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The joys of Cambridge and farewell John

Image representing Robert Scoble as depicted i...Image via CrunchBase

On the day that this is published, I will be walking up Snowdon thinking of a very special person who we lost a few days ago, the Rev John Sweet of Selwyn College.  He helped my niece when she was undecided as to whether or not to take her studies seriously.  Gentle guidance was the key.  As I get older, I wonder whether to move from Cambridge but then I remember the special people in Cambridge like John.

Take last Friday;  I had an invitation to lunch with NW Brown, although finance is not always inspiring these days.  Just before I cycled into town, I read a Tweet saying that Robert Scoble, better known as the Scobleizer, was at a meeting of Travelling Geeks at the old CUP buildings.  Robert was here four years ago when he was Microsoft’s Technical Evangelist.  He now promotes new technology companies using social networks to spread the message.  As I cycled along Mill Lane, they were breaking for lunch, and I managed to talk my way past reception, fought my way through the crowd and shook his hand.  Amazingly he remembered me but his suggestion that I should join SecretScoble on Twitter by giving him a direct message from his FriendFeed account left me a little bemused.  I will try but it is better to press the flesh.

On to lunch; NW Brown operate from smart offices on Regent Street with a reception area once described as being like a dentist’s waiting reception – no flash and fish tanks.  It was like going back in time to be escorted up to the panelled dining room and to be greeted by the Deputy Chairman, Marcus Johnson.  NW Brown is a passive equity company operating from the one office.  I knew that the Cambridge Evening News had reported a recent change of control so I had done my homework, read the bios of those attending and looked at the latest accounts.  It is a very profitable and succeessful business employing nearly one hundred people.  The interesting comment in the Deputy Chairman’s report was that they had disposed of the non-core businesses investing in the Active Equity Companies which are at the centre of the Cambridge Cluster.  As I know to my own cost, investing in new cluster companies is a not an easy business.  The of each requires careful scrutiny.

Marcus is very different from the stereotype business people we see on the TV who star in Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice.  His short bio lists that he has spent “over 30 years in the investment industry” so I was a little confused as to how he had bought out Nigel Brown.  I waited until the third course to say rather pompously that no one else present, according to the bios, had started a business.  At this Finance Director Phil Burke smiled  and stated “Marcus has”.  I took out my list of bios and read them more carefully and then the penny dropped.  Mr Burke also had “over 30 years in the investment industry”.  It turned out that Messrs Johnson and Burke had worked together for many years and then had decided there was a little gem in Cambridge with a founder looking for a change.  As with the shaving company, they liked it so much they bought it!

I felt rather humble.  These quiet self-effacing people at the table (ably supported by the long serving, 33 years, Ron Dart and key Cambridge networker Hugh Parnell) were not dreamers of the type who start Active Equity Companies but highly experienced, very successful operators who know how to turn a profit out of a very focused business.  One might describe them as a breath of fresh air in the cluster; people used to selling and looking after customers face to face.  I gather that Marcus has another persona when he dons his Chief Executive hat but he was all smiles today!

As coffee was served I took a glance at the hardly touched bottles and wished I had a doggy bag with me. How different from the days when we had proper lunches.

The Deputy Chair (or was he wearing his Chief Executive hat?) allowed me to demonstrate DuoFertility (in which I am an angel investor) and all provided excellent advice which I passed on to the company.  A proud Sarah Squire, President of Hughes Hall, said that DuoFertility was founded by three of her student.  It is always a small world in Cambridge.  The meal finished by Marcus kindly offering the use of a downstairs office on Regent Street, which has busy footfall, to DuoFertility for a Saturday so it looks as though the company could be having an infertility day of talking to customers.

So with my mind in a whirl, I rushed off to DuoFertility to collect the sales brochures for my forthcoming presentation to the fertility clinic at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital.  I am now a part-time drugs rep trying to be more than a passive angel investor.  Such fun to be going from an established business to a start-up in one afternoon; the joys of Cambridge.  At the weekend I heard that another angel investor in DuoFertility, social network guru Geoff Jones(just back from three months in South America) had arranged for the Scobleizer to video DuoFertility founder, Shamus Husheer.

Entrepreneurs now have another High Table to gather round and I urge you all to cultivate an invitation and listen and learn.  But we in the Cambridge Cluster must never forget that our opportunities are built on academics like John Sweet who give so readily of their time to encourage and guide the young and we, in our modest way, must always follow their example.  Let us banish those who glory in “Back to back meetings”.

PS For those who missed the article on my visit to Cornwall, please read and comment at www.cambridgecluster.com

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Is Facebook getting ready to float?

Tagging: Maldives StyleImage by nattu via Flickr

The Equity Fingerprint of Facebook is a social network on its own and has just been increased by those nice people from ConnectU who claim to have come up with the idea in the first place.  However the “office boy” went on to fame and fortune (see my earlier post) with Facebook.  As part of a court settlement, the “office boy” has settled a lawsuit with his former Harvard college room-mates, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, receiving $20million in cash and 1,253,326 shares worth a further $11million based on the company’s own valuation.  Facebook was valued at $3.7bn, down from the$15bn when Microsoft bought in for $240million.  If Facebook floats at the higher valuation, the founders of ConnectU will do very, very well and not by half.

It reminds me of the Google float when paper was issued to thank people who had “helped” the company get going.

So many companies that go the Active Equity Company route do have to keep shuffling the equity to keep it rewarding the current people and, if all goes well, the ones who come out of the cupboard.

I remember when Reid “Glug” Hoffman of LinkedIn came to Cambridge and said that although websites looked similar, it is the attention to the small details that differentiate one from the crowd and Zuckerberg certainly has that skill.

Apart from all the history, do the ConnectU founders really deserve their cut?  Would their site have ever reached 150million users and more?  Their idea was great but could they execute?  How would you feel if you were the founder of ConnectU?  Or the “office boy”?  It would make a great case study.

Dave Morin, who runs Facebook’s app team, on friendfeed Tweets: “Today we gave our 175,000,000th user the power to share and be more open and connected through Facebook. Awesome.” One of the comments: “Congrats to Facebook on reaching 175 million users. Amazing growth. – Robert Scoble”.

So Facebook is going for the 200million mark (zuc……).

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Bill Gates : How a geek changed the world; but what about The Cloud?

Bill GatesImage by bsktcase via FlickrWatched the Fiona Bruce led Money Programme on Gill Gates three times and want to watch it again before it expires on from my BBC iPlayer.  It is great to be reminded of all the opportunities we all let pass by and Bill grabbed with both hands.  In the early 80s, I remember seeing e-mail and hypertext for the same time – all we needed was a little bit of software to build a business but who thought that a browser or a URL would ever have any value?

Fiona Bruce makes the comment that on meeting Bill Gates, you get no sign of great wealth, great power or a strong personality but in the end you feel how his personality pervades Microsoft with his relentless determination to win.  The successful entrepreneurs in Cambridge are similar, well most of them.  The only UK entrepreneur to feature on the programme is Sir Alan Sugar– what does that say about the geek world of the UK?

So much to find interesting but how did Bill Gates pick up on an internal memo that college kids in America where incorporating the web into their daily lives from e-mails to ordering pizzas.  The Internet was not just for the geek students.  He wrote the famous memo The Internet Tidal Wave and tens of thousands of Microsoft employees changed step.  Is that leadership?

Now The Cloud looms all around us with everything on line.

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Travis moves to Microsoft

MicrosoftImage via WikipediaIt is amazing how people like Adrian Travis (45) keep working away at their ideas and in the end come up trumps. It must be five years ago that I went to the Cambridge University Engineering Department to meet Travis who has a company called CamFDP. He was building large screens by projecting images into a thin glass wedge from the bottom. The wedge worked as a light guide and bounced up the light inside the wedge and you could see an image. It was very early days and now there are other ways of producing large screens. It was very difficult to build large glass wedges to the very exacting specifications to let the light out in the right places.

However the wedge allows you to see the image and also look straight through the glass or rather a camera on the other side sees you and reacts to you pointing on the glass wedge. The invention has been snapped up by Microsoft and Travis is spending a year working in the USA. Another lesson in why you never say no to an inventor or founder as his or her time may come. Well done to Travis and good luck with your business plan.

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