Thursday, 30 April 2009

Play rugby not football

I am sure you will all agree with me that rugby is a much better game than football (that's "soccer" to some of you). In particular, if we want to produce a nation of entrepreneurs then it is vital that we abandon all junior football related activity immediately and divert all attention and resources into mini-rugby.

The reasons are obvious. I observed them again first hand at the London Irish mini-rugby festival last Sunday. I spent 9 hours down in Sunbury, with 2,000 other people, coaches, dads, mums and of course the hundreds of young players themselves from across the UK and Ireland.

It's not so much the game itself. After all if people want to run around in dinky little shorts to kick a ball around that's there business. But there is a real contrast between the average junior football session and a mini-rugby match

There are four things kids will learn if they take up mini-rugby that will stand them in good stead for starting up businesses.

First, rugby is a hard, hard game. You play hard, take knocks, hit the ground hard, shake your head, get right back up and get straight back in to the game. If you writhe around on the floor shouting "Referee, it's not fair" then the game moves on and you get left behind.

Second, rugby is a team game, and it takes all sorts. Big guys in the front row. Lanky lads at Number 8. Tiny, speedy guys on the wing. It's great to see all the lads in all their diverse glory on a Sunday morning playing for the team. You don't want to be the "superstar" because the opposition will make it their business to squish you.

Third, the rules are the rules. You play by them, you play to the whistle and if the Ref says "penalty" it's a penalty and that's it. Don't mess with a rugby ref. Football refs are, well, different.

Finally, rugby dads are a breed apart. We all played rugby about 30 years ago, so we all think we know how to play now. We are all there on the sidelines, screaming away, shouting "Drive over, drive over", "take him down", "tackle him, the bigger they are the harder they fall, son" and the good old "come on, get up and get back in there you woose, it's only an ear, you've got another one haven't you?". But we never shout at the ref and we never shout at the opposition Dads.

And at the end of every mini-rugby match, no matter how hard and painful it was, no matter whether the ref was great or rubbish, no matter whether it was a friendly or the Cup Final, all the boys line up and shout "Three Cheers" for the other team and then they shake hands. Woah betide the one boy who is so upset that he doesn't want to cheer the other team off and shake hands. He will suddenly find a group of Dads and coaches telling him to get over there with the rest of the boys, after all "this isn't football you know".

So, the boys learn to play hard and bounce back from hard knocks. They learn that teamwork is everything and if you try to be a superstar you are going to get hit. They learn to play full on but to play by the rules. They learn the value of a good, hard coach and they learn to respect the opposition.

I can't think of a better set of rules for being an entrepreneur.

Mind you, when it comes to making big money, those ball juggling glory boys over in the football camp have got that wrapped up. And it's not like I hate football. After all I do support what is generally accepted to be the best team in the Premiership.

But on any given Sunday in the winter season, come rain or shine you will find me and my boy down at London Irish learning how to live life the rugby way.

Friday, 24 April 2009

How long does it take to raise VC money?

I enjoy chatting with other start up guys about their ideas and sharing my experience of the early stages of starting a new company. One of the questions that always comes up is "how long does it take to raise VC funding?"

In my experience, guys who haven't been through it before always think it will be quicker than it actually is. So, I will tell you how long and how much effort it takes to raise VC money.

It takes 9 months from start to finish. 9 months of focus, energy, commitment, pitching and negotiating. You will have perhaps a hundred conversations.

Most of the conversations will happen in the first 3 months. You hit the phones. Hit the email. Get out there. Pitch, pitch, pitch. You have to figure out quickly whether the VC you are talking to has any money or not. You would think that they might tell you if they don't actually have any cash to invest, but for some reason VCs seem to find it very difficult to say that they are skint.

The next 3 months are all about negotiating. You have got down to the handful of investors who are actually interested, a combination of your existing investors (if you have any) and new ones. You haggle, adjust, talk about pre-money valuations, liquidity preferences, management incentives as you edge towards a deal that everyone will accept. Then it falls apart and you start all over again. As you do this, the economy is changing around you and the VC industry collectively changes its mind. You do this three or four times until you get the actual deal agreed.

You're done. You're there. Congratulations. Break out the champagne! You have closed the deal. Haven't you? No, you think you have, but you haven't. You are just entering stage 3 - "Legals".

The final 3 months are a lengthy process of their lawyers talking to your lawyers. Your lawyers talking to you. You talking to yourself. And so it goes on. For weeks and weeks. Until the documents are complete. Then you send them out for signature and start chasing. Chase, chase, chase. Keep chasing until its all signed because if the markets crash, if the mood changes, if the VCs see someone new and sexier to chase after, then they will be off and you will be left standing there. FINALLY you get all the signatures back and the cash is transferred.

Only at that point can you truely say that your funding round is finished. When you look at your company's bank account and it has risen by several million, then and only then can you say that you have closed your funding round.

And on 21st April, Garlik's bank balance increased, the bank manager burst spontaneously into song and we cracked open a bottle of bubbly.

Now, back to the real business of building a successful, innovative technology business. As an early stage entrepreneur fund raising is something that I have to do and I'm not bad at it, but I really don't enjoy it. But building the business - that's the fun stuff.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Tapped on the shoulder by the Terrorist Police

Do I look like a terrorist to you? Go on, be honest. I am told I can look a bit shifty at times. But a terrorist? Really! However it seems our boys in blue have a different view.

My first meeting in London this morning was near Green Park station and the next was lunch with a Google exec in their offices near Victoria. As it was a nice day and I had a bit of time, I thought I would take a gentle stroll to Victoria through Green Park.

As I got near the Buckingham Palace end of Green Park I was approached by Officer Kevin Moloney of the Metropolitan Police. "Excuse me, Sir" he says politely "do you speak English?"

I pause momentarily, a bit taken aback. "Yes" I say. "Many black people in the UK are almost fluent in English nowadays" I add in The Queen's English, which I felt was most appropriate given that we were not far from the Palace. Actually I didn't say that last bit, I've only just thought of it. Damn. I have got to work on my real-time, witty responses.

"Ah, that's good" says PC Moloney, Warrant Number 219635 "I didn't want to waste my time saying everything only to discover that you don't understand!"

"Very wise" I sneer (actually I didn't say that either. I just said "Yes" again. However it did occur to me that he might think I only knew the word "yes" so I started to look for opportunities to use other words from the English language to prove to him the breadth of my vocabulary).

Now we got down to business. "I have stopped you under Section 44 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act as I have seen you with a briefcase" says Officer Kevin.

"That is probably because I am a businessman going to a meeting" I say. I do actually say this. I am wearing a grey suit and white shirt, looking at least a bit like a businessman. I am feeling a little irritated to be honest at this point. And embarrased. But also slightly nervous. Do we do orange jumpsuits in the UK? I'm not certain.

Anyway, PC Moloney searches my briefcase as I stand there trying to look nonchalant and passers-by stare at the good policeman searching the swarthy looking gent in his cunning businessman disguise. I am hoping no-one I know wanders past. That would be strange and uncomfortable for both of us.

Kev asks for ID and I show him my driving licence. He takes it and starts to write something into a yellow notebook. Now I get interested from a data point of view. "What are you writing" I ask "and who does it go to?"

"It's just a record of my search. It doesn't go anywhere, it's just there in case someone needs to check back who was stopped and when. I'll give you a copy of it"

"Does that mean I will go on to a database somewhere?"

"Oh, no I don't think so. Only if there is a reason for it to. Otherwise it's just there in the files" he says reassuringly, although slightly uneasily as I seem to be taking an unusual interest now.

"So let's be clear" I probe "are you saying that it definitely doesn't go on to a database or that you don't know?"

Officer Moloney signs "If you want to make a complaint Sir" he says in that slightly tired policeman voice that is usually followed by a request to accompany him down to the station sir "if you want to make a complaint, I will give you the details". He gives me the name of one Inspector MacDonald of the Hyde Park unit and then he gives me my copy of the form.

Form 5090(X) is just a little bit of paper, but it carries a lot of information. My full name, date of birth, gender, ethnicity, height, address. Reason for stopping has four choices - behaviour, action, possession of an item, presence in area. Mine was "presence in area". It seems I was stopped for being "present in that area". Fair enough, given that it was definitely an area and I was clearly present in it.

"Search Grounds" was handwritten as "section 44 prevention of terrorism act in place...subject with rucksack (crossed out) briefcase". It was interesting that he instinctively wrote "rucksack" even though I was standing in front of him in a suit holding a briefcase!

At the bottom of the form are a series of codes. Mine were entered as T (for Terrorism s.44), J (for Terrorism s.44(2), as opposed to H which is Terrorism s.44(1) - don't ask me the difference) and I (there isn't an I on the codes, but I think/hope he meant 1 for No further action.).

The whole process took about 10 minutes but it felt like hours. I have never in my 45 years been stopped by the police before. I managed to miss the era of "sus laws". But I got a tiny sense of how it must have felt. Even though my old mate PC Kevin Moloney was just doing his job and was quite pleasant, I felt silly, embarrased, demeaned, powerless, annoyed and nervous. I was thinking to myself how is it that I can go from visiting Number 10, from attending Davos, from advising the UN on cybersecurity to being stopped and searched under terrorism laws in my own City? Do you think if I had mentioned to him that I am a Freeman of the City of London with the right to drive my sheep across London Bridge, he would have let me go?

On the other hand, I am very, very, very keen not to get blow up by real terrorists on the streets of London and the police and their friends in the shadows have done a marvellous job of keeping us safe over the past few years, so perhaps this is the price we have to pay. I get stopped to keep you safe. I'm sure it will happen again and I am sure I will get used to it.

But just remember, next time you see a foreign looking chap carrying a suspicious looking bag being questioned on the street by a police and you think to yourself "thank goodness they've caught that terrorist" bear in mind it might just be me on my way to lunch with a senior Google executive!