Tech, Startups and Rock and Roll
March 27, 2013
Back on the events trail with networking enthusiast Kevin Renton…
If you haven’t been to IV Tuesday, an event hosted by Informatics Ventures on the last Tuesday of every month, you have been missing out. Headline speakers have included Alistair Brown (CTO of STV), Gareth Williams (CEO of SkyScanner) and Calum Paterson (Partner at Scottish Equity Partners), so I always look forward to these events. Double anticipation last month when the headliner was our very own Paul Atkinson, Head Resourcing’s Chairman and Executive Partner at Par Equity.
The event had a great turnout, probable more than Paul expected, and as the crowd settled down Paul kicked off. Pauls talk was structured in three parts; his personal journey which gave a good insight into his decision making process, his thoughts on technology start-ups, and his investment philosophy with Par Equity. I managed to catch up with Paul a week later to go over some of the salient points and get his take on some of the important issues discussed.
Paul started the talk with going over his early career. Having graduated with a Physics degree from Manchester University, he fell into a Process Engineering role with Mullard Semiconductors before making a career change into sales with Data Translation. His first recruitment role was with Computer People in 87. I asked him if he thought he had a non-conforming streak in him – I think it took him back a little before he laughed “well, I don’t think that I planned my early career, but there were personal things that led to changes and I just went with it. The sales part I enjoyed and excelled at, so I kept with it. At the end of the day I liked being involved with businesses, and if you don’t have sales or revenues then you don’t have much so this was my main focus.”
Where the discussion on technology start-ups overlapped – one of Paul’s main themes in his talk – was around how we have great technologists in Scotland, but in the start-up community there seems to be fewer sales and marketing professionals. Paul puts this in a nice way; “a new company usually has three legs to stand on; a CTO or inventor, a general manager (COO) that has good legal, banking and accounting knowledge and an industry/sales and marketing professional. It’s the mix of skills that make a company successful. At the end of the day you need to find revenues and sales to keep the company going.”
Paul then discussed his early companies, the first of which not being that successful, but he had a funny anecdote about the experience. He said that best thing that came out of that was a business trip to the Middle East.”I was left at a fancy party with a Russian diplomat, and feeling slightly awkward trying to start up a conversation. So I asked my new Russian friend where he was from, and he replied – ‘none of your business’”. This reminded me in a way of one of the earlier IV Tuesday events with Bill Joos, where he commented that it is how you bounce back from setbacks that makes you a good entrepreneur. With Paul Atkinson’s next start up, he teamed up with Gordon Adam to form Direct Resources and RecruitmentScotland.com. They became market leaders in their fields, and eventually sold to TMP worldwide at the height of the dot com boom – the rest is history.
The thing that I enjoyed most about Paul’s talk and our discussion afterwards was his humility. Some may say it’s a disarming strategy, but he was very open about his success and was quick to highlight that you often need timing and luck to do deals. He was, however, quick to interject that it’s not just luck that builds good companies, cultures, processes and structures, “but often at the sharp end there are circumstances that are out of your control and you have to make the most of it. If we had waited 6 months to sell RecruitmentScotland.com the market would have changed and there would have been no deal!”
We then talked about Par Equity, the technology investment company that has invested in MiiCard, Kiltr and Ciqual, to name a few. One of the recurring themes that comes up at IV Tuesday is how startups get funding, and Paul’s insights are invaluable. “Scotland is actually really well placed at the Angel investor level, so for anything between £50k and £500K there are investors, and the Government’s Investment Bank has good support. It’s when you have to get the second round of funding to get you to the next level that can be difficult, and sometimes at this stage it’s easier to go after a larger amount of money than a small amount. Having said that, Scotland is one of the best places in the world to start a technology firm, and the support is out there if you go looking for it.”
At the end of the day, longevity in a small market like Scotland where the community is tight requires good people skills. It was where Paul’s comments about “integrity and surrounding yourself with good people” hit home. The floor at the end of Paul’s talk asked some good questions but sitting with one of my colleagues at IV Tuesday, the one question that we really wanted to ask, and I got the chance when we met, was “what did do you do after your first deal? Did you go to the pub, go to the toilet and let out an all mighty scream or just go home and have a quite night in?” He laughs. “Yes I think I went to the pub that night. There was a bit of relief, I knew it would be life changing but didn’t really know at that point how much but the overriding memory I have is buying a Gibson Les Paul guitar next day.”
For me, that’s what technology start-ups are all about. I know it’s only rock and roll but I like it!
Take me back.