Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Until Lions have their own storytellers

There is an old African proverb that says "until lions have their own storytellers, tales of the hunt will always favour the hunter".

I feel a bit like that whenever I read about the latest venture capital triumph. How such and such a firm got a "ten X" return (ten times its investment back) when one of its companies was sold. Sometimes the entrepreneur will also get a little mention. Hurrah!

I do worry that the entrepreneurs voice is not being heard loud enough. Where are the start-up storytellers? If we don't tell the stories of the entrepreneurs struggles and achievements we won't attract the talent in to the start-up industry in the UK. Young guys will continue to try to make it from corporate/banking/accounting life straight in to venture capital land bypassing the stage of getting their hands dirty wrestling with a real, live start up.

But there is no substitute for experience. Just remember, as the village elders say "it is the woman whose child has been eaten by a witch who best knows the evils of witchcraft".

It is incredibly tough being an entrepreneur and I am as much in awe of the guys who have started something up, and worked flat out only to see it fail as the handful who strike it lucky. There is so much to learn from people who have been though tough times but you rarely hear anything from them in the UK where we are quick to sweep any hint of failure under the carpet. After all is it not said "do not look where you fell, look where you slipped"?

The entrepreneur who has been though tough times will have an intuition about what steps to take that can't be taught from a textbook. Our people say "the hunter does not cover his body in oil then lie down by the fire to sleep at night".

The true entrepreneur with a big vision will keep focused on his goal ("the hunter on the trail of an elephant does not stop to throw stones at birds"). He will gather a great team around him ("it takes a village to raise a child"). He will make sure his company is recognised ("the African sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them") and he will seize opportunities when the arise ("a child's fingers are not scalded by a piece of hot yam which his mother puts in to his palm").

All entrepreneurs that I know, even the very successful ones, are very aware of how normal they are really. We all put on a brave front and puff out our chests but we know our limitations ("even the mightiest eagle comes down to the treetops to sleep") and any up and coming entrepreneurs should bear this in mind ("looking at a Chief's mouth, one would never think he sucked his mothers breast").

Of course, it isn't all straight forwards and sometimes you do end up in a mess ("the disobedient fowl obeys in a pot of soup") but contrary to most observers preconceptions, it's not all about the exit. The fun for the entrepreneur is the journey itself. It's that first pitch. You first employee. Printing your first business card. The first time someone pays you £1 for your work. The first time a newspaper mentions your company in an article.
All these steps, all these milestones, waking up every morning to face the new challenge of the day is what being a start-up guy is all about. After all, "every morning that the lion wakes up, it knows that it must outrun the gazelle or it will starve to death."

Saturday, 22 March 2008

What's going on?

If you were dining on the second floor of the Imperial China restaurant, Soho, London on Thursday evening you may have heard someone delivering a truely awful rendition of Marvin Gaye's 1980s classic "Sexual Healing". Okay, I have a confession to make. Yes, it was me singing and I hereby make a full and unreserved public apology.

In mitigation, let me give you the background.

Thursday afternoon was Garlik's Awayday. We try to have an awayday once a quarter, workload permitting. We all clear off to do some fun stuff as a team to let our hair down (or whatever the equivalent is if as in my case the hair no longer has the capacity to go down). It's great for team building. Even in a small team working in a single, open plan office it is still important to create space and time for people to get to know each other.

So the order of the day was


Ten Pin Bowling


Chinese meal with Karaoke


Unless you were me, in which case it was

Meeting with Government official discussing the future of the identity assurance market

Ten Pin Bowling

Conference call with investment banker in Boston discussing an interesting opportunity to accelerate growth in the US market

Chinese meal with Karaoke

Bunch of late night emails

Oh, well. C'est la vie.

The bowling was good fun. I scored a commendable 127 on my second match and looked to be heading for highest score when one of the lads pipped me at the post with 128, getting an extra vital pin off his last ball of the evening. Hey, I don't understand it. Whatever happened to letting the Boss win? Idi Amin, the ex-Ugandan dictator, never lost a basketball match or a swimming race. Why am I subject to this ignominy?

Then on to the restaurant. This is where it all went wrong. I had a game plan. Retain a Boss-like aloofness. Smile and play along but don't get involved in the singing . I don't drink so there was no danger of getting tipsy. All I had to do was sit tight. But oh no. I just couldn't hold out. Found myself miming along to the Spice Girls. Dropped a bit of Black Eyed Peas. Screamed at the top of my voice whilst doing the one-armed-steering-wheel movements to Rolling Rolling Rolling Rolling. And then some joker puts Marvin Gaye on and I grab the mike and start crooning "when I get this feeling, I need sexual healing".


Wednesday, 12 March 2008

"S'cuse me Sir, Sir, you're rubbish Sir"

I have pitched to billionaire Silicon Valley VCs. I have presented alongside Bill Gates to an audience of 1,000 geeks. I have lectured MPs and Lords on data protection in a committee room at the Houses of Parialment. I have been interviewed on TV in front of an audience of millions. But there is nothing more terrifying than what I got up to yesterday morning. Being the guest speaker at school assembly to 120 15-year old boys. YIKES!

The great thing about talking to students is that you get immediate feedback. They don't bother too much with being polite. If you are boring, they fall asleep right in front of you. If your killer jokes don't work, they just look at you blankly. If you ask for questions, they look steadfastly at their feet. Or the "cheeky one" puts his hand up and says "S'cuse me Sir, why are you talking rubbish, Sir?".

But I enjoy it. Whenever I am asked to speak to students I try to make the time. Because if you do manage to say something that connects with them, they actually engage with you in a way that most business people have forgotten how to. There is none of the lazy "seen it all before" cynicism that you get from some grown-up audiences. If you say something interesting, the eyes open, they sit up, lean forwards and you just get the sense that perhaps you have inspired someone to head off in a direction that they might not have done.

So, off I trotted to Assembly at 8.30am. Actually these lads were very well behaved. They shuffled in to assembly quietly, in orderly lines. The teacher said "Up, boys" and they lept to their feet like a well disciplined army to say "Goodmorning Sir". Then I ranted at them for about 20 minutes (a handful of slides with pictures, not bullet points, punchy and outrageously bold statements, the odd mention of money, cars and sex and you can't go wrong).

I finished my talk (about building web businesses) and the teacher barked "right applause you lot" so like a dutiful Soviet-era audience they clapped formally in unison.
Then I went for it. "Who wants to see my cheesy magic trick?"

This got them going. "Go on then, Sir" a few muttered sceptically.

So I climbed up on a chair, wobbled a bit, reached upward and hey presto, performed my cheesy trick.
There were gasps of amazement. Some boys even shouted out loud. Teachers hushed them. I smiled and left the stage and this time they burst in to spontaneous applause and excitable chatter.

So, my advice is this. When faced with the scariest audience in the world - a few hundred teenage students - make sure you've got a cheesy magic trick up your sleeve.
Oh and by the way, I'm also available for Weddings and Bar Mitzvahs :-)

Saturday, 8 March 2008

All the presidents men

I love a good movie. Particular those really slow, complex political thrillers where nothing much happens for hours on end. All the best ones have a mysterious chap who pops up, provides key bits of information and then vanishes in to thin air. All The Presidents Men is a great example of the genre. Remember Deep Throat? (To any male reader aged 40 and over - no, I don't mean Linda Lovelace). I mean the unnamed FBI source who fed the Washington Post reporters with information about Watergate, from the shadows of an underground parking lot. What a great film.
Last week my very own Deep Throat popped up, causing a huge amount of debate and forcing decisions that might have far reaching consequences for Garlik's relationship with the Government. Or might not. We really don't know.

I got an email out of the blue from a concerned member of the public who had some very interesting information about the way the UK Government handles our personal information. He had heard about Garlik's role in acting for the individual and wanted us to publicise the issues so that something could be done about it. He had worked really hard, investigating the issue over a year or more, using the Freedom of Information laws to demand answers from about 15 difference government departments and the answers he got confirmed his fears.

Well, we and our PR company spent hours debating the issue, whether we wanted to be involved, getting legal advice on the issue itself, figuring out the best way to package up the research for media consumption, working out different approaches to the media and worrying about the government response. Finally I took the decision that we should go for it.

I felt a bit like one of those newspaper editors with a controversial story who says "Hold the front page. Let's run this story and damn the consequences" and then strolls calmly out of the office with a jacket slung casually over his shoulder.

Except in this case, I didn't actually have a newspaper at my disposal. Nor a jacket. And if I strolled out of the office, then there would be no-one left in the office to actually "run" the story. But, hey, it felt a bit like it.

Anyway, we wrote the press release, did our homework and hit the phones to the media. We sent the press release to every newspaper, every radio and TV outlet and lots of online magazines. The story is embargoed (can't be printed) until Monday 10th March, so we won't know until Monday morning what the impact is.

You never can tell with the press. After all this, you just need a funny looking cat to get stuck up a tree and suddenly our story will disappear and the papers will be filled with pictured of cats and trees and interviews with neighbours of the cat owner. Or it will be a slow news day and our story will front page news. I have no idea and no way of knowing. So, we just wait and see.

And if it does hit big and make an impact, what is the Government response going to be? Will it ignore it, keep it's head down and let the issue pass in the hopes that it will go away? Will it look at it reasonably, take some notice and do something about it? Or will it go on the attack and start ripping me to shreds for raising the issue in the first place? We'll see.

So, my very own Deep Throat has potentially led me in to a storm. Or it might end up being a light spring shower and just blow over. I'll find out on Monday. All the Presidents Men? Damn. I knew I should have stuck with the Linda Lovelace version.