13 September 2015
This week I was involved in another of these Tech start up events. This one with the Duke of York Pitch@Palace.
Whilst I understand everyone is trying to breathe life into the tech world and drive innovation and the entrepreneurs of tomorrow, I can’t help thinking we are falling short with the advice and help we could be giving.
I met a group of young entrepreneurs who are desperately looking for funding for their ventures. It was an insight to the Manchester start up community at the Sharp Project, an innovation hub inspired and financed by the Manchester Council driven by Sir Howard Bernstein and Sir Richard Lees.
Later that day I met up with an entrepreneur James Kight and naturally started reminiscing and discussing our start up days and how different it is now.
James runs Printerland a company that as you can imagine sells printers. He is one of the North’s finest tech and ecommerce entrepreneurs. You probably wont have heard much about him. Like a lot of entrepreneurs, he is humble and keeps himself very much to himself. But Printerland is a £40m turnover ecommerce machine, all driven from one website, Printerland.co.uk.
James laughed in disbelief when I explained that I’d met a guy who’d got £1.5million in funding and was looking for another £6million.
Neither he or I could understand a world where you’d need that much to set up a business.
James described how he and Graeme Vickers set up Printerland on a shoestring with just a few thousand pounds. “Each penny we made we put into the business. We started small, it was tough but that’s what is needed when you are learning your lessons and shaping your business.”
UKFast started in the same way. We bought one server when we realised Britain needed better hosting providers to compete with the global ones that were currently on offer back at the turn of the century in 2000. When we filled our first server, we bought another and so on. Each year we focussed on our biggest challenges, trying to neutralise or eradicate our biggest costs. At the same time we focussed on what our clients might need in the future. This meant there was innovation being driven top and bottom.
It’s a philosophy that works to this day and we still run UKFast in the same way.
From a 2 man office with Gail and myself 16 years on we continue to grow. We have reached and passed the £250million mark and we have been hailed as a “Unicorn” a business with the potential to enter the billion pound valuation. But I don’t see this as a limit, more a milestone to pass on our journey.
If we are to continue to grow we need to keep that hunger. It’s a hunger we have developed since day one and its born from being a tiny start up, fending for ourselves and not having unlimited cash and deep pockets.
If you look at it, Google started in a Garage in a similar way in San Fransisco. I met Google’s first investor Alberto Chang Rajii on Necker once. Described by Sir Richard Branson as the World’s luckiest man. He lent Sergey and Larry $10,000 dollars and the rest you can say is history.
But Facebook started in the same way. It’s the early stages that are so essential. The struggle, the bit with zero cash; an era driven on belief that you can change and influence the world.
Its imperative you don’t give away your shares in your venture too early. The stronger you make your business the more money you can command when you do eventually need to look for expansion investment. So patience is as important as grit and determination in the early years.
It’s so important we do not encourage entrepreneurs to jump this stage especially if you are considering investing in someone’s business. You want to know “when the going gets tough” the people you are backing knuckle down and concentrate on what’s important.
Recently I have met people on panels in the start up community whose résumé reads like a 60 year old’s seseasoned successful entrepreneur. “I’m CEO of this, founder of that, I invented this and sit on the board of x, y and z.”
When it boils down to it, the list is nothing more than exactly that; a list of ideas.
If you are an entrepreneur, focus on what you want to achieve and settle down with the one idea you are most passionate about and give it your best shot. Don’t spread yourself to thinly. Anything that doesn’t support your main venture is a distraction.
People who promote too many things, do it for their own significance and are clearly hedging their bets. Be careful not to invest in these types of business types. They are not natural entrepreneurs, they are investors too and gambling with other peoples money as they don’t have the confidence to do it with their own. Make sure it’s not your money they are gambling with!
If you are investing, you want to see passion and staying power. Concentration and focus are also essential. You want someone to commit their entire life to the venture. Every waking moment, every cell in their body. Without this commitment you lessen the company’s ability to achieve its destiny.
So my advice if you are a start up or considering starting up, just get on with it and don’t hesitate. This maybe a tough era, but I can wholeheartedly promise you its an essential stage and the most fun you can have ever in growing a business.
It’s a place where every decision counts, where there is only “get it right or die” resonating in the back of your mind.
In the early days there were weeks when Gail and I just ate cereal as we didn’t have enough money to eat properly. My mortgages were falling into deeper debt and life was a juggling act. But it’s that juggling that teaches you the invaluable lessons of the future.
I will never forget that era and whilst it was tough I look back with strong affection for that time. I remember the people who bought from me and listened to my ideas. I remember the people who didn’t and wrote us off, or who made our lives difficult. But these lessons fuel our very existence and guarantee I will never settle on my laurels.
It’s a great era now if you are considering setting up a business. Nowadays kids can create Apps that compete with global giants. Anyone can change the world. There are no boundaries and people are excited by the innovation that’s driving the future explosion of tomorrow’s generation.
There is a huge wave of support for Tech entrepreneurship in the UK. First with Tech City in London run brilliantly by Gerard Grech where the government invested time and money in promoting the South as a credible alternative to Silicon Valley for start ups. The result, a huge community gathered in one area. I am a fan of this as I believe there is strength in numbers. We have just opened a London office in this area in a building called Second Home, to help support our thousands of customers in London and within the M25.
Back in 1992 I visited Palo Alto and Menlo College. I used to hang out there and play an old battered grand piano in the hall, whilst waiting for my friend who was at college there. Whilst I didn’t understand of the importance of the area, and that it was to develop into the Silicon Valley we know today even back then 30 years ago I could feel the energy.
So with various bodies setting up, Tech North (a northern arm of Tech City lead by Claire Braithwaite)Tech Trust (Tech entrepreneurs in Manchester) how can we best coordinate our efforts to support the next generation?
Firstly I think the government bodies and any other Tech trusts need to make it clear what their objectives are. Are they wanting to invest in the tech community? If so how do they intend enriching peoples lives.
- Is it through advice?
- Is it a mentoring network?
- Is it through investment or grants?
Whatever it is, TechCity and Tech North need to make it simple and easy to access. From what I am seeing and from experience there is too much money being spent long before it ever reaches the people it was originally intended to help and inspire.
I started on Margret Thatcher’s Enterprise Allowance. It was £40 per week. £2,080 for the whole year, but it gave me the confidence to go it alone. It’s a tiny amount of money when you consider what I have now been able to give back to the UK economy and the hundreds of millions I will be paying in my lifetime.
So if there is anyone listening from the government, come up with a scheme and bet on the start ups and entrepreneurs of the future and lets create the next layer of businessmen and women. The payback is enormous.
The answer is NOT giving tax breaks to US giants like Google or Amazon to relocate to the North. These types of businesses strip far too much cash out from the United Kindgom and we need to be and growing and betting on home grown talent.
You might be pleased to know there is a wealth of young hungry entrepreneurs coming through the ranks.
If you are one of them, get in touch. I help hundreds of young entrepreneurs with advice and guidance. We run events at UKFast like InspireManchester and InspireLondon where we share our successes, failures and I give away my own personal secret formulas.
We also have one of the longest running award ceremonies celebrating entrepreneurship. The Digital Entrepreneur Awards, which are now more than a decade old.
We have grants available too. Our BASEfund has given over £6m out in fees since its launch just a few years ago.
There is help on your doorstep wherever you are in the UK and there are many people like me who love to help and inspire people like you, to push your boundaries and point you in the right direction. Don’t expect cash, or an easy ride. Expect pain, suffering but if you are lucky, the most rewarding feeling you can ever imagine as you watch the birth of your business and you help grow her through the lifecycles as if she were your own flesh and blood.
Being an entrepreneur is one of the greatest responsibilities imaginable, but it is a responsibility. One not to be undertaken lightly, but one you should do with the commitment and courage required to tackle a mammoth effort like climbing Everest. If you ever make it to the top, you will realise it’s a vocation and not a destination and you will never settle.
Good luck on your journey. It’s a long one!
Lawrence Jones MBE
CEO and Founder UKFast