Sean Park Portrait
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I say profound things

Articles tagged 'entrepreneurs'

The right stuff.

I often, ok sometimes, get asked what I look for in an entrepreneur / company founder / ceo and despite having a very clear vision of the ideal profile in my mind, I used to struggle to articulate it clearly and concisely. Then last fall I read The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life and found that the legendary Mr. Buffett (albeit in a very different context – can you guess??) – had done the work for me. With some paraphrasing and adaptation, here is what he said and what I’ve adopted as my “elevator” founders test:

When I invest in an entrepreneur, I’m going into a foxhole with this guy and he has to be the right choice. The question is, who has all the qualities that will provide leadership to the company, cause me not to worry for a second about whether anything was going on that would subsequently embarrass the company, or cause it to fail through lack of ambition or effort. When I talk to entrepreneurs what goes through my mind is essentially the same questions that would go through your mind if you were deciding who you wanted to be a trustee under your will, or who you wanted to have marry your daughter. I look for the kind of person who is going to be able to make decisions as to what should get to me and what could get solved below the line. A person who will tell me all the bad news, because good news always takes care of itself in business.

And when I look across the founders of our portfolio companies, I would definitely be comfortable with any of them being trustees of my will. As for my daughter, well they’re all too old for her anyway and besides they wouldn’t stand a chance…

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Status update (and founder risk management)

Ten days ago, an irresponsible and unthinking young man crashed into me from behind at great speed while I was skiing with my children. The force of the impact broke two things: my right ski and the top of my right arm. There were multiple fractures and (the shoulder being full of many nerves, tendons, muscles) I was advised that I would need surgery to ensure proper healing and that I should entrust this only to an expert specialist surgeon. Fortunately, via my network I was able to identify just such a doctor quickly but it meant that my surgery could not be scheduled until Wednesday last week. I think it is fair to say that I totally underestimated the seriousness of the injury and surgery and somehow thought I’d be patched up and good to go in a day or so. Today is Tuesday and only now am I “back at my desk” feeling pretty good, although without the use of my right hand for typing. So, other than some limited iphone-based twitter and email scanning, a couple calls and starting some “to-do triage” over the last couple days, this totally random accident has cost me nine days “offline” (in the broader getting-things-done sense) and will continue to impact my productivity – in particular my ability to travel and type – for at least the next 4-6 weeks. While I am confident that I’ll be able to adapt somewhat (my left-hand only typing is already 5-10x faster than a couple days ago, although still not close to my usual 60+ wpm and I can now actually get the curser to the right spot in under a minute using a mouse), it would be ridiculous not to acknowledge this as a unwelcome setback.

But why am I explaining this here? And no, it is not to generate an outpouring of sympathy 😉 (which however I must acknowledge as very nice as I have been fortunate enough to have been reminded of over the past week.) No, there are effectively two distinct reasons I thought it would be worth telling this story.

The first is from a strictly practical standpoint: to get the word out to all the people I “work with” on a day-to-day basis without needing to write dozens or hundreds of emails (never much fun at the best of times but even less appealing with one-hand…) I suspect not all the people that I’d like to have this information are readers, and clearly for many of you this is probably unnecessary information, but while clearly not perfect, the broadcast mechanism of a blog I felt was the best option available to me. So for those of you waiting for an email or call to be returned, or an appointment to be confirmed, now you know what has happened and I would ask your indulgence and patience. If you have heard nothing back from me in the next few days or so, or if it is more urgent than that, please follow-up with a nudge. Otherwise, give me a couple weeks and I’m sure I can get back on top of things (at least as much as I ever do!)

The second reason is hopefully more interesting to a wider audience and is about addressing one of the risks that seems to me to be less discussed in the vibrant “start-up commons” that many other issues venture entrepreneurs and investors face. This is the risk to founders health from exogenous, unanticipated events.

In particular, I’m interested in risks not readily addressable by traditional key-man life insurance. This of course is a standard requirement when raising outside investment and insofar as it protects investor capital (if not their opportunity cost) from the worst-case result of a catastrophic injury or death of one or more of the founders (ie winding up of company), it probably doesn’t help in the more probable situation of a significant productivity loss due to severe illness or accidental injury. Thinking through our portfolio of early stage companies, I dare say none of them has thought much about this except for one, and if I am honest, this was only because we had to manage just such a risk in the early days of the company (which I’m happy to report was successfully done, helped of course by the individual’s recovery proceeding as expected.) If you are a start-up founder or investor, have you given this much thought? If so what sort of solutions or contingencies have you put in place to mitigate this risk? Are any insurance companies writing policies that pay out (to companies, quickly) in the case of non-critical short term health issues with key personnel? If so is the pricing reasonable?

I’ve obviously had a few days and a good reason to think about this, and just to be clear, have been considering the question in the first instance from the point of view of a founder. (For while we are also investors, my company is in fact a start-up and I am reliant upon it for my livelihood.) And in terms of protecting my family, I have life insurance, but this accident underlined that in the event I were temporarily incapacitated and unable to work, mitigating the financial risk arising is potentially much more problematic, and that this is a problem (most acutely) faced by start-ups and small businesses. Indeed, were I still working for an established (big) company or organization, I have a very nice letter from my doctor stating I cannot work for the next 4 weeks and so I would sit at home collecting my salary and healing. But even more importantly, the business of the company would go on (even if I were Steve Jobs); and while (one would hope that!) some opportunity cost would be incurred, the larger and more established the company or organization, the more marginal it would be. ie The problem (for founders and their investors) isn’t insuring the loss of a month’s salary/revenues/burn per se (which is I’m sure a tractable actuarial problem.) Rather, it is insuring the opportunity loss of a month of foregone productivity or progress. And because the “value” of this lost opportunity is subject to so many internal, external and temporal/situational variables unique to each founder/company pair, I suspect this is probably an uninsurable risk, at least in the sense of financial insurance. Indeed, I think the solution to mitigating this risk if one exists lies more in ‘operational engineering” admitting that in some cases even this will be impossible.

And so my (highly tentative) conclusions are that:

  • founders should probably think about a “Plan B” to manage their personal risk (eg this could be cash savings, support from family, returning to traditional employment, etc.)
  • investors need to consider the value of portfolio diversification in this context and perhaps, insofar as possible, think about what critical skills may be replaceable on a temporary basis should a founder be incapacitated for a few weeks or months and ideally build a network of people who have or have access to these skill sets; my thinking here is not to suggest that founders are replaceable but that it may in some cases be possible to soften the impact should the unexpected happen.

I would be very interested in the community’s thoughts on this and in particular whether they think it is a risk that can and should be acknowledged and managed in early-stage (and/or later-stage) companies, or if on the contrary they believe this is an intractable risk and so just needs to be “accepted” without wasting any time, energy or money trying to manage it.

So having spent 90 minutes on this post (sooo slow…) I better get down to work, and so while I’ve a dozen posts up my sling, I probably won’t be back here for a week or so as I work my way through a daunting (but mostly exciting) to do list. Oh, and for the next few weeks at least, you can just call me Lefty.

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Work / life balance. (Thinking about snow…)

This post has nothing to do with new paradigms in finance or markets or anything like that. It does however have a good dash of entrepreneurial zest. But mainly it’s about skiing and how following one’s passion is a great way to start a new business. And it’s also a reminder that not all startups fit the Y Combinator model and that venture capital can (and should) be a broad church…

Just last week I’m happy to say I closed on a modest personal investment in an exciting new ski company called the Faction Collective:

Faction. n. ‘A minority group working within, and in opposition to, a majority group.’

When we founded Faction, our manifesto was (and continues to be) to build the best high performance skis we can, without compromise. Our focus is on providing versatile, progressive products that answer the needs of freestyle and freeride skiers – designed by riders, for riders. Every person involved in Faction, from the people working here in the office through to the guys in the warehouse and the team riders on the hill as well as you the consumer, has a say in how we design, build and manage our products.

Now as many of you know, I am an avid skier, however my true passion is racing. Fast, hard, steep. 5,4,3… So when my friend Alex Hoye first approached me about Faction (where he is co-founder and Chairman) last year, I was skeptical. First, I didn’t know the first thing about investing in a consumer goods start-up and secondly, I didn’t feel I had any way to judge the quality / desireability / competitive position of their products as Faction is focused on freestyle, freeride and big mountain (off-piste) skis. Give me a GS ski, well that’s something I can have an opinion on… But I had a look, and the vibe – reminded me of my teenage skateboarding days, kind of like a 21st century Powell-Peralta for snow: the new Dogtown (and Z-Boys)? – felt great and so I asked him to send me a couple pairs of skis to test. I had them for 2 or 3 weeks and not only did I test them, but I let a number of my ‘local’ friends try them out too, including a teenage ex-racer, a ski instructor and a ski shop owner. Everyone, including me was blown away. Not only that, except perhaps for the teenager, we were all pretty skeptical in an old reactionary kind of way to these ‘newfangled’ funny looking “skis” (if you could call them that.) All of the sudden, I rediscovered the joys of off-piste skiing – powder, crud, bowls, glades – it was so easy and fun. And I’ve never seen skis turn so many heads in a lift-line. The final confirmation that these guys at Faction were on to something is when the teenager didn’t want to give back the skis and kept insisting he would buy them off me! I decided I better dust off the IM and take a closer look…

Faction Skis 2009/2010 Line-up

They are only making about 1200 pairs or so this season (and just the folks I know will probably put a dent in that limited number!) so if you want the ultimate Christmas gift for your teenage son or daughter who spends all day in the snowpark, or if you want to go off-piste or tear up the powder and feel like you are a teenager again, I definitely wouldn’t wait too long to order yours, once they are gone, they’re gone…Contact the good folks at Faction and they’ll tell you who sells them close to you.

And once you’ve kitted yourself out in the latest, greatest gear from Faction, you’ll probably be thinking I need to book a place to stay! That’s where my next set of (non-tech) entrepreneurs come in. Martine and Laurent are good friends, who are living their life’s dream and putting the finishing touches on the brand new 4-star hotel they have built and will run in Meribel. For those of you that don’t know it, Meribel is an absolute gem of a resort in the French Alps, sandwiched between Courchevel and Val Thorens at ‘the heart’ of Les Trois Vallees – the world’s biggest ski resort. We’ve been going there for over 15 years now and I can tell you there is something for everybody. However one of the things that is in short supply in Meribel is hotel beds – the resort has c. 40,000+ beds but most of these are in chalets and apartments. Until this year if you wanted to stay in a luxury hotel, you really only had a choice between two and they were booked up years in advance. With only 20 rooms, and an ideal location, modern infrastructure (the advantage of building from scratch!) I’m sure after this season it will be equally hard to get a room at L’Helios.
L'Helios - New for 2009/2010 in Meribel, France.
Trust me, I had a tour a couple weeks ago – it is going to be awesome! And unlike most alpine hotels it is ready made for families and groups, with many interesting interconnecting suites and modular grouping of rooms, including many with duplexes. Unfortunately you can’t book directly online yet (has to do with banking/payment laws and the fact they are just starting up, don’t ask…!) but contact them via their website and I’m sure you will get a prompt response (especially if you tell them I sent you!) Sadly I’m not an investor in L’Helios but I’m sure it will be a roaring success. And if you do go let me know and maybe we can have a drink together on the sundeck. (I might even be able to get the owners to let us have it on the house!)

And just to make sure you are counting the days until first tracks, here is a little Faction video to get the imagination going:

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On seedcamp 2009 (and beyond.)

Image representing Seedcamp as depicted in Cru...
Image via CrunchBase

As many of you know, last week was ‘seedcamp week’, the third one since following Saul and Reshma’s initial inspiration in 2007 when what was to become Nauiokas Park became one of the founding investors alongside the (better known and more established) giants of European venture capital. In fact I think it is fair to say that seedcamp may well have been the catalyst which tipped me down the path to creating Nauiokas Park which until that summer of 2007 had only been one idea amongst many percolating in my brain. So perhaps we are in fact the original seedcamp startup!

The concept and the competition has come a long way in a very short time and is testimony to Reshma’s energy and skills and Saul’s vision; I think the best gauge of their success is trying to imagine the European startup scene without seedcamp: hard to do. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of seedcamp’s evolution for me is seeing a more diverse and mature group of entrepreneurs rising to the challenge. And when I say mature I don’t mean older or later stage, but mature in the sense of marrying technical brilliance and/or an inspirational idea with a pragmatic and well-conceived business model. Gone (or mostly) are the ‘build-it-and-they-will-come-and-we’ll-sell-them-online-ads-or-something’ innocents of yesteryear. In their place this year we had a great, diverse and passionate group of talented entrepreneurs who not only had a lucid approach to building a business and making money but also seemed to be incredibly well prepared in terms of knowing exactly what they didn’t know and getting the best out of the amazing group of mentors that is the seedcamp community. Indeed my greatest regret this year was missing a day of mentoring due to an unavoidable (and unscheduled!) board meeting – not only because it meant I didn’t get to meet as many of the teams in person as I would have liked, but also because I didn’t get to soak in the advice and world views of the many other great mentors in parallel.

Seedcamp Week 2009 Day 4 Highlights from Seedcamp on Vimeo.

Judging this year was both easier and harder than in years past. Easier because almost every one of the finalists had a strong and reasonable claim on being a viable business; harder because it was less easy to choose from such a large and diverse number of relatively closely matched competitors. In no particular order, my favorites were Boxed Ice (whom I had originally met at mini-seedcamp London and been impressed), Erply, Codility, Talasim, Joobili and Fabricly.

Of the finalists this year, once again very few would fall within our investment universe and indeed that is something we’d like to help change going forward. Resource constraints – time, money, people – have not yet allowed us to pursue this but I would love to work with seedcamp to run a mini-seedcamp ‘Finance’ to source, develop and encourage more startups to go after a market that is just crying out to be disrupted. Indeed after the incredible success of the geographically focused mini-seedcamps in 2008/2009, perhaps it might might sense to extend the mini-seedcamp idea down a sectoral vector next. While the variety of sectors and business models represented in the applications this year is certainly more varied than in 2007 or 2008, in my opinion the relative lack of diversity is probably one of the few important remaining weaknesses of seedcamp (and indeed the startup ecosystem in general.) Erply, Pearl Systems and Fabricly, while on the edges of our investment universe are definitely companies we will keep an eye on going forward. Fabricly in particular could become more interesting to us if and when they focus on developing their position as a central clearing-house in the fashion supply chain; I thought they had an excellent team and were unlucky not to have been amongst the winners. I was also very impressed by the team at Erply and would question the thinking of anyone who would consider the opportunity they are pursuing as ‘boring.’ With respect to our investment universe, Codility and Advertag I would say are wildcards insofar as their current business models would not fit within our approach but I suspect both have technologies that could be repurposed to target financial services and markets more specifically. Ones to keep on the radar screen perhaps.

Although I am relatively less active than I might otherwise be as a direct result of my significant commitments (of both time and capital) to Nauiokas Park, I have managed nonetheless to make a handful of angel investments over the past couple years, three of which have been seedcamp winners or finalists: MyBuilder (2007), School of Everything (2007) and Kyko (2008, launching soon…) In this year’s class I’d definitely consider investing privately in Boxed Ice, Talasim, Joobili and Fabricly but unfortunately its clear there is no way I would be in a position to lead any of these given my constraints, but if/when they do decide to raise outside capital I’d love to see a term sheet…

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Planting seeds.

Image representing Seedcamp as depicted in Cru...
Image via CrunchBase

If innovation grows at Nauiokas Park, some of the best seedlings come from the fantastic seedcamp nursery. We were particularly pleased that folks like Timetric, CityOdds and GymFu walked away winners from the London Mini Seedcamp in April after we had encouraged them to apply. And so with this in mind I want to encourage ambitious, intelligent and passionate entrepreneurs, young and old(er) to test out their vision, ideas and execution skills at seedcamp week 2009. There is only two weeks left to apply and I sense that the competition for places will be very keen indeed, so don’t leave it until the last minute to get working on your application.

On behalf of Nauiokas Park, I would particularly like to encourage and see more start-ups focusing on disruptive innovation in the financial services arena. There is so much opportunity in this vast sector of our economy and yet it seems as if many or most entrepreneurs tend to avoid applying their technological or business model creativity and innovation to this market. Clearly there are some barriers that don’t exist in other sectors or markets but by the same token, in many instances, the potential rewards are accordingly significantly higher.

In any event, for any ambitious start-up in Europe (or even further afield) today, applying to seedcamp is a no-brainer: even if you aren’t selected as a finalist, the work needed to submit a robust and cogent application will serve you in good stead as you look to build out and finance your new business. If you are a finalist, the contacts you make and the information you will absorb during the week are something that can not be bought for any amount of money. And if you happen to win – well that’s just icing on the cake! So what are you waiting for? Apply! You’ve really got nothing to lose.

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One (more) reason big finance is broken.

Every executive committee member of a large bank, exchange or insurance company should read Kirk Wylie’s latest post to understand why their cultures are broken and why they so regularly find their organisations blithely running off the edge of a cliff, comfortable in the knowledge that, “well, hey at least we’re all doing it so it must be ok” and safe in the knowledge that their is a big taxpayer airbag (or trampoline?) at the bottom protecting them from any nasty consequences. Of course they are unlikely to – except in the unlikely event that it gets published in one of the traditional echo chamber publications like the FT or the WSJ.*

I’ll resist the temptation to copy/paste the whole post here but please go read it as this excerpt doesn’t give it justice:

Independent, entrepreneurial techies can actually make the biggest impact in the organizations that fight against them the most: they’re the ones that need them the most. Use them as agents for change, challenging assumptions, challenging entrenched attitudes, challenging technical group-think. Otherwise, your worst employees (the ones who can’t really get a better job elsewhere) win, and you as an organization fail.

Kirk is speaking of technologists, but the same thing applies across the organization. But big organizations kill entrepreneurship, actually it’s in their DNA. It’s not news, tall poppies and all that. As I was leaving 16 years of working – mostly happily – in big organizations I spent a lot of time thinking about why this was (and also why I hadn’t noticed it earlier in my career.) The answer to the second question was really because of luck. For 90% of my investment banking career I had the good fortune to be right in the heart of building three new and transformational markets: first the Ecu/Euro market, then the European credit markets and finally the move to ‘electronic’ capital markets. Throughout this part of my career, innovation, entrepreneuralism and independence actually helped me succeed because there was no pre-existing status quo to upset. This only became apparent to me in hindsight.

The answer to the first question is now obvious to me, but it wasn’t always so and really only revealed itself when I left and was able to step back and look at the machine from the outside. The expression ‘well-oiled’ machine says it all. This is the ultimate compliment used to describe a successfully managed organization. So where does non-linear innovation, disruption, questioning fit in a well-oiled machine? It doesn’t. In fact the more ‘well-oiled’ the machine, the less tolerant it is of exceptions. (Which also explains why I operated happily for so long at DrKW!) Switching metaphors, entrepreneurship is seen as a virus in these companies and they produce potent ‘corporate antibodies’ to seek out and subdue any such viral outbreak and they do everything (pace Kirk) to innoculate themselves against them in the first place.

But what is a CEO to do? The ‘well-oiled’ bit is equally important. I am sympathetic to this. (I mean if I was in charge I wouldn’t want too many of me’s running around, that would be chaos.) It’s not an easy question to answer and is made even harder (especially if you are running a public company) by the fact that the visible benefits of the entrepreneurial genes are only realized over time – I’d guess at least 4-5 years at a minimum and sometimes it might take as long as a full business cycle. And yet the average leadership tenure in these organizations is at best at the short end of that, and the compensation and stock market cycles are much shorter. I’ll be frank and say up front, I don’t have an answer but I’ve got a couple ideas I think are worth trying.

The first is to set – from the top – a deliberate human resource policy of seeking to “doping” the organization with a limited and controlled number of people like Kirk. (Doping is the process of adding controlled impurities to a material – for instance a semiconductor, or metallic alloy – to improve it’s useful properties.) This needs to be managed very deliberately, like a program – put a senior HR person in charge of this and manage it: these people will likely have a higher turnover, complain more often, get into trouble, want to change projects and/or departments and so need their own career track. I’m not sure what the correct ratio is, but I would guess it’s on the order of 1-2% of total staff, not necessarily evenly distributed throughout the company. (I knew my Materials Science degree would come in handy one day!)

The second is to create – and then protect institutionally, not personally – a specific department dedicated to exploring ‘white space’. When I say protect institutionally, I mean frame it like a trust so it cannot be undone or hacked by successive waves of management and is insulated from the quarter on quarter, year on year vagaries of the economy and/or the companies results. If you don’t do this, you will inevitably fall victim to the problems Azeem enumerates in his great post on why corporate venture capital (almost always) doesn’t work. Before all the serious, “pragmatic” people out there roll your eyes all at once (if indeed any such types would consider wasting time reading a blog) this doesn’t and shouldn’t need to be a big ask. Again probably on the order of 1-2% (even less for the biggest companies), of resources. The best example in practice I can think of is Xerox PARC, although the irony there is that Xerox didn’t really figure out how to plug PARC’s non-linear thinking and brilliant innovation back into the company (or at least not very well.) But perhaps that is not a bad thing (in proving my point) because I would posit that all other things being equal, Xerox’s share price has been higher (than it otherwise would have been) because they owned this asset. This cheap, deep out-of-the-money call option on the future. As far I as can tell, this is also what BT is trying to do with BT Design led by my friend JP and it is heartening to see that – at least so far – he is being allowed to continue to pursue this vision despite (and hopefully even because of?) the very poor results of the past couple years. I don’t know of any truly analogous initiatives in big finance.

And indeed that is (one of the reasons) we decided to set up Nauiokas Park. Clearly we’re not the whole solution, but we think we can play a key role for big financial institutions: a way to have (some of) their cake and eat it too: by entrusting a relatively small amount of financial capital to us, we think we can create just such a verdant ‘garden of innovation’, allowing them to harvest the fruits of some of the most dynamic entrepreneurs active in their industry, while protecting and nuturing them, away from the noxious antibodies of the corporate organism. Indeed, taking a page out of John Seely Brown, I guess you could describe our mission as seeking to create a vibrant knowledge ecology for finance and markets, and help our stakeholders profit from it:

There’s a fundamental change from finding ways to innovate inside a corporation to leveraging the knowledge ecologies of many little companies in places like Silicon Valley. You find that the shift turns much of the classical R&D into A&D – that is, acquisition and development. Larger companies can buy the research they need and instantly acquire a diverse portfolio of research groups.

I’ll be honest though, it’s not an easy sell. Even for the corporate leaders who ‘get it’ the reflex instinct is to think (sometimes aloud) “makes sense, but we can do that ourselves”. Well, you can’t prove a negative, but we’ve spent a long time inside these same big financial institutions, and our many years of experience led us to conclude that it is bloody hard to do (for all the reasons above and more.) On the bright side, being challenged makes you think harder and forces you to refine and adapt your ideas, ultimately making them better. Hearts and minds. Hearts and minds. Wish us luck.

* Just to be clear, I have nothing against the FT or the WSJ per se, I read them regularly (well WSJ not so much) and think they are solid publications. I’m not suggesting they aren’t important sources of information and opinion – you’d be stupid not to read them if you are in finance – just that, and this is the wonderful thing about the world in 2009 – I think you need to read much more widely and in particular embrace at least a diversity of viewpoints, if not views.

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This is what we’re talking about.

Sand Claws
Image by Matthew Stewart | Photographer via Flickr


The collapse of major businesses and the failure of governments to stem the tide of bad news around the economy has created an environment rich in opportunity for entrepreneurs, according to business leaders meeting held in London this week.

Speaking ahead of the event, keynote speaker Ed Wray, chairman of Betfair, said: “2009 is going to be a turbulent year but it will provide an opportunity for entrepreneurs to come forward and help take the UK out of recession and into the next period of economic growth.

“The US will be the first out of recession because it has an economy built around mass entrepreneurship – the UK now needs a large slice of that same kind of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurial flair.

“Every great business must be able to survive a downturn and successful businesses forged in the current conditions will be fundamentally far stronger by nature. The pressure cooker conditions of the current economic climate will undoubtedly create some new household names of tomorrow.”

In a nutshell, when we are talking to investors, our number one message is that these tough economic times are exactly the right times to invest in the next generation of businesses and business models. That in times of falling multiples, de-leveraging, uncertain cash-flows and/or discount rates in mature companies and markets, building new businesses is a fundamentally uncorrelated risk. Furthermore, the risks and challenges for new companies and new approaches is almost always on balance lower than it is when the economy is booming: first and foremost, talented people are more available – financially and psychologically – and since this is the most important ingredient for 99% of young companies, this is incredibly important. Secondly, inertia is much easier to overcome, you don’t have the ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ apathy that can be very difficult (and extremely frustrating) to overcome; if you have a better mouse-trap, people will actually notice and act. Finally, the prevailing sentiment of caution and skepticism means that – and of course this is a generalization but a valid one I believe – everyone, including entrepreneurs, investors, customers, employees – tends to be more focused and realistic. This means that fewer flimsy or “me-too” start-ups are floating around and innovation and disruption are considered in a more sober and analytical context. Less froth.

So I can hear you saying, Sean, c’mon…stop talking your book – really now, start-ups? (private) growth-stage companies? No risk? No way! Some – many? – of these businesses won’t end up working, even if they have clever ideas and people. You can lose most or all of your investment.

Well, of course you can and of course there is risk. There is always risk. I’m just not convinced that it is bigger or harder to navigate or understand than some of the alternatives. Large cap public stocks for instance…had you bought say shares in RBS, just two years ago you would have lost 96% of your money.* Barclays – 86%. HBOS – 94%. Citigroup – 94%. Not to mention the 100%-ers. Blue chips. Yes well, the poker analogy does seem to hold! (* all are approximate numbers, not including dividends, etc.) Equally, not even the most bullish of analyst or executive at any of these firms would have suggested that there was the remotest possibility of a 10x, or even 5x return over the next few years at the prices then prevailing…and understanding the dynamics of what will drive the returns is enormously (exceedingly?) complex. Of course to be fair, you could have changed your mind and sold your shares in any of these companies on any day which is something you are unlikely to be able to do in a small private company. So clearly you can’t have all your eggs in this (illiquid) basket but on the plus side, the illiquidity focuses the mind wonderfully and helps avoid getting caught up in market “noise”.

So how does one mitigate the risks in new, entrepreneurial ventures? Well there are a number of approaches that can work and like anything it’s generally a combination of experience, analysis and hard work. Not very enlightening I know. Our particular approach puts a lot of focus on using our domain knowledge and focusing on one – albeit vast – component of the economy: financial services and markets. Also, we have developed a series of investment themes, built on a number of what we believe to be fundamental medium to long term secular trends that will drive the growth and shape of the industry and the economy in the decade to come. Indeed, these trends and themes are the basis for much of the material here on my blog since I started publishing three years ago. We then look for ideas and companies within these themes that are instrinsically aligned with these trends. Where relevant, using our knowledge of the structure and business models of the mainstream participants, we also look for ideas, companies and technologies that have the potential to fundamentally disrupt an existing market or business model by providing the same product or service in a vastly cheaper and/or improved way. Easy. 😉

Finally the event referred to in the opening quotes is a great new (to me) website / community – – developed by Julie Meyer at Ariadne Capital; and for any prospective / budding entrepreneurs out there, here is a great 10 minute video with a few tips on raising capital from Julie herself:

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Giant opportunity: Emergent ICT-enabled empowerment

My desert island business tool would have to be my netvibes homepage: by allowing my to efficiently follow and ingest over a hundred different feeds covering the entire breadth of my varied (and some would say eclectic) interests it has become the substrate upon which much of my work is done. It’s my deck.* Themes emerge and disappear, are reinforced, modified, diverted, consolidated. And sometimes enough interesting pieces of the puzzle emerge, pushing me to anchor them in my thoughts by writing a post here.

I’ve written a number of times on the potential for mobile telephony to shift the paradigm in Africa, but post the Safaricom IPO this is perhaps more of a mainstream view today and needs less repeating.

What is perhaps less talked about is the potential to combine increasing mobile and broadband penetration with robust and inexpensive local networks to transform outcomes even in the most remote environments. One of the major challenges facing the African continent is building out mobile coverage outside of urban areas and increasing access to broadband internet pretty much everywhere. White African frames the problem eloquently here:

While it’s good to talk about mobile phone penetration, I was a lot more interested in seeing the discussion going on around mobile broadband internet and how that is the next big move in Africa for the operators. Passing data, not just voice, is the battleground of the future in Africa – and all the carriers are fighting to position themselves to win.

This is important and I think the tipping point has (or is about to be) passed, but for a variety of economic, political and regulatory reasons it is difficult to predict how and when a more robust and ubiquitous broadband access will be available to most Africans. In the mean time, it would seem to me that a great opportunity exists to build (tens of) thousands of small, local, ‘community’ networks using a combination of technologies such as wireless mesh and femtocells connecting mobile phones and sturdy “appliance computers” (via Emeka):

Aleutia’s currently working to integrate ZigBee into our desktops, a new wireless mesh-networking technology that doesn’t drain batteries like Wi-Fi does and has a range of up to 1km. In areas where connectivity is expensive and hard to obtain, this would allow one computer to share its Internet connection with hundreds of others, and, in areas without Internet connectivity, would enable free email, file transfer, and messaging over an enormous geographic area.

All powered by renewable (solar, wind, micro-hydro) local power sources, which besides being more robust and sustainable (in the economic sense), should also help underwrite the capital costs of building the network through sales of imputed carbon credits.

These networks would be valuable on their own – providing an information and communications backbone for education, health and markets for the local community – but also would serve as excellent platforms (in terms of building knowledge and acceptance of these tools) ahead of the local network being tied into the rest of the world via broadband internet when the infrastructure and pricing permits. In fact, by building up the network infrastructure in this way – ie by creating a network of networks – Africa has a chance to actually create a more robust infrastructure than currently exists in most of the developed world, without the need to re-engineer; another leapfrogging opportunity…As John Robb continues to powerfully argue, “smart local networks” are crucial to creating a more resilient societal infrastructure, tolerant to faults, accidents and attacks – black and white swans alike:

Most of the local loops (from telco fiber to cable company coaxial) currently in place and/or being installed in the US are dumb (I suspect it is the same globally). They simply route data from local customers to regionally clustered corporate server farms and then outwards/back. This means that any disconnection (physical or logical fault) between local customers and these remote systems will result in a complete cessation of service. To correct this deficiency, communities need to start to think more like a corporation: security of data services are considered central to a company’s survival. So, as part of future negotiations with cable/telcos, communities should request that companies allow them to piggyback on their “dumb” networks to create a smart local loops.

Just the sort of infrastructure that is needed in the all too often hostile (political and natural) environments in which these networks need to operate. And it ties in well with the idea of a resurgent localism, a theme that motivated Stowe to create a new blog, /Ground:

One of the most salient trends — one that I think trumps others — will be the rise of localism. As nation states increasingly falter, and lose relevance we will see people shifting their sense of belonging away from mass organizations and political constructs, like nationalism and global religions.

Layer on top (of these networks) the best that Web2.0 has to offer in terms of social software (wikis, twitter, blogs, freebase, etc .), along with solutions unique to Africa (FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, etc.); mix in the strong culture of communal and family identity and… voila! You have a potentially very powerful and transformational piece of kit. Alpha this, beta this, build, iterate, build again… and I’m pretty sure that once you’ve industrialized the process, you will have a very exportable proposition: a turn-key solution for installing a smart (and green) local network.

In fact, I think this is a very real and interesting commercial opportunity. Maybe even a candidate for an X-prize in Global Entrepreneurship? I’d love to find a credible, motivated team that has the skills and the vision to make this happen and take us one step closer to the sixth paradigm. Looking forward to seeing the business plan!

*Cyberspace Deck: Also called a “deck” for short, it is used to access the virtual representation of the matrix. The deck is connected to a tiara-like device that operates by using electrodes to stimulate the user’s brain while drowning out other external stimulation. As Case describes them, decks are basically simplified simstim units. Another way to think about it might be like a lineman’s telephone—a tool used to actively maneuver through cyberspace rather than to passively perceive pre-recorded physical and emotional sensations (like a simstim unit).

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