I never really considered working for someone else. At 12, I was buying electronics in bulk and selling them at school and via Loot.” This was the start of a fascination with business for serial entrepreneur Lex Deak.
Most recently, the 33 year-old launched OFF3R, an aggregator for alternative finance deals. The year before that – 2014 – he co-founded QVentures, the invite-only startup investment club for high net worths.
When I met Deak last week, he apologised for checking his phone, explaining “my wife is full-term, so just in case”. It’s their first child and, as for most people, has prompted some moments of reflection for Deak. “I was from a single parent family, pretty working class, but I got a scholarship to a public school, and so I was privileged to see two quite different worlds.”
Deak also had a role model. “When I was 10, my mum set up a women’s only taxi company. At the time, there were a few really unpleasant rape cases, so it resonated. She hit £1m turnover and grew the business over more than a decade. She was a real inspiration to me, actually – I’ve got a lot to thank her for.”
Deak says that having his first child has also brought home how difficult juggling priorities can be for women. “My wife has done extremely well in her career, is very competent and ambitious. Getting pregnant has highlighted to me how tough the decisions women have to make are. If I was out of work for a few months, it’d invariably be a step back. I am full of admiration for what she’s achieved.”
After university, Deak stayed in Manchester and launched Profile Design, importing antique reproduction furniture from China. “I set up with a business partner, but we quickly learnt that we thought about things quite differently, so we parted company and remain good friends. It can be quite a lonely place, being an entrepreneur. The most successful I’ve met tend to have a very high level of self-awareness, which only comes after a great deal of introspection, coupled with a desire to be different. It’s easy to slip into an isolated mindset which is where you can find the magic but also a sense of loneliness at times.”
Sell It Shack, an Ebay drop-off shop, followed, and after selling, Deak went to Marrakech for a long weekend to “clear his head. Have you ever been? It’s about the closest you can go to get the furthest away.” The stay turned into a year-long business trip. In that time, Deak set up six-suite boutique hotel Riad Coco, in the Medina. “Things move pretty slowly there – it’s a completely different environment to set a business up in. You learn to go with the flow, that’s for sure!
Rough with the smooth
After selling the hotel, Deak moved back to the UK. In 2009, he found himself in front of the panel on Dragons’ Den. “I’d built something called Family Fridge. My mum had just got Facebook and had immediately added me, which just didn’t feel right at the time. Family Fridge was a private network for families to keep in touch. You could upload photos, share chores, that sort of thing.” Former dragon Julie Meyer agreed to invest in him, but the TV experience wasn’t mirrored in real life, and Deak struggled to see the investment through: “a no in life is fine. But it needs to be given quickly – candour is everything.” Despite growing the company to 20,000 users, success was short-lived and without proper funding it quietly failed. “I still think there’s a huge opportunity in creating the software for the modern connected home and family, but you’ll need deep pockets.”
Deak ended up getting his “first and only proper job”, working as commercial manager for members-only entrepreneurs’ club, The Supper Club. “I had a fantastic time, met a lot of brilliant entrepreneurs and turbo-charged my learning and network. I started an Investment Club for the network and that is where my passion for finance and startups really began to crystallise.
“Later that year I founded QVentures alongside David Mickler and Aaron Simpson, the co-founder of the Quintessentially Group, I am proud to say that it is now positioned as the leading super-angel investment club in the UK.” The company is about to embark upon an international expansion via its 60 satellite offices around the world, and it has raised over £40m for 30 companies. With a “great operational team in place and the business reaching profitability”, Deak started to explore new opportunities in the sector.
Citing the explosion in the number of investment platforms and the need for aggregation, Deak launched OFF3R during the summer of 2015. OFF3R enables investors to swipe through all the investment opportunities from the leading equity, P2P and property platforms.
“We’ve just passed 1m investor interactions and have an active base of over 6,000 investors on the back of a marketing spend of a couple of thousand pounds. I personally don’t buy into the notion that certain investors should be shielded from deals that have undergone the correct due diligence. The important thing is increased transparency. If people know their money is at risk, it’s not for us to determine where they put it.”
Next month, OFF3R is unveiling its new app and desktop site, listing additional investment products from leading P2P platforms such as Zopa and LendInvest alongside deals from equity crowdfunders like Crowdcube and Syndicate Room. “Our ambition is to become the MoneySuperMarket for alternative investments, we’re providing the tools and education needed to attract millions of new investors to the space.”
“Do you take bitcoin?” Deak asks as he pays for our drinks. “Don’t worry, don’t worry,” he says quickly, not intending to bemuse anyone. The price of cryptocurrency bitcoin started creeping up in early 2013. “That’s when I started buying it. And it just rose and rose. After a few months I thought I better sell – this must be the top – but it wasn’t, so I was in and out of the market all the time.”
Bitcoin, Deak says, “completely enraptured” him. “The ethical principle and the commercial opportunity are incredibly compelling – I like to think of bitcoin price as an indicator of liberal capitalist sentiment, the recent hack will be chip paper soon enough.”
I ask Deak if he’s tempted to move into other technologies. “Both QVentures and OFF3R can be substantial businesses that make a real difference – that’s plenty for now.”