Revolutionary Measures

Why technology companies have to play by different rules now

In the 1970s and 1980s the business world was dominated by big oil companies, with energy giants becoming the largest corporations in terms of market capitalisation. These were followed by banks and financial services in the 1990s and early 2000s. All of this has changed – the world’s five largest public companies are now Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, with upstarts such as Uber leading the way when it comes to unlisted businesses.

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As they’ve grown these tech giants have expanded dramatically in what they do and the range of services they offer, demonstrated recently by Amazon buying offline upmarket grocery retailer Whole Foods. Essentially they’ve gone from being niche players, albeit in particular sectors such as search or retailing, to offering a panoply of interconnected services that constantly affect our daily lives – and in many markets they are essentially a monopoly, due to the power of network effects.

Much of what they do is invisible to the consumers that use their services – for example the majority of people don’t question why they are served particular search results, ads or news on Google or Facebook. Hence this week’s record $2.7bn fine imposed by the EU on Google for promoting its shopping comparison service to the top of search results.

Is fast too fast?
They’ve also often operated independently of existing rules, working to the Silicon Valley mantra “move fast and break things”. This has driven a huge amount of innovation, but has also led to behaviour that many find either reprehensible or even illegal. In 2014 Facebook’s UK operation paid considerably less corporation tax than my two person PR consultancy, for example.

Uber is a perfect case in point, with many countries banning its operations as its drivers don’t meet local taxi licensing regulations, set up to protect the public. Add in ongoing scandals around sexual harassment that have led to the departure of CEO Travis Kalanick and the overriding impression is of a company culture that focused on aggressive expansion at the expense of its people or the wider world. And Uber isn’t alone – the low number of Silicon Valley founders and VCs that are female or from ethnic minorities has raised eyebrows about the ethos behind the world’s largest tech firms.

Why does this matter now? Simply that the power of tech firms has increased dramatically at the same time as the complexity of their operations has deepened. At the same time, many people around the world feel left behind by the pace of technology and digital disruption, whether it is in the work or home lives, leading to a potential polarisation between the tech savvy and the tech illiterate. These worries haven’t driven people to populist politicians like Donald Trump on their own, but have added to a mood of not being in control amongst many citizens around the world.

Reading the papers, the number of bad things happening on the internet, from simple fraud to terrorist plotting, seems to be increasing exponentially, although whether this is true or is just the result of better reporting is a matter for debate. Whatever the cause it has led to calls for greater regulation and control by national governments over cyberspace.

Altogether this means that tech companies are facing an existential threat. While they are delivering record profits and driving ever-greater innovation they are now central to everyone’s lives and are therefore under ever increasing scrutiny, from governments and the public. Hence the call from Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn for the tech community to sign a Decency Pledge, looking to stamp out sexist behaviour and sexual harassment, particularly amongst venture capitalists in relation to the founders of businesses that they fund. It is a start, but I think any Decency Pledge needs to go a lot further and cover all behaviour, and how it is communicated. Tech giants can’t hide behind complexity any more – they need to communicate openly and operate transparently if they want to win back public trust. Time for the old Google motto “Do no evil” to be resurrected…………

 

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June 28, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tech startups are booming – or are they?

The tech market across Europe is on a roll. According to Dow Jones VentureSource European startups raised €2.1 billion (over $2.8 billion) in Q2 2014 from VCs, the highest amount since 2010. The average size of the 365 deals was €2.2 million, up from €1.5 million in Q3 2013. Essentially that means every day of the quarter four startups got funding from VCs.

European Union flag

European Union flag (Photo credit: YanniKouts)

At the other end of the company journey, Tech.eu counted 92 tech exits in Q2 2014, up 70% from Q1 2014. 10 of these were IPOs, showing a healthy move back to the stock market for tech companies. And while deal size was undisclosed in 72% of cases, 15 were for over €100 million.

So, does this mean that everything is rosy in the tech market and your startup will receive its deserved funding in a heartbeat? Unfortunately not, and there are three worrying points behind the figures:

1          What is a tech company?
I’ve always been suspicious/puritanical on what makes a startup ‘tech’ rather than part of any other sector. Taking a look through both the Tech.eu list of exits and its corresponding index of EU tech funding rounds so far in 2014, I don’t see that many companies I’d class as technology. IPOs and exits included:

  • Takeaway platform Just-Eat (food)
  • Zoopla (property)
  • Markit (financial information)
  • Oldford Group (gambling)
  • M and M Direct and Game Digital (retail)
  • eDreams Odigeo (travel)
  • Jobsite (recruitment)

Companies that received the largest amounts of funding mirrored this list – Delivery Hero, which has raised $285 million to date, is an online food ordering platform, while Ozon ($150 million) is an online Russian retailer.

There are what I’d consider genuine tech companies receiving funding (Klarna is a payments provider, Tradeshift is B2B software and Elasticsearch is a search and analytics engine). And looking at the IPOs, Zendesk (customer service software) also fits into my narrow definition of proper tech.

Obviously consumer facing companies need large amounts of funding – they have to market themselves and launch into competitive marketing which takes cash. But my complaint is that technology is part of every business, so just because you sell via the web, that doesn’t make you a tech company. After all, in the early days of the telephone, no-one created a new category for businesses built on the communications power of the phone. By lumping these companies into ‘tech’, investors and commentators overlook the genuine technology companies making software and hardware in favour of more glamourous consumer businesses. It was exactly the same issue in the dotcom boom, with anything that had a website being lauded to the skies as a tech pioneer.

2          Europe lagging the US
The European figures for funding look strong, but in the US private tech companies raised $13.8 billion in the same period. We’re talking about a similar size market in terms of people, yet nearly five times the investment. No wonder that many EU tech firms are crossing the pond to tap into US funding. Zendesk is a good case in point. While founded in Denmark, its successful IPO was on NASDAQ, where it has seen its share price nearly double from $9 to around $17.97 currently.

Clearly, there are structural and funding issues that need to be addressed to convince European companies that this is where they need to build their startups if we are to build a vibrant tech sector across the EU.

3          Selling out too soon?
Some companies are never going to have the scale to survive on their own and fit better as part of a larger entity. So, trade sales are a vital part of the tech ecosystem – investors get their money back (hopefully), enabling them to invest elsewhere, while founders and management teams are able to move on to the next big idea.

But looking through the crop of acquisitions the largest amount (37%) were by US companies. Facebook and TripAdvisor made two European acquisitions, and the likes of Cisco and Intel bought one business each. The risk is that too many smart European tech businesses don’t turn into long term, billion dollar companies with their own ecosystems around them, as they don’t get the chance to grow before being snapped up for their technology or market position. That holds back the wider European tech economy and reinforces US dominance. It would be good to see longer term backing for European tech, with more IPOs and acquisitions by local companies, rather than selling out to US giants.

I don’t want to come across solely as a whingeing naysayer, as it is great news that funding is up for tech businesses across Europe. But I think there needs to be a narrower focus on what tech actually is amongst the media and investors, and a longer term attitude if Europe is ever to come close to building a sustainable tech economy across the continent.

 

 

August 6, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Bye bye angels, hello Kickstarter?

There’s been a lot in the press recently about crowdfunding site Kickstarter. Electronic paper watch Pebble raised over $3.4m for its smartphone linked timepiece while the first Kickstarter scam – trying to get backing for a non-existent video game has just been uncovered.

Kickstarter

Kickstarter (Photo credit: Scott Beale)

At a time when money is tight Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites look like the perfect way for startups to raise cash. Essentially you pitch your idea to a receptive audience of people that want to be able to buy your product – and they fund your development in return for a small stake. Your product gets validated by the market, future sales are generated and you get backing – what could be simpler? It also provides another opportunity for public relations agencies to extend their reach by using press and social media campaigns to build a buzz and drive people to their client’s Kickstarter page. 


However while Kickstarter is great for certain types of products, it can’t replace more traditional types of 
funding. First off, the Kickstarter audience is comprised of early adopters – the type of people that are going to spend $150 on a watch that links to their smartphone and are happy to pledge money to get it built. It won’t work for mainstream products that need to appeal to a more conservative, mass market demographic.

Secondly, startups need a lot more than money to succeed – they need help, connections and business advice from people that know what they are talking about. This is something that angel investors and VCs both provide over and above cold hard cash. Otherwise the risk is that companies raise the cash on Kickstarter but then can’t make best use of it as they run into technical, marketing or sales issues that outside advice could have helped with.

So while Kickstarter is a good (and cheap) way of validating your idea for startups building physical products it can only be part of the story – if you want lasting success you still need to knock on doors, make the contacts and do the hard work. 

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May 2, 2012 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Growing some bulls

There’s a continual complaint that the UK simply doesn’t produce the numbers of heavyweight tech companies that the US spawns. And looking around, the pattern seems to be true – for every ARM, Sage or CSR in the UK, you could name a dozen similar size companies in the US.

While some of this is gap is obviously down to relative population sizes are there any other factors holding back UK entrepreneurs? This was one of the issues discussed at last week’s Enterprise Tuesday event in Cambridge by an entertaining group of speakers, including company founders and Cambridge Angels, Sherry Coutu, Andy Richards, Robert Sansom and David Gill, managing director of the St John’s Innovation Centre.

The key factor is the ability to scale – the UK creates exactly the same number of startups, per capita, as the US – but only half of them successfully scale up compared to their US rivals. There are plenty of reasons for this – from an inbuilt British fear of change to an inability to cross the chasm

Vayikra (parsha)

Image via Wikipedia

and appeal to the mass market. It seems that for too many UK companies the choice between scaling themselves or selling out is weighted towards the exit option. While this releases investment capital back into the system and gives entrepreneurs the chance to begin again, it has created (in the words of a US VC quoted by Andy Richards) an industrial veal farm in Cambridge, with prized startups nurtured and pampered ready for the inevitable early death/exit.

The UK in general, and Cambridge in particular, has shown that it can grow dominant tech companies, so now is the time for the government and tech ecosystem to encourage entrepreneurs to take a step back, aim higher than an early exit and build businesses that can scale. Given the UK has the ideas we need to move from farming veal calves to growing some bulls……….

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February 27, 2012 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment