Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Happy Birthday to me

I am 45 years young today. Hurray!!

I got up and opened my presents. The highlight was a Wii Fit which I think sends a pretty clear message. The clear message it sends is that my son is a great salesman. Having failed to convince me that my wife really wanted a Wii Fit for her birthday, he managed to convince her that I just could not continue without my very own Wii Fit.

So, I jumped on the Wii Fit. It scanned me, weighed me, made me do balancing exercies and then after a drum roll it announced the result.

"Happy Birthday, Tom, your Wii Fit age is 53"


Monday, 21 July 2008

Oh boy, what a day!

The day started normally enough. Up at 6am. Off to North London for Monday morning Tai Chi. Feel that Chi flowing through me in the morning breeze. Yessssir. Bring it on!

Today was a big day. I mentioned in a recent post that I am back on the fund raising trail. Getting out amongst the VCs, pitching away. Today was a bit different. Unusually I had invited a group of VCs that I am talking to to come and see me as a group. And they had agreed. Wow! VCs leaving their palatial offices to come and see a mere start up guy. Who would have thought it!

Actually, who am I kidding. The guys were not coming to see me. We had arranged for one of the most important figures in technology today to join us for an hour and help us paint a picture of what the future of the online world looks like. This was a risk - getting this group of heavy hitting VCs out of their office and all in the same place for this meeting - so it was critical that it went well, but if it worked and if the guys "got it" it could have a big impact. Game on.

We arrived early for a pre-meet. Me and some of my colleauges plus Big Tech Guy. We spent half an hour chatting through what we were going to cover. I was getting excited. This was going to be one of those "moments" in a company's life. When I write "Garlik - The Book" this meeting would feature. In "Garlik - The Movie", Will Smith (playing me, of course, who did you think?) would be striding around the meeting room holding forth as the VCs looks on awestruck. Ohhh yes. I could see it all.

The VCs started to arrive in ones and twos. Square jawed and steely eyed to a man. We held them in reception as we finised our preparations. Big Tech Guy turned to me, made a final comment, turned sharply to my colleauge and suddenly shouted in pain. Only gone and twisted his back!
Suddenly, like a car crash, everything went in to slow motion (that will happen in the film too). Ambulances called. Health and safety types standing around looking terrified. Brows furrowed. Mice and men aft agleying in all directions. Fierce looking, tobacco chomping VCs milling around in reception wondering what the hells going on. Oh boy. Oh boy.

Well we did the pitch as best we could without poor old Big Tech Guy, who was in real pain. One VC said to me "So what happened to alleged Big Tech Guy, Tom? Eaten by the cat was he, eh? eh?" Another said "Awesome bluff, Tom. That takes some balls".

Oh well, you win some, you lose some. What do you do after a day like that? There is only one thing you can do really. Put on a brave face to everyone and tell them it could have been worse (how exactly may I ask?). Then go home. Put on pyjamas. Eat cornflakes with lots of sugar, turn Heart FM up to full volume, dance around the kitchen to I Will Survive and wait until tomorrow :-)

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Knife crime: the day I got stabbed

There is a knife crime crises in London at the moment. Four people were fatally stabbed in London over a 24-hour period last week and there seems to be a new incident every few days. I struggle to understand what is going on here and there is not much in my past to help me get my mind around it, but with a young son nearly of "roaming the streets in a hoodie with his mates" age it worries me a lot.

The only direct experience I have of this issue relates to the time I myself was stabbed in the leg when I was a teenager. That was about 30 years ago but I remember very clearly what happened and I can still see the laughing face of the teenager who did it. Now I will reveal here for the first time ever what really happened.

But first, what on earth is going on in the heads of these young people roaming around with knives tucked away ready to be whipped out, and used at the first sign of "disrespect"? Goodness knows. It's inexcusable and I have a fear that any attempt to try to understand what's going on in their minds feels like one is making excuses for them, which is definitely not the case.

I think one direction to look in is this apparently intense feeling of the need to be respected. There is an assumption that they are not respected or to put it another way, not valued. And I think on the whole that may well be the case. Also I think often they don't respect or value themselves or worse they feel worthless and powerless, leading to anger and resentment. They give up on their own future, they really just don't case.

The smart ones are the most dangerous. Some of those lads you read about in the media wielding the knives will be the clever guys who in a different school, a different life would have been identified as "gifted and talented" but in this setting they emerge as classic and extreme underachievers. Sometimes we help them get there. I was on a stall at a school careers fair. A lad walked up and asked what it was all about. I told him about the IT industry, becoming a programmer, a project manager, a salesman and we got chatting. He was keen and interested. Bright lad. Then his Dad came up, snatched the papers out of his had, threw them back on the table and said to him "this is not for people like you, boy. Come over here to the Sainsbury's stand and let's see if there is a job going in the local shop".

And don't underestimate the realities of the environment these guys have grown up in. Why should we be surprised that they are in a constant rage, ready to strike at the slightest dis? I have spent several years involved in inner city education and was a governor of a secondary (high) school in inner London. The stories that I'd hear staggered me. The 14 year old girl who ran away from her mums house because her mums boyfriend was abusing her, so went to a classmates house, until the friends mum's boyfriend started abusing her too. So she went to sleep in a broken down car instead and her friends would bring her food. Yes, here in London! She still came to school though, but you do not want to disrespect her, believe me, because she would lash out so fast you wouldn't even see it coming! The 12 year old lad whose mum had skipped bail and gone to live in Bristol but kept sending him on his own four hours on the train to school in London every day so that no one would raise the alarm that she had gone missing. He would arrive tired, dirty, scared, angry every day. Go on, disrespect him if you dare!

I asked one of the Ghanaian Dad's at the school why the teenage boys of Ghanaian parents,who looked like the same big, tough, black 6 foot 6 tall, hooded lads as all the rest seemed to get through school okay and many go on to university. He said that the parents operate as a tight community, they all know each others sons and they all look out for them and report on them to each other. What's that African saying? "It takes a village to raise a child". That system is alive and well amongst parts of the Ghanaian community in South London.

I said to him "what do you do if one of the lads goes astray". "Ah" he smiled "all us men go together to his house, we sit him in the bath and put bricks on him until he promises to behave". He laughed. I laughed. Oh, how we laughed together. The old "put him in a bath of bricks" strategy. Never fails. that what we mean by getting back to family values?

So you want respect? You want to project power? That "Don't mess with me" look? But why knives? In my day it was boots. Doc Martens to be precise (ok, I admit it "my day" was London in the 70's). We wore them to be seen as "hard" by our mates. We didn't actually expect to have to kick anyone but we'd all stomp about in our "DM's" being "hard". Occasionally someone would get kicked and the result would usually be that they would say "ouch, that hurt a bit, stop it". It's a bit different if the thing that makes you "hard" is a 6 inch knife.

I got my first Doc Martens as hand-me-downs from my big brother. They were a few sizes too big but I stuffed newspaper into the end to keep them on and that worked. With the size of the boots I had to take quite high steps to walk along otherwise the toes caught on the pavement and I'd trip over onto my face. Clowns use the same walking technique. I also had a 5-inch big round Afro. Clowns often wear large, round wigs too. However I was definitely not a clown, ohhhh no, not at all. I was "hard" you see. Don't mess with me. If I could get my huge boot up in time I might do a sort of jabbing motion and try to kick you with it, although that tended to get me off balance so I tried to avoid doing this. I just stood around looking hard. With dark glasses on. Hopefully no photos survived this dark period of my life.

And it was part of this attempt at being seen as "hard" that got me stabbed in the leg. The right leg about 6 inches above the knee. I've still got the scar. Fortunately it wasn't too deep and didn't hit an artery but it still hurt a lot.

In those day young thugs didn't carry knives. I'm not sure I remember why, I think it was because there was some law about not carrying a knife and I think young thugs thought "oh, if that's the law I'd better not carry a knife then". Thugs were very law abiding in those days. Besides we all had hard boots on to make us feel tough. And anyway all the talk was about bottles. The weapon of choice was to smash a bottle on a table or a wall, like in films, and hold it up with the jagged bits pointing at the enemy shouting "come on then, come on then" looking really fierce and praying that the other fella would run away before you had to.

I never actually got into a situation like that and in fact now I think about it no-one I knew every got into that situation, except perhaps "Butch's" legendary elder brother who no-one ever saw. However me and my mate did find a crate of empty bottles round the back of a restaurant one day and decided to try the smashing and shouting "c'mon then..." bit to see what it was like.

The first thing we discovered was that breaking a bottle against a wall is harder than you'd think. They tend to just fly out of your hand when you hit the wall. However if you persist you can get it done, and thus it came to pass that I was standing there with a jagged broken bottle shouting gleefully "c'mon then..." as a furious restaurant owner came charging out the door to find out what the hell was going on. We legged it, laughing like only irritating little snotty nosed teens can. (For those not from the 70's "Legged it" = "ran away as fast as our little legs could carry us"). Unfortunately I had forgotten to throw away my bottle so as I rounded a corner I managed to stab myself in the right leg, about 6 inches above the knee. Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch. Getting stabbed really hurts you know.

I apologise if you think I am trivialising an important issue (it's a true story by the way). I don't mean to. I am just illustrating the point that if you mess around with dangerous things because you want to look tough then someone is going to get hurt and it's a damn good chance it will be you!

How do we tackle it? Understanding the lack of self-worth and the need for respect? Creating real opportunities for the young leaders and opinion formers? Baths full of bricks? I really don't know but we can't let this generation go to waste and we can't lock them all up. We've got to do something. I feel quite helpless.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Where are you?

I got a call out of the blue from one of my VCs yesterday evening.

"Where are you" he barked into the phone, skipping the usual greetings.

Odd question I thought. But hey, he is The Money so if he wants to call me up at random and demand to know my exact whereabouts, that's fine with me.

"Just arriving in London on Eurostar from Paris" I replied.

"So, you are about 30 minutes away" he growled.

"Yes" I said. If you are talking to a VC who has his hands clasped firmly around your money and he asks you a question that you don't understand then "Yes" is generally a good answer. Also, I reasoned, I must be 30 minutes away from something. From happiness? From a disaster? From being kidnapped by dwarfs? Who knows. But "Yes" was clearly not a lie.

Suddenly it struck me. I was supposed to be at a dinner/networking event somewhere in London that evening, so it was just as well I had accidentally caught an early train back from Paris! I had completely forgotten. Actually I hadn't forgotten. What is happening is that my assistant is away on holiday so my diary is slowly decaying into a disorganised messy sludge.

I survived the first week and felt very pleased with myself. But now I realise it was just momentum. Everything was set up so well that I just couldn't fail to be in the right place at the right time. But week two is trickier.

For example, I am back on the fund raising trail, so I am setting up random meetings with VCs around the place. Me, on my own - setting up meetings!!! There were some folk in Paris I was keen to see and they said "When are you over next". I said "As it happens, tomorrow". Great, they said, is 9am good. "Great" I said and then started panicking. How do I get to Paris? Where do I sleep? Help, help.

I did manage to get the Eurostar ticket sorted out and then I looked for hotels. I went for one near the station as I was arriving late. In my defence it looked very nice on the Web.

In real life, it was perhaps the sleaziest hotel I have every stayed in. The room actually had red, velvet material on the walls. Admittedly there wasn't a mirror on the ceiling, but it was crying out for one. The chap on reception seemed a little surprised that I was checking in on my own and indeed using my real name rather than the more standard "Mr and Mrs Smith". It is the first time I have done that thing spies do in films where you put a chair up again the door handle.

My night, however was peaceful, unterrupted only by a text around 1am from my CTO saying "Mines a vodka and tonic" followed rapidly by another one saying "Whoops, wrong number".

Anyway, back to the evening. 30 minutes later I arrived at the dinner/networking event and found I was due to be sitting on a table along with Brent Hoberman of fame, Robin Murray a 3i bigwig and Baroness Hogg, Chairman of 3i and the speaker for the evening, Richard Rosenblatt the former Chairman of MySpace and founder of a new company, Demand Media. Richard was a really engaging and compelling speaker with great anecdotes such as "when I sold Myspace to NewsCorp I said to Rupert [Murdoch]...." so despite the fact that I was dozing off into my dinner it was definitely worthwhile pitching up. The venue, a restaurant called The Altitude on the 29th floor of Millbank Tower overlooking the House of Commons and the Thames, was pretty cool too.

Staggered back home at about midnight and dragged myself up this morning for another day that I think should be a bit more organised. Check the diary. Oh No! I am supposed to be in a meeting miles away with an important client in about 20 minutes. ARRGGHHHH......

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Breaking News

I had to smile yesterday. I tried to feel angry but it didn't work. It must be something about my personality. A tendency to favour the upstart, the cheeky guy, the one man on his own with a mission to change the world. And yesterday I got wacked by just such a character who is clearly on a mission to change the world of PR. Meet "The Embargo Killer" !

Let me explain how public relations (PR) and in particular press releases work, from a tech entrepreneurs perspective. If you are going to be a "start up guy" you need to know about this stuff.

First, if you are serious about PR for your start up, get yourself a decent PR agency. We've got Band and Brown, one of the best in London. Some start up guys try and do their own PR. Forget it, you are on a hiding to nothing. You might get a little coverage here and there on a slow news day but if you want to build a serious company with a solid reputation, you'll need a serious firm to support you.

Next you come up with your idea for a story. It could be based on some research that you have commissioned. It could be something to do with what's happening in your business. Whatever it is, you come up with the story and write your press release.

Press releases seem to come in four parts.

  • the headline that grabs the attention

  • the issue and the research that supports it

  • what should be done about it

  • the spokespersons comment

The headline is vital. Try to sit in a newspaper editors shoes. Every morning that he comes in to work, there are 600 shiny new press releases screaming at him "LOOK AT ME. I'VE GOT THE BEST NEW WIDGET EVER IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE". So he skims though hundreds of releases, pressing "delete, delete, delete". The only thing that stops your release getting deleted is your headline. So think long and hard about it.

Okay, let's assume you've got a press release with a great headline. Now you've got to get it out there. So you pick a day when you are going to "break the news".

Now here's the trick. You issue your press release "under embargo". You write on the top of your press release "Embargoed until 00.01 on 25th of Month" and send it out to hundreds of journalist a couple of days before D-Day. And an amazing thing happens. However exciting your news, not one of the journalists prints your story until the embargo date and time has passed. Amazing. There is no law that says they can't print it. They just don't. It's an unwriten rule.

So, you've bought yourself a couple of days to ring, email and generally harrass the editors and journalists saying "did you see our press release? Oh, you've lost it, don't worry, here's another copy". That's called the Sell In.

Everyone obeys the embargo because that's how the industry works.

Everyone that is except for The Embargo Killer.

So last week, we finished off our research into how young people are behaving online. We put the press release together, with a strong headline, wrote in big bold letters "Embargoed until 00.01 Thursday 3rd July" and sent it off to hundreds of journos.

Within hours much to our surprise, up pops the press release on this chaps blog busting the embargo without a care in the world. And not just busting the embargo on Garlik's press release, but busting the entire embargo concept - if it catches on.

Actually what happen in our case is that nothing happened. The mainstream journos stuck to the embago. I spent today doing eleven back to back pre-recorded radio interviews for Thursdays news and the story went in to the planning meetings of most of the national papers. It will be interesting to see what if anything happens in the press at 00.01 on Thursday 3rd July, but it appears that The Embargo Killer has not quite killed off the embargo yet.

I think he might be on to something though. If he gets a steady flow of press releases, if lots of people have google alerts set up on the things they are interested in, if the mainstream press spot that embargoes are being routinely broken putting news straight in to the public domain, then I think the whole concept of embargoes could well break down. Is that a good thing? I don't know. It's just different and the PR and media industry will just have to figure out what it means.

It never ceases to amaze me how much power the web can put in to the hands of a single individual. This one chap could change an entire industry just like that. Amazing.