Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The Last Post

This is my Last Post.

I started blogging almost exactly a year ago, on the 4th January 2008 and it has been a fascinating experience. I had to invent a new person - Mr Bojangles - and give that person a voice. (Incidentally, I also gave that person an extra Xmas present, from Tom to Mr Bojangles :) and Mr Bojangles got exactly what you would expect him to get).

I found my voice through Mr Bojangles and I told my story as it happened. I had to find my tempo too. Do you blog every day? Once a week? Once a month? I blogged 73 times in 2008, about 6 times a month and that worked well for me. I think I captured the main events of my year and only missed out one major incident, concerning a pot of glue, a left handed badger and two unusual shades of the colour mauve!

2008 turned out to be an eventful year for me.

What a year. I've had a good year. Garlik has had a good year and this blog has had a good year. But all good things come to an end. So this is my last post...

...for 2008.

See you all in 2009 :)

Happy New Year to you all and best wishes for 2009.

Mr Bojangles

Sunday, 21 December 2008

When Geeks Rule The World

A couple of days ago a friend of one of the Garlik team popped in to the office. She was introduced as a Geek Anthropologist. Not Greek. Geek. Anthropologists study humanity and, as I understand it, a geek anthropologist studies that branch of humanity knows as geeks, if that's not a contradiction in terms.

Co-incidentally, we were in the process of putting a new service into public beta, and it's a pretty geeky service at that (if you have never heard of FOAF - do NOT click here). So the office was a bit of a geek-fest, with people shouting syntax across to each other, wearing t-shirts with lines of code proudly displayed across their chest, suddenly and unexpectedly diverting into the detail of obscure films and random gadgets and having an all round good time. Including our friendly geek anthropologist, who blended in like any good ethnographer, whipped out a note book and proceeded to make notes in an unobtrusive "just think of me as a member of the tribe" sort of way.

Now, most of the time I think of myself as a businessman. A "tech entrepreneur" is what I claim to be. But I think underneath this thin veneer there is the heart of a geek pulsating strongly ready to burst out in an Alien-like way (Note: spurious cult movie reference). I think it traces back to my early computing days as a mainframe Assembler programmer. Sure, like any old beast, I have been shoved aside by new thrusting young alpha-geeks in the tribe, but I sit there up on the hill, a proud, old geek has-been picking at my fleas.

I am proud to have geek blood in my veins though, as ultimately geeks will come to rule the world (cue evil genius-like behavour, mwahahahaha), whatever Fiona S thinks.

"Who's Fiona S?" I hear you cry as one. Who indeed. Let's go back about 35 years. I am in a train carriage on the way back from a school trip with the cool kids. You know. Guys like Mark A, David W, Hilary P and of course the class pin-up Fiona S. We are 11 years old. The cool kids decide that, given the absence of a teacher in this particular carriage, we will pair up and do some snogging. Arrgghhhhh ! How did I, one of the class geeks, end up in this carriage? Pairs were quickly formed and there were two people left over. Me and the class pin-up Fiona. She looked disgusted. I looked at my feet. The girls went into a huddle, came to an agreement and Fiona turned to me.

"Oi, Tom", she said "you've got to leave the carriage".

"Oh, oh, okay" I said, dissapointed but quietly pleased that Fiona S, the class pin-up, had actually spoken to me.

"Yes" she said "go down the corridor and find Steve and tell him to come to this carriage for snogging".

You see, that's the lot of the true geek. To be sent away, and not only sent away but told to summon another cool kid for snogging. But our day will come, I tell you. We will rise up and reclaim our place in the carriage. Do the cool kids have their own anthropologists? No way.

And if Fiona S came up to me right now, begged for forgiveness and offered that snog that was so cruelly snatched from my grasp 35 years ago, I would merely snort with derision, quote some really cool movie line and turn away in disgust. Probably.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Caught on film half naked and given a prize

Last night I stripped in a car park in Mayfair. As I stood there in the freezing cold, naked from the waste up, I glanced up and saw a CCTV camera smiling down at me - whoops!

There was a reason for this moment of madness, trust me. Following a days worth of back to back meetings up in London, I had to do a quick change in my car into "black tie" so that I could attend the annual British Computer Society Awards event at the Dorcherster, Park Lane. I was in two minds about attending at all but Garlik was up for awards in two categories and a couple of Garlik colleauges were attending with me so I wrestled with the suit in the back of the car, slipped on the cufflinks and strode out of the carpark, across the road and into the warm embrace of abut 1,000 luminaries of the UK computer industry.

The compere was Gyles Brandreth, and he was amazing. Hilarous. I laughed so much, I actually had to clutch my belly with delight. He controlled a crowd of over 1,000 people effortlessly and punctured any pretentious characters, including himself. If you are ever organising a big event - BOOK GYLES ! He's brilliant.

After a good, solid dinner (including mash potato so it couldn't go wrong) the awards part of the evening kicked off. Gyles, who knew nothing about the industry, seemed to be filled with pure joy as the name of every winner was read out. He did tease almost every winner as they went up to get their prize and I had my fingers crossed that we wouldn't win, as I could only image the fun he would have at our expense with a name like Garlik.

So it was with a mixture of surprise, delight and trepidation that I heard him saying "oooohhhh, you'll like the taste of this one" when our first category came up, the best Web-based Technology Project. Sure enough, we WON! Hurray. We strode up, collected our prize and went off to have our official photos taken. What a lovely surprise.

We had only just sat down back at our table when the big prize of the evening, the BT Flagship for Innovation, was being announced. We were down for it, but having won the earlier one, we didn't expect to win this one too. Amazingly, we did! I was genuinely shocked and really, really pleased.

In fact I was so pleased, that I found myself dancing to Abba songs and waving my hands in the air like I just don't care (and so on and so forth). One of my colleagues attempted to down a glass of champagne in one, only to discover that the effect of the bubbles renders this near impossible and quite entertaining. The other colleague regaled me with the benefits of undergarments of a magical nature in the context of award ceremonies.

All in all it was a tremendous evening and a big pat on the back for the Garlik team. We started the year as winners of the World Economic Forum, Davos Technology Pioneer 2008 award and we are ending the year as winners of the British Computer Society's flagship innovation award. We've done okay :)

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Of Fast Cars and Celebrities

Yesterday was a day of fast cars and celebrities. It is funny the places that you end up and the people you bump in to as a tech entrepreneur.

In the morning I and a Garlik colleague travelled out to the Oxfordshire countryside to visit the headquarters of the Williams Formula 1 team. The marketing guys there wanted to explore some very innovative branding ideas, a novel way of opening up the massively powerful and international world of Forumla 1 to the VC and start-up community. The 17 F1 races that take place around the globe each year are watched by over 600m fans in 189 countries and attending an F1 meeting is a bit like attending "Davos on wheels" as you get to rub shoulders (and do business) with chief executives of major corporations and take your key clients for a stroll around the pit lane. Anyone interested?

Then we went on a quick tour of the facilities. Wow! Talk about British innovation and engineering excellence. Williams can go from a new car design to a handbuilt formula 1 car on the test tracks in 6 weeks. I held large bits of engine made of special material so light that I could balance it on one hand. They are at the cutting edge of "clean tech" with a flywheel device that stores energy when the car slows and releases it on request. They took us to a huge room containing practically every Formula 1 Williams car going back 30 years. Each car costs about £10m, so I was probably looking at half a billion pounds worth of vehicle! I tried to think of good "bloke" type of questions to ask but could only think of things like "So, does that car go really fast then?" Fortunately my colleauge knew the right questions to ask and I trailed along saying things like "core" and "wow". I also found that if you repeat the last word of a sentence that someone has just said whilst nodding, you can appear very knowledgeable.

In the evening I attended the Medical Futures 2008 Award ceremony. I was a judge on the main prize of the night so sat on a table near the front. Which was good because it was a bit of a UK celeb-fest as Jonathan Ross, Tony Hadley (Spandau Ballet), Andrew Marr, David Mitchell (comedian), Vanessa Feltz (TV and radio), Anthea Turner (presenter), Melanie Sykes (presenter), Mishal Husain (presenter), Michael Buerk (news reader) and Martha Lane Fox (co-founder of came up one by one to appeal on behalf of the charities that they are involved in supporting. Jonathan Ross was a big hit with the hundred of doctors in the audience despite his recent problems. In the auction, he offered to leave a personalised message on the answerphone of the highest bidder :)

There was a brief moment of slapstick when an eminent gentleman (who shall remain nameless) turned the wrong way after speaking on the stage, took a step and disappeared off the side of the four foot high platform. Organisers rushed about in a panic (I think this fell into the "what's the worst that could happen" category for the organisers) whilst one of the hosts joked "is there a doctor in the house?"

The lifetime achievement award was won by Sir James Black OM, the Nobel Prize winner and inventor of the beta blocker, a true titan in the medical innovation field. The list of medical innovations coming out of the UK as the awards ceremony progressed was staggering. If the guys at Medical Futures succeed in unleashing the potential of all this talent, a whole new industry will emerge in the UK.

Oh, I should throw in a Royal I suppose, since I'm namedropping. I was nearly mown down by HRH Prince Michael of Kent as I was coming in and he was leaving. It is funny the places that you end up and the people you bump in to as a tech entrepreneur.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Why I was summoned to the Old Bailey

Throughout my life I have managed to steer clear of the judiciary, the police, the law, the Courts. I have only once given evidence, at a discrimination hearing, and being questioned by a tricky lawyer was not a nice experience.

So it was a bit of a surprise when I found myself "invited" to the Old Bailey, the central criminal Court in England, a couple of weeks ago. But when you get that sort of invitation, you don't turn it down. I put on my most grown up suit and tie and off I went. When I told the taxi driver that I had to be at the Old Bailey at a certain time and could he hurry up please, he asked if I was a lawyer. No, I explained, I am going to be questioned by the judges. "Good luck, mate" he said, looking at me sadly in the mirror as if he didn't expect to see me for a long time.

I had been invited to meet an Old Bailey judge. Actually not just one Old Bailey judge, but ALL the Old Bailey judges at the same time!

The occasion was one of those City of London traditions that stretch back hundreds of years. The daily luncheon at the central criminal court hosted by the City of London, which actually runs the Old Bailey. Two Sheriffs of London (did you know there were still Sheriffs of London?) reside within the Old Bailey building and by tradition they invite all the judges to a three course lunch every day. They also invite a guest or two and on that particular day I was the guest.

So I arrived at a special side door and was ushered up to the Sheriffs apartment, where I was met by a senior City Alderman and a very nice judge. A chap tried to tempt me with a crystal glass of the finest champagne presented on a silver tray but as I don't drink I asked for a plain orange juice instead. Such fineries are wasted on me!

Then we wandered up the corridor to another very ornate room, where I walked into the amazing (to me) scene of a couple of dozen fully wigged and robed Judges, a handful of Justices of the Peace an Alderman and an Under Sherriff who is also known as The Secondary (but nobody seemed to remember why). We sipped tomato juice. I asked if this was another ancient tradition, but it seems the judges just like tomato juice. Unlike me.

Then we were called to lunch and processed two by two to the grand dining room. The chaps in the red robes went first (I think they were the ones called "The Hon. Mr Justice so and so") followed by the Alderman and Guest followed by Judges, JPs, Under Sheriff.

The food and wine was delightful (obviously I didn't eat much of it, having taken my usual precaution when going to posh meals of eating a sandwich beforehand). That's not completely true - we had shepards pie so I ate the mash potato from the top of the shepards pie. Judges are very entertaining lunchtime company, I found. Incredibly smart and slightly other-worldly, with astonishing memories. They chatted about events that happened back in the 60's as if it was yesterday.

The Honourables found me quite an interesting specimen I think. They questioned me forensically about what Garlik does, about the internet, identity fraud and cybercrime. Several of them had tried fraud cases of course so they had a deep knowledge of the law in this area. As my name plate described me as "Dr Tom Ilube", the Honourable opposite me asked me if I was a medical Doctor. I said "No, Doctor of Technology" and he said "Ah ha! Very good. Now, why is my broadband so slow, eh?". Thus began one of those surreal conversations where we talked through his PC settings and broadband provider and I offered advice whilst several other judges listened in nodding wisely.

As we left the hall, I was chatting to a few of the judges about social networking. "It's that Face thing, isn't it?" one of them said. "Facebox?" "Facebag?" "Facebook!". We finally got there. I explained that they could set up a profile on Facebook and keep in touch with the many people they had come into contact with over the years. The Honourables looked at each other slightly horrified and quickly concluded that perhaps they wouldn't be embracing social networking afterall.

They invited me to sit in on some of their cases in the Old Bailey that afternoon, but I decided I had spent enough time inside Court for one day and was a bit wary of being accidentally "sent down", so I made my excuses and left. I must say, this was one of the most fascinating lunches I have been to in a while and I felt very honoured to have been invited.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Gateway of India

I am in Mumbai, India today pitching Garlik to the VC arm of one of those huge Indian corporations that are the size of a small country.

It's my first visit to India and one thing I can say for certain is that there is serious money in this country...and serious poverty too. As I watch the breaking news about India's moon landing satellite and read todays paper with the Forbes list of Indian multi-Billionaires I am reminded again as I was in China a couple of months ago, how the old order is changing.

Mumbai is somehow much more familiar to me than Beijing was. It's the type of developing country I recognise and understand from Africa, with its dust, noise, energy, free-wheeling exuberance and raw ambition. Some people find big Indian cities crazy on their first visit. I just switched into Africa-mode and actually found Mumbai strangely calm, safe and well organised by comparison. Even the traffic lights work here! True, the taxis largly ignore them, but they do work.

I put my Africa-mode mindset to the test in a side street store. The store manager was delighted to see me, positively rubbing his hands with glee as I wandered in. "From England, Mr Tom? Man United eh, Mr Tom? Cricket eh? Just look at this one Sir, don't worry about the price. Look at this one. She will love it. Don't worry about the price, I will make you a fine, special price Sir".

So I asked the price. He looked pained as if I had pointed out an unsightly boil on his nose, but forced himself to tell me. Then the haggling began in earnest. Or rather it didn't, as I adopted a little known technique called SILENCE. I invaded his body space, stared at him quizically and went silent.

"What's the matter Mr Tom? What price do you want? Name your price. Don't be embarrased."

I said "I want the price please".

That is the correct price, he claimed, then grabbed a big calculator, theatrically proded some buttons and showed me a new price that was 10% lower. Look, he said, almost as if he was surprised himself, that is the new price? Okay? Is that okay? Why are you staring at me.

I smiled and stared. I want the price I repeated.

This went on for about half an hour. He dropped his price three more times. He hit the side of his head angrily. Threw the calculator on the floor. Begged me to say something, name a price even if it was zero. Accused me of wasting his time. Advised me to join the police if I was going to stare at people like that. Explained his family circumstances and appealed to my better nature.

Finally he stopped speaking. I stared. He stared. We stood nose to nose in a little upstairs store in a backstreet of Mumbai staring at each other in silence for five minutes. Sweat pouring from his brow. Me, smiling quizically. Then he broke "Okay", he said "take it for this price" and he threw up his hands in disgust. Then the final insult as I handed him the money "You lied. You are not from Britain at all. Where are you really from?". I smiled, invaded his bodyspace one last time and left.

On the way back to the hotel, as dusk drew in, the driver stopped off at the majestic Gateway of India, standing proudly in its faded Mumbai glory with people teeming around its base, selling giant orange balloons (why?). I swaggered around in Africa-mode, pushing past outstretched beggers, waving away balloon sellers, threatening photographers, stopping traffic imperiously as I crossed back over to my car and driver.

That's when I noticed the small boy walking along next to me. About 6 years old I would guess. No shoes. Rags. Silent. Just inside my bodyspace. Staring at me. I stared back and waved him away imperiously, like Emperor Nero. He looked at me. I looked at him and saw my son, a few years ago. I thought about the life this little boy will lead and I thought about our lives. People, if you have a computer and you can read this then you are soooo unbelievably lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky. Recession? Credit crunch? Job security? If we think we have problems, we just have no idea.

As a nearby hotel security guard wandered over with a stick to drive the small boy back into the snarling traffic I did something I never do (in Africa-mode). I reached in to my jacket, pulled out a decent sized note that would mean nothing to me in pounds and handed it over with tears behind my eyes. He looked at the note as if there must be some mistake, looked at me with empty eyes and darted back into the traffic before I changed my mind. As we drove away I looked back across to the Gateway of India. I saw him skipping, yes, skipping along. Like a 6 year old boy. Oh, God. What sort of a messed up world do we live in.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Picked up in a German Bar

It's not all glitz and glamour being a "highflying" venture backed start up guy, let me tell you! Sometimes you need to get down and dirty to make things happen. And so it came to pass that I found myself being picked up in a German bar before returning to a sleazy, backstreet hotel.

Let me explain.

I'm still on the road, fund raising for Garlik. Last week I heard of a couple of German VC firms that might be interested, so I executed my tried and tested "getting a VC meeting at short notice" plan.

Here's how it works. I contact one of the VCs and arrange a 30 minute conference call. Everyone's got 30 mins to spare at short notice and then you have a foot in the diary. Then I contact the other VC and tell them that I happen to be in Germany the next couple of days and, since I'm around, how about I pop in and say hi? I don't trouble them with the detail that at this stage it is only my voice that happens to be in Germany. Armed with this meeting in the diary, I go back to the first VC and say since I am in Germany anyway for a meeting, why don't we turn or 30 minute slot in to a face to face meeting. Bingo - two meetings lined up at short notice with busy VCs.

Now, we try to figure out how to make it happen. That's when I discover that the two VCs that I am now supposed to be seeing on the same day are actually hundreds of miles apart. Never mind, we'll figure something out, so I pack up my toothbrush and head off to the airport.

Check in at Terminal 5 (very smooth, great terminal in my experience). BA flight to Munich (bloke on plane next to me using blackberry when he shouldn't. Do I tell the stewardess on him or snatch it off him and ram it in to his ear? Neither. I adopt the traditional British approach and just "look extremely annoyed"). Nice chat with the German taxi driver on the way to VC number 1 (how many London cabbies could have a chat in German I wonder?). Enter the VCs palatial offices, whip out the laptop. Pitch, pitch, pitch, sell, sell, sell, question, question, question for about 2 hours. Then dash off, jump on a high speed three hour cross country train and off to see VC number 2.

But this is where things go a bit off course. The VC lady has arranged to meet in my hotel lobby at 8pm and grab dinner, so that we could discuss the investment opportunity.

Or to put it another way, I had arranged over the internet to be picked up by a wealthy German lady in a bar, taken to dinner and then ask her for money at the end of the evening. Hmmmmm. People could get the wrong impression. "People" mostly being my wife (who, thankfully doesn't bother to read this blog :)

However, I am a start up guy and right now I am a start up guy in cost cutting mode, so I am not actually staying at the posh hotel in question. I am staying in the cheap and slightly sleazy hotel five minutes walk around the corner.

When we booked it, I did wonder how different a £30/night two star hotel was to a £200/night five star hotel. It turns out the answer is "very different" as became clear when I was buzzed through the security door at my hotel and the receptionist looked like she was going to ask me whether I needed the room for the whole night or just a few hours!

I actually laughed out loud when I went into the room, put the ash trays in the draw to try to get rid of the smokey smell and looked around for the bathroom. I couldn't see one so I assumed with sinking heart that it must be a shared bathroom in the hallway. I opened the cupboard to hang up my coat only to find that there was the smallest shower and toilet tucked away inside that I had ever seen. Ah, the joys of start up life :)

I rushed around the corner hoping to get to the posh hotel before Ms VC but she was there waiting in the lobby when I arrived. "Don't you want to check in?" she asked.

"It's alright, I've got it covered" I said making vague arm sweeping gestures in the direction of the reception area and guided her out of the door. Off we went for dinner.

Posh hotel. Now posh restaurant. Why, why, why? Don't people know I hate posh food. We walked right past a perfectly good Burger King to get to this fancy French place. Octopus. Can you believe, they actually serverd me octopus! When the waitress came to take the plates away she looked annoyed and said "is there a problem with the food, sir?". I felt like saying "Yes, you seem to have given me an octopus instead of real food and I don't know what to do with it."

Instead I said "No, no, no, it's lovely" and quickly took a fork full of octopus. I almost gagged but managed to chew away whilst making "mmmmmm, lovely" type of noises. Then I chopped it up and hid it under my knife. I am a master at this technique. Sometimes people find stuff I have left under a knife many days later.

So, over dinner I pitched, pitched, pitched, sold, sold, sold. Then walked back to the posh hotel. Said my farewells. Made as if to go into posh hotel, then nipped off round the corner to Sleazy and Sons. Lept up at 5.30am, back on the 3 hour train ride to Munich. Back on the BA flight. Back to the UK and got to the office to find a BBC TV crew waiting to interview me about a new type of financial fraud, for tomorrow's BBC breakfast news.

The good news as I sit here typing at 2am is that I get a whole 5 hours sleep in my own bed at home before setting off again tomorrow. This time to Mumbai, India to pitch to some VCs there. I'm not taking chances this time though. I reckon a cheap and sleazy Mumbai hotel would be beyond even my hardy start up guy spirit!

Monday, 10 November 2008

Hurray - we are all racialists now!

Yes We Did!

And I am so pleased that we did. It is unbelievable and it challenges all of us as individuals to stretch further than we thought was possible just a few days ago. I am, as we speak, rethinking my own journey. How far dare I try to go? (Not in to politics, that's for sure - my wife has already told me that if I even think about it she will immediately expose all my secrets to the gutter press!).

But does the fact that I am so pleased that Obama won make me a racialist? Does it make all of us racialists now?

This is a tricky question and one that most people have been carefully steering clear of, lest one makes a careless statement and ends up being accused of racism. Then you are in deep trouble!

Did you notice the slightly awkward word "racialists" rather than the more usual "racists" above? That was deliberate, as according to some authorities in this area, such as Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, they mean different things.

Racialists believe that the human species can be divided up in to different racial groups and that each member of a given racial group has traits and tendencies (not just physical traits) that they share with other members of that same racial group, but not with people outside of that group. Racialists don't necessarily believe that any racial group is better or worse than any other racial group, just that there are differences between racial groups, that are not just based on culture for example, but are part of some sort of "racial essence". Separate but equal is the credo of the racialist.

Meanwhile the non-racialist takes a different view. The non-racialist obviously sees different colours (they are not colour-blind) but the non-racialist does not link any particular traits or tendencies to a person merely because of their external appearance. So to the non-racialist, categorising humans into distinct groups based on their external physical appearance is a meaningless thing to do.

So, if you believe that it makes sense to group people in to racial groups and that black people (wherever they are from) share traits and tendencies beyond their physical appearance with each other as do white people and so on, but you are not saying blacks are better than whites or vice versa, then congratulations - you are a racialist :)

Does that make you are racist, though? To be a full-blown racist, you have to go one step further. A racist, just like a racialist, classifies people into racial groups, ascribes morally relevant tendencies to different races but then RANKS them. The racist concludes that one racial group is better than another and therefore should be treated differently because that first racial group has morally relevant tendencies (courage, intellegence, honesty etc.) that warrant a higher status amongst races.

If you believe this to be the truth then whether you are black, white or yellow, you are a racists and I probably don't like you very much, even if some of your best friends are /insert colour here/.

Professor Appiah pushes the definitions a bit further in a way that I find interesting. He distinguishes between extrinsic racists and intrinsic racists.

The extrinsic racist says that its all about logic. It is obvious that if one racial group is on the whole more honest or more intelligent than another racial group then it makes sense to treat the two groups differently. With the extrinsic racist, if you show him that actually these morally relevant values are not directly connected to different racial groups, then he should (if he is being honest) give up his racist position and revert to merely being a racialist.

The intrinsic racist is a bit trickier. He believes that you should treat people of your own race differently and better that people of another race purely because they are "your own people". It is an extension of how you put your family first just because they are your family. You can give the intrinsic racist all the evidence you like that races don't exist as such, that even if they did the morally relevant traits are evenly distributed, but the intrinsic racist will favour his "own people" anyway.

So are you a non-racialist, a racialist, an extrinstic racist or an intrinsic racist? Go on, really. What are you? You can tell me. I won't tell anyone. It can be our dirty little secret :)

However I am going to let us all off the hook, when it comes to Obama. Something different is going on here. Obama is a reflector. We (who like him) see something in him that transends race. We see Change. Possibility. Rebirth. Relief. Redemption may be. Atonement perhaps. We see all sorts of things, but apart from the intrinsic racists amongst us (you know who you are!) our relationship to his colour is confusing.

Like the Texan couple who were apparently phoned up by Obama pollsters asking who they intended to vote for. The wife says on the phone "Oh, I can't remember his name" and calls out "Honey, who are we going to vote for again?". The man pulls himself away from the ball game for moment and calls across in a deep Texan drawl "Tell them we're gonna vote for the Nigga".

God Bless America.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Saving lives and making money

This Wednesday I was a member of a panel judging the best business ideas emerging from the UK's medical sector, the culmination of the annual Medical Futures innovation awards competition. It was a real eye opener as I knew nothing about the health care sector and unlike so many web ideas that claim to change peoples lives, every one of the ideas I heard really would, literally!

For example, a British chap called Dr A. Brain (yes, it's true) invented the anaesthesists mask in the picture in his bedroom. It's now used in millions of operations around the world and Archie Brain is living in the lap of luxury.

The judging panel was very impressive (present company excepted), Sir Anthony Jolliffe the former Lord Mayor of London, Sir Chris O'Donnell, most recently Chief Executive of Smith & Nephew, Dr Ian Goldin of Oxford University and former Vice President of the World Bank and several others of equal stature.

The handful of pitches we saw were the best of the best of literally hundreds of ideas that have emerged from all corners of the health sector over the past year and been pitched to judging panels up and down the country. It is amazing that this staggering wealth of innovation is going on out there and is largely unrecognised and unharnessed. However, the sector has some real challenges for entrepreneurs.

Firstly, like me, the average entrepreneur has no idea what these Doctors are talking about. I spent several hours squirming away as the Doctors displayed various new devices and explained what was going to go wrong with me and how they could delay my demise by a few years, if only I give them a few £million. Mine you, it's a powerful pitch!

Secondly, in this medical game it seems that you create your proposition and then spend the next two years getting regulators around the world to approve it. Imagine if us tech entrepreneurs had to get someone to approve our propositions for two years before we were even allowed to launch them. We'd all be out of business before we started!

The big problem though is similar to a problem that us UK tech entrepreneurs have. If you want to build a large scale medical business then you have got to get in to the huge USA market as early as possible. Listening to the challenges that these businesses face opening up the US market, its exactly the same as the rest of us, except with higher stakes. I heard pitches involving ideas that are clearly better - as in "will save more lives/relieve more pain" - than what's available now but unless they can get the funding, team, approval to penetrate the US market then these amazing ideas may never see the light of day. It's shocking.

So, good luck to all the medical industry entrepreneurs and I would really encourage the VCs out there to take a good look at what's going on. The easiest way to do that is to get in touch with Medical Futures - they seem to pretty much see every promising idea coming out of the UKs health sector.

And I really hope one of those ideas in particular makes it out in to the market. Then at least I can save my money on answering those junk emails :)

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Eat sorbet before your meetings

It is not often that I go to a meeting and experience a technique for running the meeting that I have never come across before. I did yesterday meeting.

A group of us met to discuss some issues related to a large charitable project that I am involved in. There are many stakeholders with multiple agendas. Big money and big reputations at stake and strong, divergent views being expressed in the run up to the meeting. So it had the potential to be a fractious meeting and a lot depended on how it got started.

The Chairman kicked off with an unusual statement, as we rolled up our sleeves, put on our boxing gloves and stuck out our jaws, ready for action. "We are going to start with something that I learnt from Dr Anthony Seldon, the Headmaster of Wellington College" he said. "We will start the meeting with one minutes silence". And sure enough, to everyones astonishment he looked down and fell silent.

Well, everyone fell silent for what seemed like ages. The tension flowed out of the room. People pushed back their chairs. Some doodled. Some reflected quietly. Some looked bemused, even uncomfortable. But at the end of what seemed like several hours, the Chairman looked up and, without further explanation, quietly said "right, back to the agenda".

The meeting flowed smoothly. Issues were raised in measured tones, explored and discussed. Ways forward were found. I can't put it all down to the minutes silence but I can say that there was a definite calm about the room as the meeting started and that seemed to set the tone and create the space for a good dialogue.

Fascinating. Afterwards, someone described the experience as akin to bowing heads and saying a prayer before a Church meeting or eating sorbet to clense the pallet between courses over dinner. But I have never seen it done like this in a heavyweight, high stakes, business meeting before.

Try it !

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Shame on you, Sequoia

Sequoia Capital, one of Silicon Valley's A-list venture capital firms seems to have turned in to Jack Jones, that character from Dad's Army who runs around in a moment of crisis shouting "Don't panic Mr Mannering", whilst panicking like crazy, causing everyone else to panic too and achieving precisely nothing.

Last week, as has by now been widely reported, the firm called about 100 or so CEOs of its companies together and in outrageously dramatic style, with pictures of tombstones and dead pigs, tried to scare the living daylights out of them about how terrible the market is going to be over the next two years and how people should start slashing and burning their costs now or crash and burn within months.

Talk about playing to the gallery. They must have known that the "story" would end up all over the web, so I guess in that repect it probably achieved its objective.

Now, I'm not saying that times aren't going to get very hard over the next couple of years. Of course they are. Everyone knows that and certainly every entrepreneurial CEO knows that. One would hope that the CEOs who managed to raise money from a firm of Sequoia's quality would know that better than most. I talked about this as far back as February and it has played out exactly as expected. You don't have to be a genius to figure this stuff out.

The actions you take are obvious too. Anyone who was anywhere near the Dot Com crash knows the game. To make a big song and dance about all the facts and figures and then deliver some blindingly obvious action points at the end - well, what was all that about?

I wonder what it was like being one of those CEOs. If any of what was said was any news to you then how on earth did you manage to get money from Sequoia in the first place? If you were the type of CEO who actually ran a company during the dot com crash and came out the other side, then you must have been biting your tongue as these guys strutted around. Perhaps you actually gave the Sequoia guys some advice (although I doubt it, I bet everyone kept their heads down and pretended to take notes as the pearls of wisdom rained down).

If I had been present I might have tried to help by offering the Sequoia guys some advice, from the CEOs perspective. Here are my 5 points (in case anyone bumps in to them over in the Valley :)

1) at a time like this and assuming we both have the same objective of surviving, it's not about YOU (Mr VC) it's about me (Mr CEO). The question you need to ask yourself is "what can I really DO to help your company, Mr CEO?" not "what can I SAY to make me look tough and clever?"

2) last time in the dot com crash, there were hoards of VCs trying to keep busy by engaging extremely busy CEOs in updates, pitching, updates, pitching. Eventually the VCs firms realised this, got rid of the time wasters and everyone's happy. But it took you'all a long time to sort that out last time around. So, Sequoia, this time, cut deep and cut early to keep all those time wasters away from your CEOs who are engaged in hand to hand combat in the market right now.

3) Speaking of cutting, every person lost at a VC firm probably saves at least $250k, so every 4 bodies you can lose at the VC firm frees up an extra $1m and saves another one of your portfolio companies. And please let's not talk about your office space (unless you are going to allow me and my 20 guys to come and take a chunk of it over at no cost for the next 18 months? Now that WOULD be useful).

4) Where's your rolodex now? VC's talk about being "more than money". Well it's easy to be "more than money" when everyone is buying and everyone is doing deals. That's like saying "I'm good at getting wet" when it's raining. Ok, if you are really "more than money" then now is the time to show it. Now is the time when you sit down with your CEO and say "here are the 5 concrete things that I can do for you right now". If you can't do that then leave the poor guy alone and let him do his job.

5) The only reason why companies survive times like this in decent shape is because their leader decides that come hell or high water he or she is going to make it happen. It's about confidence, commitment and bloody-mindedness. It's not about lists of obvious actions. Calm. Grit. Determination. Has anything you have done or the way you have done it helped to instill in your CEO that determination and commitment to survive come what may? Or have you just suceeded in chipping away at it with all your tombstone talk?

I remember being at Goldman Sachs in 1994, in the fixed income area. It was the worst bond market that year that anyone could remember. At one point in the year one of the senior Goldman partners pulled the division together. In a calm, steady tone he laid out the situation. No shocking slides. No shouting and arm waving. Steady, clear, coldly realistic but confident and determined. Expect cuts. Focus on the customer franchise. Hit the singles. Work together. Stay very close. We came out of that meeting as one team, clear, determined, knowing what we had to do. That's class.

And before you go around patronising your own CEOs please remember, just because you are panicking, it doesn't mean we are. We do what we do because we are entrepreneurs, we love it all, the ups, the downs. We are not afraid. We don't panic. This is what we do. As Omar says "It's all in the game, yo".

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Gordon Brown thinks I'm a role model

This evening I attended an invitation only meeting in the Locarno Suite at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, where Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave a informal speech, exhorting me (and 99 other people) to be role models for the black community here in the UK.

The event was the launch of this years 2008 Power List, a compilation of the individuals that the organisers consider to be the 100 most powerful black people in the UK today (50 men, 50 women). By powerful, the organisers actually mean most influential and they are careful to point out that they don't mean richest (that's certainly true!) or celebrity (very few musicians & sports people are on this list). They searched for individuals who are having an influence on their industry and wider and they decided to stick me on the list (that's my smug-looking face stuck behind Lewis Hamilton in the picture).

It was a grand evening at the FCO with. a hundred or more very accomplished individuals, and I think most of us were looking around nervously thinking "what am I doing here with these REALLY powerful people, when will they spot me and turf me out?". Baroness Amos, who chaired the selection committee, spoke first, followed by the Prime Minister. Brown spoke informally and humourously without notes and was well received.

Then a delightful lady, Baroness Scotland, who was listed as Number One on the Ladies list gave a very personal, warm view on what this meant to her. She was followed by the daughter of Mo Ibrahim, the telecoms billionaire, representing her father who was Number One on the mens list.

A reprentative of Thompson Reuters, who sponsored the evening, said a few words before Michael Eboda, the chap who compiled the list with his team, stood up to cheers and rounded off the evening with a host of thank yous. Michael was actually one of the most influential people in the room, given his ability to sit at the nexus of such a powerful network of individuals, and clearly should be at the top of his own list, if modesty didn't stand in his way. Whatever happened to good, old-fashioned dictatorship? Does Michael think that Kim Jong-Il would have left himself off his own power list? No way!

One speaker asked how many people in the room were happy to be seen as "role models" to the younger generation. Surprisingly, in the entire room of perhaps 150 people, only about 3 hands went up. I thought that was interesting but understandable. It is quite pressurised being looked up to as a role model. You feel additional pressure to suceed, to behave "like a role model" to "be inspirational" at the drop of a hat. So, most folks avoid being a role model and just get on with the daily grind of doing what we do. It can even make you more risk adverse. You don't want to fail and let everyone down, so you start to play it safe.

But do you have an obligation to be a role model to a wider community who look up to you, even when you haven't asked them to? It's a tough question and I think ultimately it has to be a purely personal decision.

Personally, I don't mind too much. If it helps young people to look at what I've done and say to themselves "well, if that half-wit can do it then I certainly can" that's fine with me. Anyway I can rely on my family to keep my feet on the ground. I told my son this evening that I had appeared on this list and he said "why are you on there, Daddy, you're just an average sort of man and you're only my Dad".

So long as everyone understands that in reality I am just an average sort of man who will continue to play my own game full on, contine to be a risk-taker and may suceed and justify my presence on the list or may fail and crash ignominously out of next years 2009 list, then its all good. It's all in the game.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Speaking to strangers

I am puzzled by the reaction I have to the prospect of speaking to strangers. Note I say the "prospect of speaking". The actual act of speaking to strangers is fine but it's my reaaction to the the prospect that I find interesting.

For example, on Tuesday morning I was a keynote speaker at a conference in London, Innovate08. This was a high profile conference with an audience of about 1,000 executives. I shared the stage with Richard Farleigh, one of the "Dragons" on BBCs Dragons Den, Iain Gray, Chief Executive of the Technology Strategy Board and the event was compared by BBC Newsnight's Kirsty Wark. Mine and Richard's keynote speeches were followed by an address by the Government Minister, John Denham MP.

I was fully prepared for my 25 minute keynote. Remember the rules? 4 minutes per slide, so I had just 6 punchy slides. I had practiced, practiced, practiced with a stopwatch so I was complete fluent and had the timing down to the second. However as I sat there on the stage, staring out at 1,000 (mostly) men in grey suits, and Kirsty introduced me I felt my heart accelerating and thumping harder and harder. As I was wearing a microphone I wondered whether there was a sound engineer at the back somewhere fiddling with his equipment, wondering what the hell was going on.

Strangely I didn't actually feel nervous at all. I was quite relaxed. But my body decided that it was going to accelerate my heartbeat anyway. How odd. I found as I was sitting there that if I focused on it I seemed to be able to slow the beat down or speed it up, but I couldn't stop it happening in the first place. I decided to monitor this again later in the day.

The speech and the Q&A seemed to go fine and I got good feedback, and then I dashed off to my next meeting - a pitch for Garlik to a venture capital firm in West London. This was a reasonably high stakes, tough meeting with one of those lazer eyed VCs who delights in disrupting the flow of your pitch, jumping around from point to point with a series of machine gun delivered questions and not letting you get in to your stride, but this was someone I have met a couple of times in the past. I checked. Not a stranger. No accelerated heart rate. Interesting.

On the underground to my next meeting, I found myself standing next to a lady in a tweed skirt. I noticed she had a random label stuck to her skirt that shouldn't be there. She hadn't spotted this. So, I thought "someone should tell her". But no one else had noticed. Just me. Suddenly I realised that I might have to tell her. My heart rate started to accelerate again. I was going to have to speak to a stranger again! Oh No. I tried to ignore the label. I tried vaguely making eye contact and then looking down towards the label but this just seemed to make her scowl and edge away. Finally as she started to leave the tube at her stop, I pounced "errr, errrr, label, errr, errr" I stuttered pointing. "Oh, thank you very much" she beamed and left the train as I collapsed onto a seat in a heap, drained, heart thumping.

I arrived at my final meeting of the day, which was a dinner for a handful of folk with Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty. It was an interesting group of fellow diners, including the Channel 4/ITN TV presenter, Jon Snow and the man who brought the Big Brother TV show to the UK, Peter Bazalgette. After Shami's erudite comments, we got in to a free flowing Q&A session about privacy an civil liberties issues. I knew I would be called upon to make a comment or two. But despite the fact that it was a small, informal group, as the host started to point in my direction, my heart leapt into life and started to accelerate again. Thump, thump, thump. I was completely relaxed, as far as I could tell, and I made my comments which seemed to land well, but despite considerable will-power I could not stop my heart thumping away.

So, come on. What's all this about then? Does it happen to anyone else or is it just me?

Saturday, 27 September 2008

A busy day at summer Davos

Saturday was a busy day for me at the "Summer Davos" as the World Economic Forum meeting here in Tianjin, China is know. It started with a technology brainstorm and ended with a presentation by the Chinese leader, Premier Wen JiaBao and a Gala Soiree.

The first session that I attended was on "The Next Wave for the Web" and I led one of the group sessions. We "transported" ourselves to 2015 to imagine what life would be like for different characters. My group got an 87 year old Japanese lady, with family in the USA to play with. It was good fun leading a very lively brainstorm discussion about this, particularly when you have visionary folk like the founder of Wikipedia, the CTO of Cisco and the worlds foremost cybersecurity guru in your team.

Then off to a 20 minute interview with CNBC, where I was interviewed by the CEO of a $multibillion USA security company for a new series where the Chief Exec of a large established company interviews the Chief Exec of an emerging leader in the same industry, in this case McAfee and Garlik, to exchange advice and ideas. It was quite different being interviewed by someone who knows your industry inside out vs a normal presenter and I'll be interested to see the finished result. Apparently it will air on CNBC in Europe and Asia and possibly appear in the business clips that they put on flights too.

Next, straight after lunch I Chaired a panel discussion on Cybersecurity, with panelists including the CEO of the world's leading security company, the CEO of management consulting at Accenture, CTO of a large Swiss security company, CEO of a 10,000 strong global customer service company and the legendary security expert Bruce Schneier, currently Chief Security Technology officer of BT. Quite a panel and quite an exchange of views, with questions from an audience that included a Government Minister, Chief Exec of a telecoms company and many others. However it seemed to go okay, so I could breath easy after it was over.

Then off to a one on one discussion in the area set aside for business partner discussions with the VP of a large security company who expressed an interest in learning more about Garlik to see if there were areas for cooperation.

And finally into the big hall for a presentation and Q&A with the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. The Hall was packed with about 1,000 people, chief executives, entrepreneurs, government ministers from all over the world plus a large group of Party members who were sitting up front. I was sitting next to one of China's top TV news presenters who pointed out all the main Chinese and Hong Kong dignitaries and powerplayers to me. Premier Wen was eloquent (or the translator was anyway) and seemed quite relaxed in the Q&A, raising issues himself and commenting on them in much the same way that most Western leaders would.

The day ended for me at a spectacular Gala Soiree in the Exhibition Centre, where I was seated next to the Chairlady of Mozilla and an MIT professor. Over a thousand guests were seated in front of a massive stage with Chinese dancers, singers, acrobats in amazing costumes. For some reason that I don't understand though we were served Australian steak. So I made my apologies and sneaked off early back to the hotel to ordered myself a chicken sandwich and chips and a nice cup of tea. Ahhhh.....

Waiting for Godot

As we were driving to the Binhai Conference Centre, Tianjin, China for Day 2 of the World Econominc Forum conference, I noticed someone standing out in a field. He stood looking quite relaxed, hands behind his back staring casually at the road. Fifty yards along there was another chap. Then another. Then another. They looked like they were waiting for something. Then I realised what they were waiting for. Us lot. Their job was to wait for us to go past. That's it.

China has a lot of people and it seems quite good at puting them to work. Quite a lot seem to be employed to wait. There is the chap who waits by the lift. His job is to press the button as you approach the lift and show you how to step in to a lift. You know he's there because the chap waiting in the lobby points you towards the lift chap. There is the lady who waits in the hallway to the restaurant. She shows you how to continue walking down the hall until you reach the other lady who waits to show you how to turn right in to the restaurant in case you keen walking straight and bump in to a wall or something. While you eat, a chap waits just out of eyeshot behind you. If you stop eating to breath, he sweeps in and whips your plate away.

At the conference centre, there are eight ladies who wait at the entrance. (I would mention that they are all stunningly beautiful ladies but I think my wife reads this blog sometimes so I won't). They wait. When you walk between them they smile. I have tested this. If you turn towards the four on the left, they smile and the others don't. If you turn to the right they smile instead. I thought for a moment that they were smiling specifically at me, handsome fellow that I am, but I now realise that they would smile even if I was a chicken.

There is something about trying too hard, I think. It can feel a bit forced and unnatural. But, I suppose if you have a lot of people then getting them to wait in an orderly fashion is no bad thing. And China certainly has a lot of people. A news item yesterday said that by middle of next year China Mobile is expected to have 500m mobile phone subscribers!

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Blown to Tianjin by Typhoon Hagupit

It's not every day that you set foot on a new continent. In fact this is something you will do a maximum of 7 times in your life, so you should relish the experience.

Today I relished the experience of setting foot on the continent of Asia for the first time in my life, as I landed first in Hong Kong en route via Beijing to Tianjin, China to represent Garlik at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2008.

The journey to this "one small step" was not as smooth as it might have been. Typhoon Hagupit hit Hong Kong the previous day, delaying most flights. So I actually spent about 6 hours "setting foot" on every bit of Heathrow Terminal 3's departure lounge and barely resisted setting foot on the necks of the rather unhelpful Cathay Pacific ground staff who seems unconcerned about the connecting flight that I would miss as a result of the delays.

However after a 6 hour delay we boarded the 11 hour flight to Hong Kong, followed by a 3 hour wait at HK International, a 4 hour flight to Beijing and a 3 hour coach drive to Tianjin. Allowing for my journey from home to Heathrow at the beginning and it took about 33 hours door to door. Phew!

So, what are my first impressions of China? Well there's no sunlight for starters (but that might just be because it's night time. I'll find out in a few hours I guess).

And it feels very different. I have travelled in Europe, America, Africa and the Middle East so I am used to "different" but this is a new kind of different again which is very interesting. A few things have struck me already.

China is confidently big. We all hear the stories about China being big but it's difficult to appreciate until you see it. Starting from the international airport in Beijing which I am told (by one of the lead engineers who happened to be on the coach with me) has the largest roof in the world, you are hit with "bigness".

But it is confidently big. It doesn't feel like it's building big things just to show that it can (take note Dubai). It just has a lot of space, a lot of money, a lot of people so it builds really big stuff. When the coach rolled in to Tianjin at night and we saw the lines of top flight hotels and conference centres lit up and the huge straight roads stretching off in every direction the immediate impression was of a very new, very clean, very big version of Las Vegas without the gambling.

The second thing that strikes me is that I don't understand anything. Even though I don't speak any other languages (and believe me, I've tried) most places I visit I find that the odd word, phrase, written sign feel vaguely familiar and I can feel my way along. Even in the Middle East I got the hang of "hello", "thank you" and "is that my barrel of oil?" pretty quickly. But here unless there is a direct English translation, I understand nothing, I can read nothing, I have no sense of what things mean and left to myself I think I would come to a complete halt.

The third interesting things is that I am back to being a sub-group of one. In this day and age it is pretty difficult to go anywhere and be literally the only black person in sight, particularly in a very busy international airport. Last time I noticed this was in the 90's when I visited a place called Snellville, Georgia, USA, and the hotel staff kindly advised me not to go for a stroll in the evening for my own wellbeing. But this time the furtive glances in my direction are looks of curiosity rather than hostility.

However this has the potential to be a fascinating place. I am looking forward to learning more about China over the next few days and I hope I don't have to stay huddled with hundreds of other visitors in the conference centre all the time. In the meantime "míng tiān jiàn" as we say in China :)

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

The Silk Road

Today I am off to Tianjin, China for a World Economic Forum conference entitled New Champions. It's a gathering of a thousand or so business executives, politicians, volunteers with a focus on new emerging companies with the potential to have a global impact. The event will be opened by the Premier of China.

Garlik has been selected to attend and I will be leading a session on cybersecurity alongside some fascinating people.

Tianjin is a fairly small city in China, I think it only has about 12m people and ranks as China's 27th largest city. Phew!

I have never been much further east than Essex so this is a completely new experience for me. I am looking forward to sharing my first impressions, but I am not looking forwards to the 17 hour journey that I am about to embark on....

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Near death experienced

I heard on BBC Radio 4 this morning that a new, large scale study into near death experiences is being coordinated by the University of Southampton. This is the phenomenon where people near death report of floating above the medical staff or seeing a bright light. The interviewer on Radio 4 was quick to dismiss all this nonsense and the scientist tried to tread a fine line between enthusiasm for the subject and not being seen as one of those loonies who actually believe that nonsense.

Well, I could save them a huge amount of money and time if they really want to know whether these things happen. They could just ask me.

36 years ago, I was travelling in various parts of Africa with my father. I stayed for a couple of months in a small, distant village in West Africa and, having acted as a hearty meal for a whole community of mosquitoes over several weeks, unsurprisingly I got malaria. I was laid up for a few days with fever and so on as I battled my first encounter with the potentially fatal malaria without the benefit of proper medication. A group of local women were dispatched to sit at my bedside and wait for me to either die or get better.

After several days it appears that things were going in the wrong direction because I can remember as clear as day hovering up by the ceiling looking down on the ladies and smiling to myself (as only a hovering, cheeky 9 year old boy can) thinking "hahaha look at them, they are looking down at my body crying but they don't know I am up here behind them all the time hehehehhe".

Whilst some of the ladies wailed at me, much to my amusement, one of them rushed out to get my no nonsense dad. Very no nonsense dad. A few minutes later he came steaming in, charged over to the bed and sat down.

"Yikes" I thought. "If he looks around and catches me messing about up here on the ceiling when I am supposed to be sick in bed, I am in big, big trouble!" I was scared out of my wits, or rather I was scared back in to my wits because next think I know I am back in the bed looking up nervously thinking "Did he spot me on the ceiling? Am I for it?"

I texted him today (he's still in West Africa) after listening to the Radio 4 piece asking if he remembers. He replied immediately "That was 1972 I believe. It is indeed the case that high fever and delirium usually accompanying untreated malaria causes hallucinations and terrifying delusions".

Hrruumphhhh. Dismiss my near-death experience just like that eh, like the cynic on the radio? I know what I experienced. And anyway, what sort of person writes long sentences like that in text messages anyhow? (Gosh, I really hope he doesn't read blog posts or I am in big, big trouble!).

Friday, 12 September 2008

Every passport tells a story

I got a new passport yesterday. I am off to China in a couple of weeks (more on that later) and I discovered that my old passport didn't have enough months left for me to get a visa.

I'm flicking through my old passport, looking sad, battered and mutilated with its ears cut off, listening to Sam Cooke's A Change is Gonna Come and reminiscing about the places I've been over the past decade. A passport is like a diary. It's traces the tracks of your life in a tangible way. The bold and colourful visas from tiny, proud countries, the angled stamps piled on top of each other as Mr Immigration hunts for his page and stakes his claim. Each entry tells a tale and weaved together they tell your story. Here's mine...

May 1999 Jamaica
Oct 1999 USA
Feb 2001 USA
Oct 2001 USA
Nov 2001 Nigeria
May 2002 USA
Aug 2002 USA
Aug 2002 Jamaica
Nov 2002 USA
Aug 2003 USA
Apr 2004 USA
Aug 2004 Mauritius
Sep 2004 South Africa
Sep 2004 USA
Oct 2004 USA
Oct 2004 USA
Jul 2005 USA
Jul 2005 Jamaica
Aug 2005 USA
Aug 2005 Uganda
Sep 2005 Nigeria
Aug 2006 USA
Nov 2006 USA
May 2007 USA
Jul 2007 USA
Aug 2007 Kenya
Aug 2007 Uganda
May 2008 USA
Aug 2008 USA
Sep 2008 USA

Can you read my life? Were you there? Shall we all lay our passports out and see where our paths crossed?

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Physics: The one true science

Today, with the commissioning of the Large Hadron Collider, marked the rise of the Physicist. Forget about those other so called sciences (or as we think of them "arts"), chemistry and biology. Forget about that lapdog tool of the physicist, maths. Today is all about (us) physicists for we have build a really big thing in Geneva that makes really small things go really fast. Coooooool.

It's funny how physicists all over the world are walking around with their (our) chests stuck out, wearing "One Science To Rule Them All" t-shirts. Even those of us who studied it 25 years ago are joining in the gloating and pretending we know what's going on.

Physicists are even getting funny. You may have hear the series of knee-huggingly hilarious particle physics doing the rounds. No? Let me fill you in. But be careful. You may burst out loud laughing in the middle of the office or riding home on the tube. Ready? Ok, here goes.

A neutrino walks in to a bar. "How much is your beer?" it asked. The barman looks up. "To you, mate, no charge".


Still standing? Try this one

Female physicist to male physicist "Do my bosons give you a hadron?"


Ok, here's the killer.

Two photons walk in to a black hole.............


Perhaps we physicist are getting carried away! Oh well, this was our day in the sun. You won't hear from us for another 15 years. Well unless we create a black hole, but even if we do all you will see is thousands of smug looking physicists getting sucked into it, shouting "We did iiiittttttttttt......"

Friday, 5 September 2008

A Forumla for Innovation

The final day of the WEF 2 day conference on innovation held at Stanford University commenced as horribly early as the first. Fortunately we kicked off with a warm up exercise that got us out of our seats.

Today's topic was collaborative innovation i.e. how to generate ideas for your business by inviting suppliers, partners, customers and "the crowd" to get involved. All 100 of us were asked to stand in a line against the wall (shades of "The Usual Suspects") on a scale of 0-100 to indicate how much we use collaborative innovation today, and then move to where we felt we needed to be in 5 years time. As one wag muttered "that's the first time I have actually been a bar chart". Interestingly, the pattern did not follow the standard "normal distribution", which may say something about the cautious way that even innovative business leaders are adopting techniques like open source and crowd sourcing.

Mckinsey's model of collaborative innovation assessing a company's degree of openess (culminating in a 2x2 matrix as any good consulting model must) was quite insightful and provided a framework that help put things in to context.

In groups, we debated issues ranging from ownership of intellectual property if you use these models of collaboration, how to incentivise communities to get involved and platforms that facilitate collaboration. The conclusion I came to was that even amongst these innovative luminaries no-one really knows the magic formula for getting a huge, wise crowd of strangers to do all your innovative work for you (mores the pity!).

However, Geoffrey Moore, the celebrated author of Crossing the Chasm, closed the conference with an excellent fast paced session developing a formula for innovation. This was the best session of the two days as he presented his proposed formular (Innovation = A + B + C... - D - E) and facilitated a quick fire, interactive session with us all to challenge and enhance it, whilst the amazing graphic artists sketched furiously away on the walls in the background.

All in all, this 2 day innovation conference was great for networking, good fun and quite thought provoking. My key take away was the power of collaborative innovation, but also the feeling that its okay to experiment as no-one really knows how to do it yet, so you can expect to see Garlik experimenting with some large scale collaborative innovation ideas over the next few months.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

What is innovation?

If you find yourself at an innovation conference, like the WEF one that I am attending in Stanford, California over the next two days, then make sure you don't start by asking "Can we have a definition of innovation, please?".

One brave participant tried this at the kick off session this morning and, in a room full of Professors of innovation and assorted consultants, it very nearly caused a riot!

The Arrillaga Alumni Centre, Stanford has a spacious conference hall which today is divided into segments with large, mobile, curved room dividers. Roving graphic artists stop at boards casually sketching cartoons and capturing key points that speakers are making, as they make them. Huge photos adorn the wall, colourful hand written innovation quotes are everywhere, bestselling innovation books lie around with several of their authors in the room, photographers and video cameramen capture the scene and occasional outbreaks of jazz music confirm that this conference is about innovation from head to toe.

With a mix of short, sharp presentations and breakout sessions, we kick off with Mckinsey outlining the research they have recently completed on innovation. This huge piece of research, based on analysis of over 9m patents worldwide and many other data points reveals a global map of the main innovation talent clusters. The usual suspects crop up - Silicon Valley, Tokyo, Tel Aviv and of course Bristol, UK. Wait, did I just say Bristol? Yep, it seems that when Mckinsey crunched their numbers Bristol emerges as a top talent hotspot!

My first breakout session brings together a Stanford Professor, a Boston entrepreneur, a New York corporate executive, French telecoms exec, Israeli IT exec, Tokyo academic and CEO of a London start up (me!). We had an interesting debate on what makes for successful regional clusters, including an exploration of whether geographic clusters even matter in this virtual age.

Sometimes at conferences like this, it is the random comments and odd asides that make for interesting listening. Like the patent professors assessment that most patents are just junk. The revelation that India is investing $65Billion (yes $Billion) on education over the next four years. Or the demographics presentation that revealed that by 2050 there will be over 2 billion people aged 60 and over in the world. I panicked about the implications for my business, Garlik, for a moment until I realised that I would be about 100 years old.

I was amused by the idea that a key ingredient of successful innovation clusters was lots of disfunctional families. And that a regional cluster needed stability, but not too much stability. But I particularly enjoyed the description of the idea of writing your "failure resume". You write your CV from the perspective of everything and every decision that has gone wrong, then stand up and present it to the group and explain what you have learnt from each failed step along the way. In the UK we talk about being comfortable with failure but I've never seen this done before. By the way, if you want to see my failure resume, click here.

What, you really clicked? You must think I'm crazy!

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Innovating in Silicon Valley

Timing is everything when it comes to innovation. If you want to know how to innovate successfully, that is lesson number one. For starters, if you wake up late and miss your flight to an important innovation conference taking place at Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley, as I very nearly did today, you are not going to learn anything at all.

Fortunately after a desperate sprint through the turmoil of Terminal 3 and with the support of a friendly member of Virgin's ground staff I just made the flight. Ten hours later, having driven down California Highway 101 and checked in to the Palo Alto Sheraton I am ready for the conference.

The World Economic Forum, Davos, has organised a 2 day conference called Innovation 100 and as Garlik was selected as a WEF 2008 Technology Pioneer company, I was invited along to join 100 other leading innovators from corporates, start ups, consultancies, government and academia to discuss the challenges of innovation. Attendees from around the world will explore what drives innovation and what makes regions like Silicon Valley work as innovation hubs.

Looking down the attendee list, there are some very interesting folk here so it should be a fascinating couple of days. At the very least the weather in Palo Alto is great. 70 degrees with a gentle evening breeze. It was raining and grey when I left London. Perhaps there is a very obvious reason why innovative people flock to Silicon Valley to do their thing!

Sunday, 31 August 2008

2+2= whatever I want it to be

I spent a couple of weeks this summer in the States and found it interesting to watch the Olympics on TV from a US perspective. Two things that struck me were firstly that to the US audience the only sports that existed were the ones involving US potential medal-winners which gave an interestingly lobsided view of the Games, and secondly that just because the screen had the word LIVE on it and the commentators said "Now we go live to the 100m..." that didn't necessarily mean the event was actually LIVE in the traditional sense of "HAPPENING AS YOU WATCH" as opposed to "LIVE" in the sense of "IT WAS LIVE WHEN WE RECORDED IT ABOUT 12 HOURS AGO".

However, the thing I scratched my head about most was the medals table. In most parts of the the world China were the undisputed leader of the medal table having ammased 51 Golds to the USAs 36 Golds and whenever I checked the BBCs website for an update countries were ranked by number of golds followed by silver then bronze. But in the USA, it was not yet time to ceed global supremacy to the emerging Chinese powerhouse. Oh, no. For two weeks we were bombarded with a different cut of the medals table based on the total number of medals, irrespective of type, and using that measure USA won again, 110 to China's 100. Hurray!

At the start of the two weeks, this oddly shaped table looks wierd to me and I felt a bit sorry for the USA having to resort to such a technique just to stay on top of the table. But as the broadcasters kept consistently reassuring me that this was the right way to look at the table and that USA was holding on to its lead, by the end of the Olympics I had become convinced (almost) that perhaps this was the "correct" way to look at it and perhaps the rest of the world had got it wrong after all.

When I worked at a big management consultancy in the 80's we used a similar technique. We were in competition with a group of other big firms, all consulting arms of accountancy firms. We were all on a par with each other except for Accenture (Anderson Consulting in those days) who were miles ahead on any performance metric you could chose. So in one fell swoop we dealt with this problem. We concluded that they were in a different business to us and therefore they didn't count. Suddenly we were back at the top of the table. Masterful!

Measuring performance is a tricky business, for any business and particularly for start ups that are in new business sectors. It is dificult to tell what is right and wrong. Is the USA "right" or playing with the numbers? Were we "right" at the consultancy (Accenture definitely had a very distinct business model compared to the rest of us). As an entrepreneur you need to have your own view of how to measure your business and then be clear and consistent about it.

If someone wants to tell you how to measure the performance of your business, well that's up to them, but you need to have your own view. If they think its "eyeballs" (yuck) but you think its "stickiness" (yuck) then you just keep focused on your measure. If they want to compare you to Facebook numbers but you want to compare yourself to Linkedin, then you keep focused on your measure. Don't get fooled into thinking that someone else has a monopoly on truth in this area. Everyone seems to be feeling their way and your view is as true or as not true as anyone elses, so stick with it, keep articulating it and eventually if someone likes what you are doing they will decide that your measure is right and if they don't like what you are doing then they will come up with a meausre that tells them what you are doing is rubbish.

So, who really won the Olympics? The correct answer is Uzbekistan, scoring a very impressive 2, and beating Jamaica into second place, on the well known "number of athletes at games per medal won"

Thursday, 21 August 2008

I haven't had a holiday for 12 years

Whenever I read profiles of entrepreneurs who proudly boast how they haven't taken a single days holiday for 12 years straight, I feel so stressed out on their behalf I immediately take a holiday for them.

But should hard driven, venture funded technology entrepreneurs take holidays? Yes. Two weeks minimum in the summer. And I mean minimum. Three weeks is better :-)

Where to go, though? The answer is obvious. You should go on holiday with your family to Silicon Valley, like I have. If you are smart, you can disguise it as a holiday to San Francisco and providing you do some touristy things like cable cars and drive over big red bridges called Golden Gate you may never be found out. Hey, throw in a bit of Hawaii at the end and no one will ever know.

I have perfected this strategy after many years practice. Fifteen years ago, when I got married, I was into interesting emerging branches of science called Chaos and Complexity Theory. I admit that being "into Complexity Theory" may put me in the nerd bucket, but one of my boyhood heros, the Nobel Prize winning Physicist Murray Gell-Mann, was involved from the start and where he led, I followed (from a distance...a great distance). Murray and a bunch of other Nobel Prize winners set up the first ever complexity institute, the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, USA. So, clearly the only place to spend my honeymoon was Santa Fe, New Mexico. Fortunately when we got there (a) it turned out to be a really cool town, a mix of high technology and fine arts and (b) after a few days together constantly, my wife was more than happy to have me disappear off to "some silly maths place". I even got to meet Murray Gell-Mann himself. He said "get out of the way whoever you are, I want to use the photocopier". Awesome!

So this year off we went to "San Francisco" and we went on a tour of the area, taking in places like Palo Alto, Stanford University, University of California, Berkeley etc. etc. We popped in on a few friends here and there and I actually got a pat on the back for taking my family to visit Facebook's HQ thanks to a good mate of mine there.

Actually, I do switch off when I go on hols and I think entrepreneurs should carve out big chunks of time to recharge the batteries. If you have the sort of business that will fall apart if you are away for a week or two then you don't have much of a business anyway, so fix the underlying problems and then take a proper holiday.

I keep in touch via email, once every couple of days, but that's about it. Except of course for the hour long call with a journalist for a profile piece, whilst my family hung about looking slightly annoyed. But that's it. Except for the call at 6am whilst I was standing on a beach in Hawaii watching the sunrise, after performing my Tai Chi routine (much to the amusement of the hotel ground staff) from a national newspaper in Canada. But that IS it. No more. Switch off completely.

Except for a little blog update....

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Classmate most likely to succeed

Did you have someone in your class at school who fell into the "Most likely to succeed" category? You know the sort. Very clever, but not geeky. Confident presenter. Charming. Good looking. Probably plays a musical instrument or two. Captain of rugby or netball. You try desparately not to like him or her but find yourself feeling strangely pleased when they glance over, smile, wink and point a finger at you as if to say "Just you and me, Tom, you and me. Nobody else in this room matters".

Well last week I met about 40 young people all at the same time, all of whom fall without question into the Most Likely To Suceed category. Phew!

The event was a conference at Wilton Park. Have you heard of Wilton Park? Me neither, until I was invited to speak there. It's an unusual place. For one, it's not at Wilton Park, which is in Buckinghamshire, UK. It is in Sussex set in an amazing country pile in acres of grounds called Wiston House. As a recently published history of the place says "Wilton Park has never been a secret. But you will not find it on a map". It's not the sort of place you will stumble across (in fact even aided by my SatNav I nearly didn't manage to stumble across it!). Wilton Park has been holding quiet, intellectual, off the record conferences in true British diplomacy style amongst movers and shakers from around the world since 1946.

The event that I spoke at was called the Atlantic Youth Forum 2008. About 40 young people aged 18-24 from USA, Canada and Europe are nominated to attend this week long event at Wilton Park. They hear presentations ranging from nuclear deterrence to sport as an agent of social change. They listen to speakers from the Private Office of NATOs Secretary General to the Football Association. (oh, and me :-). They visit the Houses of Parliament, the US Embassy and the Foreign Office. So when you were 18 and learning how to balance a glass of beer on your nose to impress the girls, these guys are learning how to balance geopolitical superpowers to impress Members of Parliament. Wow!

So how did I get on with the Most Likely to Succeed? Well, I presented on privacy and identity in the digital world, relaxed and sat back in my chair for the usual one or two polite follow up questions that you typically get from a group of young people, that's if you manage to coax a question or two out of them. The "Most Likely" lent forward in its collective seat, charming eyes gleaming and in accents from Albuquerque to Zurich they fired questions at me for well over the allotted time. Fifty or so erudite and probing questions later, drained of everything I know, have known or ever will know, my emptied intellectual husk was cast into the Sussex countryside.

Fascinating. I will keep an eye on this group of young people. I have a feeling that we will be seeing more of them and I half wonder whether there were one or two future heads of state sitting in the room there, although like true Most Likelies, they would be far too self effacing to give that impression right now...