A conversation with RIG’s founder

RIG Engagement Manager, Ffion Rolph, sat down and interviewed Founder and Managing Partner, Shields Russell, over a series of face-to-face meetings. Here, Shields shares his thoughts on RIG’s history, its evolution, and its future.


FR: Is it fair to say that RIG’s market focus has evolved significantly in the last few years?

SR: I think that ‘evolved’ is the key word. We have certainly increased our focus on energy, natural resources, and major industry. This was deliberate and we now have some portfolio companies with terrific technologies in this area.


FR: But you didn’t just stumble into these areas?

SR: No. In part, it has been a decade long evolutionary process of reflecting on where we have had most success and greatest impact.


FR: I assume that the emphasis around IP rich technologies emerged out of this process?

SR: Very much so. There are several sources of competitive advantage that are defensible to varying degrees: brand, business momentum and market dominance, business model, and intellectual property (IP). We strongly bias IP for the simple reason that proprietary technology is the most defensible advantage a company can possess. It reduces, if not eliminates, the threat of replication. Unburdened by the threat of commoditisation, it less susceptible to pricing pressure. In a B2B context, it is an asset that can be exploited exclusively by the ‘creating company’ or through that company granting rights to other organisations.

I would say that while we are attracted to IP rich technologies for these reasons, I am conscious that the technology must be decisively better than what it replaces. It must do a much better job. You can make money though delivering marginal improvement but you can make a whole lot more if your product is in a different class.


FR: What other factors have informed the current focus?

SR: In my case at least, getting older has also played its part. It’s the big, global, long run challenges that most engage me. These challenges have really important social and environmental dimensions. They really matter. And, of course, addressing massive challenges can offer huge economic opportunity.

I am never oblivious to the mission and political aspects of these challenges. My second job was as a teacher in Botswana. I earned about the same in a month as I had in a half a day in my first business in New York but the mission was more important. More meaningful. For me, commercialising a technology that directly contributes to sustainability is simply more motivating than building a sales operation for a B2B SaaS application that delivers greater efficiencies. Mission driven challenges have a great ‘why’ and I love that.


FR: The largest group of companies in RIG’s portfolio is focused on energy challenges. What has driven that particular angle?

SR: Energy is such a critical space as it lies at the heart of the climate change challenge. I cannot see any other way of tackling the acute energy challenges the world faces other than through adopting new, more efficient technologies. You cannot dispute the need but that is not the same as saying that new energy technologies can just turn up and the world will be their oyster. I think that is where a lot of the first wave of cleantech companies were wrong-footed. There was a lot of vision and a lot of big numbers but finding that market that could give the company traction often proved a bridge too far.


FR: So market discovery is a critical element of the process?

SR: That is the essence of the challenge and perhaps no less challenging than creating the technology in the first place. Finding high momentum applications and engineering adoption is a huge, often quite complex, challenge and that is where we can play a pathfinding or scouting role. In terms of building a market, innovators need to think small to get big. They need to identify and then offer a superior solution to a specific energy challenge. That is very much what we do. It is where we fit.


FR: Is it accurate to say that RIG’s more focused approach also reflects a broader trend in the venture space?

SR: Yes, that is a good observation. When I was first involved in what you might call the ‘start-up’ scene, entrepreneurial ventures where generally lumped together. Many start-up events reflected this. Now, of course, you have events for different tribes – those involved in FinTech, EdTech, or CleanTech for example. Many VC firms used to have partners focusing on investments in a several fields and, of course, many still do. But now you see much more focus which makes a lot of sense. I imagine that several VCs all with a focus on a single area, let’s say consumer internet, makes for a much better conversation and investment decision than a group of VCs each with a different specialisms. I think it is a reasonable assumption to say that the most successful Series A investors are the ones with the most focus and the most evolved investment theses. So in our way we are very much aligned to this trend.

That said, as a firm focused on innovative technologies, I think we must remain open to possibilities that lie outside our declared areas of focus. Those areas of interest we call our ‘column’. That ‘column’ is permeable with purposely ill-defined parameters. It is in many ways a tool that drives our internal discussion. What’s in? What’s out?  What’s happening out there? What’s emerging? What are the grand challenge that engage us? We have to remain alive to the non-linear developments and the emergence of new challenges that cannot be addressed simply by improving on the thinking and technology that can rise to them in the first place.

For example, we are working on a fascinating and important cyber-security project. It does not lie within ‘our column’ but we are totally committed. It ticks the interest box of one of our partners and that is always an important factor for me. You get the best from an individual when their ‘desire’ coincides with ‘opportunity’. So our focus will always in a sense be negotiated. We are that type of firm. We attract people to come and work for because of what we do and the areas we work in. Equally, we are influenced by how their interests develop. What interests people drives their development and when we work on things that interest us that gives us passion. There is nothing harder than doing a job that commands zero interest. It is like the class you hated at school.


FR: Does a more focused RIG mean the firm is becoming more specialised?

SR: We have made some choices that undoubtedly makes us not only a more focused outfit but also a more specialist one. Our future is very much centred on building out market practices where we can combine specialist knowledge and relationship capital with our more generalist ‘how-to’ knowledge. That combination packs a powerful punch. It is an approach that enables to us to codify our knowledge and utilise our contact network much more effectively. In terms of how we allocate our time, engineering licensing deals, building out networks of distribution partners, finding solution partners, or executing high value – and by value I don’t just mean revenue here – direct sales, consumes most of our time. Over the last ten years we have done a lot of business building. We will do a lot less of this type of work going forward.


FR: Why put the brakes on what is a valuable activity?

SR: We have accumulated a great deal of business building expertise over the last decade. This widened the scope of our operations to the extent that we had specific experience vested in individuals rather in a shared company-based capability. But the big question for me now is where we best apply this expertise. Helping a company find some product-market fit and achieve some early traction is without question valuable. It is the first staging post on the way to building a valuable business. Building organisational capabilities to take advantage of this is also undoubtedly valuable. There are lots of managers that are well qualified to grow an organisation. The know-how and experience required to build a revenue-generative organisational capability from its early evangelist stage to something that is more repeatable and scalable is fairly hard-to-come-by competence. As it often the case, companies with the beginnings of organisational capability believe that hiring a manager from a larger company in their space will help them navigate this stage. They are nearly always wrong. They have hired that individual too early. Building something from scratch is not what they do.

But for us the problem with this type of work has been one of value perception. Clients place a different order of value on securing first revenues and consequently we have the opportunity to make a healthy return on our efforts here. The same cannot be said for business building work which is time consuming and less glamourous. It is ‘airline’ work – it takes a lot of planning and organisation, creates a lot of value but is rarely profitable. But while we will do less of this type for clients, we shall look to apply this expertise in building more of our own ventures.


FR: Where does starting new ventures fit into the picture?

SR: I am agnostic as to whether we are working for companies that are client partners in the traditional sense or companies that we co-founded and part own. What is certain is that in the next five years we will increase the number of companies in our portfolio that we have co-founded and are significant shareholders in. To date, we have been opportunistic. Going forward, we will be much more systematic and objective driven about it. We have learnt from the ventures that we have started not least from our failures. Where we can make things happen is on the commercial side, in mitigating market risk, in introducing the customer into the product development process, and in establishing distribution channels as early as possible in the commercialisation process. In contrast, our natural co-founders are the product-centric CEO or technologist with a prototype operating in our areas of interest.


FR: What has prevented RIG from starting more ventures?

SR: The lazy answer would be time. I think we have huge potential as an entrepreneurial platform but in truth we have been reactive rather than working out a more systematic and proactive approach to identifying opportunity. One key element of this is resolving the funding challenge. If you are starting from scratch with each venture, then securing seed funding can be a drawn out process and take an ordinate amount of time. One of our goals in the next 12 months is to develop ‘a bench of investors’ that can fund not only new ventures but can take advantage of opportunities within our client base. I am interested in creating a tight knit group that become intimate with and confident in the work we do, that share our approach and values, and are interested in markets and technologies we are engaged with. We have started talking to some HNWIs and we shall also look to some family offices. I am most interested in investors that will place value on social and environmental benefits alongside financial return.


FR: What is RIG offering this investor group??

SR: What we will offer our investor bench has a few dimensions. If we take opportunities within our client portfolio then I think we can offer fantastic dealflow with our involvement acting as a form of due diligence. We know our best clients inside-out and we know the size and nature of their market opportunity. There are two scenarios we will bring opportunities to the table. The first is essentially ‘follow-on’ investment opportunities where the investment is made on the back of substantial market traction and the where the business model has been defined. The second scenario is less straightforward and is best characterised as addressing a short term funding need. Even those companies that are well established and firmly on the path to success are not immune from a variety of problems that can result in funding challenges. Few if any emerging companies can get all their ducks in a row. But if the core product and market fundamentals are in place then there is a great opportunity. The critical thing is to be able to move quickly, to ensure a problem does not become a serious distraction, and to preserve or re-establish goodwill.

With regard to new ventures these may attract a different type of investor. What we want to here is to establish a very structured, gated approach whereby we chunk the commercialisation process in a fairly granular and transparent way and then align funding to each specific stage. I believe that by engaging with the market early, by co-developing solutions to high value problems with industry partners, and by confirming, prioritising and sequencing demand, we can accelerate the time to revenue while reducing both business risk and a new venture’s early funding requirement.


FR: What still surprises you after running RIG for more than 10 years?

SR: I suppose I thought that as I got older my curiosity might wane but it hasn’t. I thought I might become more conservative with age but if anything I feel more adventurous. We play in such interesting spaces. There is so much to learn and engage with. I spent a little bit of time on my summer vacation doing a deep dive on the ‘circular economy. It is so relevant a concept that it must become part of our internal discussions as to which companies and technologies we work with.


FR: Are you ahead or behind where you might have imagined you would be when you started?

SR: Definitely behind. I am impatient person who has had to learn patience. What I have learnt is that developing talent takes time, sometimes much longer than first imagined. But I have stuck with people. I made the decision early on to hire young people and to try and give them the type of challenges that could drive their development. I think you have to commit to talent and be prepared to wait. It probably takes six years or so to get really good at what we do.


FR: Last question: Why are all RIG’s partners male?

SR: It is a fair question and it is something that I would like to see change. I started with four male graduates; one is now the CTO of a crowdfunding platform, another left to join Roland Berger, and the other two are senior partners at RIG. So we started off with an imbalance which was compounded by an early failure to attract a sufficient number of female candidates. Foolishly on our part, and mistakenly on theirs, we were viewed as being overtly ‘techie’ which is a mile from the truth. But we are well past that now and so the situation should rectify itself over time. I think that will have a very positive impact on our culture.

"I wanted to get closer to the companies themselves and have more involvement with the actual operating businesses" – an interview with Simon Jackson

I recently caught up with Simon Jackson, Director, in order to learn a bit more about his RIG story.

When and why did you join RIG?

I joined RIG in June 2009 by osmosis. I first started working on one client, and within 2-3 months I was fully engaged working on 3 clients. I’d known Shields for a long time and always thought that what he did and the way he talked about it was very interesting.

I’m a technophile and my career has kind of gone in the opposite direction of flow to some people in some ways. I started off as a fund manager so I was very far away from the things that I was investing in and so I had no influence over those things. Then I was in M&A for technology related companies. In M&A, there’s a lot of excitement in doing the deal and then the real work starts once the merger or acquisition is completed. So I wanted to get closer to the companies themselves and have more involvement with the actual operating businesses.

So essentially your background was as a…?

Frustrated scientist meets techno wannabe.

How would you define your role at RIG?

I wear a couple of hats. So, one is as a regular member of the RIG team which is all about winning and delivering high quality client work.

Then, as a director of the firm, it’s about shaping the direction of the firm. We have been thinking a lot recently about how to grow the firm in a non-incremental fashion. I also act as an ambassador for the firm; seeking to engage with people and build on that which will hopefully bring high value opportunities to RIG. Not just clients, but also high value transactions, potential investors – leveraging X for the benefit of RIG.

With the finance hat on, I do financial planning for the firm: how to grow value for the firm; how to find good ways of compensating individuals; how to create incentivisation plans that reward individuals for being engaged. That’s the finance side of trying to make RIG an exciting place to work, grow, and be rewarded. Along with Shields, I think about team development and team growth.

I also want to help embed in the firm a culture of equity ownership, which is about us owning the investment in other companies and the culture in RIG needed to facilitate it. Part of that is to extend RIG’s skill set in a financial direction because, over time, we are building out the things that we can do with companies.

Catch the second half of our interview with Simon in the near future.

An interview with the founder and CEO of Export Technologies, Daniel Loughlin

Daniel Loughlin founded Export Technologies, an eCommerce platform provider and consultancy, in 2005. To date, their eCommerce platform, the IRP, has transacted over £1 billion in retail eCommerce sales in over 180 countries. I caught up with Dan in order to delve deeper into the world of eCommerce and entrepreneurship.

How would you define an entrepreneur?

From my point of view, it is someone who can create a viable business out of an idea.

How did you come to be an entrepreneur?

I was initially a programmer and had a big interest in eCommerce and still do, and an opportunity arose. Because I was able to facilitate the eCommerce side of it, from there I really developed the business out of that. I didn’t set out thinking I wanted to develop the business but it happened because I knew how to do the eCommerce part of it so it was a very quick and natural thing to do. I’m sure a lot of people in the technology sphere materialise in a similar way – they start with an idea and the business comes afterwards.

If you could go back ten years, would you do it all again?

I’d possibly do it slightly differently. I think one of the bad things in many ways about technology is that it’s not quick. It takes a lot of detail and a lot of time. The length of time you have to sink into these projects makes you question doing it. Saying that, I still enjoy the area that I’m in and it remains very interesting. As you get to learn things, you do realise you could have made a few quicker decisions in the early stages.

How would you encourage someone to get involved in the world of eCommerce?

I am positive about eCommerce, but it has moved on from where it was 4-5 years ago when my answer would have been “get involved” and it was still possible to grow businesses very quickly. I would say now that people should get involved to maintain or expand the market share. To find areas of huge growth in a pure selling sense, you’d have to pick your market very carefully and have absolutely the right technology.

I think the best time to start a pure eCommerce company would have been between 2000 and 2004, after the end of the first boom.  There is a lot more money to be made on the technology side of things: efficiencies, solving problems et cetera. On the shop and selling side of things, it’s definitely getting more competitive.  For serious growth markets I think people should be thinking about selling internationally instead of selling here. Look for demand and think about selling some of the high quality products that we have here and carve out a niche.

You were partly responsible for growing Chain Reaction Cycles into the world’s largest bike store, achieving a turnover of £180m. How did working alongside CRC have an influence on shaping Export Technologies into the company that it is today?

I think it had a big role to play because it essentially allowed us to fund our R&D and was a very nice position to be in. So because of CRC, we became an R&D organisation instead of a selling organisation and remained there for a long time creating a great product.   It was also a great opportunity to learn a lot about the way that online markets work in depth.

You’ve previously mentioned that you got involved with CRC at a time when there were strong tailwinds in the cycling market. In which markets do you think we are currently seeing strong tailwinds?

In my view, you can make money in most markets. You need the right technology and the right choices – it will not just happen. Unusually, there isn’t enough focus on a pure sales angle. Probably because the world of online selling is a bit more opaque. But companies need to get real skills in that area in order to really get on top of the key metrics and they key channels. Unfortunately, these require a lot of detail in order to make them work properly. Not being able to physically see your customer is a challenging thing. Normally, you meet your customer. You can watch them, talk to them, and learn, and in the online world you’ve got to shift your thinking into a different way of doing that.

If I was to pick a niche, I would be thinking carefully about what the populations of the growth economies are consuming, and whether or not we can supply them from here. For much of the world’s history, China has been the largest economy. I’m not sure about the restrictions, but I’d look at Eastern markets e.g. do they consume something that we can supply from the UK?  If there are no export barriers then whiskey might be an example. There will definitely be growth areas like that. People need to look at poorly serviced markets where there’s a demand – companies like us are useful in trying to analyse these markets.

What are your main aspirations for Export Technologies over the next three years?

I would like to really strengthen our technology and simplify it so that it reduces the barrier to success – that is a key thing. Commercially, I’d like to see a wider adoption of the technology because I believe it’s very strong.  And also to grow the business in a structured way, based on a strong value proposition. I believe our IRP technology and our vision of “Commerce in a Connected World” can have an impact.

When you’re not doing all things eCommerce, what do you like to spend your time doing?

I spend time reading about the area I am in, business in general, and current affairs. I enjoy competitive sports; playing them rather than watching them and getting away from the computer screen in the outdoors.

Sometimes I think about the impact our work has, and the bigger impact of Information Technology; the area we are in. There are competing forces in our own area of Commerce – between ‘buy local’ and ‘buy global’ so it will be interesting to see how this shakes out. I think most of us are spending more time interfacing with technology, and less with other people which is a change for society. There are also issues of personal data and security brought about by the way communication has changed that society is yet to catch up on.

Interview with MoveMeOn co-founder Nick Patterson

MoveMeOn was founded in 2011 to fill a gap in the recruitment market for providing select job opportunities to high quality candidates. We spoke to co-founder Nick Patterson, a former McKinsey consultant, about his iterative process of founding and growing a company.

Your website talks of your ‘first attempt’ to change graduate recruitment at Cambridge, what was your vision for that?

I set up a recruitment agency to place students in internships. When I was at university I did an internship at a small consulting firm, and I think the experience I gained from that was more valuable than what I might have gained from a larger firm. At that age you’re still ‘green’ and so rarely get the opportunity to pick up tasks with much responsibility in the larger firms, whereas at small firms the various different types of work have to be done by everyone, so you often get more opportunity to take on more challenging work. Equally the bigger firms are flooded with applications for a small number of places, leaving many students with no internship at all. I didn’t pursue it for very long but it taught me a lot about the recruitment industry.

What was the ultimate catalyst for starting your own venture?

I really wanted to start a company when I left McKinsey, but I didn’t initially have an idea. I ended up stumbling across it because of my own experiences. All of my peers in the city, particularly those in consulting, were being bombarded with calls from headhunters about potential job opportunities. The headhunters had very little idea of what I had done or what I wanted to do; they called with any opportunity that they thought was relevant to me based solely upon having worked at McKinsey. These phone calls were almost weekly and frustrated me and many of my peers. MoveMeOn came out of this – we thought the whole process could be improved. All it really needed was more transparency in the market; the top companies needed to know where they should be looking for the top tier employees.

I also really enjoy the energy you get from working at your own venture. One thing I’ve learned is that if I can see the immediate value in something I’m much more likely to throw myself into it, which is definitely the case with MoveMeOn. Projects in the past where the immediate value is harder to see or non-existent I found very frustrating.

How long did it take you to get it up and running?

From the initial idea to the website getting up and running took around three or four months. This was longer than we had originally planned, and the delays were mostly due to our not understanding the difficulties involved in building a website – a process which we outsourced and learned a lot from.

We had something of a classic startup story in that we made a fairly large pivot and changed the focus of our business further down the line. We had identified three main channels to use when trying to find a job:

  1. Your personal network
  2. Good headhunters
  3. Jobs boards

We started out by effectively being a middleman between good headhunters and job seekers – this wasn’t the most efficient method, but it was necessary to build a strong network of candidates and develop some credibility in the market. Keeping our definition of MoveMeOn fluid was vital at this stage; it allowed us to evolve into the third channel – jobs boards. This proved to be a huge turning point for us and now is by volume and revenue the most valuable part of our business. It’s one of those industries that hasn’t caught up with what can be done online, creating a gap which we were able to fill very well. Often the problem with jobs boards is that there are too many listings, which makes finding the right job a time-consuming process. It’s followed a common internet trend. The past five years have been all about getting volume and choice onto the web. This has been so effective that people are now overwhelmed with “choice” and don’t know where to look. We envisage the next five years being all about filtering for quality. As such, we go for more of a hand-picked jobs approach, only posting the jobs that really excite us and we can see our fairly specific demographic of members working at and enjoying.

If you have sought funding for your venture, what funding options did you pursue?

We needed some capital expenditure early on but it’s not a capitally intensive company. We were lucky to be able to self-fund and were cash flow positive within a very short period of time (in the region of four to five months). We have been approached by institutional investors, so we’ve thought about getting more funding on a few occasions. Sometimes you do need an extra injection of pace and cash to burn through, but we decided that if we didn’t have a very good idea of what we would spend the money on, we weren’t ready for it.

Interview by John Sherwin

USEUM – A case study in funding

Boosted by winning Athens Startup Weekend 2012, USEUM is described as “The social network for art, offering two key features; firstly an art archive i.e. the ‘Wikipedia’ of art that is built collectively, and then a podium for everyone to express their opinion and to publicly ‘Like’ and ‘Dislike’ aspects of art, as in all other subject-specific social networks.”  We spoke with founder Foteini Valeonti about her experiences in finding funding for her startup.


As part of winning ASW, you won the chance to pitch at HackFWD in the Pitch in Berlin V2 event.  Did you get funding for USEUM there?

“Although it was a great opportunity, pitching in Berlin was very tough and we didn’t get funding.  The other startups had already been through previous funding rounds and had been in existence for at least 6 months.  USEUM was still under construction at this stage so a completely different proposition.  That said, I think had I done a live demo of our mobile app I would have increased our chances of funding greatly as the live demo at ASW was what really counted in our win.”

So after that, what sources of funding did you pursue?

“Well, we felt the best route at this stage was to bootstrap our company and create a minimum viable product using the least possible funds.  Starting out with this model worked well, but we couldn’t take it very far due to some legal expenses.  I decided I didn’t want to get a loan for the business or go to friends and family for funding, so instead set about looking for angel investors.”

“I successfully found 3 investors who were willing to back USEUM.  What I learned from this process, was that to find the best angel investors, you just have to find the people who share the same interests as you, and who can really click with your idea.  In USEUM’s case it was people who are into art and Greek entrepreneurship, so a perfect match.”

Would you use a similar method to get funding again at future rounds?

“Obviously we will give priority to our original investors, as they are the ones who believed in the team and the idea in the first place.  If still further capital is needed we might seek similar angels, although our strategy is to assess all options so we would also talk to some VC’s.  We are lucky enough to have a revenue model from our USEUM Gift Shop though, so as long as we are covered by that we will delay fundraisers and build our value.”

Interview by John Sherwin

"This is the most exciting thing I've ever done"

Matthew Painter is co-founder and CTO of import.io, a startup currently in private beta that aims to revolutionize the way that we access, collect and analyse so called ‘big data’. We caught up with him over lunch to find out about his background and how he became an entrepreneur.

Import.io is rooted in some serious programming, how did you become interested in computers in the first place?

I had my first computer when I was 5 or 6, a Commodore VIC-20, and I started programming soon after that really. I started off using Commodore Basic, and soon enough was spending time trying to program role playing games and similar sorts of programs. When I started at Cambridge I was studying Maths but in my 3rd year I switched to Computer Science. This was a fairly easy decision to make given that I’d always loved programming and that I’d had previous experience with it.

And how did you first become involved in startups?

On graduating I left to a startup called headporter.com. This operated on a simple premise: it supplied student unions with IT services (e.g. websites, membership card schemes, email lists etc.) in return for access to all of their databases and the ability to resell data to companies doing target recruitment and similar things. We had signed up all of the Russell Group universities when some unfortunate circumstances meant that we had our finance pulled. This was a blow as we had to walk away from what we had spent quite some time building, but I enjoyed myself while there and I took a wealth of experience with me. Following that I did some consulting before joining Yahoo to build a Yelp competitor. Surprisingly this had an atmosphere much like a startup because it was a small team working on their own project within the company. This was going very well until poor annual results caused Yahoo to shut down the project in order to focus on their core business areas and cut costs.

After this a friend approached me saying he was working on some tech within a large organization that had a lot of opportunities. He found it constrained working within that environment though and thought for a chance of real innovation they would need to start their own company up. Having enjoyed my first start up experience and liking the idea I didn’t hesitate to get involved and it’s been a great decision – this is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.

As CTO what sort of challenges do you face most often?

As CTO you’re not just a technological person you’re also a businessman, and one of the challenges we face is balancing risk and reward and making trade-offs accordingly. With startups the challenge is always about balancing efficiency with quality, and this manifests itself at many different levels. One of these might be human resources, for example the Google founders personally interviewed their new employees until the company grew so much that this was no longer possible – a clear trade-off of their time that they thought was worth it. The right workforce in a startup is crucial to deliver results under very tight time constraints, particularly when bootstrapping. I have to make these judgements regularly as we are currently going through an angel round, but we have to keep focusing on the business itself and not compromising the quality of it while we raise funds.

What processes have you gone through in terms of funding?

We started off bootstrapping for as long as possible. We were lucky in that Kusiri (import.io’s predecessor) was self-funded and cashflow positive very quickly so this was not as painful a process as it can be for some startups. It was pretty clear though that to really get a world class company off the ground you do need investment – you need cash to burn through. If you don’t put money into it, you’re not going to get anything out of it.

Finally, as someone who studied computer science, why do you think more American computer scientists enter into entrepreneurship than their British counterparts?

I’d say there is an element of truth to that, American society is a lot more entrepreneurial in general with people more motivated to start businesses. The UK has entrepreneurial people but our culture is more risk averse and we don’t have the same background motivation pushing us forward. Take Silicon Valley for example, people there have been brought up in an environment that will surely breed more entrepreneurs. If we get a few big successes in the UK people will become more motivated to get involved. More encouragement for young people to do computer science and coding would also have this effect. I’m very keen on this, so we were involved in SVC2UK last year, and this year we’re hosting a team for Young Rewired State. YRS fosters the sort of growth we need to see more of in young people.

Interview by John Sherwin

What route should students take to become a successful CEO?

Peter Collins, currently the CEO of Permasense, has obtained a PhD Computational Fluid Dynamics and an MBA prior to his various managerial and director roles. He built on his knowledge and skills as an engineer prior to management.

This is perhaps the conventional way to proceed in one’s career, but there are many other opportunities for newcomers these days. The British schooling system creates a dilemma for students at numerous stages. Having to graduate with only few A-levels suggests that you are required to narrow your focus down at a very early stage. However, individuals’ personalities only shape after “teen” years, where confidence and ability to manage others become evident. So there is no clear-cut answer to which is the best route to take.

In order to get an understanding of which route successful CEOs prefer, we asked Peter whether he feels his career advancement was the key ingredient in his success or whether if he could go back in time, would he have done it in any other way…

I have no regrets…

Engineering based businesses are best run by engineers. You cannot build a great engineering business without knowledge of and passion for engineering, as you cannot build a great hotel business without a knowledge of and passion for hotels.

It’s a pity that more engineers don’t remain in engineering, in particular to build engineering businesses…

Customer (and Patient) Control – An Interview with Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli

Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli is founder and CEO of Patients Know Best, a personal health record system designed to put the patient first. By giving patients control of their own health records, the system allows more efficient and effective relationships between doctors and patients, as well as between doctors and specialists comprising teams of care providers. Patients Know Best is based in Cambridge, UK.

1)   Before Patients Know Best, had you ever thought of doing something entrepreneurial, or did the drive really start with the problem and solution you discovered?

I started with something entrepreneurial in a sense because I knew I was going to start my own company. I was setting myself my own syllabus, so I went through medical school having learned how to program; I was just teaching myself how to write medical software and the intention was that I’d basically solve problems for physicians. And that’s what I did during medical school. I also grew up in Cambridge, and in Cambridge… I was told in school that when you’re in Cambridge, you start your own company, so I believed them. I knew I would do that one day. The final piece for me was learning business, so I worked for a management consultancy in the States, in Washington D.C. While there, I saw the problem that I thought, “OK, this is really important I could commit to, I can see myself dedicating the rest of my life to solving this because it’s really important.”

Beyond that, there’s also a business model behind solving this problem, and I guess I just wanted to solve this for myself. I was facing the problem as a patient, trying to organise my care, trying to manage my health. I spent a year sulking that no one was doing it, and 2008 came along and I said, “You know what, I’ve literally written the book, so I have to do it. Let’s just go and do it.”

2)   How much has the service evolved since you started as a result of patient and physician input? What developments do you foresee with regard to the service in the near future?

We started with an embarrassingly minimum viable product. We took all the classic startup advice, start with the minimum market product: we launched with only one feature. I came back to the UK and I began asking for interviews from my friends who were doctors and then asked them to recommend other doctors to speak to. They weren’t saying, “My problem is I don’t have a PHR.” They said, “My clinics are overrun with patients and I’m always late in helping my patients. There are budget cuts, I can’t get enough staff…” All these very clinical, very operational problems. So I just began building up clinical problems, and I thought, if you use the patient as an asset rather than a liability, we can help. What’s the minimum feature they would need, that they would pay tomorrow, to use? And the one thing they said was, “We want to send messages to patients across institutional lines, if the hospital wants to send a message to the patient and cc the GP, or GP send a message and cc the social worker, for example.” And that was the only thing we launched with.

To give you some contrast, the UK government spent tens of millions on Healthspace, which is their sort of attempt at a patient portal. And only after they went through that sort of tens of millions did they get the feedback of, “I don’t really need any of these features, but I really need to send messages.” So then they began trying to do messages, but by then they’d spent so much money, no one was going to give more money to develop the software any more. So, we started from that feature and every single other thing you see in the software is because a doctor, a nurse, a patient sat down and said, I need this, or I’m stuck on this.

The whole thing top to bottom has been built by the user saying what they need; we respond every two weeks by putting out new features. From our perspective, it’s great because we’re only building stuff that people care about, but also our users are huge evangelists. Every commissioning customer who uses us can point at a part of the screen and say, “That was mine.” And then they go and tell all their friends, “Go and use this software because that was mine. And also, whatever you tell these guys, they’ll do it in two weeks. They really respond really quickly and I’ve never had a software company do that with me.”

3)   In one of your customer videos, Gary Hotine describes looking for something that would be like “Facebook for Patients.” I’m curious to know how apt a description you feel that is for Patients Know Best.

A lot of our users describe us as the Facebook of healthcare. When we trained patients in the beginning, the docs were kind of worried that the patients wouldn’t understand how to use the software. When we sat down with them, most of the trepidation was that they did not believe the docs had actually handed over the records and given them control. But as soon as they get there, they’re like, “Oh, I see, that’s like Facebook. I’m good.”

From that point onwards they just go ahead and use it. It’s like Facebook in the sense that it’s a very easy method of communication, pulling data from everywhere and it can send lots of places. It’s not like Facebook in the sense that we’re not selling your data and we change the terms of use every week: we are not confusing our financial benefit with your privacy desires.

4)   When you started, I’m guessing it was pretty much just you. How did you then go and assemble a team? What qualities did you look for?

It started with just me having the idea and doing some of the research in the States and then deciding I needed to go back to the UK to start it. Cambridge was the place to do so, both as my home and because I’d heard that Cambridge receives 7% of all VC funding in all of Europe. It’s just a crazy number. So I came back to Cambridge and just did a bunch of things to start building the team. I emailed the CEO of Cambridge Network and said, “I’m coming back to the UK, I’ve trained as a programmer and I’m starting this company; I have no team, no product, and no customers. Who do you think I should talk to?” “Let’s have coffee.”

I think he took pity on me, but he said, “You know you should talk to Ian, he’s a CFO of VC backed companies and I think he’ll talk to you.” It turned out we shared the same pub, and we kind of just spent 2 hours the first time talking about the company and he thought it was really interesting. Over the next four months, the poor guy, Ian, taught me accounting. And then eventually he became a member of our board of directors and CFO of our company. So he was the first really heavyweight executive to commit his time to the company.

Then from the development side, I started by just getting some contract developers to build the proto-type and then some other ones to build the final software. We now have developers from the UK (obviously), but also the States, from France, from India, just a real international team. And they tended to have some experience with healthcare in the past that meant that they were as frustrated with healthcare as I was. And so they’re quite evangelical.

In parallel with that, I got a meeting with Dr. Richard Smith, who was the former editor of the British Medical Journal. It took me six months to get a meeting with him—because everyone’s trying to get a meeting with him—but I knew when I was reading his editorials as a medical student, he was always on the patient’s side, often to the anger of his colleagues and medical professionals. But he’d always be on the patient’s side. I knew that if I could just get a meeting, he’d get it. And sure enough, he got it and he agreed to new meetings. And then one day, he agreed to be chairman of our board of directors.

As you build that core team of world class people, it’s just easy to get people. Everyone then wants to join up.

"One of the biggest challenges was finding out how big could our business could be"

I recently had the opportunity to speak to Carlos Mendes, Co-founder and Product Manager of WeListen. WeListen offers an enterprise innovation management software tool, InnovationCast, which companies can use to drive innovation within their operation from the idea to the final product.

I asked to him to tell me more about the reasons for founding WeListen, developing InnovationCast and any challenges that they experienced during the start-up phase.

“Four of us co-founded WeListen several years ago. We were already colleagues so we had professional experience but we were looking for an opportunity to do something different. The basic idea was to join forces and start up a company together. We started as a project-based company and, at one point, we began working with Mota-Engil to help them organise their collaboration infrastructure.

“During that engagement, António Meireles, who was in charge of Innovation Management at Mota-Engil, came to us with the challenge to devise something better that would improve the way employees collaborated within the company and to support innovation management. The initial idea was to take a solution from the market and add some customisation to ensure that it was a good fit between the needs of the company and the existing product. In the end, we could not find any one solution available that could address all their needs such as:

    • How can we support all of our innovation management process within the company?
    • How can we turn our ideas into value?
    • How do we engage our people to drive innovation?

“This lack of an existing solution for all these aspects drove us to produce InnovationCast. We created a solution for this from scratch. InnovationCast is not only a way to enable innovation from within a company. Our aim is to allow companies to innovate at a sustained rate. Not only does it allow a company’s internal workforce to provide innovative ideas, but it also allows external suppliers and buyers to help address any challenges.

“One of the biggest challenges for us, and this may be shared by other start-ups, was finding out how big could our business could be. Sometimes you get customers to provide solutions to but it is not always easy to keep the company going on a sustained basis. Since we started as a project-based company, we were working with clients that had different projects and problems to address.

“We had projects coming in, which was good for us, but we had difficulty focusing on a particular area. From the beginning, we always had the idea of creating a product based on social technology. We didn’t know what that product would be. On the one hand, working on different projects for different companies was good because we were finding out as a company what was possible for us to do. On the other hand, it can be difficult to choose what you want to do as a start-up that has a clear focus area.

“We had so many ideas that it was easy to want to do it all, but obviously we had to put our mast in the ground. As a startup, you need to understand what you want to do and what real assets you have to build a business.”

"In a startup success is in a 'to-learn' list not a 'to-do' list"

In the presentation below Suneel Gupta, Groupon‘s VP Product, gives an interesting perspective on “managing hypergrowth” in a company that became the fastest in history to reach $1bn in revenue.

Whilst large organisations typically manage projects by thinking about ‘to-do’ lists, Gupta (referencing Sean Ellis) says that in startups it makes much more sense to think about ‘to-learn’ lists.

I like this distinction because it recognises the fact that growth-stage companies constantly come across new challenges that are not yet fully defined. As a technology Founder/CEO your role may change from designer to developer to salesman to recruiter to manager within the space of a year.

It’s difficult to know specifically what you have to do until you’ve started doing it, so think about what you have to learn instead.

See the full video by clicking below.