Thursday, May 29

Lake Tahoe - Mike Milken

I had the opportunity to visit Lake Tahoe which was an extremely cool place with absolutely breathtaking scenery. The reason I was there was to spend some time with the renowned Mike Milken with the other Kauffman Foundation Fellows. During my three days there I was lucky enough to not only hear from Mike himself, but also a number of other inspiring entrepreneurs. I wanted to share some of the fantastic information that I acquired from this experience.

We spent a day at the Sierra Nevada College ( at Tahoe with students, faculty members and esteemed visitors. We toured the facilities there, one of the only buildings in the US to have been awarded a Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (

Milken spoke to us on a number of occasions about a variety of topics, focusing on the strength of human capital in today’s economy, growth areas of the world and general facts from his wealth of knowledge. Mike is a strong believer in research and knowing all the information about a topic. His belief is that if you know all the information, then you can envisage what’s going to happen in the future, as long as you utilize that data appropriately of course.

For instance, it’s a fact that there are 50% more children being born in India than in China, therefore if that trend continues, India will house the largest population. Also the amount of children from Asia and Latin American origins is increasing in the US; therefore education will inevitably change to adapt to these different cultures in terms what’s taught in history lessons for example.

Another topic that resonated with me is the evidence of the costs of various technologies. The costs of communications is approaching zero, storage costs are approaching zero, and computational speed is rapidly increasing. These points have implications in a number of areas such as telecommunications for instance in globalization, through to the ability for developing countries to equip all residents with communications devices.

Other interesting information that I gleamed from Mike was that Qatar will have the highest capital per person within two years (and coincidentally is where the next Futurallia Conference is being held). Also Asian nations will represent 60% of the world’s economy. Some general business advice that hit on some of the topics I’m dealing with at the moment are its important to build your business where people want to live, and the bigger your competition, the more capital you will require so that you can show you’re not going anywhere when pressured about your ability to survive.

Some other people that were kind enough to give up their time to speak to us were Rob Loughan from Dexterra, the self confessed dreamer and highly successful entrepreneur from previous ventures including Octane Software. He’s taking the mobile business world by storm with his new platform, and I’ve got no reason to suspect that it’s not going to continue to grow at an exciting rate. Also John Osborne of Tarsin, his 4th company that is extremely well versed in the entrepreneurial space having raised seven rounds of venture capital in his previous ventures and has two great beliefs. One is that most ideas occur too early for them to be successful from the outset, giving a great opportunity for late adopters and innovators in the space. Secondly to always ask yourself “what are you going to do differently tomorrow?” A simple yet interesting exercise.

Another aspect of the trip was the gaming theme, with a visit to IGT with TJ Matthews and also hearing form Ian Finnimore from Bally Gaming. It was interesting to hear their differing perspectives on the gaming market, especially as the monopoly share of gaming in the US has switched from Bally to IGT over recent years, yet are both still highly profitable. My worry was that IGT is too large a beast to successfully be able to adapt to what I believe will be a big swing of the casino floor from traditional gambling machines to new networked, highly interactive machines that will appeal to a new generation of gamblers who have grown up with Xbox and PlayStation games. It will be interesting to see over the coming years who reigns supreme, but my gut feeling is new entrant might end up swooping in and stealing the prize.

One of the resounding themes of the week was the fact that the successful entrepreneurs I met were all in it for the journey, not the end result. Some had been successful in the past and had retired to Lake Tahoe, only to miss the journey and have since ventured back into entrepreneurial activities, not for the financial gains, but for the activity itself. The ones that embraced this philosophy, which most of the people I met that week did, were the happiest in what they were doing and were truly enjoying the life they were living.

Mike Milken’s home on the edge of the Lake was simply breath taking and it was an honor to spend time there. I hope I’m lucky enough to visit Lake Tahoe again someday and explore more of the mountain walks and surrounding area, in the meantime I have some great memories of the week there.

Sunday, May 4

US vs UK Entrepreneurial Culture

There seems to be a number of reasons why the culture in the US is better established to harbor entrepreneurs than the UK. The three key points that keep coming up is the access to money, the reaction to failure and the established communities.

I have discussed the failure aspect previously, so won’t go into detail here, but the general perception of failure is dealt with in much more positive way in the US than in the UK. That isn’t to say that if you fail with a business venture in the UK, it’s the end of it, but it is a lot harder to win the confidence of future partners and investors in new ventures than it is in the US.

Funding is another big issue, where there is a lot more capital available and it’s generally easier to access in the states. Financing institutions such as venture capitalists and angel investors are also more established which helps more new businesses get off the ground quickly and with a greater starting capital than in the UK. This is changing however, and there are more angel groups created all the time in the UK, but they aren’t mature, and without the experience of similar groups in the US. The willingness to take chances in potentially riskier ventures is also more prevalent in the US, which broadens the opportunities for entrepreneurs to get their foot in the door.

Another aspect which I feel is different is the large scale and scope that people think about in the US. Where it’s rare to find new entrepreneurs in the UK with international ambitions, and large scale plans for the business, this is almost thought as a given with ventures, especially in areas such as Silicon Valley. Clearly there are plans in effect to try and change this situation with schemes such as the Kauffman Fellowship, and the prevalence of international trade advisors around the world. I just feel that more has to be done at the earlier stages in business, rather than the tendency to focus on larger established businesses.

Of course the UK isn’t by any means the worst place to start a business, with lots of support and guidance available both nationally through government initiatives through to local councils and universities starting to realize the importance of encouraging entrepreneurship. A lot is being done in various hubs around the country to foster some the same buzz that surround Silicon Valley, but it will take many years to reach a similar culture that can be found there, and in the US in general. The mix of thriving businesses, access to talented and willing workers and the business support network that are all key for such an area to succeed don’t happen overnight, and it will take a lot of effort, and patience to try and re-create the elements that are all so important elsewhere.

There are definitely opportunities to succeed, especially in the North East region in the UK where they are willing to put the necessary effort and investment in the area to make it a thriving place for companies to be. With institutions like the University of Teesside investing heavily in entrepreneurship, and trying to educate students and the local community about the value of new business to the area and the economy it is an exciting time to be an entrepreneur. I just feel it will take time and a lot of mistakes before they crack the right mix of elements necessary to create the right environment that will foster willing and successful entrepreneurs. I hope by putting to good use the lessons learnt over the last 5 months from some of the top thinkers and entrepreneurs in the US I will be able to take advantage of the situation emerging in the UK and even impart some of this knowledge to help making it the best place in the world to run a business.

Friday, May 2

Company Culture

A lot of what has made IDEO a success can also be applied to Google. They have a similar work environment, very flat organizational structures and a similar thirst for only the highest quality staff. They have introduced a few new concepts to the mix such as 20% time, that lets the staff work on personal projects, using the company’s resources. Although this sounds counterproductive, it has interestingly led to 50% of the companies released projects including grand releases such as Google News. Marissa Mayer introduced nine lessons about creativity at Google, a lot of which can equally be applied to other successful enterprises:

• Ideas come from everywhere
• Share everything you can + (not) taking credit
• Working with smart people
• License to pursue dreams
• Innovation, not instant perfection (Macs and Madonna)
• Data is apolitical
• Creativity loves constraint
• Users, not money
• Don’t kill products, morph them

Most of the lessons can be taken straight into any business, some more easily than others, but all very appropriate. The two, working with smart people, and sharing everything you can come from creating a culture of trust and respect at the company, along with only employing people that fit with the culture you are trying to create. Others are more policy based, such as the 20% to pursue dreams, and concentrating on creating great products, rather than focusing on the business model, which Mellissa argues will come as a natural progression, once the user need has been satisfied. Others go back to failure, and the way to deal with it, such as consistently iterating product releases, and refocusing projects that aren’t as successful as they should be to find the area in which they will work.

Some don’t quite transfer over to a small business quite as easily, such as using data to justify decisions, taking out any politics involved, which is a great concept, but for a small company can be expensive and time consuming.