Monday, 5 July 2010

Crazy British Entrepreneurs = An Oxymoron

You'll always find an exception to the rule, but I think you'll be hard pressed to prove that the UK has the right cultural backdrop to create and sustain a vibrant hi-tech start-up community.

When I first announced to my family and group of friends that I was going to quit my "high-flying" job to try and create a company with no guaranteed funding, my parents took a long deep breath and my friends all looked at me quizzically as if I had lost my mind. In their minds, and in the minds of most, to embrace something which has such a strong chance of failure is seen as potentially suicidal from a career perspective.

I think that we British lack a little of the 'devil may care' attitude that our early heroes showed: the Mallory's, the Gordon's, the Scott's - coincidentally all famous for their catastrophic failures and yet wildly lauded for their heroic acts. Whether we are led by the media or the media is a mirror image of our values and social code is another matter, but what is undeniable is that we are surrounded by often vitriolic headlines for people's failing at something, often after we have put them on a pedestal. This is a reflection of life at large. We are too constrained by fear of failure as a result.

The truth is that failure in a start-up is a wonderful thing. It is a true MBA - one founded on experience rather than text book learning, providing opportunities for dabbling in many things which would not occur in a large company environment. From my time in a start-up I can look on real experience gained in: Product Management, Engineering, Leadership, Marketing, CRM, Customer Care, Recruitment etc etc etc. Where else would you gain such an insight?

I'd do it again - with the right idea. But even then I would be constrained by providing security for the family and a change in work:life balance which means that I like spending time with my family which would be less hours ploughed into an early stage business. In other words, I am too old now. I would be uncompetitive with other start-ups fuelled by young entrepreneurs fresh from college, used to living on a few $ per week.

Not all of the US is different from the UK but Silicon Valley is a place where a CV is not a CV without a failed start-up on it. The value of the experience is understood and counts as a positive rather than a stigma. I remember once having the pleasure of seeing Steve Ballmer speak in a small intimate setting (I recall being taken aback by how different he was from his brash public persona), he spoke eloquently about how he'd love his daughters to play around with technology and try a few different things out. He'd encourage them to fail as a valid part of finding the right path.

In the UK, I think we are too uptight for that and too afraid to fail. (Do you not see this in the England team at the current World Cup?)

Trigger points for this post:

This article with Eric Schmidt saying Europe has to find a way to embrace entrepreneurs; and, this extraordinary letter to employees from the CEO of Woot! It is inconceivable to me that I could find someone in the UK that would write such a letter and even more unbelievable to me that I would say that we need some of this DNA in the UK. But we do.

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