Daniel Cohen (Class of 1995)

Daniel Cohen was at City of London School between 1989 and 1996. He is the founder of Graduway, a software company that helps schools and universities build and benefit from deeper relationships with their alumni. Daniel is now based in Israel, while the company’s HQ remains in London. Earlier this year, Graduway attracted $12.7m of new investment from a US private equity firm.

Can you remember your first day at CLS?

The School was brand new; it had just moved from the old building. So my first impression was that it was a very state of the art school. Very modern. Bang in the City. I felt very important. I felt like I was off to work, on the Underground, coming in on the Metropolitan line from Kenton. I’d gone from my local primary school to this cutting-edge modern school with a swimming pool and squash courts. I think I was overwhelmed by the modernity of it all.

What about your last day?

I think we did the conga around the library.

What are your memories of the time in between?

It was a great School, good all the way through, but especially so in Sixth Form. I was in the Politics Society and Debating Society, which I really enjoyed. The proximity to Westminster was good: the Politics Society would invite MPs to pop in. The Governor of the Bank of England came. I asked him something about the collapse of the BCCI, I think! Did he feel personally responsible? [laughs]

We had small classes at A-level, so I had some good relationships with the History, Politics and Economics teachers. Mr Knight, my politics teacher, was a genius. An absolute genius.

Are you still in touch with any of the teachers?

No, but there’s lot of CLS boys in Israel, where I live now, and we are about to organise some kind of reunion over here. We were all on the Politics side and we are looking to fly out one of our old teachers. We’re currently debating which one it should be.

All those teachers were great. All into their subjects. Approachable, smart. We just have great memories of them.

I am always comparing CLS to my kids’ schools now… the quality of education and the facilities - maybe I only appreciate how lucky we were now I am a parent of school-age children myself. That’s why I am very happy to support the School now, to give other boys the opportunities that I had.

What was the point at school where you worked out what you might like to do as a career?

My job now is often about presenting arguments and trying to persuade people – to invest money or join the company or to become a client. That ability to make an argument was really sharpened at School, especially in the Sixth Form, in History and Politics and Economics.

I was always business-minded but the analytical skills and the ability to persuade people comes from studying those academic subjects.

How was the School’s culture different to that of a traditional public school?

It was very gentle culture, I think. I never saw any fighting or bullying or anything like that. It was quite an intellectual School. We were never that great at sport. Maybe that shaped the culture. We were an intellectual community. I think I made one appearance in the school ‘D’ team for football. We lost.

What did you do at lunchtimes?

Probably a game of football. Or copying my friend Zak Cooper’s homework. He was a good friend of mine. Very studious. We’re still in contact.

The Jewish Society was pretty strong. We used to have a bit of a gathering. That was quite fun. Jewish Assembly.

What was your first experience of work?

I worked in a falafel bar in Golders Green. Pitta bread and hummus and things like that. I didn’t eat falafel for about four years afterwards. It was fun though. I liked dealing with customers.

How did working for large companies after University prepare you to be an entrepreneur?

After graduating in Economics from Manchester University, I was offered a job at Proctor and Gamble. I was in financial management. I spent seven years there, moved across different parts of their business. I did a lot of work in the haircare range. So I know too much about shampoo and hair colourants. It was a great business. Great training.

If I’d stayed in London that would have just carried on, following the route to being a Finance Director of a FTSE 100 company, maybe.

The entrepreneurial thing really came from moving to Israel when I was 29. I had two kids at that point. I got a job with MSD, a big American pharma company, so I was FD in Israel for them and then for Eastern Europe and Asia. I went to places like Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan and Armenia and did some crazy negotiations.

At one point, MSD was about to merge with another company, and I had a 50-50 chance of losing my job. I rang my father with this idea for a company and we just started it. We hired some software developers in Ukraine – and then, as it turned out, I kept my day job after all!

So for a while I had two jobs. Eventually, I left my day job. That was five years ago and this April, we sold Graduway, the new company, to a private equity firm in America. We still have equity and all the employees have shares.

How did your original idea for the company compare to what the company does now?

We had this idea of putting your CV online and you could record a video about yourself to go within the CV. We eventually realised that people really get jobs through networking rather than resumes per se. And the product now is to offer schools and universities private alumni networks.

We are integrated with LinkedIn and Facebook but it’s all about leveraging the brand of schools and colleges. The trust and value in the brand of a good school is higher than any big commercial brand. We try to leverage schools’ brands and the willingness of people within the alumni community to help the current members of the school.

Now we have 700 clients using our platform and we are doubling that each year. So, initially, the idea evolved over four or five years and then for the last five years we have been moving forward with the same idea.

When you interview graduates for jobs, what qualities are you looking for?

I spend most of my time interviewing. My main concern with the younger generation is the inability to write an email. So one of the things I ask people to do is to write me a business email, with full sentences. Show me some basics. But beyond that: analytical people, people with strong interpersonal skills. I’m looking for problem solvers. Creative people, innovators. I’m looking for leaders most of all.

For me leadership is not about micro-managing – it’s someone who can run with something, really own it and lead. I am looking for a person who can get things done, rather than presenting me with problems. People with energy.

What have you learned from running your own company?

I’d say: every day is a tough day. Business is tough. You have to be resilient. You will have bad things happening every day. Employees, customers, suppliers. Money. But to keep charging forwards day after day. The ability to keep going. The other thing is focus – focusing on things that will make a difference. You can get lost in a lot of things that aren’t relevant.

I worked for two world-class companies but you will learn more in a start-up in - to be nasty - a week than you would in a year at a big company. It’s real.

In big companies, whether you have a good or bad day doesn’t ultimately make a difference. You’re still going to get paid at the end of the month. With a start-up, we own it as a team, we are dependent on one another. It’s personal. If you don’t do it it’s not going to happen.

As a small company, you have speed and innovation and chutzpah. You do what you have to do.

What are your plans for the future of the business?

We want to scale it up. We are already big in alumni relations. We want to be a big education technology company. We want to expand into careers services, enrolment, marketing, fundraising, all the main management functions of schools and universities. We may double or treble size over the next year with acquisitions. l’m looking forward to that challenge.

Our business is about trust, about customers trusting our software. Our customers know us and we want to serve them better, bring them more software to make their schools function and perform better.