Friday, 31 October 2008

Saving lives and making money

This Wednesday I was a member of a panel judging the best business ideas emerging from the UK's medical sector, the culmination of the annual Medical Futures innovation awards competition. It was a real eye opener as I knew nothing about the health care sector and unlike so many web ideas that claim to change peoples lives, every one of the ideas I heard really would, literally!

For example, a British chap called Dr A. Brain (yes, it's true) invented the anaesthesists mask in the picture in his bedroom. It's now used in millions of operations around the world and Archie Brain is living in the lap of luxury.

The judging panel was very impressive (present company excepted), Sir Anthony Jolliffe the former Lord Mayor of London, Sir Chris O'Donnell, most recently Chief Executive of Smith & Nephew, Dr Ian Goldin of Oxford University and former Vice President of the World Bank and several others of equal stature.

The handful of pitches we saw were the best of the best of literally hundreds of ideas that have emerged from all corners of the health sector over the past year and been pitched to judging panels up and down the country. It is amazing that this staggering wealth of innovation is going on out there and is largely unrecognised and unharnessed. However, the sector has some real challenges for entrepreneurs.

Firstly, like me, the average entrepreneur has no idea what these Doctors are talking about. I spent several hours squirming away as the Doctors displayed various new devices and explained what was going to go wrong with me and how they could delay my demise by a few years, if only I give them a few £million. Mine you, it's a powerful pitch!

Secondly, in this medical game it seems that you create your proposition and then spend the next two years getting regulators around the world to approve it. Imagine if us tech entrepreneurs had to get someone to approve our propositions for two years before we were even allowed to launch them. We'd all be out of business before we started!

The big problem though is similar to a problem that us UK tech entrepreneurs have. If you want to build a large scale medical business then you have got to get in to the huge USA market as early as possible. Listening to the challenges that these businesses face opening up the US market, its exactly the same as the rest of us, except with higher stakes. I heard pitches involving ideas that are clearly better - as in "will save more lives/relieve more pain" - than what's available now but unless they can get the funding, team, approval to penetrate the US market then these amazing ideas may never see the light of day. It's shocking.

So, good luck to all the medical industry entrepreneurs and I would really encourage the VCs out there to take a good look at what's going on. The easiest way to do that is to get in touch with Medical Futures - they seem to pretty much see every promising idea coming out of the UKs health sector.

And I really hope one of those ideas in particular makes it out in to the market. Then at least I can save my money on answering those junk emails :)

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Eat sorbet before your meetings

It is not often that I go to a meeting and experience a technique for running the meeting that I have never come across before. I did yesterday meeting.

A group of us met to discuss some issues related to a large charitable project that I am involved in. There are many stakeholders with multiple agendas. Big money and big reputations at stake and strong, divergent views being expressed in the run up to the meeting. So it had the potential to be a fractious meeting and a lot depended on how it got started.

The Chairman kicked off with an unusual statement, as we rolled up our sleeves, put on our boxing gloves and stuck out our jaws, ready for action. "We are going to start with something that I learnt from Dr Anthony Seldon, the Headmaster of Wellington College" he said. "We will start the meeting with one minutes silence". And sure enough, to everyones astonishment he looked down and fell silent.

Well, everyone fell silent for what seemed like ages. The tension flowed out of the room. People pushed back their chairs. Some doodled. Some reflected quietly. Some looked bemused, even uncomfortable. But at the end of what seemed like several hours, the Chairman looked up and, without further explanation, quietly said "right, back to the agenda".

The meeting flowed smoothly. Issues were raised in measured tones, explored and discussed. Ways forward were found. I can't put it all down to the minutes silence but I can say that there was a definite calm about the room as the meeting started and that seemed to set the tone and create the space for a good dialogue.

Fascinating. Afterwards, someone described the experience as akin to bowing heads and saying a prayer before a Church meeting or eating sorbet to clense the pallet between courses over dinner. But I have never seen it done like this in a heavyweight, high stakes, business meeting before.

Try it !

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Shame on you, Sequoia

Sequoia Capital, one of Silicon Valley's A-list venture capital firms seems to have turned in to Jack Jones, that character from Dad's Army who runs around in a moment of crisis shouting "Don't panic Mr Mannering", whilst panicking like crazy, causing everyone else to panic too and achieving precisely nothing.

Last week, as has by now been widely reported, the firm called about 100 or so CEOs of its companies together and in outrageously dramatic style, with pictures of tombstones and dead pigs, tried to scare the living daylights out of them about how terrible the market is going to be over the next two years and how people should start slashing and burning their costs now or crash and burn within months.

Talk about playing to the gallery. They must have known that the "story" would end up all over the web, so I guess in that repect it probably achieved its objective.

Now, I'm not saying that times aren't going to get very hard over the next couple of years. Of course they are. Everyone knows that and certainly every entrepreneurial CEO knows that. One would hope that the CEOs who managed to raise money from a firm of Sequoia's quality would know that better than most. I talked about this as far back as February and it has played out exactly as expected. You don't have to be a genius to figure this stuff out.

The actions you take are obvious too. Anyone who was anywhere near the Dot Com crash knows the game. To make a big song and dance about all the facts and figures and then deliver some blindingly obvious action points at the end - well, what was all that about?

I wonder what it was like being one of those CEOs. If any of what was said was any news to you then how on earth did you manage to get money from Sequoia in the first place? If you were the type of CEO who actually ran a company during the dot com crash and came out the other side, then you must have been biting your tongue as these guys strutted around. Perhaps you actually gave the Sequoia guys some advice (although I doubt it, I bet everyone kept their heads down and pretended to take notes as the pearls of wisdom rained down).

If I had been present I might have tried to help by offering the Sequoia guys some advice, from the CEOs perspective. Here are my 5 points (in case anyone bumps in to them over in the Valley :)

1) at a time like this and assuming we both have the same objective of surviving, it's not about YOU (Mr VC) it's about me (Mr CEO). The question you need to ask yourself is "what can I really DO to help your company, Mr CEO?" not "what can I SAY to make me look tough and clever?"

2) last time in the dot com crash, there were hoards of VCs trying to keep busy by engaging extremely busy CEOs in updates, pitching, updates, pitching. Eventually the VCs firms realised this, got rid of the time wasters and everyone's happy. But it took you'all a long time to sort that out last time around. So, Sequoia, this time, cut deep and cut early to keep all those time wasters away from your CEOs who are engaged in hand to hand combat in the market right now.

3) Speaking of cutting, every person lost at a VC firm probably saves at least $250k, so every 4 bodies you can lose at the VC firm frees up an extra $1m and saves another one of your portfolio companies. And please let's not talk about your office space (unless you are going to allow me and my 20 guys to come and take a chunk of it over at no cost for the next 18 months? Now that WOULD be useful).

4) Where's your rolodex now? VC's talk about being "more than money". Well it's easy to be "more than money" when everyone is buying and everyone is doing deals. That's like saying "I'm good at getting wet" when it's raining. Ok, if you are really "more than money" then now is the time to show it. Now is the time when you sit down with your CEO and say "here are the 5 concrete things that I can do for you right now". If you can't do that then leave the poor guy alone and let him do his job.

5) The only reason why companies survive times like this in decent shape is because their leader decides that come hell or high water he or she is going to make it happen. It's about confidence, commitment and bloody-mindedness. It's not about lists of obvious actions. Calm. Grit. Determination. Has anything you have done or the way you have done it helped to instill in your CEO that determination and commitment to survive come what may? Or have you just suceeded in chipping away at it with all your tombstone talk?

I remember being at Goldman Sachs in 1994, in the fixed income area. It was the worst bond market that year that anyone could remember. At one point in the year one of the senior Goldman partners pulled the division together. In a calm, steady tone he laid out the situation. No shocking slides. No shouting and arm waving. Steady, clear, coldly realistic but confident and determined. Expect cuts. Focus on the customer franchise. Hit the singles. Work together. Stay very close. We came out of that meeting as one team, clear, determined, knowing what we had to do. That's class.

And before you go around patronising your own CEOs please remember, just because you are panicking, it doesn't mean we are. We do what we do because we are entrepreneurs, we love it all, the ups, the downs. We are not afraid. We don't panic. This is what we do. As Omar says "It's all in the game, yo".

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Gordon Brown thinks I'm a role model

This evening I attended an invitation only meeting in the Locarno Suite at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, where Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave a informal speech, exhorting me (and 99 other people) to be role models for the black community here in the UK.

The event was the launch of this years 2008 Power List, a compilation of the individuals that the organisers consider to be the 100 most powerful black people in the UK today (50 men, 50 women). By powerful, the organisers actually mean most influential and they are careful to point out that they don't mean richest (that's certainly true!) or celebrity (very few musicians & sports people are on this list). They searched for individuals who are having an influence on their industry and wider and they decided to stick me on the list (that's my smug-looking face stuck behind Lewis Hamilton in the picture).

It was a grand evening at the FCO with. a hundred or more very accomplished individuals, and I think most of us were looking around nervously thinking "what am I doing here with these REALLY powerful people, when will they spot me and turf me out?". Baroness Amos, who chaired the selection committee, spoke first, followed by the Prime Minister. Brown spoke informally and humourously without notes and was well received.

Then a delightful lady, Baroness Scotland, who was listed as Number One on the Ladies list gave a very personal, warm view on what this meant to her. She was followed by the daughter of Mo Ibrahim, the telecoms billionaire, representing her father who was Number One on the mens list.

A reprentative of Thompson Reuters, who sponsored the evening, said a few words before Michael Eboda, the chap who compiled the list with his team, stood up to cheers and rounded off the evening with a host of thank yous. Michael was actually one of the most influential people in the room, given his ability to sit at the nexus of such a powerful network of individuals, and clearly should be at the top of his own list, if modesty didn't stand in his way. Whatever happened to good, old-fashioned dictatorship? Does Michael think that Kim Jong-Il would have left himself off his own power list? No way!

One speaker asked how many people in the room were happy to be seen as "role models" to the younger generation. Surprisingly, in the entire room of perhaps 150 people, only about 3 hands went up. I thought that was interesting but understandable. It is quite pressurised being looked up to as a role model. You feel additional pressure to suceed, to behave "like a role model" to "be inspirational" at the drop of a hat. So, most folks avoid being a role model and just get on with the daily grind of doing what we do. It can even make you more risk adverse. You don't want to fail and let everyone down, so you start to play it safe.

But do you have an obligation to be a role model to a wider community who look up to you, even when you haven't asked them to? It's a tough question and I think ultimately it has to be a purely personal decision.

Personally, I don't mind too much. If it helps young people to look at what I've done and say to themselves "well, if that half-wit can do it then I certainly can" that's fine with me. Anyway I can rely on my family to keep my feet on the ground. I told my son this evening that I had appeared on this list and he said "why are you on there, Daddy, you're just an average sort of man and you're only my Dad".

So long as everyone understands that in reality I am just an average sort of man who will continue to play my own game full on, contine to be a risk-taker and may suceed and justify my presence on the list or may fail and crash ignominously out of next years 2009 list, then its all good. It's all in the game.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Speaking to strangers

I am puzzled by the reaction I have to the prospect of speaking to strangers. Note I say the "prospect of speaking". The actual act of speaking to strangers is fine but it's my reaaction to the the prospect that I find interesting.

For example, on Tuesday morning I was a keynote speaker at a conference in London, Innovate08. This was a high profile conference with an audience of about 1,000 executives. I shared the stage with Richard Farleigh, one of the "Dragons" on BBCs Dragons Den, Iain Gray, Chief Executive of the Technology Strategy Board and the event was compared by BBC Newsnight's Kirsty Wark. Mine and Richard's keynote speeches were followed by an address by the Government Minister, John Denham MP.

I was fully prepared for my 25 minute keynote. Remember the rules? 4 minutes per slide, so I had just 6 punchy slides. I had practiced, practiced, practiced with a stopwatch so I was complete fluent and had the timing down to the second. However as I sat there on the stage, staring out at 1,000 (mostly) men in grey suits, and Kirsty introduced me I felt my heart accelerating and thumping harder and harder. As I was wearing a microphone I wondered whether there was a sound engineer at the back somewhere fiddling with his equipment, wondering what the hell was going on.

Strangely I didn't actually feel nervous at all. I was quite relaxed. But my body decided that it was going to accelerate my heartbeat anyway. How odd. I found as I was sitting there that if I focused on it I seemed to be able to slow the beat down or speed it up, but I couldn't stop it happening in the first place. I decided to monitor this again later in the day.

The speech and the Q&A seemed to go fine and I got good feedback, and then I dashed off to my next meeting - a pitch for Garlik to a venture capital firm in West London. This was a reasonably high stakes, tough meeting with one of those lazer eyed VCs who delights in disrupting the flow of your pitch, jumping around from point to point with a series of machine gun delivered questions and not letting you get in to your stride, but this was someone I have met a couple of times in the past. I checked. Not a stranger. No accelerated heart rate. Interesting.

On the underground to my next meeting, I found myself standing next to a lady in a tweed skirt. I noticed she had a random label stuck to her skirt that shouldn't be there. She hadn't spotted this. So, I thought "someone should tell her". But no one else had noticed. Just me. Suddenly I realised that I might have to tell her. My heart rate started to accelerate again. I was going to have to speak to a stranger again! Oh No. I tried to ignore the label. I tried vaguely making eye contact and then looking down towards the label but this just seemed to make her scowl and edge away. Finally as she started to leave the tube at her stop, I pounced "errr, errrr, label, errr, errr" I stuttered pointing. "Oh, thank you very much" she beamed and left the train as I collapsed onto a seat in a heap, drained, heart thumping.

I arrived at my final meeting of the day, which was a dinner for a handful of folk with Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty. It was an interesting group of fellow diners, including the Channel 4/ITN TV presenter, Jon Snow and the man who brought the Big Brother TV show to the UK, Peter Bazalgette. After Shami's erudite comments, we got in to a free flowing Q&A session about privacy an civil liberties issues. I knew I would be called upon to make a comment or two. But despite the fact that it was a small, informal group, as the host started to point in my direction, my heart leapt into life and started to accelerate again. Thump, thump, thump. I was completely relaxed, as far as I could tell, and I made my comments which seemed to land well, but despite considerable will-power I could not stop my heart thumping away.

So, come on. What's all this about then? Does it happen to anyone else or is it just me?