“For entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs” – the startup world’s motto

December 1, 2011

“For entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs” is actually the slogan of The Entrepreneurial Exchange, a members organisation in Scotland and London for ambitious, growth orientated entrepreneurs from any sector, but it applies very nicely to the world of high-tech startups where I’m now immersed.

In a nutshell it means entrepreneurs helping and sharing with each other, and as we’re entrepreneurs, doing this ourselves, rather than relying on outside support.

According to the Exchange, only around 5% of privately owned businesses have the entrepreneurial drive and desire to grow and scale up, and it’s those kind of entrepreneurs that see the benefit of, and join up as members of organisations like the Entrepreneurial Exchange, and its international equivalents like EO and YPO. By comparison, in the world of tech startups, probably something like 95% of entrepreneurs are seeking to create something of scale, (and to do it in within just a few years).

The interesting thing to me – and why I feel so at home in the startup world – is that there is a pay-it-forward culture, an ethos that winning is not a zero-sum game, and that we can all learn from each other. It’s baked into the whole community.

(An example: Steve Jobs was mentored by Andy Grove of Intel, and then years later – setting aside some grievances over Android – he returned the favour to Larry Page of Google.)

The Entrepreneurial Exchange’s key objectives are to:

“inform, motivate, educate, inspire and support entrepreneurs to realise their full potential.

That manifests itself in Silicon Valley and in other startup hubs around the world, where there’s thousands of free meetups where you can be motivated and inspired by, as well as meet other entrepreneurs; you can  read hundreds (if not thousands) of quality blogs from entrepreneurs, VCs, lawyers and others where they educate us by sharing their advice and insights, for free; and there’s communities like Hacker Dojo or TechHub where entrepreneurs can work together, support each other and inspire each other.

And ultimately I guess that’s why in this environment there’s no equivalent of The Entrepreneurial Exchange, because we’re doing it by default; it’s baked into the whole startup ecosystem, and that’s why I love this industry.


Entrepreneurs supporting and inspiring each other

May 23, 2010


I am proud to be a member and sit on the board of The Entrepreneurial Exchange. It’s a unique organisation, as we say “by entrepreneurs and for entrepreneurs”, which means that it’s just entrepreneurs providing support, advice, inspiration, motivation and education to each other on how to grow their businesses. No matter what you do, you need to be around like minds to really be at the top of your game, and where else can you find some of the country’s best business people?

This week I attended the annual conference of our sister organisation in the North East of England, the Entrepreneurs’ Forum. They started out seven years ago using the Exchange’s model, and they have built a fantastic organisation which seems to be at the heart of the business community in this region.

You can view a 4 minute video clip of the best bits from the conference, but here are my highlights of the conference:

Lord Graham Kirkham, founder of DFS.

I have to own up here and say that my preconceptions of this Tory-donating Lord were not good. But how wrong could I be? Another reminder that we should be open-minded and reserve our judgement. I challenge anyone to not like Graham Kirkham; a classic example of a very nice guy with a rags-to-riches story. I am a real sucker for this type of entrepreneur, always polite, upbeat and motivational. You can see why his employees would want to make him proud. If they could bottle the energy of this guy the UK would be a much better place. DFS, a company he bought out of bankruptcy in the 1980s was originally private, then floated publicly, then taken private again and just last month sold to private equity. DFS has been his life work but it seems the timing now is right for slowing down, re-using a famous movie star quote, “good lighting can take years off you, but you can’t fool a flight of stairs”. In fact it’s not just that he is now 65 and wants to slow down but the timing seems right given that Capital Gains Tax is almost certainly going to be rising, “it’s not what you make that counts, but what you keep”.

He told us of his philosophy, “If you’re building something to last, patience is a virtue; don’t expect it to succeed overnight. Build it one brick at a time.” But he didn’t reveal the secrets to his success, “there are no magic beans, but we do have magic people that care”. He told us with conviction it’s all about people, people, people. “Look for potential and develop people,” and accept that you will get it wrong sometimes was his advice. This is a talented people-person who clearly has done pretty well at picking the right people and motivating them.

Dennis Turner, Chief Economist of HSBC

Usually at this stage of play when the headline sponsor comes on everyone starts checking their BlackBerrys and thinking of what to do when they get back to the office. Not so with this extraordinary, barnstorming performance from the chief number cruncher at one of the world’s biggest banks and the big bank which was least affected by the credit crunch. In his key note Dennis Turner zoomed through slide after slide of charts and statistics and at the end of it not only were we much better informed but we had been brilliantly entertained.

Firstly, a definition of recession: “It’s that time when even those who have no intention of paying you stop buying.”

Despite the jokes, “my wife’s credit card was stolen, but I didn’t report it stolen, as he was spending less than she was”, his message was fairly gloomy. There will be no investment led recovery, businesses are contracting and consumer spending is as well due to static or decreasing salaries coupled with rising energy and food prices. We will simply recover by the relatively painless depreciation of the currency, so the country can depreciate its way out of debt. Of course that devalued currency will help our manufacturing and exports immensely, but not be great for those of us going overseas for holidays.

Interestingly, Britain’s manufacturing sector has never been bigger in terms of revenues. It’s just that the nature of British manufacturing has changed, going up the value chain and that the service sector has expanded at a much faster rate, so the proportion of our GDP which comes from manufacturing has dropped significantly. There are some bright spots though; firstly, all sectors of the economy (services, manufacturing and construction) are all now expanding again, and destocking is at an end. As the economy contracted in real terms by 5% last year then any form of growth, however small, is welcomed. Without the significant intervention by Alistair Darling and massive public sector spending that contraction would have been far greater. Unfortunately when the credit crunch hit the British Government had already got massive debt, having significantly borrowed to fund the expansion of public services. Business as usual means 2.5% growth per annum and that’s what we need to get back to sooner rather than later.

The major problem is our level of debt, both personal and government. But the problem is not the amount of debt, but the cost of servicing that debt. While the Government needs to reduce its debt, will consumers reduce their level of borrowing over the long-term? Currently the average person owes 19 months of salary, “We know it’s important to live within our means, even if we have to borrow to do so.”

Jon Moulton, founder and managing partner, Better Capital

Jon shot to public fame when his previous investment partnership, Alchemy Partners, made a failed bid for the struggling Rover cars. Subsequently when Phoenix failed Moulton appeared frequently on TV to explain how it was never going to work. He is famous for being outspoken so I was looking forward to an exciting and passionate address by him. Wrong, for the third time! Due to urgent overseas travel Moulton had pre-recorded his talk. Following on from Dennis Turner, Moulton delivered a downbeat and cynical assessment of how screwed the economy is. It wasn’t what the assembled entrepreneurs were looking for. The video ended to a stony silence. Apart the general miserable tone I did get one interesting snippet and that was his view there are a significant number of zombie companies, being kept on life support artificially by the bank’s reluctance to crystallise their losses (and take more flak from Government for causing yet more business failures), and the government allowing businesses to defer payments to HMRC, on an interest free basis. He expects to see a lot more business failures before we can put the recession truly behind us. His sarcastic closing comments…. “don’t worry, everything will be fine, the country is being led by two ex-PR men.”

The Entrepreneurial Exchange currently operates in Scotland, and a sister organisation will shortly be opening in London. The Entrepreneurs’ Forum operates within the North East of England.


The Entrepreneurial Exchange conference 2010

April 24, 2010

For the last couple of years I have been a member of a fantastic Scottish entrepreneurial network, The Entrepreneurial Exchange, which helps entrepreneurs build companies of scale in Scotland. I have had the pleasure of serving on the board since April 2009, and I hope that in particular I represent the views of younger and newer members.

Every year we hold our annual conference, at Scotland’s best hotel, indeed, one of the best in the world: The Gleneagles. As I set off towards Gleneagles I know that I’m going to meet and hear from some of Scotland’s and the world’s best entrepreneurs. Even arriving at this impressive building, in the middle of the beautiful Scottish countryside is inspirational in itself.

This year, there was a small but determined bunch of people using Twitter to send updates out from the conference. Tweets ended up being read and retweeted by people in UAE, Portugal, Cayman Islands, Canada, France and the US! I was highly tickled that one piece of advice, from Bill Cullen, a 69 year old veteran of the car industry was picked up and retweeted by friends of mine working on web start-ups in Silicon Valley and London. The advice was, “Do it fast. Start something now and then change and improve as you go. Just start now,” and is as applicable to lean web start-ups as traditional offline businesses.

Here are some of the other gems of advice from this year’s conference:

Bill Cullen (Ireland’s answer to Alan Sugar and Donald Trump on “The Apprentice”):

“Your future doesn’t just happen, you create it.”

Keys to success: positive attitude, plan of actions, being an expert, value people, energy, exercise, smile.

“The sun is always shining, we can’t see it, but it’s always there.”

Dermot Jenkinson, founder and chairman, beCogent:

“Bullshit might get you to the top, but it won’t keep you there.”

“We review every quarter what we’re doing in the business & make sure we’ve not started doing anything stupid.”

“Small unexpected gestures make a real difference with your employees.”

John McGuire, founder and managing director, Phoenix Car Company:

“What we look for when recruiting: Energy, Excitement, Enthusiasm, Intensity”. [John still interviews everyone at the company, despite having over 500 employees now].

“If you find something you love, and get someone to pay you to do it, you’ll never “work” another day in your life.”

On the recession and redundancies… “the important thing to me was just to get through the recession with as many of our people as possible.”

Lara Morgan, founder, Pacific Direct:

Plan your exit 2 to 3 years in advance. Ask your accountant for a due diligence checklist and start planning now.

Design a reward system that is well aligned with the company’s goals. And then remove barriers to success

Traffic lights on reports (red, green, amber) are a great way to quickly get to the point on reports, etc. [This idea was introduced to the Ford motor company by CEO Alan Mulally]

Remember Pareto…. Sack the useless 20% of your customers [More entrepreneurs need to actually do this & not just nod in agreement].

Big mistake: “not giving equity to key staff earlier in the game”

“Choose the life you wish to lead, plan it, and make it happen”.

Rosaleen Blair, founder and CEO, Alexander Mann Solutions

Best way to get new sales is to show and tell… “let other customers tell your story to new prospects”

“When opening overseas. Understand the culture. e.g. in Poland people are really keen to learn and develop so we offer courses and qualifications. Fulfill their needs.”

“2009 was my biggest year for learning in business” [It was for me and many of the other delegates I spoke to. Recession gets you to focus and understand like never before].

More about The Entrepreneurial Exchange:

The Entrepreneurial Exchange has a model which works, it’s an organisation “by entrepreneurs and for entrepreneurs”. Its members are business owners only, and support and learn from each other. We have businesses turning over less than a million, a few that turn over in excess of one billion, and everything else in between.

The Entrepreneurial Exchange is shortly opening in London, and there is a similar organisation in the North East of England, the Entrepreneurs’ Forum.


Top 10 gifts for the entrepreneur in your life

December 15, 2009

Entrepreneurs are hard to buy for. We’re a demanding species and usually far too focused on our companies to give any helpful guidance to the significant other in our lives desperately trying to choose a nice gift. So here are my top ten suggestions for what to buy the businessperson in your life this Christmas:

#1 A gift-certificate with Kiva – micro-finance to entrepreneurs in the developing world:

kivaThis will remind your entrepreneur “it’s not all about YOU”, there are other entrepreneurs out there, some of them need support to set up their own business and thus create their own job. Kiva’s motto is “loans that change lives” and they enable ordinary people here to lend to entrepreneurs in the developing world and feel great about doing so. Kiva is a micro-finance pioneer, typical loans might be to fund the purchase of a sewing machine to produce garments for sale. Kiva makes your life easy by offering a range of gift certificates, which you can email, or print out at home. It even lets lenders set up a portfolio of their investments, and the promise of some feedback in the future. (But not necessarily a monthly set of management accounts of metrics to review and analyse!) Kiva.

#2 Holiday/Vacation:

holidayAfter helping out other people through the magic of Kiva, now it’s time your entrepreneur looked after himself. You’ve been trying to persuade your significant other to take a break? Forget it. Just book that vacation/holiday now. They will appreciate it! If you can find somewhere with limited internet connectivity, even better. (Note, I said limited – no internet connectivity would be an unmitigated disaster!). Getting some down time and recharging the mental batteries is a good thing which many entrepreneurs don’t do nearly enough, and usually need some persuasion to help get them there. Trip Advisor.

#3 Smartphone: Motorola Droid / Milestone

milestoneYou can never have enough gadgets and this is the most desirable smartphone currently available. It’s sold by Verizon in the US as the Droid and in Europe it’s available SIM free as the Milestone. Based on Google’s Android operating system it’s an alternative to the ubiquitous iPhone. Any true geek should have one of each.

#4 Amazon Kindle:

The Kindle is an electronic book reader which is unique in that it has a built-in mobile connection, so you can use it wirelessly in over 100 countries world-wide. Like other e-books the display uses “electronic ink”, so doesn’t cause eye-strain. Unlike a real book you can change the text size, search through text and download the first chapter to try-before-you-buy. It can even read to you! Books, magazines and newspapers can be downloaded over-the-air, and you can also browse Wikipedia for no cost. This is a single purpose gadget which encourages you to detach from the internet for a few moments and concentrate on a book, and that’s a good thing.

#5 Book: 100 Best Business Books of all time:

100bestThis book contains recommendations and summaries of 100 carefully researched books by the people behind 800-CEO-READ. It’s been divided into sections to let the reader easily find just the right sort of book for the particular challenge he’s having. The 2 or 3 page summary of each book gives you the heads up without necessarily having to read the whole book. A great resource and time saver. Buy on Amazon in the UK or US.

#6 Magazine subscription:

incThere are lots of great magazines like Business Week, Forbes, Fortune, Inc and Fast Company and they often highlight stories in a different way to web-only media. Magazines never need batteries, are highly portable and are definitely worth a read. (They can also be read during take off and landing on a flight, unlike laptops, iPhones, and Kindles which must all be turned off). Magazines.com

#7 Noise-cancelling headphones:

boseMost entrepreneurs end up doing a lot of travelling. The endless conferences, events, trade shows and client or investor meetings translate to a lot of time in the air. A set of these beauties will let him or her detach from the hustle and bustle and enjoy some quality relaxation time, or time to focus on their work in peace and with minimal distractions. Bose aren’t the only ones who make them, but are the most well-known.

#8 Priority Pass membership:

prioritypassEconomy class travellers can use this to get a tiny bit of respite at an airport lounge instead of being stuck in the chaos that is a modern airport. Only trouble is that once used to this it’s hard to go back. Priority Pass.

#9 Binary clock:

clockTwo hands on a clock is very conventional and rather unchallenging. Why make life so easy? Here’s one for the programmer/geek entrepreneur, a binary clock which will keep his mind sharp whilst reading the time. On the other hand, it could be another excuse for why he’s never on time for anything non-work related.

#10 USB foot warmer:

warmerFor those entrepreneurs who find themselves stuck behind a desk most of the day, (or night), this USB foot warmer will stop frostbite, perhaps. (Or just chilly feet). Neat.

Anything I’ve missed off the list? Please comment below, I’m keen to hear from you!


Startup Bootcamp at MIT

October 19, 2009


Photo: Dan Bricklin, founder: Visicalc

Photo credit: uploaded by rhizop

I attended an amazing event in Cambridge, Massachusetts last week designed to educate and encourage new startup ventures. It took place on Columbus Day, a national holiday but that did not discourage hundreds of keen attendees who turned up for this all day event.

The photo on the right is of arguably the most famous of the speakers, the man who invented the “first killer app“, the electronic spreadsheet Visicalc. This helped establish Apple who sold millions of their Apple II on the back of that one  software title alone.

The speakers:

1. Adam Smith, Founder, Xobni
2. Alexis Ohanian, Co-Founder, Reddit
3. Ken Zolot, Founder, MIT Innovations Teams & Heartland Robotics
4. Dan Theobald, Founder, Vecna
5. Kyle, Vogt, Founder, Justin.TV
6. Angus Davis, Founder, Tellme
7. Hemant Taneja, Founder, Sunborne Energy, Managing Director, General Catalyst Partners
8. Dharmesh Shah, Founder, HubSpot
9. Robin Chase, Founder, Zipcar
10. Dan Bricklin, Creator, VisiCalc
11. Aaron Swartz, Founder Infogami
12. Drew Houston, Founder, Dropbox

There’s a number of very good notes about this elsewhere on the web, so I will simply provide links to those:

My key take away was how impressive the enthusiasm and passion exhibited here was; nothing like I have seen at home. The US leads the way for technology ventures for a reason!

For more history and lessons about technology startups I can endorse the recommendation made by a couple of the speakers of the book “Founders at work” which details the struggles and eventual success of companies like Hotmail, Apple, Adobe, Tivo, RIM and others.


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