Posts Tagged ‘advisor’

Damon Oldcorn berates the entrenched ageism of the IT industry.
empowerment

The word ’empower’ is used a lot these days to describe a company’s ability to meet change by giving authority to the people at the sharp end. Words like this always seem to be touted around by public relations people, nothing too detailed of course, just some well concocted statements to mark some occasion or other. So the poor workers on the shop floor (as it used to be known) are going to be empowered. I do hope someone has told them about this new era of decision-making and accountability.

As you know, global organisations and our own high technology firms have thinned down their company structures, partly because of economic pressures, partly with the introduction of newer technology. Companies emerge with a streamlined look, not much middle, a flat top and a flat bottom. The idea behind the structure is that the strategic decisions made at the flat top can be whizzed to the troops at the flat bottom for them to implement tactically, making ever more accountable decisions as they go. Great in theory, but not so great in practice if you’re the 45-year-old who had to be removed to make way for this new wave.

Most of the companies I come into contact with, many in the computer and communications industry, have not trained the executives at the flat top in the new-age skills needed to compensate for this rapid change in business strategy. So as you can imagine it is extremely unlikely that they have got round to the training needs of the flat bottom to help them adapt to the new demands of this empowerment process. The question is, can the executives at the flat top grasp the new-age skills for this tremendously taxing change? I mean this change is major league, so not to be treated lightly.

sensitivityTo achieve corporate excellence today, the executive will have to have many facets in their management kit-bag: creative insight, sensitivity, vision, versatility, focus and patience (to mention just a few). Let’s focus on sensitivity for a moment ( a word not often heard in this rough, tough, high technology market). If, in the final analysis, people are an organisation’s greatest asset, then the new type manager must understand how to bind them together in a culture, wherein they feel truly motivated in the pursuit of higher goals. Face to face communication, ongoing training and development, creative incentive programmes and job security all display the sort of sensitivity that nurtures strong cultures.

Every strong culture and in this case the empowered culture derives from management sensitivity. Without it employees feel unmotivated, under-utilised,even exploited. It only takes a flick through the online job bulletin boards to see how we treat our employees. The turnover of staff, both junior and senior, is as fast and furious as ever, and there is a common pattern to people moving on. A majority when asked why they changed companies, would reply that they were not managed or spoken to in a professional manner. What a waste of time and money for all concerned. Let’s see some action to design companies so that empowerment is a balanced reality between decision-making, accountability, training and management support.

jin-tt-vs-nospringchicken-flatTo return to a point I touched on earlier, ageism, there seems to be an unwritten law in this industry that says because we keep inventing shiny, new products and services, that we must always have shiny, new younger staff as well. The number of over-45s who seem to get sidelined is amazing. What happens? Is it self-perpetuating because we have younger senior executives or younger recruitment staff? Are they unsure of their industry skills or even political ground to keep on older and more experienced staff than themselves. The older executive does not lose his or her ability to make decisions, to contribute creatively and energetically. Let’s not keep falling into the trap of discarding experience, if the industry is to mature it needs that stability.

The number of young executives I see looking for answers to basic business questions (on any online industry forum) that got answered  a long time ago concerns me. It’s not their fault, who have they got to learn from if the older mentor figures keep disappearing? There has to be a process of regeneration, a cycle where experienced professionals, grounded in business skills, impart their knowledge to the next set of executives. Who else will do it? The major company training schools seem to have diminished, or if not, focus too often on technology orientated product courses. You can only learn so much from self-help business books or company sponsored MBA courses.

Day to-day business sense has to be learned on the job, from people you respect and want to emulate. You can’t just hand out senior management positions to young executives before they are able to cope with the pressures that surround these demanding roles. So let’s match the investment that is made in the technology with investment in the long-term skills and care of our people at what ever stage of their careers, young or older.

Stress kills both people and productivity

half-term-holiday

As a number of you, particularly parents, will be on half-term breaks, two areas of thoughts come to mind. One is work-related stress. The other is holidays, which are supposed to be our way of winding down, enjoying ourselves and of course relieving pressure that results in stress. This entrepreneurial technology world we live in because of the speed of change, instability and pressure to succeed, often breeds stress.

It’s bizarre that many senior people in start-ups and global vendors still boast the fact that they haven’t had a holiday in years. They believe it is a statement of commitment and success. It strikes me as sad that talented people with the drive to succeed don’t have the time, both to gain a different perspective on what they are doing and also to have balance in their lives, to share that success with loved ones.

Stress shows itself at many levels in an organisation, a perfect example being in the holiday periods for the poor sales staff. How many of them are sweating to produce over target performances in a period when increasingly , the corporate decision makers have decided to leave the office? Some deal with it better than others, but all of us can learn to recognise the warning signs. The incidence of stress related illnesses is on the increase. Indeed it probably costs more to companies than industrial disputes these days.

So how do we recognise it? Well tell tale signs include headaches, tension in the neck, back pain, poor circulation, sleeplessness, lethargy, tiredness, extreme working, mistrust of others, fear of death, imagined illnesses. The classic symptoms of course are increased drinking, smoking, drug taking, irritability with colleagues or family, and lack of concentration.

There are a large number of environmental sources of work stress, the characteristics of the job itself, the role of the person in the organisation, interpersonal relationships at work, career development pressures, the climate and culture of an organisation and problems associated with the interface between the organisation and the outside world. Stress can be caused by too much or too little work, time pressures and deadlines, having to make too many decisions, fatigue from the physical strains of the work environment, excessive travel, long hours, having to cope with changes at work and the potential expense (monetary and career) of making mistakes.

a-fine-line

Both qualitative and quantitative overload may produce at least eight different symptoms of psychological and physical strain. Job dissatisfaction, job tension, lower self esteem, threat, embarassment, high cholesterol, increased heart rate and more smoking. An aspect that is particularly pertinent in this decade is career development pressure, lack of job security, fear of redundancy, obsolescence or early retirement and status incongruity (under or over promotion), frustration at having reached one’s career ceiling. Career progression is of overriding importance, especially to managers and professional staff. By promotion they not only earn money but also enhanced status and the new job challenges for which they strive.

Unless individuals adapt their expectations to suit new circumstances, particularly the changing needs of globalisation, career development stress is likely to be prevalent on a massive scale. We all need a modicum of stress to drive the bodily systems (for example it eliminates over toxicity in our body’s chemical systems). However, we also need to be able to cope with the negative effects of stress. Some of the suggested strategies are to increase your exercise levels, to use meditation, mindfulness or relaxation techniques, talk to someone outside your immediate circle, reassess your lifestyle or aspirations, protect your space, set boundaries at home or in the workplace, take a holiday or weekend away, remember the positive pleasant times and allow yourself praise for minor successes.

Other areas readily available today are massage, manipulation, reflexology and aromatherapy. A number of more far sighted companies are now employing freelance therapists to come into the workplace to give what is known as seated, fully clothed massage, which only takes 20-25 minutes of an employee’s time, but gives a great return on the employee’s wellbeing and in company performance. The strategy adopted will vary. For example, if stress comes primarily from poor physical working conditions, we might consider ergonomic solutions. If on the other hand, problems originate from conflicting roles, we might want to utilise techniques such as role playing. If individuals are dissatisfied with the rate of career advancement, relaxation techniques would be of no help, far more useful to do some career planning or train managers in the methods of career development.

ai

I can think of many people over the years who have been destroyed mentally and physically by the pressures of the modern working environment, at the end of the day some are just not able to cope with it. The increasing pace of technology change over the next ten years will only add to this. The fact that we are constantly bombarded with more data than it is possible to cope with may only be alleviated by AI, machine learning and robots taking over some of our roles.

To return to an earlier point, some of you will be on half-term holiday when you read this, the time thoughts turn to aspects of your life other than work. It’s interesting how difficult it is, though, to wash thoughts of work away from your mind in the first few days of a break, that too may be a sign of stress. Holidays can sometimes even add to the emotional stress. Some believe that a lot of short breaks throughout the year, rather than one long holiday, might be more beneficial. The bottom line is, you’ve only got one life, make the most of it, for your sake and the company’s.

Equally applicable to Business, Brexit or POTUS.

orange

Roger Fisher and William Ury (Harvard 1981) tell the story of two sisters arguing over an orange. After some discussion they agree to divide the orange in half, an apparently wise and fair solution. One sister then peels her half and eats the fruit, while the other peels her half, throws away the fruit and uses the peel to make a cake. What appeared to be a wise solution – namely a 50-50 division of the orange was certainly fair, but not very wise. If only the sisters had paid less attention to their positions (how much of the orange each was asking for) and more to their interests (why each wanted the orange) they could have reached an agreement which allowed both to obtain everything they wanted.

Instead of analysing negotiation as a confrontation between two adversaries (each of whom is determined to get as much as possible, while surrendering little or nothing on the way), the ‘Principles of Problem solving’ approach calls for greater collaboration. Each side seeks to do as well as possible for itself, but views the other party not as an adversary but as a potential collaborator. The objective is to find ways to advance one’s self-interest while also leaving room for the other side to do the same. This calls for negotiators to move from statements of position to an analysis of underlying interests.

Exponents of this approach to negotiations argue that opportunities for joint gain result when negotiators are able to metaphorically swing their chairs round so that, instead of facing each other, they are side by side, instead of confronting each other, they jointly confront the problem that challenges both. People negotiate with each other all the time – wives with husbands, managers with workers, nations with other nations. Yet despite the fact that it is a path of everyday life, it is only in recent decades that we have begun to study negotiation systematically. To be sure, not all conflicts are amenable to this joint problem solving approach, many are, however.

Others remain better suited to the more traditional concession-making process, alluded to earlier, in which negotiations begin at extreme opening demands, then slowly shift from these in order to reach some sort of mutually acceptable agreement. Although these two methods of thinking about negotiations would appear to rest on different assumptions about the nature of the process, they are actually very much alike in one key aspect. Both points of view are best suited to the kind of negotiation that takes place between parties of equal power. Whether it is two sisters, or two super-powers, as long as neither party has the power to impose agreement on the other, and parties acknowledge their interdependence, there is room and opportunity for negotiation.

But what happens when power is not equally divided between the parties, when one side has far more power than the other, when one side is far less dependent on reaching a negotiated settlement than the other? As Jeff Rubin and Jeswald Salacuse (Harvard 1990) point out, if two nations are engaged in a water rights dispute concerning a river, and one nation sits upstream of the other, why should the upstream party agree to negotiate, rather than simply decide unilaterally to do exactly as it pleases? In turn, what does the party with low relative power do to persuade its upstream counterpart to come to the negotiating table?

vietnam

It is usually assumed that success in negotiations is merely a matter of power and that the company with less power is always at the mercy of the company with more power. Yet the history of international relations is filled with examples of large states which failed to force small states to do their bidding (eg the US and Vietnam, the USSR and Afghanistan). These examples raise the question of whether results in such negotiations are not just a matter of power, but also of strategies and tactics.

It is said that everyone loves an underdog, that the skilled negotiator should be able to turn this phenomenon to his or her advantage, that often the seemingly weak are far more powerful than they realise, and that the powerful may be far weaker than is commonly supposed. Well no method can guarantee success if all the leverage lies on the other side. The most any method of negotiation can do is to meet the two objectives: to protect you against making an agreement you should reject and to help you to make the most of the assets you do have so that any agreement satisfies your interests as well as possible.

So is there a measure for agreements that will help you to achieve these aims? Yes there is – develop your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement). The relative negotiating power of parties depends primarily upon how attractive to each is the option of not reaching agreement. Generating BATNAs requires three distinct operations.

  • Inventing a list of actions you might conceivably take if no agreement is reached;
  • Improving some of the more promising ideas and constructing them into practical alternatives;
  • Selecting tentatively the one option that seems best;

Having gone through this effort, you now have a BATNA. Judge every offer against it, having a good BATNA can help you negotiate on the merits. Apply knowledge, time, money, people, connections and wits into devising the best solution for you, independent of the other sides assent.

sumo-light

 

free-wifi

I talk to start-up entrepreneurs in the technology world on a weekly basis. They tell me about the day to day tribulations of their worlds, often top of the list is closing out their first proof of concepts in the enterprise field. The theme of the conversation is often all about the twists and turns they have to make as a company just to get in the door of a major brand company to prove their product or service can perform in a professional business environment. Never mind worrying about whether there is a business case in terms of ROI.

So let’s say nine months in they get the target company to agree to a limited trial of whatever they are selling, often cloud based services. Amongst many these range from mobile payments, traffic location beacons, battery charging stations, ticketing and hospitality applications.   Perhaps a limited number of offices, shops or arenas to start with, not all based in London as they had hoped for to get easy and economic access with their limited support resources . But spread out all across the UK the client wanting to test the robustness of the service in different regional settings, sometimes ranging from Glasgow to Plymouth.

But full of the entrepreneurial spirit and confidence in their world class engineers that have refined their products they set off to install their services. Most of the time they get away with it, they turn up and with a bit of fiddling with their platforms and network hardware they have bought in they are able to connect to whatever WiFi network that is already incumbent in the target company. Sometimes they use 4G routers if that is the only option if the internal networks are locked down. So the trial starts, perhaps over ten different sites and they are monitoring their services from dashboards built into their products for that purpose. Checking the traffic data which is so often a key feature of their offerings to justify the service is being used and the data is valuable to the client.

Then the inevitable review meeting with the client to discuss the data and how it is going, maybe 45 days in and that is when a few blips in the data begin to surface. You knew this before the review because you have been more keen than the  client to analyse the data. To cut a long story short it would seem two or maybe three of the sites are only performing intermittently and the potential client is using it as a block before they will discuss any further rollout or progress on the negotiation.

Now you have checked your systems and platform with the engineers back at base (not necessarily UK based) and they are convinced from their end that everything is functioning well. But you are the sales led Founder or VP business development faced with the client at the sharp end who does not want to hear anything but definitive proof as to where the issue is and the proposed solution. Sometimes even that won’t be necessary as often you have one shot at this. That twenty percent failure rate, which if they are talking about a rollout of even 250 sites equals a potential 50 sites not functioning properly, would already kill the opportunity stone dead for you.

So it is here that I must declare an interest, I advise Wireless Design Services International WDSi Group a vendor independent professional services team who are world experts in WiFi and other types of network services. It struck me some time back that their expertise in these network areas could be of immense value and support to growth start-ups. Particularly at that proof of concept stage but also if successful in terms of how to rollout professionally, economically and at speed across the whole estate.

So what are a few of the things we have learned from real live proof of concepts we have ended up supporting over the last year or so. The start-up  lands and the incumbent supplier of WiFi won’t even give them an SSID to link to their network, it is not in their interest to be helpful. Even if they do there is so many other critical services running on limited bandwidth it does not make your solution shine or even work. You try to bypass their network by installing your own hardware, perhaps bought in 4G routers which you have no experience of, which then prompts delays from minor details like where they are to be stored, positioned and powered from. Even if you get them in for some reason the signal seems not to stay constant throughout the day or the router goes down and needs replacing.

Inevitably you end up talking to the internal telecoms team of the client, who are nearly always remote from the marketing teams you are selling to. They generally are protective of their networks and won’t allow access particularly to start-ups with no network experience or credentials. They speak a different language, not from your world of expertise and become another barrier to entry. Even if these layers are breached it requires years of experience in design and consultative challenging environments to get WiFi/4G to function at an acceptable SLA level that will get you over the line with an enterprise client.

There are a myriad of reasons why WiFi/4G/Networks don’t function particularly well in challenging environments (the start-up world) and I would be so bold as to say you don’t really want to become an expert in any of them while trying to build out and scale a growth start-up. Rather you need to “stick to the knitting” as we experienced entrepreneurs say and not divert your attention from executing your business plan.

Sure there is a cost to outsourcing the installation, ongoing monitoring and field maintenance support to experts like WDSi, although they do recognise the need to be and are competitive in the start-up world. At the early stages of the POC point on the curve I would and have seen it myself previously as a start-up Founder allocated as a necessary marketing cost in the business plan. If those early trials do not go well, even if your services are one hundred percent and it is the networks that are at fault, you may never gain sales momentum again.

CN7PZ9F1M6(Check the date article written to get the context)

Leaked Government documents suggest a new class of company named ELTD for entrepreneurs over 45. Discussions in Government circles have recently centred on how best to give the next generation, which will be the work force of the future the best opportunity to succeed. It has been long thought that older more experienced business people, particularly entrepreneurs in the technology start up world have been soaking up and making better use of resources that could be utilised by Millennials. Some restrictions on over 45s have come to light that will help target these resources more keenly towards the younger groups.

Entrepreneurs over 45 setting up a new company will have to apply for the new ELTD class, there will be severe penalties for hoarding dormant LTD vehicle companies prior to the age of 45. The ELTD class of company will only be allowed to trade in regional/urban areas that do not have the TechCity, Knowledge Transfer Network, Digital Catapult, Innovate, Tech Strategy Board, Incubator, HackDay, Science Park designations. They will only be allowed to invest and develop in traditional technologies such as the desktop, minicomputer and mainframe platforms. This includes Telecommunications barring Internet Telephony and returns the focus to traditional platforms like PSTN, PBX, Facsimile and Telex.  This will leave the Mobile, Cloud and emerging technologies such as AI and Robotics to the next generation.

There will be restrictions on where ELTDs can hire from, highlights include, no overseas engineering resource and only graduates from the lower layers of UK Universities/Ex Polytechnics. This will ensure that the elite layers of computer science graduates from top class Universities will be funnelled to the more needy Millennial led start ups. Any Government funded programmes  such as the UKTI led missions will not be available to ELTDs, this also applies to  UKTI supported marketing events such as UK or overseas conferences or exhibitions.

Any of the startup network events such as the regular technology Meetups on the circuit will still be available but ELTDs will only be able to attend for the first 2 hours, leaving the hospitality, often beer and pizzas to be more evenly spread across the millennial attendees. This will also allow the younger generation the best opportunities to let their hair down and to network without feeling their Dad is in the room.

There was an instant strong negative outcry from the City to this leaked background information on the proposed new ELTD status of company. This was soon  reduced to a whisper, when it was explained to them that the Government had no plans to set up an ELLP class for the professional classes. This status quo would continue to allow the lawyers, accountants, corporate financiers, venture capitalists and head hunters to target growth start ups for fees in the highly professional manner they were used to.

When the Minister for Small Business was contacted for her reaction, allegedly she said, the boys tell me nothing, I suppose they will want me to go on Question Time again looking like a startled rabbit in the headlights to justify whatever it is they have dreamed up.

The Chancellor was allegedly heard to say as he walked from his private car into a conference centre, left, left, right, right, no that’s not it, or maybe u-turn before being flung at force through a revolving door into the lobby. Luckily one of his aides was there to catch him.

The Prime minister had a beaming countenance and the journalist who engaged kept saying yes David, no David, yes David, no David not remembering what had been said. He said afterwards that it was very similar to when they were at school together.

The opposition spokesman confirmed that they were only really concerned with big brand companies from traditional industries that hired tens of thousands quoting the likes of Kodak. Although they did say they had not heard from them recently.

Drug of Choice Pic

Aged nine it did not take a lot of time for boredom to set in when out on a fishing trip on the Lough Mourne with my father. The patience required for the trout to bite alluded me at the time, in what now looking back, was a beautiful wooded setting close to my home town of Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland. I was drawn back to those times recently when out on one of my frequent dog walks. I was watching Briar, my six month old Springer spaniel puppy running free among the woods on the Wiltshire plain set above the beautiful Vale of Pewsey.

I was wondering when was the last time I had felt as energetic and wanting to run at that pace for the sheer joy and hell of it? Then I thought back to those fishing trips where I would disappear away from the water’s edge and head up into the dense woods. Just as Briar the puppy had been doing, inventing games in my head to play on my own. One of them was running full on, as I thought at the time, like Hawkeye in the “Last of the Mohicans”. Full of fun and health, just running and skipping between the trees for the sheer love of it. Lost in a world of my own, seemingly on a different plane, losing contact with the ground at points through the speed and agility of movement.

In my late teens I would feel that lightness and almost floating sensation again when I moved to England to train and play Badminton at a semi- professional International level. That occasional feeling in a game, both of all the long hard hours of training mentally and physically coming together in one sublime set of movement and strokes. That ability to glide across the court, jump to new heights to smash the shuttle with effortless ease, creating an adrenalin buzz that would last many hours and take a long time to come down from.

Fleeting times that these were, I would not have missed them for the world; surely this was a type of drug, not just an endorphin rush, but my own private little narcotic. After sport at that level of fitness as many top class sports people will attest, the drop down after you stop playing at that level can be hard. To substitute that sensation or moment is a challenge and one that most never do replace and have to live with that acceptance. I can see here where the temptation of taking a drug might creep in to sustain that level of feeling and performance for just a little bit longer.

Luckily in my late thirties it came to me again. This time as an entrepreneur, a different type of full on existence, some say 24/7 in the whirl of building a technology start-up in the Dotcom era. Based in Silicon Valley California, seven weeks there and 3 weeks back in the UK for over 2 years, a full on adrenalin spree, pushing what turned out to be a successful company into the global market. Again the theme of competition, but less about fitness and more about resilience of mind and body.  Pushing harder than other killer players to win. When you do, the euphoria engulfs and surrounds you again on a very similar level, that floating feeling comes back.

I say luckily, but as I often say to young entrepreneurs starting out on the start-up path having built five companies myself over 25 years. There is only one certainty, at the end of the run you will be sat in a corner exhausted and in tears. This will be because you have either just sold the company and won the game, or alternatively and more likely have lost the lot. Coming back from both scenarios is equally challenging, just different, surprisingly.

As I enter my sixtieth year, I have returned to the badminton after 22 years retired from playing, never having been on a court in anger in all that time. I was not setting out to recapture that feeling of exhilaration again, that would be foolish. But I had been back to the gym for the best part of two years and strangely as I saw it, was as fit as I probably had been in a decade. I had promised myself I would return to the badminton one day when I could play it socially and not mind losing or at least not mind as much as I used to. I had thought after my sixtieth birthday, having gained my senior railcard would be the considered time. But prompted by my current fitness and also thinking you never know what is round the next corner, I signed up for the winter season.

I was out drinking recently with a friend of mine in London; we were coming up the steep escalator at the Angel Tube station. Now I am giving him ten years but we were both moving at pace and we were chatting away as we do about a range of topical subjects. I enquired about his health, a throwaway line as I make it seem, but I am always keen to know my friends and their families are OK. Especially male friends who as we know rarely visit the doctor until too late and are hesitant about discussing these areas.

Anyway, I think he was surprised, but used the term robust to describe how he felt and I thought yes that is the word, as we get a little further down the track, we need to feel robust and able to deal with the hustle and bustle of today’s fast changing world. Those of us lucky enough to have good health and this does seem to be the luck of the draw, should relish that particular high. I have just been reading “The Triumphs of experience” by George E Vaillant this is the longest longitudinal study of human development ever undertaken. The bottom line there being that our lives continue to evolve in our later years, and often become even more fulfilling than before.

This of course goes against conventional thinking, that in particular, men get set in their ways “can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. But this ability to reinvent oneself at any age is there and needed given modern demands of innovation and the technological impact on our lives. Those moments of joy, ecstasies, floating whatever way we wish to describe them, are all possible throughout life. I am certainly looking forward to creating more magic, using my own drug of choice on the next stage of life’s adventure.

just-arrived

There are a few, a very few, that keep building start up companies, even when they have either, had their teeth kicked in, a moderate success or a global home run. Most it would seem, fail completely and drift away, which is fine and normal for a very tough game. But a more worrying trend seems to be for people, who have built one reasonably successful start up, defined by profile, impact on market, growth in revenue and people, but no exit on horizon, to not build a second.

Often to be fair to these people they get taken out by their investors as they have not achieved the holy grail of the successful exit or some sort of end point event. But rather than gathering their strength, new found experience and leading another charge into the entrepreneurial trenches they are often seduced by established venture capital companies, incubators, industry/government bodies, anything but doing it again. The choice to do this is often brought on by the syndrome of being able to take money off the table early, even before their start up has played out completely. They have been able to invest in other brighter players as they go along, seen inside the minds of the bankers and I assume get used to a level of lifestyle. That makes it difficult to contemplate betting it all on the next big idea and going back to the world of zero.

This is less of an issue in Silicon Valley, as the numbers play out given the volume of start ups there, here in UK/Ireland the numbers do not stack up. We need every experienced entrepreneur to stay in the game and build again given there are so few capable of doing it. The PR machine does not help, building these people into industry spokespersons, they get invited to attend numerous events globally to tell their war stories and so the guru status builds. Given the nature of the technology business, often still young people at this stage, I can see how easy it would be to lose sight of the reason they built their first start up …. to win.

IMG_20140130_141634

So many articles in the broadsheets about people leaving London and their reasons why, some real and some spoofed for comic effect. It stirs up many emotions in people, given the pressures of modern life and the increasing ratcheting up of costs of sustaining a family and a young business in London. I moved here in 1976 from NI and lived first in Guildford a commuter town in Surrey, then Belsize Park in North London, mixed with time in Silicon Valley off and on since 1987. Now I am back in the countryside of Wiltshire, I have built start-ups in both London, Silicon Valley and in the rural areas of the UK, so I think have an interesting perspective.

So let’s get real the better opportunities for creating a team, cutting deals and getting funded are in London, simply by the volume of people, networks and funds to plug into. In my last start-up we were based in Clerkenwell and by that stage of my start-up experience knew how to slipstream all the players that created opportunities to make a name for yourself. But of course if you are less experienced and maybe never going to be the number one or two in your global market space, it can be the opposite, a more daunting, alienating place where you feel you are not at the party.

There is definitely an inner game feel to London and some just do not ever get the invites to the inner sanctum of top-level VC funding and all those cool Pitching events at Downing Street and the Palace. That, if it is happening to you, even though it is all around you in London can make you feel like a failure. Very few actually make it as a tech start-up in London, although from all the column inches, blogs and networking events devoted to the space it is difficult to see through that veneer. My calculated guess is that 98% never get funded beyond family and friend’s rounds, of which only 30% of the 2% that do will survive and maybe you will remember 3 brand names that did win in 10 years time.

It’s a tough game and takes real stamina, resilience and experience around you to make it, and that is without taking into account the negative macro events that can wipe you out like Lehmans and the periodic UK/Global market crashes every 5/7 years. But of course if you were looking at the start-up world in a logical and reasoned basis you probably are not suited to the crazy world that we entrepreneurs inhabit. Yes you must really believe as a founder beyond all the negative pushbacks that you are right about your product/service and must keep the idealist attitude alive.

So you can fail in London too, and it is why most British start-ups fail in Silicon Valley as well because the competition there is even more fierce and the money game even more aggressive than in the UK and most are not tough or experienced enough to compete on equal terms. But you are in Cardiff, Bath, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast and Dublin, what chance do you stand cut off from Boris’s gleaming Tech City? Well it depends a lot on what level you are playing at, what your goals are and how you set about creating your own networks.

There are great start-ups out across the UK and Ireland, bright people with bright ideas, but the thing that defines a winning company is the drive to reach the goals that are set day one in the business plan. If you are out to build a global company at some point you are going to have to go where the big deals are being done, be it London, New York, Frankfurt and San Francisco. This does not mean that you have to move the whole company from the low-cost base you might have established but it does mean a lot of travel and nights away connecting to the networks that open the door to enterprise clients and the funding that follows those early big name wins.

It requires a concerted effort as well not just dipping in and out every 90 days as I see so many companies doing, the people in the big city networks won’t take time with you and create that continuity of connection if they do not sense your committment to the cause. There is no easy or quick way of doing this, the hours day and night have to be put into this programme. If you are lucky you may find key experienced champions in those networks that like you and your company and will get alongside in accelerating your access and growth. It is certainly a lonely thing to do on your own and it never does any harm to have someone watching your back on the circuit when travelling and running hard.

teeshirt

I saw this slogan “Youth and talent are no match for age and treachery” on a tee-shirt recently. It prompted me to ponder whether young people coming to London, our fine Capital city would find this to be true of their entrepreneurial experiences. Imagine it you have been to London for a few meetings, on the whole are getting a warm reception to your ideas and are being advised if you want to scale you need to be in London. You are from Newcastle, Cardiff, Belfast, Manchester, Leeds, Dublin and Bristol as examples, big enough places to have a thriving start-up scene where you have made a major impact, but not on the scale of an International city like London. The other point being these cities/towns are small enough for the network to know and have background knowledge about who you are likely to be networking and doing business with.

You land in London, managed to get enough money together to cover the first 6 months rent/deposits and find yourself in the backwoods of London because it is staggeringly expensive, so either a shoebox bed sit or sharing with some other young people who may or may not be from your business world. But it is all very exciting, maybe even slightly scary and adrenalin filled, but you have confidence so you hit the circuit you have read about on-line. So many meet ups, difficult to judge which one or where in the city to spend your time and funds to attend, never realised it was so big. You find some, larger than life on-line but when physically there very lean pickings on numbers of connections, or lots of service companies wanting to sell you something. The good ones you find in the end, as your funds are rapidly diminishing, but here you are one of hundreds of dynamic big play companies that seem to know everyone and have people from all corners supporting them.

How can you make any impact above the noise and you ponder whether you need to raise money for marketing, something you swore you were never going to do. Now as you head is turned a little, the big deals not coming as fast as you would like, cash flow going to be a problem, then they appear. A friendly face, a few drinks maybe that you are grateful for given you can’t believe the prices even in outlying bars, and someone who is taking you seriously at last and really thinks the plan has legs. Perhaps we could meet to discuss this some more, say in a weeks time, come over to my club,  office, boardroom, lunch, my goodness these people seem like players. Maybe even some of their contacts have been on TV or linked to Westminster, perhaps I have got something, I was beginning to have doubts. But surely they have been here for years and would know the good from the bad, nothing to lose in talking to them some more, so you do.

mayfair

It is all very comforting, they think you are great and use terms of corporate business that you have heard once maybe but don’t really understand. They over a few meetings ponder whether it is so strong an idea that you need to raise a lot of money to give it the best chance of succeeding globally. You were thinking low hundreds of thousands they are now talking millions, but again they do this for a living surely they must know the reality of this. You are now in a turmoil , the plan had been to eke out an existence, get a few big name trials under way, and then build on that experience to hone the product. Now this is all much more exciting, less pain, faster progress perhaps off the back of the funding, which they in their smart suits and fancy offices say will be highly probable given the timing of the market.

Your gut is telling you something, a boy/girl from x city just landed in London and they want me, gosh they have already introduced me in passing to the business man who built something major. A name I had never heard of but it all sounded familiar and he was so well dressed, he in turn was impressed with my idea and wished me well. Then they produce contracts, many pages of contracts, clause 29 A etc, and whiz me through it, because whoever reads the detail of contracts and they want me to take it away to ponder it for a week so as not to rush into anything. So you do and having cleared your head the next day from the drinks they supplied the night before you begin to read, lots of detail, commitments, warranties, financial jargon, you begin to get that sinking feeling about how big a deal this all going to be and it is all riding on you.

So you read it again even more slowly, using Google to check the terminology to make it slightly clearer, now you see they want money from you up front to be retained as they put it, to act for you in this fund-raising process. You were sure they said at one point they had the money, a fund surely not looking out for others to invest, and my goodness the amount of money they want per month and a major cut of the money raised. Must be some mistake, the lead guy you have a great relationship with over the last few months must have sent the wrong type of contract, he knows we are a start-up with limited funds. So you ring him to check and after a roundabout conversation about how they have already started the process and had positive feedback from quite a number of interested parties, he while laughing and smiling all the way, says of course they need to be retained that’s how these things work.

They were sure given you are the brightest of the bright and worldly-wise you of course understood that, as they would not have invested so much of their partner’s time in this due diligence process. Which you know does cost money in its self as you will be aware, but we were willing to waive that as you were an outstanding opportunity but he had still to do great work internally to convince the rest of the partnership. So he hoped given all the time and thinking that had gone into this and enhancing your reputation on the circuit it would be only a small step to you signing this off. You are caught cold and don’t want to seem as if you are not part of the big game and a potential player and play for time by offering to come back to them in a few days with a decision which you are sure will be fine.

squirrel

And you are shell-shocked, you can’t believe after all this time thinking they were going to fund you and work together as a team to build out the company, that they actually want money from you to fund them. How could you have misunderstood you really like the people and think their experience and contacts would be amazing and the thought of going back to square one again with out that weight and support is so depressing. Maybe you were being naive, maybe this is the way business is done, they have spent a lot of time on you, surely they don’t do that with lots of companies. So the pressure builds and before you know it they have called and you have agreed to meet them to move the process along and you are in the boardroom with two senior partners all smiles and positivity.

The answer to all this is you are not alone, this is the business that this world lives in day-to-day, they are sellers of their services, always there, and as they say “there is no such thing as a free lunch”. Yes they will trawl through dozens of deals, feigning surprise when most of them back off at the mention of retainers and fees because that is the world where it is how they exist. Never mind if and when retained they can actually raise the funds from their network of private wealth clients, angels and small funds. These are the good ones, real offices, partnerships and track records, beware even more the out-and-out con men that have no intention of doing any real work but are there just to fleece you for every penny you have, and they exist wherever there is money on the table. If it seems too good to be true it generally is, all entrepreneurs get desperate at times, the answer is not to give in to that pressure, desperation or conversely positive hype that skews your thinking. Even if you don’t lose money, it is the time spent and opportunity cost that hurts.

There is very little glamour in London, plenty of hangers-on and fair weather friends, it is all about learning the game, hard work and setting priorities, even then very few come out the other end smiling. But it is a learning experience and will ground you for many things by taking on the challenge. So don’t shy away from it, or retreat to the small ponds, rather embrace it with an open mind and get street wise quick. Better still find your own trusted network and home team…. as it is going to be a long game.

rat in my kitchen

It all starts so well, swimmingly in fact, you as the young Founder/CEO blazing a trail with the latest technology making a major impact in the market. So you have a founding team, perhaps with engineering, operational and financial skills to match and balance your business and marketing bias. Seed capital provided by a couple of names in the industry that have helped not just with the money but really opening up the network. They in turn after some key wins have introduced you to a particular venture capital company and you have closed an A round giving you the rocket fuel to enter the US market.

You have filled out the board room, one of the private investors, a representative from the VC, a Chairman like figure that the VC recommended with long experience of your sector, an experienced VP of sales from one of the established brands, and of course your co-founders. The board meetings are purposeful and you are learning lots of new stuff, even more so at the dinners and lunches that follow as you bond with the board members. So it all feels good, they are great support, you can ring them up any time to pick their brains and of course they are beginning to learn a great deal more about you, your ambitions and capabilities.

You are running flat-out managing the team and company during the day, catching up with the administration and contract detail in the early evening and hitting the event circuit for product exposure later on. This gives you little time to gain a perspective on where you really are, how committed people are internally and what conversations are going on about your company elsewhere that you are not directly involved in. As Andy Grove at Intel said “Only the Paranoid survive” well he was talking about a bunch of things to do with change, but it is a good line to focus on. At some point come hell or high water things will change and you better be ready for them.

What you have to understand is that you as Founder/CEO are on your own, despite the appearance that you have all these people around you that are seemingly becoming friends. In business you have acquaintances, fellow board members, maybe colleagues, but let me assure you no real friends. The reason being people in this particular adventure have vested interests, keeping their jobs, supporting their families, growing the share options, enhancing their shares, flattering their reputations and most of all limiting risk. Now that might come as a shock, you have started a company with these people, won the early deals together, travelled in economy together, built event stands to the wee small hours together and shared many a dinner and drinking session.

But when the day dawns when the company hits a major blip and it will, the pressure will build and when it does, strangely you will find that the buck stops right at your door. So what is the point I am making here, why am I in some way stating the blooming obvious, yes you are in charge. It is easy to lose sight of it, that’s why, you have all these players around you, a buzz of interplay going on. An adrenalin pumping speed of movement, which makes the silence that accompanies you at last when on your own at midnight, wondering what happened, wrecking your brain for the solutions, even more deafening.

Even if they all in the end do turn out to be great people and continue to support, just be ahead of all of this, be prepared, build your own trusted support team and be slightly cynical throughout …. Just in case.