Here’s some short background on who I am. I’ve worked in technology most of my life and my first startup was way back in 1984. I’m interested in understanding how businesses can be scaled up (or not scaled – depending on the circumstances). I also blog and ride my bike.
I grew up in the Croydon area near London. I think I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak. My brother and I held a puppet show in our garage and charged for tickets. I was 6 at the time and he was 4. We sold about 50 tickets, as I recall.
Later in my teens I got into sports. I started playing tennis, inspired by watching Bjorn Borg and reading about Rod Laver. It was the era of the great British middle distance runners Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe, and that got me into running. I’ve always been an equipment junkie and can remember owning a fine pair of Adidas SL 72s, then the SL 76s!
I spent three years studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge, graduating with a degree in Biochemistry. I enjoyed rowing in the college eight crew despite having to get up at 6 in the morning for winter training.
Living in the United States
Since the Apollo landings, I’d had a fascination with all things American. At the age of 18 I made my first trip to the United States, teaching tennis to kids in summer camp in Wisconsin. Thanks to the Thouron Award program I was able to enrol on the MBA course at the Wharton School in Philadelphia. I made many new American friends and had a lot of fun there.
After I graduated from Wharton I joined a consulting firm called Strategic Planning Associates in Washington DC. At the associate level I helped the managers and the partners carry out different kinds of business analysis and market analysis for clients. We had one of the first IBM PCs which I started using for spreadsheet work. That’s when I realised that PCs and PC software would be big business.
My first startup
With a business partner I borrowed £85,000 from Barclays Bank in Cambridge and set up a company to design and manufacture a local area network product for IBM PCs. Later, when we had substantial sales, Acorn Computers came in as an investor. We had a lot of problems manufacturing our hardware to the required quality level. That experience taught me a lot about the importance of automated product testing in improving quality.
Starting a services business
My second startup experience was an IT consultancy firm called Ives & Company that I founded and grew to about 120 people. We built custom salesforce applications for big companies like Abbott Labs, Astra Pharmaceuticals, First National Bank of Chicago, Schering Plough and Wella. I learned a lot about scaling up a services business where every customer solution is different.
We were frustrated by the primitive user interfaces on phones that made most of the advanced features unusable. In the year 2000, we decided to spin out our mobile software team into a new venture called Trigenix. We developed a very flexible framework that helped phone manufacturers create much more usable and attractive interfaces. Because the processors in mobile phones were so slow, we had to rewrite our software three times before we were able to get good-enough functionality and performance.
Four years after we spun out the Trigenix team, the big US technology firm Qualcomm approached us and acquired the business for $40 million. That experience taught a lot about how you build an acquirable business, as opposed to just building a growing business. It also taught me how vital a continuous improvement mindset is in taking a mediocre product to a great product.
What I’m exploring now
I’m fascinated by the question of what it takes to improve the performance of a business over the long run. What is it that enables some businesses to continue to grow whilst others fall by the wayside? Are there lessons that can be applied from other successful businesses that can remove some of the obstacles to sustained growth? With Plio, I’m exploring tools and techniques that could help people apply the well-known principles of continuous improvement (as set out by Deming and Juran) in a easier way.