Sunday, 29 June 2008

Departure lounge

Another week, another departure lounge. When I started Garlik I had hoped to be travelling less than in the past as I like being at home (hence my cunning strategy of setting up the office 10 minutes walk from where I live whilst creating a whole cover story about "attractive place to work, good links to London, close to Heathrow"). However here I am on a Sunday afternoon sitting in Gatwick departure lounge waiting for a flight to Warsaw, Poland.

Last week it was Geneva for part two of the UN Agency meetings that I am involved in. We gathered in a different conference room this time (this one had a few small windows but otherwise was identitcal to the last) and we argued for some hours about the difference between "the" and "a", and whether we were within or outside our mandate. I am sensing that my future does not lie in the world of international diplomacy.

Today I am off to Warsaw, Poland to meet with our software partner, Software Mind. At Garlik we decided from the start to adopt a mixed inhouse/outsource development model. We have a very smart core technical team of permanent employees in house and a long term (3 years nearly) partnership with our Polish software partner. That allows us to flex the team up and down as needs be whilst getting the advantage of having access to cost effective, expert software engineers close to hand. Some people worry about how adaptable you can be if you use an offshore developer and I have certainly found with other locations that you have to specify everything to infinite detail before sending it off shore for development. But we use an entirely agile approach and we have found a way of working with our partner that enables this.

I chose Poland and in particular Krakow, which is where Software Mind is based, because their Universities produce excellent mathematicians and computer scientists in quite large numbers and they work incredibly hard.

However there is a lot of competition for the good guys over there and I once asked the Director there what they do if they run out of good people to recruit. He said they have forged some relationships in the Ukraine because their Universities produce excellent mathematicians and computer scientists in quite large numbers and they work incredible hard.

I wonder what they do in the Ukraine when recruitment get tight?

Anyway, off we go again. Sounds like my plane being called....

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Laws of nature

There are certain immutable laws of nature and the timing of delivery vans is one of them. My new TV was due to arrive today. I was given a 4 hour window. It would arrive sometime between 8am and 12 noon.

I waited and waited. Wife and kids went out. I decided to have a quick shower, knowing perfectly well that the immutable laws of nature dictate that the delivery van would arrive as soon as I stepped in to the shower.

Ah ha! I know how to cheat fate. I put on the shower, took a step in, then jumped back and ran downstairs. But no delivery van. I did this three more times (thank goodness there are no webcams in my house - people would think I was mad). Strangely, still no van. Hmmmm.

Oh well, let's risk it. Stripped off and stepped in to the shower (see picture of me in shower here....).

You back with me yet? Did you really click on that link?

Okay, stepped in to shower. Covered my head in bubbles. And sure enough, a van pulls up, the doorbell goes...

Why does the universe work like that?

Thursday, 26 June 2008

All a Board

Yesterday I sat fuming on the big red Number 33 bus as it crawled agonisingly slowly through traffic, conspiring with the workmen digging up the road to make me late for my monthly Board meeting. Ah yes, the dreaded monthly Board meeting. Something for you to look forwards to once you have taken money from external investors!

When I talk to entrepreneurs about raising VC money, one of the things that sometimes puts them off is the idea of having the dreaded monthly board meeting with their VCs. I don’t think VCs realise how much of a hurdle that is for the average start up guy and how for some the heart sinks and stress levels rise as that time comes round again.

The way the entrepreneur sees it, if you have sweated blood and hung your reputation out there to get your company off the ground, hustled and bustled to kick it in to life, ducked and dived to keep it alive, it can be really galling to be sitting opposite some guys who turn up once a month, ask what the name of your company is again and then proceed to tell you everything you are doing wrong.

In reality, the experience depends hugely on you, on how much you prepare, on what your investors are like and what motivates them.

Preparation is key. When you guys were tucked up in your beds last weekend, I was up at 7am on Sunday morning preparing the monthly Board pack. Your Board pack should include a standing agenda, the CEO’s briefing note, the monthly management accounts, last months minutes and a dashboard showing the key metrics that drive your business at a glance. Putting the Board pack together is a team effort.Various people provide their input and I spent about 6 hours a month reviewing it, writing bits and putting it all together. It should be consistent from month to month, professionally put together and delivered to all interested parties on time every month. Don’t “wing it”! Preparation & professionalism will make for positive Board meetings.

I tend to write a 3 page Board briefing note and I find it a useful way to stand back and have a think about what we’ve done and what we aim to do next month. As an entrepreneur, you and the team tend to hustle day to day, jumping from one thing to the next so one of the real advantages of the monthly Board meeting is that it makes you stop and think. You put on your strategic hat. You look at every aspect of your business from micro details to macro trends. You look at all the financials and other key metrics. Board prep is your monthly stock take and it’s very useful.

However despite all this preparation the experience still depends hugely on what your investors are like. Smart or stupid? Aligned with each other or squabbling? Do they do their homework – do they read your Board pack? We had a new investor at yesterdays Board meeting (welcome, Ms NewMoney :-) and shockingly she had actually read my Board note and marked it up in yellow marker with margin notes and so on. Blimey – glance at it by all means, but don’t get carried away!

In a previous company we had a “shouty” investor on the Board. His one tactic was to be calm and level headed and then at some point just turn on someone and start shouting about something, anything. He was very, very smart and very, very successful in his own right but it made for completely useless Board meetings from my perspective. Everyone was stressed in the run up to the Board. Everyone was waiting for him to explode at the start of the meeting. Everyone was angry by the end of the meeting. So if you’ve got one or more of that type of VC on your Board then, boy, you’ve got a problem.

But if you’ve got a good dynamic, like we have, and VCs who know what they are doing then the monthly Board meeting can be really useful for a start up. New ideas and contacts emerge, you are grilled on some points, patted on the back on others. You take stock regularly instead of just rolling from one thing to the next.

So overall, I think start up guys should get in to the habit of having regular, structured monthly Board meetings with at least one outsider on the Board as early in the process as you can. It’s two hours well spent (or in my case one hour thirty minutes because of that blasted big red bus).

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Dr. House, Unmasked

So, I took my lovely daughter to the hospital yesterday for a check up. She had an ECG and we sat down with the consultant to talk through the results.

The consultant talked to my daughter whilst I sat in the background, taking a few notes. At one point the consultant said "we will do something called a Tilt-table test".

Ah yes, said my daughter, my Dad has told me about the tilt table test.
Consultant turns sharply to me as I sit with my notebook in the corner. "Are you in the medical profession?" She asks suspiciously.

"Well, not as such, no errrr errr..." I start to burble and just manage to catch my daughter's eye in time to stop her from revealing that all my medical knowledge comes directly from Series 1, 2 and 3 of House.

Friday, 13 June 2008

My mid-life crisis

I am looking forwards to my mid-life crisis. I am not sure when I am supposed to get started or what it involves exactly, but I got some good ideas at a couple of events I attended this week. On Tuesday I joined Ben Verwaayen, ex-CEO of BT, for lunch and on Thursday I attended a breakfast with the management guru, Charles Handy.

They were quite different events. Lunch with Ben was a serious affair. About 15 of us round a table at a private members club. Suit and ties all round. A 20 minute speech and a well managed Q&A session. Breakfast with Charles was a new age affair. Fifty people lounging around on arm chairs and sofas sipping coffee as Charles wandered about and told stories, a random burst of Italian opera singing (true) from the host and a series of personal photos.

What tied the two events together was the journey of middle aged men transforming their lives and setting off in a new direction. In Ben's case, in his mid 50s and from his perch at the top of BT he discovered "green". As he said, you don't have to have blue hair and have a pin through your nose to be green these days (for the rest of the lunch, he was imprinted on my mind in his suit and tie but with blue hair and a pin through his nose). Ben spoke passionately about saving the planet one step at a time, despite having be very sceptical about it all a few years ago. He has clearly decided that getting business to take action to save the planet is a key part of his future lifes work and he is tackling it in a very focused, business like way.

Charles Handy's message over breakfast was most interesting. He talked about making that transformational step in your life when you are on the up and up, before you have peaked, not when you are on the way out or down. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have a unique approach to helping you work out what really matters in your life through photography. They work with you to create a still-life photo, consisting of five items and a flower. You select just five items that define you plus a flower and you arrange them in a way that reflects who you are and what matters to you. The value comes in the conversations about your items and your arrangement but there is beauty and poetry in the process. Take a look at his new book, The New Philanthropists, where a whole host of successful people have created their still-lives and talked about themselves in this way.

The breakfast was organised by a splendid chap called David Pearl. A former opera singer turned management coach and business consultant, David is a larger than life character. He has created a very interesting year long course, or journey might be a better description, for relatively successful people who want to explore what next in their lives. It involves time away in Italian Villas eating, drinking and exploring life with eminent philosophers, scientists, artists, musicians. It involves exhibitions in London. Chance meetings on street corners with brilliant thinkers. It sounds like a year long adventure in the middle of your life that will help you discover for yourself that next transformational step. Fascinating idea. Not one for me (yet) but it's a fascinating idea nonetheless.

The "five items" thing is quite interesting. Selecting just five items that define you as a person is harder than you would think. As we went in to breakfast we were shown a few tables of what looked like bric-a-brac and invited to pick something that caught our eye. I found it quite challenging to decide what to pick that represented me. After much agonising (as a queue formed behind me) I picked a broken pair of little round glasses, the sort you balance on the end of your nose and look over the top of. I tried them on back in the office and was told I looked like a cross between the Dalai Lama and a Womble. Now they sit next to me on the table, demanding an explanation. Hmmmm.

Peoples explanation can be a bit of a surprise. The attractive, softly spoken young lady sitting next to me had picked a cute looking, tiny pink boxing glove. Why did you pick that, I asked? Because I box for a hobby and boxing let's me externalise the anger, she smiled...

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Licence to print money

This evening I had dinner at the famous Ballroom at The Dorchester, Park Lane with some guys who have a licence to print money. I mean these guys are making bundles of cash. Literally. It was the annual dinner of the Diplomatic Corps hosted by De La Rue, a company that prints money, passports, identity cards and other secure documents for about 150 countries worldwide.

I didn't really know who the Diplomatic Corps were until I got there. It turns out that is the collective phrase for the London based Ambassadors of every country in the world. They very rarely all gather together in one place at one time but they did this evening for the 76th annual De La Rue dinner and for some reason that I still don't fully understand I got invited too.

I sat between the Ambassador of El Salvador and the High Commissioner for Mauritius and opposite the Ambassador of Angola. The Ambassador of Myanmar (Burma) was supposed to be opposite too which would have been interesting but the chair was empty. General Sir Mike Jackson GCB CBE DSO DL, former head of the British Army gave the after dinner speech. It was all very "grown up" but once I got in to it, it was a fascinating evening, hanging out with over 100 Ambassadors and High Commissioners. I even tried "small talk".

Tom (trying "small talk" with a very experienced Ambassador) "So, have you been following the US primaries"

Ambassador (looks blankly at Tom, pauses, then hoots with laughter) "What do you think?"

I didn't bother much with small talk after that! I just told them jokes instead. That seemed to work better and two of them exchanged cards with me (but what does one do with an Ambassadors card? Do I email them tomorrow and say "Hi there, we hung out last night, remember? Fancy a beer sometime?").

From a business point of view, the evening was an object lesson in managing your franchise in a very British way. De La Rue sell their banknote printing and other services to countries and have done very successfully for nearly 200 years. Their customers are countries and they have established a rock solid franchise. Since 1932 they have hosted this dinner for the assembled masses of the Diplomatic Corps, and it has become established to the extent that it is now a firm fixture on the Diplomatic calendar.

No business is discussed at the dinner. That's not how it's done. The Chairman of De La Rue says a few words but then fades gently in to the background. This is not a hard sell set up. It is just the annual dinner hosted by De La Rue. Gentlemen chatting to gentleman over a very nice dinner (if you like that sort of think. Raw tuna! Yuck. What's that about? Thank goodness I had a big plate of mash potato at home before I went) and a few very nice glasses of wine and port (if you like that sort of thing; I drank orange juice). But De La Rue know what they are doing. It's all about the strengthening the franchise.

You've got to nurture your franchise if you want to build a business for the long term and De La Rue's 200 years illustrates the success of this approach. They don't rush around like headless chickens, chasing the next deal, the new client and forgetting about the old. They invest in, build and nurture the core franchise, year in and year out and sure enough year in and year out business flows.

I remember exactly the same language being used at Goldman Sachs, the worlds most successful investment bank with 125 years of history behind it when I worked there in the mid 90's. The markets were tough. The Partner in charge of our area called us all together and told us to focus on the franchise. It's all about the core franchise. Build it, nurture it and it will look after you through good times and bad. Good advice for Garlik I think.

It's also good advice, sometimes, to ask dumb questions of people who you know just love to talk. After His Excellency had stopped laughing at my silly "USA primaries" question, he and the other two proceeded to give me an Ambassadors view of Obama, Clinton and the sweep of American politics. Fascinating!

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

The wrong socks

My big sister bought me a pack of socks for my last birthday with the days of the week embroidered on them. Monday’s socks are red. Tuesday’s blue and so on. A pair of socks for each day of the week. Now, I have discovered something quite interesting about myself. I am unable to wear the wrong socks. I have tried and tried but I am completely unable to step out of the house wearing Tuesday’s socks on a Wednesday. Is this wrong?

More importantly, does this disqualify me as an entrepreneur and therefore should I do the right thing, take my embroidered socks to my VCs offices, slap them on the table and declare that I am unfit to be CEO of Garlik? Surely entrepreneurs are innovative, daring, risk-takers? I do not know for certain that anything bad will happen if I walk down the street in the wrong socks but the way I look at it, hey, why take the chance?

People assume that entrepreneurs are extrovert, risk taking, dare devils but actually you can be a successful entrepreneur whatever your personality type. You just have to play it your way. I have a slightly odd personality type. I can’t wear the wrong socks on the wrong day. I yelp with delight when a train arrives exactly on time to the second. I plan my spontaneous, off the cuff jokes sometimes months in advance. I am, in Myers Briggs terminology, an extreme INFJ personality type.

In simple terms this means I am, amongst other things, extremely introvert (if you ever meet me, don’t actually speak to me as it will freak me out) and extremely structured (my “To Do” list has entries on it such as “Plan tomorrow’s To Do list”). These might be considered rather odd traits for an entrepreneur but it just goes to show that you don’t have to be a gregarious, spontaneous type, such as say an ENTP to be an entrepreneur.

Not that there is anything wrong with ENTPs too. Some of my best friends are ENTPs. When I worked at the online bank, Egg plc, I was surrounded by the blighters, rushing around trying to talk to me all the time. My goodness. We used to have meetings and all these ENTPs would just start talking to each other, all at the same time, bouncing from topic to topic, inventing, exploring. I could hardly get a word in edgeways and I could never tell whether the meeting had actually started or whether we were just chatting randomly before the meeting starts.

I remember one meeting that was supposed to last an hour. At the end of the hour I prepared to leave. The Boss asked where I was going. I said, well, the meeting was in my diary for an hour and the hour is up so the meeting must be finished. But, he said, we haven’t finished discussing the issues and besides, did I have another meeting to go to? No I said, but the meeting was an hour and an hour is up. We finally compromised on the basis that the first meeting was over and we were now starting a second, completely different meeting, so I settled back in to my seat and prepared to sit silently and listen to another hour of random, spontaneous, extrovert idea generation.

However whilst any of us can be entrepreneurs it is essential to have a really good mix of personality types in the team. Us introvert entrepreneurs need to be surrounded by extroverts to bring us out, to mix with contacts, to network, to get the brainstorms going. The extroverts need us introverts to absorb all those words flying around and then sit silently and ponder, to think deeply and weigh up all the angles before acting. Us intuitive “big picture” guys need those “sensing” detailed types to delve deep in to the numbers for us, picking over every penny to make sure our numbers add up and they need us to paint visions on huge, global scale of what this company can be. So as an entrepreneur you really need to understand yourself and to put together a complementary team. You need to be wary of surrounding yourself with people like you or you will end up with an oddly shaped company. Have you ever been to a party of all introverts?

The second important thing is to be yourself, not to try to be a stereotype of what you think an entrepreneur is supposed to be. If you are an out going, hand shaking type then that’s great. Go for it and use your extrovert skills to the max to build your business. But if you are a quiet, pondering type then don’t try to do the loud, networking thing as you will just look daft, like an Uncle in a baseball cap. Partner up with one of those outgoing types and leverage your deep thinking skills. The smarter VC will see the strength of the combination and will draw comfort from the balance in the team. The dumber VCs will try to replace you with what they have read in the “How to be a VC” book is a proper type of entrepreneur. Run a mile from these people.

So, entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes and all personality types and if you play it your way and surround yourself with people that complement your type you will build a great team. You need people who always wear Monday’s socks on a Monday and you need, I am told, some of those people who don’t even wear socks at all !