Posts Tagged ‘venture capital’

I was thinking over the weekend, it’s been a long game and asked myself how did this fresh faced kid get to where I am now? … or as the Irish man replied when asked for directions, “Now if I were you, I wouldn’t have started from here.”

This is one way to tell the story … Let’s start with me at age 16 still at Carrickfergus grammar school set in the fields above the council estate in NI where I lived. I was playing badminton for Ulster and Ireland by this stage, which is all I really cared about at the time. Despite the troubles we still travelled all over Ireland for matches. damon oldcorn aged 17 - Edited

Labourer Braidwater Spinning – on the factory floor building spinning frames in a textile plant in my holidays, a wage packet. (luckily I had help.) First real job Laboratory Assistant Greenland School – in a secondary school not known for its academic standards (mainly feeding the mice/rabbits and covering classes for delinquent teachers.) Accounts Clerk Rothmans – worked directly for the Management Accountant in a major tobacco company (never dreamt of smoking after that) Some said I would have made a good accountant but being tied to a desk did not suit. Sales Representative Corry Business Equipment – selling electronic cash registers to retailers (When I say sell, seldom did, I hadn’t a clue, but the company car came in handy for getting to the badminton tournaments.) Attended OCTU (Officer Cadet Training Unit) for the RAF at Biggin Hill. After a week of rigorous tests made an offer which I turned down, one of my better decisions, but still felt needed to get out of NI.

The move to Guildford, Surrey, England Aged 18 needed to access the centre of world badminton at Wimbledon Squash & Badminton Club.

Financial Representative Mercantile Credit/ Barclays Bank – with a small branch team in Guildford underwriting and lending £3M per month to consumers and the motor trade in Surrey. (Wrote the first contract hire deal in the UK.) Well trained here in all aspects of financial analysis but it was poorly paid. Financial Representative Commercial Credit –  As above but for a lesser name, more freedom,  paid more money, easy choice to move. Sales Representative Belstaff – Selling motorcycle clothing to retailers across the South East of England. I was difficult to pin down given the vast territory and remote management. So all good for the early morning coaching at Surrey University before work and then training late afternoon/evenings at Wimbledon with tournaments across the country at weekends. Salesman VGL Industries – Selling the Terence Piper microchipped vending machine in London. Getting closer to the technology world but not quite. Years at the sharp end having to outsell teams in half the time available hones you and as we see in the next stage of my career the lessons learnt here paid off in the end.Damon Oldcorn International Badminton Player

My technology years and career were about to start as the industry began to emerge

Now aged 22 beginning to realise how much money it took to live and survive in Surrey and that the Badminton was never going to be anything more than semi- professional … if even that. Salesman NEXOS – Selling the first screen based word processors to the financial and legal markets in London. Loved it here, great professional competitive team, had a flair for it and really flourished.  Salesman ITT International Telephone & Telegraph – Selling Facsimile machines and screen based electronic Telex systems. The top salesman, City/Square Mile as my patch, Big Bang Time, a killing ground.  Senior Salesman/Team Leader STC Standard Telephone & Telegraph – as above but also added bonus of hard edged Xerox US style sales management training.  

Sales & Marketing Manager Chernikeeff Telecommunications – Headhunted to a startup. Successfully hired/managed the sales team and created the marketing that launched the company that designed and built the UK’s first message switching systems. Sales & Marketing Director Norbain Micro – turned round this small public company that was a major UK Distributor of computer peripherals from Japan. Learned here about all the facets of a business in the boardroom. Sales & Marketing Director Tandon Corp – US Personal Computer vendor that sold through indirect channels in Europe. Re-energised the salesforce and dealer base and gained No 2 vendor slot in the UK 486 processor market.

As we left the eighties entered the nineties the world economy began to slow and enter recession

The PC hardware market lost sufficient margin to support an indirect model and other new major US players went direct. Time to look for new ground. Consultant Hutchison Whampoa HKJoined a small group of ex PWC change consultants to restructure the retail subsidiaries of HW in Hong Kong. Student University of Bristol – Embarked on a two year full time Masters degree in International Business which encompassed extensive study periods at Harvard, MIT and UC Berkeley. This was for the thinking time and the network not the degree. Sales & Marketing Manager Vodafone – Paknet the data arm of a voice company that did not fit, interim contract to find new markets for them.

Filled with entrepreneurial zeal and understanding particularly from my time at UC Berkeley and Harvard 

I had already created a support network in the States. First landed in Silicon Valley CA in 1987 and lived there off and on over the 90s, 7 weeks there and 3 weeks back in the UK for 3 years during the DotCom years with PhoneMe. Founder Interim Edge – I created the first of the virtual management companies for the TMT markets, later to be the interim management industry. Mine was born out of William Davidow’s thinking in his book “The Virtual Corporation” that I had engaged with in CA. Founder/CEO PhoneMe – Off the back of a world beating engineering team and their soft switch launched a Global “Web Callback” telephony service (PhoneMe “The human voice of the web” ) UK/Boston/San Jose which led to a Silicon Valley exit. Founder/CEO NicheGnat – Pioneered web conferencing in Europe through a distribution partnership with Boston based WebDialog Inc. CEO ZebTab – Led the founding team to create one of the first sports (ManUtd) and news (BBC) media platforms to successfully deliver video content directly to the desktop computer on an advertising based revenue model.

 

Decision … No more Tech startups of my own … But what next?

Founder WildIrishGuy – opened a club and network at 8 Northumberland Ave to create an economic place for freelancers and entrepreneurs to be based in the heart of London. This gave me time to breath and meet a wide range of people from different layers of the network and people began to ask me to mentor and advise them. Founding Director The Irish International Business Network – A Not for Profit to support the Irish diaspora in London and New York. Now today both in wilds of Wiltshire and the heart of London working with my extensive trusted network borne out of all those years of work. Founder Partner Oldcorn & Oldcorn LLP – Independent advisory, executive coaching and mentoring to the C suite of scaleups in the emerging technology markets. damon-wild

Thank you for reading this if you got this far, this was more really for my benefit than yours, all about unravelling my thoughts as I recalled how I overcame the challenges throughout those exciting times. In saying that please don’t hesitate to make a comment or contact me direct. If it stirred anything that you would like to shoot the breeze on, the door is always open. Keep well Damon.

 

Running interference is a term taken mostly from american football where team players deflect the opposition in their attack to stop the ball carrier as they attempt to make the home run. running interference4I use this term in the start-up/scale-up world when people that I meet when networking ask me what is it that I do … I tell them “I run interference” on behalf of my clients when retained for that purpose.

This will normally open up a discussion as to what I really mean by that phrase, a bit like the quote “We are the Pros from Dover” taken from the movie “Mash”. Experienced business professionals from the technology world will know what I mean but younger entrepreneurs from the emerging technology world will be less sure. That is the point of course “when you don’t know what you don’t know” when trying to navigate the shark infested pool of founding and building Tech start-ups.

Its a pool of knowledge and insight gained over decades of working for US vendors in the big game and then founding and building technology companies from scratch in the good and bad market times. You tend to get perspective on the right moves and people from years of “shedding layers of skin” from going through the process of winning and losing in the UK and Silicon Valley. We are often pigeonholed as advisers, coaches, consultants maybe even the dreaded mentors … I suppose there may be a combination there. But what sets me apart is the blend of experience, strategic thinking and accelerated tactical implementation that moves the needle on whatever challenge you are currently facing.

A lot of my work is based on accelerating access to market, entrepreneurs always need that first big deal or partnership to reference from and cement them into the market with some credibility to continue. running interference2How do you do that? … well while you have had you’re nose to the grindstone, I have had years building a trusted network in London, this gives many entry layers to quickly research where best to position you’re attack. This combined with the weight and experience I add as to how to frame the hook that will get a reaction and opens up options for you to explore.

Sometimes it can be just as important not to talk to certain people as to chasing to meet what appears to be high profile people that can aid you’re progress. But “how do you know who is good or bad”, some that will suck time and life, maybe even money out of you’re precious venture. Well that is also about having time and experience to “understand the jigsaw” that is the multilayered emerging technology market in London. I have come across most of the challenges you are taking on for the first time, numerous times in fact, it develops an instinct in you for what feels right.

So I hear you ask … why are you not off investing, a venture capitalist, being a Non Exec, Government adviser, charity work, even retired like the rest of your peers. running interference1Well much as I don’t want to build another start-up company of my own, what still gives me a thrill is breaking markets with new technology, especially if it means taking on and beating the incumbent global vendor players. Its about doing business and deals that people don’t think possible on your wits with limited resources, “that’s the win”.

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.

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.