March 27, 2010

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Cambridge Entrepreneurs

Cambridge Entrepreneurs: In the Business of Technology

Author: Lindy Beveridge

Publisher: Granta Editions

ISBN: 1-85757-076-6

I first read this years ago, but dug it out again to lend to a friend the other day. Before giving it to him, I decided to re-read it. It's a collection of interviews with a whole range of entrepreneurs from Cambridge, which were first published in the local business newspaper. The interviews were done around the time of the dot-com boom and crash, but haven't dated as badly as you might fear. It would be interesting to find out where they are now, but whether they've gone onto greater success or not, there are plenty of nuggets of advice and inspiration to be found.

As it's a book of interviews, I've included the name of the subject alongside the traditional page numbers.

Peter Dawe, page 13:
"My philosophy for a business is to find a management team and fit an idea to them. Ideas are two a penny but the challenge is to find competent managers. The idea has to be new or innovative or something that other people have failed at. Better still, something with the potential to change the world and have a big impact on how we do work."

Robin Saxby, page 23:
"I'm an all-rounder," he says. "I was VP of everything at ARM until we could afford a real Finance Director and other people with special skills. My role is to do what no-one else can do until I understand it and can afford to hire someone better than myself to take it on. Some things I really enjoy, some I do because I have to."

John Snyder, page 41:
The company, Muscat, moved into the St. John's Innovation Centre in 1992 and the software morphed into an Internet search engine after John had seen a demo of Mosaic by one of the companies in the Innovation Centre. [...] "This is what a place like the Innovation Centre is all about," he adds. "It's ideal for cross-fertilisation of ideas"

Charles Cotton, page 63:
"There are lots of role models which show people it is possible to make that first important step - getting from 0 to 1. Once you have done that, everything seems possible"

Page 95 (not part of an interview)
"Always a godfather, never a god." Gore Vidal

David Cleevely, page 96:
"Having gone through the process of founding a business and seeing how decisions get made in the business world, I think I have more to contribute now than I might have done if I had gone into Parliament"

Hermann Hauser, page 106:
"People have at last begun to believe that Cambridge is a force in technology. A lot of attitudes have died hard. Especially the concept of the genius inventor. But we have now realised that teams work well as a basis for success, especially teams of up to four people, with a relationship with a good venture captialist and help to get a management team together." 107:
"If you look back 10-20 years, it's clear that attitudes have changed in the University," he remarks. "In the past, University people didn't see why they should be expected to dirty their hands with commercialisation of scientific research. Now they tend to think that maybe it's part of their responsibility to make use of their ideas for the benefit of the UK economy and there are enough role models around to encourage them to have a go."

Walter Herriot, page 108:
"We still don't have real leadership in the business community and it makes it a very slow process to spread the economic development around Cambridge more widely"

There's some interesting crossover for me personally in Walter Herriot's story, given that my mum was most likely working in the same building as him at Martin's Bank in the early 70s. He's probably the most influential person featured in the book with a Liverpool connection (although there are a few, including Robin Saxby - head of ARM). I wonder what would've happened if he'd stayed around? And I'd love to have a read of his report on the Liverpool region... 109:
Eventually he joined Martin's Bank, which was promptly taken over by Barclays. His new employers didn't really rate the quality of Martin's graduate trainees and tried to discourage them from staying. "They sent me out as a relief cashier to downmarket branches in the docks and Scotland Road for a couple of years," he recalls. But he persevered, took and passed his banking exams and joined the Head Office of Barclays in Liverpool. There he made his mark with a report for the London office entitled 'Prospects for the Liverpool region' and followed that with a series of further reports written by a group of young turks he gathered round him. As a result, the bank offered him an opportunity to broaden his horizons through a move to Cambridge and he accepted, despite the difficulties of moving with very young children. 110:
He returned to Cambridge in 1990 to take over the directorship of the St John's Innovation Centre from Bill Bolton and he has been a leading player in all that has happened since. "The scale of what has happened doesn't really surprise me," he remarks. "But we haven't really created enough sustainable companies and I am disappointed that US companies have taken over so many Cambridge-based businesses. Perhaps some of this is really disappointment with the quality of British management."

He's spot on that too many Cambridge startups are just swallowed up by US companies. It has helped make lots of the employees (reasonably) rich, which I'm sure has second-order effects that have spawned more startups as people are comfortable enough financially to take the risk of starting out on their own (that definitely helped when I struck out on my own). However, it also means that few of the startups become big enough to be known outside the city and so, with the exception of ARM, the British tech successes that the mainstream media can refer to (and so which might inspire new entrepreneurs) are the increasingly historic Acorn and Sinclair.

Roger Needham, page 112:
"I have been in computing since 1956 but I am definitely an engineer, not a scientist," he comments. "Lots of academics want basically to understand things but I have a passion to influence the course of events and I have always felt like this." 113:
"Governments and individuals aim for certain goals but they may achieve something quite different in the end as a result of the coming together of events and circumstances."

Tags: Cambridge business entrepreneurs tech

Posted by Adrian at March 27, 2010 10:39 AM | TrackBack

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