Sunday, February 26, 2012

My ...erm ...Attention Span

Of course as you get older your attention span goes. However, I have noticed a worrying trend in me and others that I think is more to do with outside influences.

My attention span is now the equivalent to 140 characters or 15 minute slots of time

Books - I used to pick up a book and read 50-100 pages in one hit and always finish a book before starting another. Now I am currently reading about 8 books, all of them take ages as I read just a few pages a time (perhaps 15 minutes) before seemingly getting bored and moving onto another book. My favourite author is Ian Banks. Recently it took me months to read one of his recent books, Matter - it was great but at 500+ pages it became a nightmare read.

TV - I don't watch any "live" TV anymore just Sky+ recordings of mostly american dramas. However, again, on free evenings I don't find myself watching  an episode right through. The other night I happily alternated between Borgen, True Blood, Sons Of Anarchy, The Walking Dead and Inside Men in 15 minute intervals. 

Films - again, in the past the only way to watch was from beginning to end. Now all my films are downloaded onto my iPhone and played through that and using Apple TV. I am quite happy to watch small sections in an evening, on the train, on the treadmill, even in bed, usually in small sections of around 15 minutes.

News - stopped buying newspapers years ago, don't watch TV news, and only listen to 5Live when cooking or to wake up. Now I get all my news from Twitter. I see an article on my feed and use Instapaper to Read Later. Then catch up with loads of articles when standing on a train, waiting for a bus or waiting in cafe's or bars (I am always early) Even then I seem to be able to skim read and pick out interesting facts.

The Kids - they are being brought up in an instant world of information and quick summaries where everything is for the moment and gone in a flash, whether its X Factor, You Tube, TV, Films and Facebook. Perhaps my level of parenting and doing things with them are in 15 minute slots of time - I shall have to monitor that.

This has all crept up on me - and talking to a good friend the other day it seems I am not alone.

Are we and our kids a new generation of human beings where all walks of life will become snippets of information and where conversations will be likewise.

What was it I was talking about, bored with that, now about that Company A vs Company B thing.......

Whose Idea Was It Anyway

Someone came up to me the other night - "Hi Steve, remember me, we had that meeting when I pitched a business social network idea back in 2003. You weren't interested. Well it became Linked In". Doh!

I was gutted - more embarrassed because I couldn't remember the meeting than because I'd missed the opportunity. As it was at that time I was so busy doing my own thing that I simply didn't have time to look at other ideas. Massive apologies to this person as I probably was so stuck up my own arse I can imagine I was dismissive too quickly. 

It made me think after about other occurrences of missed opportunities. 

One of my friends loves to tell the story of me pitching an idea to our then board at FriendsReunited to move our database away from just school friends and to become a contact system for all your friends, with added blogging (which had just started happening), events, games and message boards. I've still got the screens somewhere I knocked up. It fell on deaf ears - although we did try to do a sub site called called Connections which failed pretty miserably. I am not saying my idea was Facebook but it had the seeds of it. This was probably 2003.

Not long after, a chat with a colleague at FR and we came up with an idea to extend FR beyond your school to create a life chart of your life. After I left FR in 2005 he went onto incorporate into FR - but I am not sure of its success. I started my own little project where I wrote a Lifechart personal site, went through all my old diaries and loaded it with my life. Then added lots of world events, number one's football games etc to see what was happening around different events in my life. Basically Facebook TimeLine. (a sample of the many thousands of entries in mine is below - it was only for me hence why it looks shite)

Am I bitter? Not in the slightest - my fault for not doing anything about them. I am actually pretty happy with my lot of FR and GR (although a little piece of Facebook and/or Linked In would actually have been the icing on the cake)

When Julie came up with the idea of finding her old school friends in 1999, we went away and did a lot of research. I never tried to hide the fact that we found an already well established site in America called Classmates. There were also other smaller versions dotted around the world. We just knew we could do it better, bigger and grander. Hence FriendsReunited was born.

A lot of people came up to be over the course of FR and said they had the same idea, mostly friendly, some bitter. One even tried to sue us (ridiculously) based on the most funner tenuous links (hmmmm - thats an idea for another rant another time) - he even sent a "dossier" out to all the newspapers about this "outrage" - strangely it was never printed. Although a story about a fucking madman would have been nearer the truth.

Anyway - the point. Everyone has ideas - especially tech and internet ideas. Everyone talks about them and how it can make them millionaires. Only a handful actually do anything about it and that is all about application and making it better than anyone else's. Hats off to anyone who has tried. And for the rest, keep dreaming.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Alternative Startup Investment Guide

I probably get about 2-3 business plans a week on average. Some are huge (got a 47 page one yesterday) - thats a lot of reading. I then follow up maybe 3-4 a month to meet the founders and see if any are worth investing in. Of them I probably only go ahead with about half a dozen a year on average.

I've made a lot of mistakes along the way - but am coming to the view that however good the idea is, so much is down to the founders and the team around them. And a bit like interviewing people, you never really find out what they are like until you start working with them.

So, in continuation of my last rant 'How to Look after Investors' I provide my own alternative decision making process to making startup investments.

1. Business Plans - always too long and too much waffle. I want a 1-2 page exec summary, simple P&L and simple cash flow. Keep it simple.

2. First meet - down the pub. Alcohol has a good way of finding out what people are really like.
As a gauge -
1 pint - I will consider their idea
2-3 pints - thats the due diligence - can the founders take their drink
4-5 pints - I'm probably in
5+ pints - I will probably forget everything in the morning and retract offer.

3. Equity negotiation - best  over a game of texas hold em poker (you can go all in but be warned)

4. Don't even offer any wanky director or non exec role - not interested.

5. Once a month meet up (pref down the pub again) with one pager showing
  • summary of month (no bullshit please)
  • income, expenditure and cash position (drinks are on me and not a company expense)
  • metrics (there must be some)
  • marketing update 
  • forthcoming issues (which pub to meet in next time)

Oh I wish it was all that simple.

How To Look After Your Investors

This is a story of two companies. Both of whom I have invested in, during 2011. Both are in the social media space.

Company A. Fantastic idea. Team already in place and well funded. 
Company B. Cool idea. Small team and seed funding required.

After investment both invited me to meetings. Now if you read my previous posts I in no way push myself as some sort of guru that I know some start up techies do. I like to give my view and hope it helps in some way.

Company A. Completely ignore anything I say, to the point of being so dismissive its actually quite rude (yawning when I talk)
Company B. Completely engaged in our conversations whether any useful advice is there.

Company A. After a month or so I am no longer invited to any strategy meetings and get no update for many many months. Not even an email. In fact getting any stats out of them is very difficult.
Company B. We setup monthly very informal meets that give me a complete run down on the sites progress. I am given access to analytic stats.

Company A. One year later - spent a fortune on dev and marketing. Got no traction and suddenly running out of money. I am not going to invest more.
Company B. Massive traction, huge interest and I am looking at investing in the next phase.

Now the results of both companies has nothing to do with me but Company A leaves such a bad taste and Company B leaves such a warm glowing feeling that I wonder whether there is something in the way the Companies are run that has resulted in their success/failure.

Of course I don't want to see either fail but I know which one has a good chance and which one doesn't.

NOTE : if any of the above happens to fit your company that I invested in then it is merely coincidental.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Addressing Issue

When was the last time you read a site's Terms and Conditions. Even if you do they are usually so long and legalistic its a bit of a lottery to understand some of the important terms. So what is the point if after using a service and agreeing to the unread T&C's, the that site goes and changes them to allow them to do something you didn't allow them to do.

It came out last week that a lot of sites have accessing our address books on our iPhones and not just using the data (I sort of knew and expected that) but actually storing it. Firstly Path got caught out and then it transpires that a lot of other sites, including Twitter do so. And what does Twitter do - it changes its T&C's so that in place of "scan your contacts", the site will use "upload your contacts" and "import your contacts" instead, for iPhone and Android apps respectively. This makes a mockery of it.

Sorry everyone - at last count I had a address book of over a 1000 names, addresses, email and phone numbers. Looks like every app I've ever downloaded could be storing your data without you knowing.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Valuation Madness Again

I still haven't met anyone who says Facebook's valuation is sensible or anyone who actually says they will buy some shares. When companies like this normally go public everyone rushes to buy shares. I suspect a lot of people will but won't admit it for some reason. (Update - just done a vote and 83% say No)

But Facebook's valuation is worrying. Its making lots of other companies valuations go up relative to them. I have spoken to a few people recently and their current fund raising round valuation seem inflated.

Of course the value of a company when it is trading with revenue and profits is reasonably straight forward under a set of calculations. However valuing a start up with just an idea and no  track record is plain finger in the air. I should know I've been on both sides of the negotiation many times. Generally its the old adage of what someone will pay for it. And that comes down to gut feel and fair negotiation (not Dragons Den negotiation)

Is it my imagination or have we gone back a over a decade and forgotten nothing that went on in the boom and bust internet crash of 2000? Valuations then were crazy, money was being thrown at some of the most ridiculous companies and business models it makes made me sigh in disbelief.

However, maybe the Facebook IPO will actually make this more sustainable than a decade ago. Think of all the millionaires Facebook is going to create.A lot of them will go onto to create their own startups and a lot will invest back into tech startups. Thats a lot of cash flushing around and hence companies will probably be able to stand the high valuation.

I still think its mad.

Monday, February 13, 2012


I've read a lot this week about Pinterest and the fact its gaining revenue through affiliate marketing. Shock horror - social website makes money. This really resonated with me from my past again.

In the interest of transparency first though, let me inform you that I do have personal interest in this story. I own a small stake (very small) in the company who does the affiliate marketing for Pinterest - Skimlinks. Happy days (hopefully) - Right thats out of the way.

There seems to be people shocked that a site like Pinterest could possible make money from people clicking on the images on their site. Why could anyone complain - its not intrusive advertising - do these people want the site spoilt by adverts everywhere. And they only get a commission paid if the person clicking on the image goes to a third party site and buys a product or a service. It's win-win-win.

Affiliate marketing does have some other sides to it I admit. Fake sites that draw users into them to then pass them onto other proper consumer sites to try and earn a commission are not in my mind legitimate businesses. In fact, if truth be told, I managed to recently find myself associated with one, didn't like the practise and am now politely excusing myself.

But back to people getting out of their tree on such things.

These are the same people I suspect that I had to deal with 11 years ago. Yes it's time for me to harp back to the old days of FriendsReunited (sorry I always do this) 

In early 2001, FriendsReunited, which had sort of started off as a hobby for Julie my wife, was beginning to get some traction. Therefore bandwidth and server space was beginning to cost us more and more (a lot more expensive than now) Our time was getting taken up too, nearly full time. The ad revenue from the one ad we had on the site was paying peanuts - this was the bust period of the internet boom/bust a decade ago. We didn't want to start selling email addresses and stick ads all over the place (like some companies that had just gone bust did)
So therefore what to do. 

Over a round of drinks in the pub we decided to introduce a subscription model for a premium service on the site - i.e., to actually contact people. It was the massive sum of £5 per year (that figure because we didn't get change from 2 pints of lager)

Whilst almost from the start the idea of introducing this charge became a great success, initially from some quarters we had a backlash from certain users. We got "The internet is free", "How dare you charge to send an email", "I loved your site until this" etc etc. It was such crap. I actually enjoyed responding to each one individually explaining how the site was run by 3 of us from a bedroom and how much it was starting to cost us. Nearly all were won over.

Strange that things have not moved on in over a decade - that people still begrudge a revenue on something perceived as free. I suppose there are always ranters out there - me being one.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Am I Being Followed?

I've started to get a bit paranoid on Twitter. Of course I know its all about people following each other but some strange things have happened recently.

The first one was straight forward and to be sort of expected. A couple of days ago my mothers BT broadband went down. After a heavy intake of breath, because I knew what was coming, I phoned their helpline. As usual the poor Indian gentleman had trouble understanding my such thick cockney London accent (ha!) that it took 10 minutes to spell my name, and to be honest I struggled to understand what he was trying to get me to do. To cut a long 30 minutes short I hung up and gave up. 

I tweeted my annoyance.

"What a help desk BT have got. 30 minute conversation with me not understanding him, him not understanding me, got us nowhere "

Within an hour I had a reply on twitter of 

" That doesn't look good. I can help with any issues you may be having with your BT services. What's up?"

The first point is not really related to this article but just a general rant about why BT can't employ some more of their huge wisdom into getting someone who can understand me and my problem on the phone rather than picking up my tweet (and yes I know it was probably automated)

The real point is that BT are clearly employing people (or using tools) to watch out for mentions  of themselves - you could argue this is good customer service but I found it weird. And I am sure nearly all major commercial companies do it.

Now back to the christmas holidays. I sadly spent a morning at probably what most of us see as the worst shopping experience ever - IKEA. (not that many shopping experiences are good)

I bought my kids some biscuits in the cafe (see below - quite sad I know as they only have 4 letters surprisingly)  - I tweeted

"What am I doing here!!!!"

Nowhere did I mention Ikea in text. Within a week I had two mentions on twitter from random people with saying something like (and the original is not available on twitter as its over a month) "Claim your free Ikea voucher"  with a link to some spurious site.

Now I could understand if I had mentioned Ikea in the text of the tweet so that some automated spam system would get me (probably like the BT one) - however, to me this shows someone is looking at tweets and analysing the picture content. Please someone tell me how this is done without human intervention.

Fast forward to last week. I happened to be in the service station on the M4 just before the Severn Bridge. Again sadly, I took a picture of the bridge and tweeted it (it was a lovely clear day - thats my excuse) The text just said 

"Time for a break. "

Within 5 minutes I was followed by Motorway Services user on twitter (surely that has to be one of the saddest accounts) Blimey that was quick - the only way I can see that they knew I was there was through twitter geo location - again it must be automated. 

Are these impressive bits of commercial marketing - yes. Is it a worry - I think so personally. This is just the tip of the iceberg. What use is it to be followed by Ikea, BT and Motorway services - and where will this lead us. Could it be a future where everything you do, say and where you are will result in some social interaction from a commercial company. 

Brilliant but scary.

[Below is a link and a graphic of some research I found into what information is in every tweet - thats a lot of info]

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Bully For You

I watched Panorama’s program on Internet bullying on Monday night with a lot of interest. Not least because my friend was being interviewed on it, but also it is a subject that is close to my heart and one that needs more exposure.

Bullying has always been around, long before the internet. The web has made the problem manifest itself into a monster though. And just as offline bullying will always remain, I cannot actually see a solution to the online cases. It is ingrained into some people as an acceptable practice – just see that tosser at the end of the Panorama program arrogantly mocking the interviewer.

When we launched FriendsReunited we didn’t realise the problems that were going to ensue – teacher libel, marriage breakups, stalkers, and much more. As each story came out, we put in the best controls we could to limit the problem like moderating message boards. However the one problem of proving someones identity on login was near impossible and still is. Within a few years we had near daily contact from private investigators and police trying to establish a persons identity or following up a complaint.

Facebook and Twitter and their like have made this seem even more impossible to police. Twitter is full of fake id’s pretending to be famous people. But just as easily people can create fake id’s and post malicious posts about anyone, famous or not. Verification of ID could be done, through credit card, offline address verification, however the internet is so mature to introduce any of these would probably kill a site.

However, I think it would still go on even if we had better systems in place. People do it and don’t realize the consequences. In 2005 after leaving FR, I setup a small website for my kids primary school. It was a completely closed safe social networking site giving the kids their own login, the ability to email each other, message and play games. It was completely shut off to the outside world. The kids loved it and were taught the importance of keeping passwords private and not to post anything malicious. However, even then we had cases of children hacking into each others accounts and leaving some really nasty stuff about teachers and other children. Of course I could track them down and wrists were duly slapped. After the worst case I introduced a list of words that were banned and if a child used a banned word anywhere on the site they were instantly suspended from the site and teachers notified. Even after being told numerous times by teachers, a few children continued to post nasty comments.

My point is that with the best systems in the world there will still be people who will bully. For now all we can continue to do is educate and hope society produces a more respectful generation, however, I feel we are facing a losing battle.

Monday, February 6, 2012

You’re Shit And You Know You Are

I hear this chant often standing on the terraces at Barnet FC and often feel it should be chanted directly at me.

Like what do I know about startups and running businesses. It seems not a lot.

I am in some areas considered the grand daddy of social networking. FriendsReunited was probably one of the first social sites –I suppose I should at least be proud of that, but the world was a very different place then in terms of the internet technology and take up – and that was only 12 years ago.

So I built a community of 20 million UK people from nothing – with no investment (apart from seed capital from some friends but we didn’t actually spend it) Developed the site ourselves. We introduced a subscription model and became profitable from day one with 97% margins. Cross sold to other sites including GenesReunited (still very successful) and dating. Grew to a few dozen people. Did all the PR, did the accounts and customer services for a time. Sold for a stupid amount. And yet it seems I know nothing. Well that’s how it feels when taking to some people. Maybe I just bore them.

Proud but past it. People can take it or leave it. Funny though how they like to take my money. It's just very disrespectful to yawn when I give you advice that is not what you wanted to hear.

The Cowboy Returns

I always considered myself as a cowboy developer and then, when I began a start up, a cowboy entrepreneur. Not that everything I did fell apart (although some say the systems I wrote did) but I felt a fraud because I never tried to push myself as some business guru – it sort of happened by chance.

Back in 2000 myself and my then business partner, Jason, wrote a number of websites to try things out. One of them, my wife Julies idea, became the rip roaring success that was FriendsReunited. Lets not go there – it was 12 years ago and the story has been done to death (well it was then) and quite frankly in this age of Facebook and Twitter it seems like a lifetime ago when Tv’s were in black and white. I get introduced to people now as its founder and people smile politely like they would to an elderly relative, say ‘That’s nice’ and then quickly change the subject.

I don’t care one iota mind – we had a great time, sold for a tidy sum in 2005 and sailed away into the horizon (well I would have done if I had bought a boat)

My deal had a 5 year non compete – which is a long time and considering at the time we were into social networking, dating, geneology, classifieds, and the job market – it meant I had a choice of going into the web porn industry or internet gambling. I’m not bad at poker but didn’t fancy the idea of the other one.

So, enforced retirement. I could handle that quite nicely as the kids were very young. 5 years turned into 6, and apart from a few start up investments along the way I completely removed myself from all tech industry and internet based talk.

Fast forward to summer 2011. Suddenly I got a strange urge to dip my toe back into the fray. A couple of start ups took my fancy and I before I knew it I was back. I found a few nice little investments that sounded fun and off I went.

I’d like to think that things had changed. Yes technology had developed so much, I now realize that if I actually needed to get a job back in my profession as a developer I was actually unemployable. Shame. And yes a new generation of eager, young and motivated entrepreneurs had sprung up in my wake.

However the tech startup industry, hmmmmm. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great businesses out there, its just a matter of wading through all the shite. And the valuations and the money being invested – does no one remember the boom and bust of the turn of the millennium. I do, and saw the crap and carnage that went on.

But then what do I know – as before I am now the cowboy angel investor.