Friday, 25 January 2008

A Very British Coup

Today the British invaded Davos. Well I say "invaded" but it was more like a quiet, powerful surge of men in grey suits.

It kicked off with a breakfast hosted by Ben Verwaayen the Chief Executive of BT. Then Gordon Brown took centre stage in the main hall. I am sure the content of his talk will be covered elsewhere but what struck me was that he was surprisingly passionate and relaxed, and also quite funny. He told an amusing off the cuff anedcote about Henry Ford that had everyone in the hall laughing, particularly the American chap next to me who said he told exactly the same off the cuff amusing anecdote last year and it went down equally well.

Over a British Business Leaders lunch, David Milliband spoke to a sea of venerable grey suited gentlemen including the Duke of York, Ken Livingstone, Lord Coe and about 75% of the bosses of the FTSE 100, when Brown swept in to say a few words. I found myself sitting next to Stelios and across from Terry Smith of Collins Stewart.

One of the more surreal moments today was when I stepped sharply out of the way to avoid being mown down by Queen Rania of Jordan and some tough looking minders only to find myself standing next to Prince Andrew who was chatting to someone. A couple of the Duke's staff were standing behind him when one of them pointed across the room and said "oooh look, it's Bono".

In the corridors, Peter Mandleson wandered along with a phone glued to his ear, whilst Hillary Benn and team marched in one direction and minutes later Tony Blair strode past in another.

It was the day the British took over Davos and actually we British delegates felt quite proud!

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Hey, Davos seems to work

It seems to me that Davos may actually work!

Let me explain. I have a long term ambition to build a network of charitable "gifted and talented" academies across Africa, modelled on the UK's national academy for gifted and talented established by Professor Deborah Eyre. If Davos is what is claims to be, then it ought to be able to grab an initiative like mine and help bring it to life. So, I thought I'd put it to the test.

I picked a few sessions that might be relevant to this goal - a session on Africa, one bringing technology and social entrepreneurs together and one on the fight against corruption. And I put my (limited) networking skills to work.

Low and behold a few hours later and I find myself in a series of conversations with a World Bank executive, the Vice Chancellor of a leading southern African university, the representative of a multi-billion dollar US charitable foundation and a former Education Minister. There is practical advice, suggestions, offers of introductions and genuine desire to hear more and to follow up outside of Davos.

If there are a thousand other initiatives going through the same cycle as we speak, if the power of the Davos network can turn a concept like this into reality then perhaps this thing called Davos really does work!

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

How not to Network

You win some, you lose some. I think I lost this one.

So, I`m standing around in the Davos conference hall having a cup of tea when I spot a face I recognise, lounging in a chair on his own not talking to anyone. The 30-something year old, multi-million dollar founder of one of the worlds most popular new Web companies. Ah ha! I stroll casually over, not too fast, don`t seem hungry.

Hi there, I say, I`m Tom (because I am and I can`t think of a better opening line).

"Chad" he says in that West Coast drawl, reaching out a hand.

Excellent. Now I know who he is. Got to make a connection fast. My mind whizzes through people I know that he works with. Then I go for it. "I was chatting to one of your guy, XYZ, a couple of weeks ago" I say casually by way of establishing common ground.

He looks slightly puzzled. "You know" I say "the guy at Facebook responsible for..." my words drain away as I glance down at his badge and read "Chad, YouTube".


The Late Helicopter

The Davos sessions kicked off in earnest this morning and as the theme of Davos this year is "The Power of Collaborative Innovation" I opted to attend a session on innovation- partly because one of the panellists was the excellent Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, probably the world's best innovative design firm.

There was a slight delay in starting because as the moderator jokingly said "we're missing someone who's helicopter is late" How we laughed. Except that a few minutes later the someone in question joined in and apologised because his helicopter was late!

The innovation session was held in a workshop area with about 200 people sitting in a very tight circle and the panellists in the centre, making us dizzy as they spun round to address us. Meanwhile two artists drew continuously on the massive whiteboard walls around us, capturing in very impressive sketches the essence of what was said. Makes a change from "can someone take a few notes please?".

Some great points were made about the need to focus on the question ("what is the innovation actually trying to address") rather than the clever answer that the innovation process might throw up. And I learnt a new phrase when someone, describing a project, said "well it was a partial success. A failure in fact".

We then did a quick exercise of writting down our favourite innovation of 2007 and swapping it with the person next two us, then putting the two together to come up with a breakthrough idea. The person next to me turned out to be the Malaysian Minister of Science and I can tell you we came up with a pretty damn good idea - if only I was allowed to tell you what it was.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

The Secret of Davos

I'm new to Davos. This is my first visit to the World Economic Forum here but I think I have figured out what the secret of Davos is.

For all the talk of global power-broking, changing the world and moving markets, the secret of Davos can be summed up in just one word.


Yes, snowboots. There are those with snowboots and those without. The Haves and the Have Nots. The Haves trudge merrily through the beautiful, crisp knee-deep Davos snow, smiling, waving to friends, networking, doing deals. The Have Nots slip and slide along in their once shiney black work shoes, staring intently at the ground, muttering and grumbling to themselves.

From my short experience so far (half a day) Davos seems to be a great leveller. You might be a billionaire but here, if you've forgotten your snowboots you'll slip and slide with the rest of them. Want to register when you arrive? Stand in the queue like everyone else, mate. I spotted two billionaire tech legends waiting their turn in the registration line with us mere mortals.

I think that may be part of the magic of this place. Everywhere else they go, these guys have flunkies running ahead, smoothing the way, opening doors. Everyone they meet grins and laughs at all their jokes. Here for five days they get to be regular folk, joining queues, collecting conference bags, carrying their own trays at lunch. There are so many incredible people that you have to be really, really incredible to stand out and being a mere billionaire, multinational CEO or government minister just doesn't quite do it. If you live most of your life in a bubble it must be quite a relief to be treated normally and not be stared at for a few days.

So, Davos is surprisingly democratic. It brings everyone down to earth (literally if you've forgotten your snowboots!) and for a brief moment everyone's equal. Well, almost everyone.

I was standing around at the Davos welcome reception in the Belverdere Hotel on Tuesday evening, abosrbing the amazing atmosphere and watching the hundreds of powerful people stroll around when a chap came up to me and said something in German. Sorry, I don't understand I replied. He repeated in English "Where is the toilet?". I looked surprised. "Ah" he said nervously "Don't you work here? I thought...". Yes, I know what you thought, old boy, you thought young-looking black man in a suit at Davos. Must be a waiter.

Oh well, c'est la vie. It's not the first time and it won't be the last, I fear. The Davos magic can get billionaires to line up for their lunch but we can't expect it to solve all the world's problems. Can we?

Of Snow and Schmoozing

In the departure lounge at London City Airport playing "spot the Davos Delegate". What sort of people are these 2,500 global business and political leaders? The confident senior looking, tanned executive with his 8am-diamond-wearing-model-looking-wife/partner7secretary? Probably. The young, geezer in the expensive leather jacket barking in to his mobile phone in an American accent? Could be. The slightly scruffy looking black guy with a battered shoulder bag? Not likely! (That last one`s me by the way.).

Anyway, off I go for five days of schmoozing in Davos. As I watch the plummeting stock market news on TV I can`t help smiling to myself at the thought of how much collective wealth the self satisfied Davos delegates must have lost in the past 24 hours. Until I remember that that includes me. Oh Cr@p.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Standing in a field, legs apart, arms like a windmill

At 8am every monday morning without fail I can be found standing in a field in North London with my legs apart and my arms flailing like a windmill.

I do this whether rain is falling or sun is shining. The early morning dog walkers look at me curiously, as if they would like to come over and smell just what sort of animal I am. The fitness fanatics in their lycra leggings flex their biceps at me accusingly, wondering what the hell I think I'm doing. But I carry on regardless.

I am not mad. Or rather, I may be mad but it is not this behavour that marks me out as such. No, I am practicing the Chinese martial art Tai Chi. Wu style tai chi to be exact.

Practicing Tai Chi is how I keep fit. It's an "internal" marshall art that emphasises soft power. It is performed in very slow, deliberate, stretching movements, steady breathing and careful balance. Yin Yang. My instructor tells me that I am potentially quite deadly, but as far as I can tell I am only deadly if I am attacked by a very, very slow and ideally blind opponent.

Tai Chi and the philosophy behind it has also come to inform how I think about strategy at Garlik too. Some start-up folk rush around like lunatics, bouncing from one thing to the next like tigger , and some VC guys like to see you rushing about, whether you are doing anything useful or not, just because that's what start-up guys are supposed to do isn't it?

However, I prefer slow, deliberate steps and careful balance. I always look for balance, yin and yang, soft and hard, dark and light, water and fire. This is actually quite easy to see in action if you look at what Garlik is doing, how the team is organised, how it is funded and how I ALWAYS look for options.

I think being an entrepreneur has a lot to do with balance, options and managing risk. People think that stepping out of your safe, corporate job to start your own company shows that you are a natural risk taker, but amongst entrepreneurs I have met that's not generally the case. The type of entrepreneurs I know well are often quite risk adverse and one of the key tools to managing the risk is to create options. By all means go flat out to execute plan A but however committed you are, always have a plan B ready to kick in.

I sometimes get told to focus everything on one single, clear outcome, that it's time to close down the options and just go for it. I tend to smile sweetly and keep my balance anyway. I'm sure the "go for it" approach works well for some people, but for me it's like someone saying "Tom, stop shifting from leg to leg when you walk, for goodness sake, just choose which leg is more important and focus on that one".

That's not to say that this is the right or only approach. It's just my approach. In fact its deeper than that, it's my philosophy. It's what I do.

So, next time someone asks me what the hell I am doing spending early Monday morning waving my hands around in a field in North London I will tell them "business strategy". And if they don't like it I will attack them with my deadly Tai Chi skills. Very, very slowly.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Bill Gates, Bollywood Dancers and Me

Next week I am going to a private ski resort in Switzerland with Bill Gates and a group of Bollywood dancers.

Oh, and a few thousand other people (but that's a mere detail....).

We're all going to Davos to attend the World Economic Forum Annual meeting. Garlik was selected as a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer 2008 and that means that I get invited to go along and rub shoulders with 27 Heads of State, hundreds of business, science, political and technology leaders and even a rock star or two!

This is the first year that I have been invited so I really don't know what to expect. All I know is that one of the Indian delegations is hosting a Bollywood themed evening and that I will be attending. Condoleezza Rice is going to be speaking too, and I hope the two events don't clash because Condi is very impressive and all that but let's face it Bollywood is Bollywood.

As I said I don't really know what to expect but I think you go to lots of presentations about how to fix the world's problems (one of which I am speaking at), attend lots of cocktail parties and power breakfasts (I never feel particularly powerful before about 10am, unfortunately) and NETWORK.

"Networking" is an essential skill for someone trying to build a business. In fact it is probably the key skill. Don't have a killer idea? Network with people who do and one of them will come and work with you. No money? Network with money-men. Can't write software to save your life? Enter the mysterious world of geekdom and may be someone really smart will come and play. It's all about networking.

So, Davos will involve a couple of thousand people holed up in a Swiss Ski resort for 5 days networking like crazy. "Hi, I'm Tom, let's do lunch...", "Hey dude, Tom here, fancy a power breakfast?, "Helloooo ladies, my name's Tom and you'all must be from Bollywood!".

The problem is that I am what is commonly known as an introvert so the idea of 5 solid days of networking makes me slightly queasy. I find it a bit difficult to walk up to strangers, grinning inanely and just start talking to them. I might not have anything to say. They might not be interested. How do I start - "do you come here often?".

People just assume that entrepreneurs must be extroverts, quite happy to talk to anyone about anything at any time, but it's not always like that. Certainly a lot are. But some of us are introverts and it's more of an effort to network. We tend to be more focused about it. We build relationships with less people perhaps but they will often be deeper relationships and it will be because we think there is genuinely something in common, some shared understanding. It's a different style. Both can and do work - extrovert networking and introvert networking - but you really have to find your own style and not try to be something you aren't.

Actually, some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world are introverts. Bill Gates for one. I met him a few years back when he and I did a presentation together in London to about a thousand people. It was very interesting. Before the presentation we were introduced to each other. I was waiting in the empty presentation hall when 5 or 6 security guys swept in to the room and spread out, followed by Bill and his assistant. They came up to me and he stuck out his hand, slightly nervously I thought, and said "Hi I'm Bill". I was slightly taken aback and was tempted to say "No, you don't say, get outta here, you're kiddin' me right?" but instead, glancing at the security guys who all glanced back at me, I plumped for "Hi, I'm Tom".

So, off to Davos next week. I've been asked by the FT to blog daily from there so I'll share what it's like for a newbie amongst the great and the good and if I manage to record a video of me Bollywood dancing I'll be sure to post it here :-)

Monday, 14 January 2008

When I Grow Up

When I grow up I am going to be a teacher.

Sort of.

Well, an educationalist (is that a real word?). A professional educator.

I think it is very important for an entrepreneur to have strong interests outside of your primary venture. Your start-up can be so all consuming, so emotionally draining, so hard that sometimes it overwhelms you. When the pressure becomes crushing and you wake up with tears just behind your eyes at the thought of yet another VC pitch, yet another high pressure interview, yet another technical knife edge challenge, you will need another reason beyond your venture to get you out of bed that morning. You will get up because you know that you can only play your BIG GAME if your venture succeeds.

However big the vision for your company, and for me I really want Garlik to become a global success story, it needs to sit inside an even bigger vision of what you are going to be when you "grow up".

Well when I grow up, I am going to build schools in Africa. And when life as an entrepreneur gets tough for me, I remember that if I am successful I get to play the BIG GAME and that brings me bouncing right back.

But I'm not going to build just any old schools. I want to make my contribution in a way that has the potential to cause a transformation in Africa in years to come. Africa is an amazing continent with amazing people and it's prospects will be transformed through the talents of its own people. And from my experience there are some exceptionally talented people, some real genuises. But a huge amount of that talent never sees the light of day due to the harsh realities of African life for many. I sometimes wonder how much true genius has been wasted over the years, never seeing the light of day. So, I want to build schools for geniuses in Africa.

It's a big challenge. There are something like 800m people in Africa and it is the youngest continent with 44% of its population being under 15 i.e. a continent with over 350 million young people!

Now identifying "gifted" children varies a lot but in the UK, for example, the National Academy of Gifted & Talented Youth aimed to identify the top 5% of the population as the "gifted & talented" pool. If this cut off is applied to Africa then there is a pool of over 17m gifted and talented young people in Africa.

17m gifted and talented children! That is staggering but if only these young people could be identified, inspired, supported and unleashed, imagine what could happen on the continent of Africa. So, that it what I and a few others are setting out to do. We are going to build a network of Gifted and Talented Academies across Africa from North to South, East to West, in partnership with a continent wide network of governments, charities and companies.

I am right at the start of this journey and at the moment it seems like a completely impossible challenge but, boy, does it feel worth doing. This is the most exciting stage of a new venture and I have found that there is no difference between this stage of starting up a commercial venture or a charitable venture. You are staring nervously at a blank sheet of paper, holding the pen, dreaming up schemes, pitching vision and possibility, inspiring people and partners who can help and gradually, step by step it starts to take shape, starts to become real.

The scale of the challenge and the problems we will face are breath-taking, but you know, for me, taking on huge, impossible challenges makes life worth living and when life as an entrepreneur gets really, really tough then I can think if 17 million good reasons to keep driving forwards.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

I am an Art Importer from Morocco

The only sentence I can say clearly and with complete confidence in French is "I am an art importer from Morocco".

When I was Chief Information Officer of Egg plc, the online bank, I was told that it would be good if I could introduce myself to my Egg France technology team in French, even if I only knew a few words. So, naturally I stood up in front of my hundred strong team in Paris and declared with complete confidence "I am an art importer from Morocco". Complete confusion resulted (although I did manage to shift a couple of paintings and a broken vase...)

There are two problems with this.

1) I am not an art importer
2) I am not from Morocco

Actually there is a third problem and that is that in order to build Garlik in to a really big business, I need to go "international" and it turns out that not everyone speaks English in "international".

This afternoon I did a long telephone interview with Les Echo, one of France's leading daily papers. I resisted the temptation to sell Moroccan art but despite the fact that the journo spoke excellent English, I did feel that I would have done a much better job of representing the company if I spoke French. And in a few weeks time I am going over to accept an award on Garlik's behalf and I will be doing a presentation in English to a largly French business and technology audience. Yikes! Perhaps its time to bite the bullet and learn a language.

But I've tried that before. About 20 years ago I decided it would be really useful to be able to speak Japanese. Don't ask why. I found a book that stated quite clearly that if I just followed a few simple instructions I would be fluent within 10 days. They lied. Months later I could only say two things. "Ministry of Education". And "toothpaste". To this very day I have never had cause to call upon this rare ability.

And anyway, what language should I learn? This year we are looking at expanding in to countries ranging from India to China to Brazil. I explained to my wife that for work purposes I needed to live on the beaches of Rio for a few months to learn the language and really absorb the culture and that was a sacrifice I was willing to make for the company. Following an immediate strategy review with her, it turns out that Brazil is not quite as high up on the agenda as I had thought !

No, I fear that I am destined to roam around the world "S P E A K I N G V E R Y C L E A R L Y" to everyone I meet. And if while I am at it I get the opportunity to flog them some Moroccan art, well, why not?

Monday, 7 January 2008

Jeremy Clarkson vs My Son

First proper day back at work after the Xmas break and it's been a typical day in the life of a tech entrepreneur.

We spent the whole day with our VCs discussing strategy and funding for 2008 and beyond. In true "early stage" style one minute we are discussing micro detail on budgets and the next minute planning which major countries to launch in later this year.

I had to get back home sharpish as it was my son's birthday today and we had the whole family over this afternoon to have tea and birthday cake. At about 6pm, halfway through the party, I got a call from BBC News 24 asking if I could come in straight away to do a live interview about the Jeremy Clarkson story.

What is the Jeremy Clarkson story? Well, the TV presenter was making light of the loss of 25m people's data by HMRC effectively saying "so what? Why all the fuss - what's the worst that could happen if someone gets your bank details?". To prove his point he published his bank details daring these so called ID fraudsters to have a go. To prove their point a fraudster immediately set up a direct debit and extracted £500 from his account. It's true. Don't laugh.

So, I get a call halfway through my son's birthday party asking if I will rush in to do a live piece and provide an expert comment on this story. Jeremy Clarkson vs My son? BBC prime time interview with an audience of milions vs Family Birthday Party? Just how commited am I to building Garlik into a $Bn sucess by seizing every single opportunity that presents itself?? Hmmm, clearly not THAT committed. Sorry BBC, no can do.

I told them that I could do an interview after 9pm but not before, so they rang off.

Ten minutes later they rang back saying okay, can you make 9.45pm? That works. So now I move in to a routine that has become familiar over the past 18 months. It's interesting, a couple of years ago I hadn't done any broadcast interviews but now I must have done 50 radio and TV interviews. That's one of the great advantages of being a "start up guy". You get to try things and challenge yourself in ways that just don't arise in corporate life.

So what's the routine?

Step 1 - background research: what's the story exactly and what's our view on it, always looking from a consumer perspective?

Step 2 - think through the 6 to 10 questions the interviewer may ask. Write out your answers and commit them to memory.

Step 3 - turn up 15 minutes early and ready to go. Always 15 minutes early.

This type of interview, a brief segment as part of a rolling news agenda, will always be 3 or 4 questions. It will always take 2 minutes max.

The first question will set it up. The interviewer outlines the story in a couple of sentences, introduces the guest (in this case me) withe words like "to discuss this we are joined by ....." and then says "So, Tom, what do you think about...?". You've got to have your first sentence burnt in to your brain. You know exactly what you are going to say and whatever you say must not last more than 30 seconds. Snappy and direct.

The second question opens it up a bit. It tends to be a "how serious an issue is this?" type of question. The third and final will be a "so what should people do?" question and for that you need to be able to list the 2 or 3 practical steps that people can take.

When I started doing broadcast interviews I was quite nervous and I still get butterflies every time I do them, but now that I understand the formular it makes it that bit easier. I got great media training before I started and I would strongly recommend getting properly trained. As the founder or CEO of a start up you need to be able to talk to the press professionally about your area of expertise and your company.

So, off I go to BBC Television Centre. Arrive at 9.30pm for the 9.45 interview. Wait in an empty reception (me and two chauffeurs waiting to take guests home. It's not nearly as glamorous as you might think). Nice researcher chap takes me up to the studio and leaves me on a sofa. No make up this evening (it's too late I guess - anyway that beats the embarrasement of having a make up lady put brown colouring on the top of my head to cut out the glare - again!). Sit about for 15 mins rehearsing the answers over and over in my mind as the guy from Virgin Atlantic does his 2 minutes followed by the film makers from Iraq. Studio manager calls me over, plonks me in a chair and sticks a mike on my lapel. Interviewer shakes hands, flashes a smile, asks how to pronounce my name (again), looks away and starts reading the autocue. 3-2-1 bang, you're on air to several million viewers...."to discuss this we are joined by Tom Ilube of online identity company Garlik...". Then before you can blink it's over. Studio manager guides you back to the sofa. Chap takes you down to the exit and eases you gently out into the cold night air. It's done.

Back home just in time to help tidy up after the party and say goodnight. Read and deal with a ton of emails. Phew. It's 1am and I'm just about finished. Working Day Number One of 2008. It's going to be quite a year!

Friday, 4 January 2008

Why Mr Bojangles?

Good question.

I have finally decided to start a blog, about being a tech entrepreneur, about digital identity, about my company Garlik, about building schools, about whatever feels important to me really. And the first step was to choose a platform and set up the blog.

All was going well until I reached the stage in the set up process where it says "What's the title for your blog?".

Hmmm, tricky. Something deadly serious like "How to build VC backed companies" or "Digital Identity Matters"? Something playful? Something personal? I agonised over this for about half an hour.

Then I got it. Mr Bojangles. My favourite ever song - especially the Sammy Davis jr. version ( It's a celebration of a life, a happy, sad celebration and I love it. There's a verse that goes

"I met him in a cell in New Orleans, I was
Well, I was down and out
He looked at me to be the very eyes of age
As he spoke right out
Talked of life, Lord, that man talked of life, and laughed
Slapped his leg a step
He said his name was Bojangles, then he danced a lick
Right across the cell"

"Talked of life, Lord, that man talked of life, and laughed" - it strikes me that that's all a blog needs to be. So here's mine. I'll talk of life and laugh.

And one day, when I grow up and stop trying to build companies, I am going to learn to tap dance and I'm going to put on a performance of Mr Bojangles and feel HappySad