Like a lot of people I was initially shocked by the recent £24 billion takeover of ARM by Softbank of Japan. Not only was it the biggest acquisition ever of a European IT company, but it was also widely seen as the jewel in the crown of the Cambridge/UK tech scene.
A few years ago Cambridge had three stock market listed companies worth over a billion pounds each – ARM, Autonomy and Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR). All have now been acquired, with varying degrees of success – HP, Autonomy’s purchaser is still suing the previous management about alleged overstating of accounts.
At the same time a large number of the next tier of Cambridge companies, such as Jagex, cr360 and Domino Printing Sciences, have also been bought, leaving many people wondering where the next tech superstar will come from. This is particularly true as an increasing number of earlier stage businesses in exciting markets have been acquired by tech giants – Internet of Things startup Neul was bought by Huawei, Evi by Amazon and Phonetic Arts by Google. And that’s just the acquisitions that were announced. I’m sure that in many cases promising technology has been snapped up without making it into the press, as the deal size has been relatively small.
So, as someone involved in the Cambridge tech scene, should we be worried? Is Silicon Fen going to turn into an offshoot of Silicon Valley – a bit like the tech towns around Heathrow, but with a bit more IP? Thinking about it more rationally, there are two main reasons for the flurry of acquisitions, particularly of smaller businesses.
1 Cambridge’s reputation
All of these acquisitions are actually recognition of the strength of the Cambridge tech sector. Big companies are attracted to the area because of the talent and innovation on show, and are increasingly willing to take a punt on earlier stage businesses to get in first and lay their hands on new technology and IP. They’ve realised that not every acquisition will work, but that the wins should outweigh the losses. So, Cambridge’s PR has worked in attracting the largest tech companies to the area.
2 Changing mix of companies
Traditionally, a lot of Cambridge startups were built on biotech, science and engineering, either from the University or the innovative consultancies that differentiate the city from many other clusters. As Cambridge grows, a greater number of companies are software-based, which means that developing their technology is faster than when trying to commercialise a product from an interesting piece of lab research. Therefore, they are likely to have a steeper growth curve, and potentially a shorter lifespan as they reach maturity (and acquisition) quicker.
A further reason for optimism is given by the new Cambridge Cluster Map, which lists the nearly 22,000 businesses based within 20 miles of the city centre. With a turnover of £33 billion, the map demonstrates the range of companies and the strength of the local economy. A third of this turnover is made up of knowledge-intensive businesses, employing nearly 60,000 people. That’s a lot of innovation, whoever ultimately owns the companies concerned.
Looking back, I think commentators will see that the ARM acquisition is part of a change in Cambridge as it matures and becomes a recognised part of the global tech sector. The economy will continue to grow, but more of the capital will come from outside the city. While this means we will have fewer ARMs and CSRs, and more outposts of Amazon, Apple and Google, it won’t stop growth and innovation, which means the Cambridge Phenomenon is likely to go from strength to strength.
Despite all the talk of innovation, there are plenty of things that people continue to do, even though they are no longer the optimal way to achieve something.
Take typing for example. The QWERTY keyboard dates back to the first, manual typewriters, where the typist hit a key manually pushing the inked letter onto a sheet of paper. The problem with the first typewriter designs was that people could hit the keys faster than the machine would cope with, leading to jams as multiple keys became intertwined. Hence adopting what was essentially a sub-optimal system in terms of speed, in order to make typewriters more efficient overall. Now, in the digital age jamming is no longer a problem, yet everyone still uses a QWERTY keyboard, as that is the de facto standard, irrespective of the fact that it can give you carpal tunnel and repetitive strain injuries.
Driving is another area where tradition dictates what we do. The reason that in England we drive on the left dates back to the days when people rode horses – as the majority of the population was right handed you could hold your reins with your left hand, leaving the other free for your sword. As part of the French Revolution this was reversed in France, and then imposed by Napoleon on the countries he conquered. This means that the majority of countries in the world now drive on the right, despite the fact that accident rates are lower amongst left hand drivers, perhaps due to right eye dominance.
These two examples demonstrate two things:
- The most logical, sensible solution can’t necessarily overcome the status quo, particularly if it means people have to completely relearn how they operate.
- People continue to choose a particular course of action, even if the reasons for it are lost in the mists of time. Tradition rules.
Why is this important? I meet a lot of technology startups, and many of them enthusiastically talk about how their invention will completely change a market or sector. Build it and they will come seems to be the mantra. All it takes is for people to see how outmoded and inefficient the current technology is, and switch to their new, unproven, but potentially much better solution. And normally relearn how they operate. And pay a bit more. Often, they then wonder why they fail to get market traction or growth.
Essentially people weren’t sufficiently convinced of the advantages to change what they did. They preferred to be inefficient rather than invest the time to solve a problem. We’ve all done this, spending an extra minute or so doing something on our PC because that’s how we were taught 20 years ago, rather than spending 15 minutes reading the manual and upgrading our knowledge.
This isn’t to say that innovation can’t happen. Look at the Dyson vacuum cleaner – the advantages of changing (no bag, better performance), outweighed the higher cost and learning how it worked. But in that case the benefits were extremely clear, and, most importantly, marketed very well.
So, the lessons for every business, whether a startup or not, are clear. The vast majority of the population generally doesn’t like change, and therefore the benefits of something new have to dramatically outweigh the disadvantages of how things have always been done. Innovation has to be clearly marketed if it is going to take root with the majority, as opposed to early adopters – it won’t just sell itself. It has to fit inside the ecosystem of what people are comfortable with, and provide them with the best overall experience. That’s why VHS beat the technologically superior Betamax technology – it had the content from Hollywood studios and was easier to operate. Often it can be easier to sell a better mousetrap than a completely new method of rodent killing device. Therefore talk to your audience, understand their pain points and make sure you provide a simple, powerful solution – otherwise you are likely to join the ranks of technically superior, but unused products, and all your innovation will be wasted.
Mankind has always had a fascination for mythical beasts, and none more so than the unicorn. Despite allegedly dying out in the flood after failing to board Noah’s Ark in time, they are still all around us in popular culture, from Harry Potter to children’s toys. I even found an exhibit in a Vienna museum labelled matter of factly as a “unicorn horn” – it was actually from a narwhal.
The horned horses are back in the news, in the world of tech at least, with any startup valued at over $1 billion by venture capitalists now dubbed a unicorn. However with more than 100 companies now achieving unicorn status there’s a growing worry that startups are trading short term valuations for longer term success. True, unicorn status helps attract skilled staff, but down the line it requires either a trade buyer that is willing to pay big money or an IPO to translate mythical (paper) valuations into hard cash. There have also been a raft of stories on how investors have structured their unicorn funding in ways that protect their cash (rather than the shares of others, such as founding teams) if the company should lose its value.
A focus on unicorns also favours certain sectors and types of company. A browse through Fortune’s latest unicorn list reveals a large number of consumer electronics (Xiaomi, Jawbone), retail (FlipKart, Snapdeal) and sharing economy (Uber, Airbnb) companies. In many ways this is what you expect – company valuations are based on what the addressable market is, so the biggest investment goes into those startups that can make most money.
However, it does potentially limit where investors put their money. There are lots of startups that will never be a Facebook or an Uber, but have the potential to be extremely successful niche players that could well grow into billion dollar valued companies. Look at ARM – when it began as a spin-off from Acorn Computers with a completely new business model, very few would have predicted its current success.
There’s also a definite geographic bias where unicorn investors are putting their money – Silicon Valley, China and India. Out of the latest Fortune list just three are in Europe, one in Australia and one in Israel. This doesn’t reflect the energy, ideas and potential in any of these places, particularly in emerging sectors. The danger is that if investors spend their time chasing unicorns they’ll miss out on the startups that could do with their help to build long term businesses that can make a difference to many markets.
So I think we need to add another category alongside unicorns. Keeping the mythical theme I’d go for centaurs. Sturdier than a unicorn, probably better in a fight and with a bit more intelligence (and opposable thumbs). They may not have the beauty or the (frankly over the top) horn of their flashier cousins but they are built for the long term, rather than mythical valuations that don’t necessarily deliver. Given the potential returns they can produce, it is time for investors to move away from the fascination with unicorns to more realistic startups that may be uglier, but have just as much potential.
There’s been a number of recent pieces about the rise of self-learning technology that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to carry out tasks that would previously have been too complex for a machine. From stock trading to automated translations and even playing Frogger, computers will increasingly take on roles that used to rely on people’s skills.
Netflix used an algorithm to analyse the most watched content on its service, and found that it included three key ingredients – Kevin Spacey, director David Fincher and BBC political dramas. So when it commissioned original content, it began with House of Cards, a remake of a BBC drama, starring Spacey and directed by (you’ve guessed it) Fincher.
This rise of artificial intelligence is worrying a lot of people – and not just Luddites. The likes of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk have all described it as a threat to the existence of humanity. They worry that we’ll see the development of autonomous machines with brains many thousands of times larger than our own, and whose interests (and logic) may not square with our own. Essentially the concern is that we’re building a future generation of Terminators without realising it.
They are right to be wary, but a couple of recent stories made me think that human beings actually have several big advantages – we’re not logical, we don’t follow the facts and we don’t give up. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for uncovering the fact that the human mind is made up of two systems, one intuitive and one rational. The emotional, intuitive brain is the default for decision making – without people realising it. So in many ways AI-powered computers do the things we don’t want to do, leaving us free to be more creative (or lazy, dependent on your point of view).
Going back to the advantages that humans have over systems, the first example I’d pick is the UK general election. All the polls predicted a close contest, and an inevitable hung parliament – but voters didn’t behave logically or according to the research and the Tories trounced the opposition. While you might disagree with the result, it shows that you can’t predict the future with the clarity that some expect.
Humans also have an in-built ability to try and game a system and find ways round it, often with unintended consequences. This has been dubbed the Cobra effect after events in colonial India. Alarmed by the number of cobras on the loose, the authorities in Delhi offered a bounty for every dead cobra handed in. People began to play the system, breeding snakes specifically to kill and claim their reward. When the authorities cottoned on and abandoned the programme, the breeders released the now worthless snakes, dramatically increasing the wild cobra population. You can see the same attempt to rig the system in the case of Navinder Singh Sarao, the day trader who is accused of causing the 2010 ‘flash crash’ by spoofing – sending sell orders that he intended to cancel but that tricked trading computers into thinking the market was moving downwards. Despite their intelligence, trading systems cannot spot this sort of behaviour – until it is obviously too late.
The final example is when humans simply ignore the odds and upset the form book. Take Leicester City. Rock bottom of the English Premiership, the Foxes looked odds-on to be relegated. Yet the players believed otherwise, kept confident and continued to plug away. The tide now looks as if it has turned, and the team is just a couple of points away from safety. A robot would have long since given up……..
So artificial intelligence isn’t everything. Giving computers the ability to learn and process huge amounts of data in fractions of a second does threaten the jobs of workers in the knowledge economy. However it also frees up humans to do what they do best – be bloody minded and subversive, think their way around problems, and use their intuition rather than the rational side of their brain. And of course, computers still do have an off switch………….
I’ve just moved house and am still recovering from the experience. Having last moved 11 years ago I expected that technology would have changed things in the interim, but it seems that the process is still paper-based, slow and (as far as I can see) incredibly inefficient. If you ever wondered who still uses a fax machine, look no further than solicitors………
It starts so well. The front-end of house buying is now pretty much web-based. So there’s no more peering through the windows of estate agents as you can set your criteria and instantly bring up potential properties that you are interested in. In fact there could be too much information available – we took the virtual tour of our house off our details as we worried that people could be making up their minds based on that, rather than coming for a viewing. The technology used to gather these details is also pretty high tech – with drone cameras taking aerial photos for example.
However once you’ve had your offer accepted, the back office processes revert to paper – based on my experiences, here are five areas that seem ripe for digitisation:
1 Paper-based forms
Some documents, such as Land Registry files and searches, are now all online, making it much quicker to access them. But a lot more aren’t – the fixtures and fittings form is still paper-based for example, meaning it has to be posted and scanned at the other end. By mandating that all communication is electronic, the whole process could be much quicker, more environmentally friendly and less stressful.
2 Real-time communications
We wondered why we always got emails sent on behalf of our solicitor just after 4pm. Then we realised – he’d dictated them to his PA in time to get them in the post, but rather than appearing as a letter it had just been turned into an email. While this saves some time it doesn’t deliver real-time answers that people demand (and which could dramatically speed up the process).
3 Getting a mortgage
Criteria for mortgage applications have been tightened following the easy lending that preceded the banking crash. That’s understandable, but there’s no common sense in the process now. It took weeks to get a telephone appointment with our bank to go through our personal details and outgoings – and then when the mortgage rate changed we had to do the whole thing again in order to get a better deal. And we had to talk to the same advisor (who was on holiday), adding more time to the process. Being able to re-use answers you’ve already provided, within a reasonable timeframe, would be more efficient for the bank as well as avoiding customer frustration.
4 Money transfer
On completion day, it takes forever for the purchases to take place. The money from the purchaser at the bottom of the chain goes to the solicitor for the house they are buying, who then pays the next person and so on. This is all logical but is incredibly slow – in an era of online banking where you can transfer money instantly, this is another area that needs addressing as it is inefficient and time-consuming. Our buyer’s removal van was waiting outside our (old) house for the money to go through – it then took another hour to complete on our purchase.
5 Changing address
After you’ve moved you then need to update your details with everyone from your bank to HMRC. What amazes me is how difficult some people make this. In an online world you’d imagine it would be straightforward to change the address a magazine subscription is delivered to – but in many cases I’ve had to email to get details changed rather than just amending my address online. A central portal to change all your official details might sound a bit Big Brother to some people but I would prefer it to having to wade through hundreds of sites, remembering seldom-used passwords in order to tell companies I’ve moved.
As you can probably tell, the whole moving process has left me frustrated at the missed opportunities to speed things up and make it more efficient for everyone. I don’t think it is on any party manifesto, but reforming house buying would surely be a vote winner given the stresses and traumas it creates. And having moved into our lovely new house, I won’t be leaving in a hurry…………..