Posts Tagged ‘Silicon Valley’

stick it to the man

Technology Entrepreneurs were mavericks, outside the system, changing the world, disrupting society and most importantly … not part of the Establishment. Well that was the way it was or certainly seemed to be. Now, I am concerned, given the increasing numbers today crossing the line. Taking government sponsored roles, moving to the other side of the table with venture capital firms (some supported by government funds), fronting accelerators, entrepreneurs in residence, angel investing and even some being included on the UK Honours lists. All this far to early for most rather than concentrating on and taking the pain and joy of building out a second and third time.
For any that were wondering, yes the system or establishment has always existed ,the top two percent, whatever term you want to use for it. It has always been self-perpetuating, my goodness if you were taking off the table of its bounty why would you want it to stop. But at certain points in the cycle it has been less impregnable, chinks had appeared, a few ladders had been left over the side to climb up or was that just an illusion. Certainly in the last decade it would appear that the ladders have been drawn up behind people who made it over the parapet in more opportune times. Some of you will know that feeling of confronting it head on, even for some people without actually knowing what system it is they had come up against. For those outsiders it tends to hurt.

The system is glue

Well, if it has always been the case, what’s the problem? Focussing on the emerging technology space, if we want to continue to grow the entrepreneurial ecosystem, it needs to be a virtuous cycle of successful or experienced entrepreneurs starting again and building their next disruptive companies. What we must not have is them being seduced, distracted or diverted into other peripheral softer network roles that blunt their entrepreneurial ambition. Which in turn has less impact in growing the knowledge base of how to build start-ups. They need to take the bones of what has been successful and use that to do it better the next time, and teach others internally and externally by example. This is what Silicon Valley (sorry to mention it) has been doing for decades, they don’t even hesitate to start another company and at a speed that we are yet to match in Europe.

It really does not matter that we will always be playing catchup with the Valley, what matters is that we do our own thing, play to our strengths and continue to build out an experienced entrepreneurial network. Over twenty years ago unless you were in the inner circle or were introduced by someone who was, you could not understand how it worked or even get a chance to be funded and play your hand. Now it is more transparent with more market coverage, networks and of course the internet itself has helped with that ability to access knowledge. surferBut there is nothing to beat working for or alongside a founding team that have been through the process before with battle scars that have toughened them. The more successful serial entrepreneurs we have in the network who really love what they do, the more chance we have of inspiring greater numbers to join them in the challenge, changing the system from the outside and in the end sustaining the growth of our technology markets.

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.


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.


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.

An Ulster fry, served in Belfast, Northern Ire...

Image via Wikipedia

Lets assume for the moment that the feeding frenzy particularly on the West coast US is driving the valuations beyond the point that most Angels want to pay. Maybe that wave is even spilling over into London, so what do you do about it as an Angel to access deals that might be as you see it at a more sane level or entry point? Well I don’t have all the answers (honest) but one way might be to switch to areas because of geographical distance. But still within a less than 50 min plane ride that are not as over subscribed at present,  OK I admit it this is leading up to something that I have organised to help Northern Ireland or the “Belfast Bubble” as I like to call it. I want them to break out a little and up their engagement with angels, syndicates and maybe even early stage VCs on a more constant basis in London. On the evening of the 12th of May 2011 in the West End of London a number of players from NI will be here to mix and share experiences with a back drop of typical NI hospitality and maybe even a little Irish music. I know these early informal conversations are just a starting point to encouraging long-term relationships that will build over years, there is no hurry these things take time. Very much like London did from a base with very few role models some 5/6 years ago, when some interesting people started their Web Missions and networking drinks themes that have become common place now as the London scene has matured. So let me assure you given I have been around this world for quite a while, that I would be very surprised if all parties on the evening did not gain something from the experience even if only talking to others on the London scene. If it sounds of interest and you are an active Angel or a VC contact me for a detailed invite. (Oh and if this date does not suit there will be other London/Belfast events throughout the year so contact anyway)