Silicon Valley comes to Oxford (and vice versa)

Posted on November 21, 2006. Filed under: entrepreneurship |

This post in a nutshell:

  • Boso has been accepted onto YCombinator and we’re relocating to San Francisco in January
  • The 10am Garage session at SV Comes to Oxford was a bit fluffy for my liking and I’m cyncial about the potential for the SBS to create a YCombinator in the UK (though I’d be more than happy to lick the egg off my face if they managed it)
  • Lunchtime panel was interesting and the panelists don’t think web 2.0 is a bubble because VC’s are now investing in real products and not ideas
  • Chris Sacca is a very cool guy and it’s easy to see why Google are so special
  • Yelp and Trulia are very exciting companies run by people with a great amount of energy and drive
  • The evening panel lacked the wit of Mike Malone but was still very interesting, especially Reid Hoffman’s always think big mentality
  • Yesterday I attended the Silicon Valley comes to Oxford event at the Said Business School, it’s the third one I’ve attended and each year I feel more inspired and attached to the SV culture. At the first event I attended, two ago years now, I knew very little about the Internet or web culture. By the second one I had co-founded my first web startup and now at the most recent one, I find myself actually preparing to go out to the Valley in January to join YCombinator, an incubator type fund founded by Paul Graham. So although the event was named Silicon Valley comes to Oxford, from a personal perspective it is more a case of Oxford goes to Silicon Valley and I’m incredibly excited about it.

    So onto the event itself, things kicked off at 10am with a Garage session where 30 or so people were broken up into three groups of 10 to brainstorm the problem which read something along the lines of “How can the Said Business School be seen as the premier Business School for innovation and entrepreneurship in the world”. The exercise was led by a stereotypical “ideas coach”, without wanting to be too scathing I do always wonder how someone can be a specialist in “idea generation” while having seemingly next to none of their own. Still he provided good entertainment value and I actually found some of the techniques used quite interesting (thinking about a favourite film, listing some keywords you associate with that fim, finding the one that appears least connected to the problem at hand and then finding a way to build a link was actually surprisingly useful).

    The SBS representative seemed (perhaps overly) keen to stress that they really wanted to take any ideas created during the session and make them a reality. This would be truly fantastic if it was backed up but I feel there is not sufficient accountability to ensure that things are actually followed up on. The cynic in me says that we’ll still be in exactly the same position this time next year but perhaps there is hope? I have to say though that the signs are not too positive – the SBS representative seemed rather unimpressed by my group’s idea to build a YCombinator type set up in Oxford. Although I am slightly biased it is surely beyond question that such a set up woud have a HUGE benefit to the entrepreneurial scene in Oxford (and more generally the UK) but only if it was implemented with a long term view. Statistically the majority of companies in any incubator are going to fail commercially but the collective experience and human capital of the participants would have risen exponentially and the SBS must see this as a success if such a scheme were to stand any chance of success.

    The 10am Garage session finished at 12pm and after an hour break for lunch, I moved onto the lunchtime panel titled “Life in the Valley. This was pretty interesting stuff and again fantastically hosted by Mike Malone, who really makes these events and it’s a shame he wasnt hosting the main evening panel. The panel was fantastically big so it was tough to get into real depth with any particular panelist. The general feeling seemed to be that this time around we’re not in a bubble because startups don’t need huge amounts of money to get a prototype working so VC’s can actually base their investments on things that exist and work whereas before money was being poured into what were essentially just ideas.

    After the panel it was time for the masterclasses, my first one was with Chris Sacca (Head of Special Initiatives, Google). I did not know too much about Chris before the masterclass but I was incredibly impressed by the guy. He was straight talking, a fantastic communicator but most importantly – a geek at heart. His passion for Google really shone through and I think his openess and frankness really sums up what makes Google so special. There was also a fantastic moment when he told Mike Butler of Techcrunch UK that he didn’t like Techcrunch and didn’t want to hear his question (Chris had asked everyone if they were a journalist before he began as he wanted to talk openly and frankly, which he couldn’t do around journalists, so he was pissed that Mike hadn’t introduced himself as a journo). Chris also stuck around after his presentation to just chat, which I was incredibly impressed by – he showed a real interest in what I was doing and genuine excitement when I told him I’d be heading out to SV for YCombinator so all in all I thought he was a very cool guy.

    Next stop was a masterclass with Pete Flint of Trulia and Bob Goodson of Yelp. This was again another fantastic masterclass, both Bob and Pete come across as having a great amount of energy and passion for what they’re doing and I’m sure Yelp and Trulia will go onto great things. I really liked the format of their class – they put up some problems they were facing on the screen and asked the audience to contribute answers. This was an awesome way to get everyone engaged and I hope they got some benefit out of the ideas put forward.

    Then it was onto the main event – the evening panel. I have to admit I was a little disappointed with the choice of host, as I’ve said already I really wish Mike Malone had continued as his combination of wit and interrogation seems to get the panel a little riled up which creates a fantastic atmosphere. However in the overall scheme of things that was a minor thing, there were still four incredible people up on the stage with some incredibly intelligent things to say. Reid Hoffman’s challenge to always think big really stuck with me – if only more people shared this attitude in the UK I think we would be much closer to building our first Google or Yahoo.

    After the panel I went to dinner at Oriel (organised by the SBS) where I sat next to Steve Coomber, a freelance journalist who had actually interviewed Kul and I for an article earlier that week. On the other side I had Ellen Levy, a VC who was great to talk with. She said that in her experience about the differences between in SV and London, in SV people are more prepared to just get to the point and ask how they can help you with what you’re doing. This naturally creates an air of openess where it is in everyones interest to talk about their companies rather than the typical “stealth mode” approach that a rather large proportion of UK entrepreneurs seem to be permanently stuck in. It also became clear to me just how important networks are in London but it’s also important to remember (as Matt Cohler pointed out at the evening panel) that networks are the result of a solid substance as opposed to an actual means within themselves. Perhaps the UK Government should take note of this and put more energy into actually getting young companies off the ground rather than luminous whistes and “speednetworking”.

    After dinner it was onto Merton’s Bar for cocktails and the unforgettable experience of “wallsitting”. Wallsitting was the fine idea of Chris Sacca and involved a load of us lining up against a wall and squatting for as long as possible. Kul showed extreme willpower and bagged us a lunch at Google by beating Chris so that’s definitely something we’re looking forward to! A few Mojitos and many hours later and it was time for me to head back home.

    All in all it was a great event. I really do believe SV can be replicated in the UK and it doesn’t need to take an extortionate amount of time. It just needs the people in power to take a more direct interest in funding companies and then reaping the organic benefits of this rather than trying to artificially manufacture an “enterprise culture”. An enterprise culture only truly comes from the existence of successful companies and to build successful companies, we need to give bright young people cold hard cash so they can afford to turn down banking/law/consultancy and take a gamble on themselves.

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    Knowing your Product

    Posted on October 29, 2006. Filed under: entrepreneurship |

    Recently I’ve developed a new habit of taking an external look at boso by stripping away what it actually does (online trading) and looking at the raw functions it is composed of. The easiest way to do this is by stopping looking at boso as an Internet business and compare it to another type of business – my current favourite being a restaurant. This exercise has actually given me a different perspective on things and above all it has stressed the importance of actually knowing and understanding your product.

    Kul and I have always been reliant upon other people to build our website for us. Since neither of us could code, our product development has been dependant upon getting people in to build the site and so when they leave or don’t build the product we we had in mind – things are pretty tough. This is when my new perspective kicked in – I though to myself that if we were a restaurant, it would be completely unworkable for neither Kul or I to have an appreciation of food or cooking. We might be able to get a head chef in but if he ever left we’d be back at square one. Quite simply, a restaurant won’t work if there are no chefs to cook the food. An Internet business is no different – always being reliant on other people to code is a risky strategy because you can never then assume full control of your business. If you have a limitless supply of great coders then this isn’t a problem but in reality, such a scenario doesn’t really exist (unless you’re Google, Microsoft or Yahoo of course).

    That’s when we decided we had no other option – we had to learn how to code. So late one night I set up all the relevant server and database connections I needed, pulled out an online PHP tutorial and started typing away in TextEdit. Quite simply it was the best decision I’ve ever made and I honestly wish I’d made it two years earlier. If there was one benefit of a three year Oxford law degree (one which involved a huge amount of last minute preparation for tutorials) it was picking up the skill of cramming large amounts of information into my head in very short spaces of time. As a result I’ve picked up the concepts of programming very quickly and am moving onto some pretty interesting stuff. What it means is that for once I can actually do all those niggling little touch ups myself and as I learn more, I’ll actually be able to implement new functionality. While I’m not going to be attracting offers from Google anytime soon, what it does mean is that we can be less reliant on other people for the development of our own product.

    The experience we’ve had is something I think is a problem with the Internet scene right now. It seems to generate such a buzz and a lot of people view it as a quick way to make a buck. A lot of business people think they can make an online business work and they always just assume that building the actual website is secondary to the idea itself. I think this skewed perspective will result in a lot of these companies failing – it’s no coincidence that the most successful web entrepreneurs could all code. Kul pointed this out to me and gave me a list of the greats – Max Levchin (PayPal), Evan Williams (Blogger.com), Sergey and Larry (You Know who they are), Pierre Omidyar (eBay) and so the list goes on. These guys could all code and this shouldn’t be a surprise – if you were opening a restaurant you wouldn’t think of hiring chefs as some secondary or minor problem that could be solved at a later point in time. So why do people think that actually building the website can be easily done? It’s not something that you get your mate who knows a bit of HTML to do in 20 minutes and it’s not something you can continually outsource to every Tom, Dick and Harry with a computer science degree. Ultimately unless you have someone at the founder level who can code, I think you’re going to end up in big trouble and product development will become your biggest bottleneck. Pretty annoying since it’s also the biggest factor in defining whether your idea will be a success or not.

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    Recruitment, jobs and fostering a culture.

    Posted on October 15, 2006. Filed under: entrepreneurship |

    I’ve just finished reading <a href=”http://www.amazon.co.uk/Habits-Highly-Effective-People/dp/0743501535/sr=8-3/qid=1160930680/ref=pd_bbs_sr_3/026-6639538-1141204?ie=UTF8″>The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People </a>. I don’t want to go into a full on book review but I generally found it to be a very good read – the first three habits were the most powerful for me and have made me think a lot about working environments and cultures of all organisations.

    Everyone knows about the efforts Google go to in ensuring their working environment is second to none but then again it’s not as though they are short of the cash needed to provide it. What I’m interested in is how to foster a productive environment, where people enjoy their work and are self-sufficient, within a start up where there is typically going to be a lack of structured organisation and funds. We’re bringing in a second developer tomorrow and this time I’m going to implement a few new things in an attempt to give him the clearest understanding possible of boso, which should hopefully maximise productivity and make boso a more enjoyable place to work.

    • Im going to write a short letter which will be given to all employees when they join. This letter sums up what boso means to me, why I believe in it, where I want it to go and how bringing in the right people will help us get there. The purpose of the letter is to give new recruits a better understand of how they fit into the company. It should also show that the key to a successful relationship is communication and the letter serves as a reminder of that.
    • Each employee should write a short mission statement which outlines their reasons for joining boso and what their overarching goals are (this shouldn’t be too specific). This will be displayed on a wall of the office and the purpose is both to ensure that we’re all clear on expectations and also to keep people going when things get tough (otherwise known as 9pm on a Fri evening and we’re all still in the office)
    • I’ll spend time with each employee going over their personal progress map. This sounds a lot like management garbarge but I do think it’s important to set targets for your staff and ensure that there is a built level of accountability (of which they should be aware) to map out the consequences of missing/achieving those goals. People should know what rewards there are for acheiving goals and what happens when they don’t, otherwise there is little incentive to ever achieve them

    The cynic in me tells me that this is all a bit mumbo jumbo and something that sounds like a great idea but ultimately serves no purpose. And I completely agree with that when such things are implemented insincerely, if my only reason for investing more time in staff is to drive up productivity I’m sure it would be doomed to failure. However that’s not my only reason – I actually do want to foster an environment that is genuinely fun and dynamic to work in. I want people to share my vision for boso and I want them to feel part of the family. When you start seeing recruitment purely as a means to an end I think you’re opening yourself up to big problems. Especially as a start up – you just can’t afford to carry any deadwood and anyone who doesn’t feel energised or inspired by your organisation is deadwood, no matter how great their CV or experience is.

    I’ll let you know how it goes! Apologies for the scarcity of recent posts, things have been a little hectic and I’ve been a bit lazy on the blog front but just putting down my thoughts on *virtual* paper has reminded me what a great expression blogging is.

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    Increasing the productivity of a start up

    Posted on September 30, 2006. Filed under: entrepreneurship |

    If I had to sum up the past week at boso in one word it would definitely be “productivity”.  It’s a word that is used a lot but its importance has really only become truly apparent to me in the last week.  I always thought that one of the great things about being in a start up is the dynamic nature of the environment within which you are working, the flexbility that this provides to encourage creative thought and development has always been incredibly important to me.  I always thought that what differentiats a start up and a corporate are the processes each have in place – to me a start up was a group of people working hard towards a common goal whereas a corporate is a collection of different processes and workflows where everything is standardised.

    I was completely wrong on this one.  Boso is only a team of four people, only two of whom are full time (well three now since we’ve brought Matt in on a trial as PHP Developer) and yet the benefits of having a workflow process in place are now apparent.  Ultimately I think that all employees, however smart, need some direction and this must come from the founders of the company.  However it is completely impractical for the founders to be checking that every specific task is done in the correct way and herein lies the benefit of establishing clear work flow processes.  By this I mean having a very simply strucure in place to ensure that standard tasks are done in the most efficient way possible.

    To give an example – whenever we had a new idea for the website we would discuss it for an hour or so, jot it down somewhere and then address it later when we had more time to think it through.  What we do now is as soon as someone has an idea, it is put into Basecamp (a fantastic project management tool) and that person must schedule a brainstorm meeting.  The purpose of the brainstorm is to flow chart the user experience and create a brief tech spec.  This spec is prioritised and passed onto a developer, who assigns a time to get the first iteration up and running.  The next steps are implementation and execution.

    This probably all sounds rather simple but I think having these types of processes in place (and even more importantly having them clearly defined) is something often overlooked by start ups.  This is probably quite natural, your day to day is taken up with issues as they arise and it requires a great deal of discipline to put everything on hold to develop a workflow process with no apparent immediate benefit.  However I really think it is quite crucial and can save a lot of long term inefficiency in a company.

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    dragons den

    Posted on September 30, 2006. Filed under: entrepreneurship |

    I watched this show for the first time recently and i have to say i thought it was pathetic. why on earth should we be hyping a television show that actively seeks to discourage people from taking a risk and exploring new ideas. the dragons are deliberately rude and intimidating and even before the entrepreneur has opened their mouth, it is as though the dragons are already convinced the idea is a waste of their time.

    i think this represents a big problem with the mentality of the masses in general – they love to see people fail. look at all the shows on our televisions, the apprentice, the weakest link, dragons den, etc are all popular shows because it gives people the chance to see other people fail at something. especially with dragons den, it leaves people with this image of entrepreneurship as something to be laughed at or a hobby that needs to be supplemented by a “real” job.

    people will inevitably argue that the masses will always remain the masses and as long as there are people prepared to take a risk, then things will be fine. however i really disagree with this, i think the mentality is far more damaging to the economy than people are prepared to admit. any environment that seeks to foster enterprise must also encourage and admit failure. it is only through failure that people will gain any experience and build up that “trackrecord” everyone is so obsessed with. however how on earth can we foster such an environment when the general mentality still seeks failure as something to be laughed at?

    i truly believe that in order for the UK start-up scene to really explode, we need to take more of the masses and give them the support and encouragement to take a risk. i say this because i personally a couple of years ago would never have considered turning down a very well-paid job to run a web start up. it is only by giving it a go and seeing how much i enjoyed the start up dynamic that i decided to take a risk. but with every show of something like dragons den, another borderliner (like i was) goes to sleep dreaming of that lovely pay cheque waiting for them at the end of the month…

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