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...

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Back to school

The last week or so was busy. Busy presenting to VCs. Busy presenting to students. Busy presenting to government ministers. Busy presenting to TV crews. By the end of the week I was exhausted.

The government stuff and the student stuff was all about the education side of my life. I feel a bit like I've gone back to school (that's me front row, left first time round). I have chosen to focus my charitable efforts on education and I spend as much spare time as I can involved in various educational initiatives.

I often get asked to speak to students about business and whenever I can I accept the offer. It's always a challenge and you have to adapt your normal business style when presenting to young people. There is nothing more painful than some pompous business executive ploughing through powerpoint slides, cracking in-jokes to himself and sending a room full of students to sleep. I learnt this the hard way. I once gave a talk to a small group of young people around a big boardroom table when I was the grandly titled Chief Information Officer of Egg, the world's largest pure Internet bank. As I smiled to myself at some highly amusing anecdote I had just told, I glanced around the table only to observe that three of the blighters were actually fast asleep right in front of me! Ah, well, I blame it on the hot summers day.

Over the last week or so, I've been involved with a very exciting initative run by Entrepreneurs in Action run by the inspirational Derek Browne. About 70 gifted and talented maths students from all over the country were brought together for an intense week of project based learning and Garlik set them a business challenge to work on. I also had the opportunity to say a few words at their gala dinner at the end of the week which was great fun. I even got to do my amazing magic trick!

A couple of weeks before that I was up at Warwick University, acting as one of the "Dragons" judging the results of the GOAL programme for gifted and talented young people. One of my fellow judges was a very high powered lady from a large US investment bank. At one point she challenged the nervous group of 15 years olds saying "I see you will make £260 Million profit in year one?....wait, oh, I see, you will be making £260 pounds in year one...whoops, sorry".

However the two big education projects that I am involved in centre around building brand new schools. I am a governor of a big new, 1,800 student academy being created up in the north of England, in Lancashire and I am leading the effort to build a specialist technology school in London. Both of these are fascinating and challenging projects that I must admit really stretch me at times in very different ways to my day job as a tech entrepreneur, but it's going to be amazing in a few years time when they open their doors to thousands of young people.

One of the challenges in being involved in education is dealing with the Government. That's a new departure for me, navigating the Men from the Ministry. And so it was that on the afternoon of my recent birthday, when I should have been at home wearing funny party hats and blowing out candles with nearest and dearest I found myself closeted with, amongst others, "Very Important Education Chap" and "Chap Who Takes Notes and Makes Tea for Very Important Education Chap" debating the arcane science of government procurement. Phew. Good old Venture Capitalists are positively warm and cuddly in comparison.

I sometimes get asked (1) where do you find the time and (2) why do you do it, when you are trying to run a tech start up? Well, entrepreneurs, unlike corporate wage slaves, are in control of their own time (and besides you work at any time of the day or night anyway) so we are used to finding slithers of time to get stuff done. It's actually easier to find space for these initiatives in my current role as CEO of Garlik than it was in my role as CIO of Egg, when my diary would be booked solid with back to back internal meetings for months ahead.

Why do it? Just ask Derek to invite you along to one of his sessions and experience the response from the young people and the hunger they have to learn from someone like you - yes I mean you - and you will answer that question for yourself.