Digital is now so accessible to entrepreneurs that it has become an intrinsic part of our economy. Looking back at how we got here, the last 25 years of tech has seen a global network of key individuals prove themselves throughout the dot com bubble, the credit crunch and to where we are now with unicorn valuations and the rapid growth of a new connected generation.
Looking at today’s largest companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google it’s evident that some of the most interesting business leaders of our time have come from technical beginnings.
Rob Barrow started out with a computer science degree in the UK and went on to prosper alongside the arrival of game changers such as broadband, the arrival of graphical user interfaces on the desktop, the web and now the mobile revolution.
Starting up his own company building systems software for computer manufacturers in the US, Rob explains how the timing of this early venture was key to his future success.
“While we were working in California during the late 80’s the internet was just starting to happen, something called ARPANET was coming out of the US Department of Defence. As we were already working with computer manufacturers we spotted a business opportunity as we could see that everyone was wanting to connect their machines.
We were able to create some system software that enabled people to get online regardless of their desktop and this did two things; it gave us significant revenue and also the necessary experience into this new industry. On the back of that we worked out what kind of product we needed to deliver next which would need some serious investment of around £50ml to take it to market. The route we chose was to list on the AIM market place first. Fast forward to 2000, we were FTSE 250 employing 650 people and with a valuation of £1bn”
The IPO of an originally home grown operation is by anyone’s standards a success and also a milestone at which to take stock of what might come next. As success builds so do your options. Do you plan to carry on growing, or do you try and maintain what you have?
With the opportunity to exit on the horizon I asked Rob when this became part of his strategy.
“We had a clear focus from the beginning to grow the company, achieve liquidity and exit. Knowing that in the tech world a product has a limited lifecycle this leaves a couple of choices, one of which is to bring out new products and the other is to exit at the top and take the money off the table, with the option of going back in and doing something else if we wanted to”
Also involved in a number of social impact projects and organisations, I wondered if now with such a successful background in tech, would he have done anything differently?
“I think that times have changed. When I started out there was a huge focus on work ethic and what we have now is more of a work/life balance. What makes things interesting is that with tech you are in there for a quick hit. So in the beginning even with a young family, to build something I had to consider putting my life on hold for a couple of years to make it happen.
Those I’ve worked with who have made their millions along the way have all dealt with their success in different ways. I’m more interested in wealth preservation and wealth enhancement and how I can pass something on to the next generation.
I’ve seen some great work in Manchester helping young people understand their own potential. There are so many youngsters out there who could really do something with their lives but don’t know it, and I’d love to be able to find new ways to identify and help develop this undiscovered talent.”
The speed of change is never faster than in the world of tech, which doesn’t leave much time for second guessing the options for those who might be currently on this kind of journey. Whether you are still at school and have learnt a few lines of code or you are planning an exit strategy on your latest offering, the web also offers a way to network and learn from the experiences of others who have been there before.
In the next blog with Rob Barrow we are going to focus on the issues of growing a team.
Rob Barrow spent his entire career in systems software and, having worked in the area of compilers and operating systems, founded his own company in the ‘80s which rapidly became totally focused on the Internet. Rob’s company wrote the original software that ‘glued’ most desktop systems to the Internet, and went on to deliver the de facto internet filtering software on a world-wide basis. Having IPO’d in the late ‘90s, the company was acquired by the key Californian competitor for $250m in a cash deal in the early 2000s.
For the past decade, Rob and his wife Pam have focused on the charitable domain, having set up their own family charitable foundation in 2003. Nowadays, Pam is a Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society, and they are joint Patrons of the National Trust and Arthritis Research UK; Rob is also chair of East Cheshire Hospice, a trustee of the Cheshire Community Foundation and founder of C4C (Congleton for Congleton) which is where his company’s UK R&D team were located. He is also a Deputy Lieutenant of Cheshire.