Cancer diagnoses aren’t part of the roadmap – overcoming adversity while scaling a startup

Catherine Heath, June 25, 2018 5 min read

Launching a startup is not for the faint-hearted. The problems you anticipate as a founder generally relate to product-market fit, funding, or hiring the right people. You’re prepared to work tirelessly until you can get to the point that you define as ‘success’.

What you don’t expect is your own health to become one of the biggest obstacles to your company’s success – or failure. But that’s exactly what happened to Andrew in 2015.

Coming up with the right idea

Andrew Hunter is the co-founder of global job search engine Adzuna. Having worked in previous senior roles at Gumtree, Qype and Thomas Cook, Andrew came up with the idea of Adzuna with his friend and former colleague Doug Monro.  

They started their company with the aim of listing every available job in Britain and matching candidates to better, more fulfilling jobs through clever technology. The company achieved impressive growth, funding and early success, but then came the shock diagnosis.

Dealing with a cancer diagnosis

Just as the company was expanding internationally and turning into a truly global business, Andrew was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

“When I was diagnosed in 2015 it was a massive shock – to my colleagues, my friends and, of course, my family. I was very, very sick; hospitalised and completely reliant on my co-workers and co-founder to grow the business.”

Andrew called it “the worst day of my life” and it was a bolt out of the blue. Some startup founders burn the candle at both ends, putting their health at risk, but Andrew had always valued having a balanced lifestyle.

“I was first diagnosed when I was 34 and I felt I had a healthy lifestyle – exercising regularly, eating well and even competing in triathlons. As the Head of Oncology at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital put it, ‘sometimes life can be cruel – it’s just plain bad luck.’ “

Cancer diagnoses aren’t part of the roadmap and dealing with illness requires a special kind of determination.

Adzuna had to take a back seat for Andrew while he embarked on the road to recovery. Waves of chemotherapy, immunotherapy and a gruelling stem cell transplant occupied most of 2016 and 2017. In the summer of 2017, on his wife Emily’s birthday, Andrew was declared ‘cancer free’.

He is now back at work – healthy, happy and ready for the next phase of growth.  

Adzuna office

Learning how to delegate and finding your purpose

Andrew’s story is a million miles away from the usual stories of invincible founders who seem almost inhuman. Dealing with a cancer diagnosis had a significant impact on the way Adzuna developed as a business.

“Massive credit is due to my co-founder Doug for taking the helm. He worked incredibly hard while I was off; it was quite remarkable really. Crazy hours, late nights in the office, weekends away from the family and much, much more. I was keen to get back to work throughout treatment, but I was so desperately sick. Sometimes I even wondered if I was going to be able to come back at all. Doug’s professionalism, stoicism, hard work and support allowed Adzuna to thrive in the face of adversity. It’s a wonderful example to young British founders. ”

The fact that Andrew was desperate to get back to work on Adzuna shows that he had found his calling as a recruitment industry disruptor. The only difference in himself that he now attributes to his experience with cancer is that he is far more optimistic about Adzuna’s growth potential.

“Coming back from serious illness has made me even more positive and ambitious in business life. I’m hungrier for success and more determined to make a difference now, than I ever have been.”

Build a strong network for your startup

Aside from your co-founder and colleagues, it’s hugely important to develop your wider connections as a tech entrepreneur. Even former colleagues from your previous incarnations as an employee could someday be working at your startup.

Tech Nation runs a range of programmes designed to help founders build those crucial connections they might otherwise struggle to access. Andrew has benefited from several programmes but mentions Future Fifty in particular.

“The biggest benefit of the Future Fifty programme is the peer group you’re put into. Scores of fantastic business leaders and entrepreneurs, all with insatiable appetites for growth, innovation and disruption. As soon as we were brought into the programme, I immediately wanted to spar with (and help) fellow businesses in our cohort.”

“We went in at the same time as other big brands like TransferWise, Secret Escapes and Swiftkey. Every month or so there would be an event where we could network and learn. It would be a lot harder to make those sorts of connections without being part of Future Fifty.”

In some ways, the intimate world of these tech startups is a side-effect of being based in the UK – a small place compared to some ecosystems like Silicon Valley.

“It’s super useful to network with the London tech ecosystem, which is very different to Silicon Valley since it’s a much tighter community. I probably know around a third of the founders or leaders of the Future Fifty companies.

“It’s incredible to have that network available for general business sparring, asking questions, or just going for a pint. This community of entrepreneurs will help each other out and contribute to each other’s growth.”

Another way you can look at networking is a way of finding potential customers for your startup, or discovering other products that you can use to augment your own growth. Networks have a way of multiplying what you put into them.


Adzuna team at work

Managing the stress of startup life

Overcoming cancer and rejoining Adzuna has not been easy for Andrew – but he’s smashed it. His startup survived without him, and now he’s back at the helm. Since then, Adzuna has expanded to global markets, grown to over 10 million users, and recently raised £8 million in funding.

According to Andrew, they’ve only just begun.

“I chose to go on this journey because I have a real passion for job search and getting people into work. But my words of caution to young entrepreneurs is – starting your own company can be enormously stressful. It’s a real rollercoaster ride – particularly in years one, two and three. As an entrepreneur, you need to be prepared for those dizzying highs and terrible lows – they will come from unexpected places.”

Adzuna is on the road towards great things and Andrew is pleased that the company worked so well during his absence. Now it’s time to tackle unemployment on a global scale.

Impacting government job search in the public sector

As well as operating in 16 countries around the world, Adzuna has been recognised by the UK government as having the potential to tackle unemployment problems at a national level.

Andrew is excited to reveal a new contract between Adzuna and the government to overhaul Universal JobMatch – one of the Government’s most used digital services. The new service called Find a Job went live in May 2018, and has been widely regarded as a positive step for British jobseekers.

It also demonstrates the government’s willingness to work with UK startups.  

We are thrilled that the Department for Work and Pensions has chosen our solution to provide a modern job board for the large numbers of jobseekers and employers who use the service every day. What better way to build on our own private sector success to date than by working with government to help jobseekers across Britain find work.”

Startup stories, London, App & Software Development, Future Fifty 5.0, Late Stage