitude. I learnt to use my initiative and picked up on several presentation and analytical frameworks that I still use today. I also learnt that you don’t have to be an expert to know what you’re talking about. Much of the work you do as a management consultant is based on well-founded research. Research is crucial if you want to succeed in the profession. When it comes to technical skills, of course I picked them up along the way.

Ammad Ahmad on how consulting skills helped build Atheneum

Most importantly, it really helped me understand what I’m good at. Being relentless during the primary research phase and being able to persuade stakeholders (internal & external) were invaluable traits on every engagement. One of the tasks most junior management consultants have to do a lot is finding, calling & interviewing experts. We call this primary research and it was something I became good at very quickly. It’s probably because I like talking and I love people. I can understand their points of view and put myself in their shoes. Put these things together and I found that if you ask someone nicely to do something, they are very likely to say yes. 

Finding sector specific experts for primary research was always an element of the management consultant business model that made me feel clients weren’t always getting great value for money. I spent many hours hunting down experts only to find they didn’t have capacity, were on holiday or simply didn’t want to engage in the project. Multiply this up with the number of experts needed on a project and the time, the cost to consulting firms for simply getting the experts on board are huge. 

What did you have to learn to make a success of Atheneum?

To go from building a career to building a business is a huge transition. Mathias and I were both just 29 when we first set up. We found the various facets of HR surprisingly challenging and it was a very steep learning curve. It’s also one of the most important aspects of scaling up successfully. We also learned a few crucial cash flow lessons in the very early days, despite getting paid for work soon after setting up the company. We still had lots of bills to pay and needed to manage cash flow every day.

I also learned not to start fundraising too early and when you do, make sure you have a clear plan on what to spend it on. It’s a common mistake for entrepreneurs to embark on “funding for funding’s sake”. In reality, it should be something that new business owners avoid at all costs. 

Where are you at now with Atheneum?

Eight years on we’ve got a network of more than 400,000 experts, 180+ team members and ten offices around the world. We’ve developed an amazing technology that will continue to revolutionise market intelligence and the way the industry does primary research. We’ve also just received €10 million funding and plan to grow the business by a further 60% in the next 12 months as we continuing to hire extensively in our key hubs like London, Berlin, New York and Shanghai.

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