I’ve been working in or around tech for four decades. In that time I’ve made a lot of mistakes and had some successes. Recently I spoke at StartupGrind Europe summarising my journey in the hope other founders can learn from it
There are two words I use to describe how to think and act as a founder. You can think and act small, think and act big, think small and act big or think big and act small. Almost every company we meet fits into one of these categories. Whether or not they raise often depends on which.
Let’s start with the 80’s
I’d dropped out of my PhD at university and was a political activist living in London. After learning to code to support anti-racism campaigns, I started a business called “Micro-Consultant and Software Support Services”… the name alone tells you how small I was thinking.
Little by little we built up the business to several £m in revenue with just two people (my brother and myself). Eventually I got bored of my own job (building software for clients) and inevitably felt like I was thinking small and acting small.
We often see ambitious founders “trapped” in a business like this but wanting to do much more.
I stumbled on the internet in my spare time and began messing around with Demon. This was a game changer in how big things could become, but I didn’t realise.
Almost accidentally I built EasyNet – with my co-founder – to make my life easier. We didn’t really have the option to raise VC money, partly because there was only two VCs and they didn’t understand my Scarborough accent…
After 15 months we listed on AIM and eventually the company was acquired by BSkyB for £211m after being worth almost £700m during the dot com bubble. So despite thinking small and acting small we actually built something quite big.
In early 1996 I spent time in the US selling Cyberia Cafe, the world’s first internet cafe (which raised investment from Maurice Saatchi and had Mick Jagger!). Seeing how much investment was there, I decided my next project would not be in the UK and I moved permanently.
EasyNet had become somewhat conservative after its public listing and as the ‘ideas guy’ I decided to move on. During the journey I had been to France and learned they didn’t adopt URLs very well. Why didn’t someone make it possible for people to type a relevant word and go directly to the associated website? RealNames was born.
RealNames was adopted by both Google (young search engine at the time) and Microsoft (getting into search). It powered ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ on Google; Microsoft bought a 20% stake; we launched in China; and we raised a load of venture capital.
I was feeling smug and definitely acting big, as you can see here:
Then we shut down.
Why? Because we were totally reliant on Microsoft directing traffic through us and they decided to stop. We had no business model without traffic. I was thinking big and acting big, way too big for my boots.
After having my fingers burnt with RealNames I had my children and a couple of years of recovery.
I came back with a desire to build big things and decided to angel invest so I could be involved in as much as possible. Myself and Michael Arrington (who’d worked with me at RealNames) launched Archimedes Labs (an incubator).
One of the first things built was TechCrunch, later bought by AOL. This was my first time supporting someone else building with their personality and without my interference. This was hard for me as an entrepreneur but Michael was really successful!
I began investing on my own behalf out of Archimedes Labs. After a couple of really rewarding decades in Palo Alto I returned to the UK to launch ADV. We’re thinking big and acting small. We back founders with really big, long term vision and the team to execute. But we’re still a startup.
Long term vision is the single biggest missing ingredient in pitches we see. Of course we’ve met loads of really inspiring entrepreneurs but many have been told to be realistic. We like unrealistic and aren’t afraid to back you over multiple rounds.
We’re always looking for founders that are thinking big (and hopefully acting small). If you’d like to share your vision with ADV, you can do so here.