Success? It's the name of his game

It's a long way from a Scarborough council estate to Silicon Valley - and a long way from Seventies liberalism to hi-tech capitalism. But Keith Teare has made both journeys. Melanie McGrath talks to him about why he had to leave Britain to pursue a dream

Like most successful entrepreneurs, Keith Teare is an obsessive. "I have to be consumed by something to be interested in it," he says.

It is a quality that has come in handy in Teare's present job as CEO and co-founder of Centraal Corporation, a Silicon Valley start-up valued at $10m even before the launch of its product, a URL-shortcutting software called Real Name System that is widely touted as the next big hi-tech thing.

Teare isn't your typical Valley boy. For starters, he grew up on a council estate in Scarborough in the early Sixties, the only child of six to go to university (Kent, to study political science and sociology). Afterwards he set up the London-based Workers against Racism and rallied against British involvement in Northern Ireland. He published a book critical of the treatment of immigrants in Britain under a pseudonym, so that the National Front wouldn't get him.

Working for a small publishing company in 1981, he was put in charge of the computing system. He had never encountered a computer before. "I got completely obssessed," he says.

By 1986 he had translated his obsession into a database and software support company, which he set up with his brother Brian.

The Internet service provider Easynet came later, in 1994, shortly followed by the chairmanship of Cyberia, the Internet cafes.

Centraal grew from Teare's experiences with Easynet in France. While trying to give Easynet subscribers access to Minitel through the Web, Teare hit on the idea of simplifying the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) system to allow users to type in a simple keyword which would link them to the appropriate Web site without the need for complicated dots and slashes. He e-mailed his idea to Jean Marie Hullot, who at the time was the chief technical officer of Steve Jobs' NeXT Software. "Hullot e-mailed me back with one word, `Wow,' and I took that to mean that he wanted in," Teare recalls.

By the end of 1996, Teare and Hullot were ready to launch Centraal, using some $3m of private finance, much of which Teare raised from the sale of his stake in Easynet. In spite of the fact that Hullot insisted on remaining in Paris, Teare chose to locate his start-up in Silicon Valley.

"The Valley is still the centre of technology and it's difficult to forge relationships from outside the area. It makes a huge difference to be able to pop down the road and actually meet people," Teare explains.

As someone dedicated to the Net, he is aware of the irony of attaching such importance to face-to-face contact. But proximity to the action is not the only reason Teare chose to leave the UK.

"I knew we were going to need venture capital. In the US, only five in a hundred venture capital projects get finance, but in the UK it's more like one in a hundred."

His complaints about UK venture capitalists - that they are conservative and risk-averse - are familiar enough, but if he had to single out one obstacle to hi-tech start-ups in the UK it would be the financial sector's "lack of vision".

"Centraal got a valuation rate of $10m and we raised several million dollars of venture capital. That was without having customers or revenue coming in."

He contrasts this with the fate of Cyberia Online, in which he retains financial interest, which had trouble finding funding despite first-year revenues of pounds 500,000.

"In America, risk is part of the system. If it went away, the US economy would collapse because funds coming into the system would have nowhere to go."

Even when they do fund start-ups, British venture capitalists expect a bigger pound of flesh than their American cousins. "In the US, they only want 30 per cent - not 50 per cent - of the company, and there's a lot less interference," Teare says.

But it is Silicon Valley's business culture in general that Teare finds so amenable. "In England," he says (after a year in the US, Teare already refers to England when he means the UK), "people really are trying to do you in. In America, if people can see an advantage for themselves in your technology, they really don't try to steal it. There's much less dirty business."

From his roots in Seventies liberalism, Teare has already made the obligatory Silicon Valley conversion to libertarianism. "There's a really strong sense of openness and freedom here. In the UK, the feeling is that Americans are taught to seem open for marketing reasons, but actually, I think it's hard for Americans to be dishonest."

It is a partial and perhaps naive view, but Teare's enthusiasm is understandable. Right now he has good reason to be in love with Silicon Valley and America. He is, after all, sitting on the next big thing.

When I point out that the US remains highly bureaucratic, Teare counters that the endless tax and regulatory systems can indeed be irritating but "eventually you realise that's part of the openness".

Even litigation isn't the demon we think it is. "Actually it's a more open way of deciding things than quango-isation," observes Teare, and he has a point.

In its first year of operations, Centraal has tangled with its competitors over trademarks and patents, but in true Silicon Valley spirit, Centraal's lawyers, the Valley-based Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich and Rosati, agreed to defer payment of their fees until such time as the company had banked some venture capital. "For a year they did all our legal work, from incorporation documents to share certificates."

Would it have been possible to have set up Centraal in the UK? "Definitely not."

Aside from what Teare calls (in pure Valley-speak) "a compelling technical story" and an injection of venture capital (in Centraal's case, both from the Silicon Valley venture company Draper Fisher and IdeaLab Capital Partners), the secret to a successful Silicon start-up is - to borrow a phrase - in the wrist action. "The keys are energy, aggression and openness," reckons Teare. "Out here there's no such thing as a successful small company. You start small but you're expected to get big quickly." Failure, if it comes, is swift.

Teare has only ever planned for success. Of the Real Name System, which allows Web users to reach sites simply by typing in company names, brand names, even marketing slogans in European or Asian character sets, he says: "Our idea is so necessary and so obvious that almost nothing can stop it."

Within 24 hours of the launch of Centraal's Real Name System at this year's Spring Internet World in Los Angeles, Teare's start-up had registered 500 Real Name addresses from companies keen to provide potential customers with the simplest possible navigational trail to their commercial Web sites. Since then, Centraal has picked up such blue-chip clients as Disney, Microsoft and Volkswagen, and it is looking to incorporate its Real Name System software into Web search engines, directory listings and, eventually, as an add-on to browsers. Centraal charges a flat annual fee for each "real name" registered and takes a royalty per hit on sites with heavy traffic. It is a compellingly simple idea, and with Centraal anticipating sales of $10m in 1998, rising to $120m in 2000, it is easy to see why Keith Teare is currently Valley's brightest-glowing golden boy.

Teare admits that his transition from social reformer to hi-tech entrepreneur seems a little peculiar, but traces it to "the strong feeling that social change comes from technical change". There is something oddly abstract about making your fortune selling names, and Teare admits to being fascinated by abstractions, not least of which is money. But while there is no doubting that money drives Teare's ambition - he is at the moment busy buying a sweet piece of California real estate - you get the feeling that money is not his primary preoccupation. Teare still has a political scientist's interest in putting abstractions into a social context.

"Something in my education does come through in the way I see technology. I do what I do not through being technical but through being aware of human beings," he says. And whatever Keith Teare does, he does to the max. "I still get a strong sense of uplift from creating things that change the way people behave."

In spite of his careful manner and measured tone, Keith Teare is not a modest man, though he likes to project himself as such. At one point during our conversation, I ask him if vision is necessary to a start-up (Teare doesn't think it is, although it helps), and he goes off on some riff about not liking it when people call him a visionary, without seeming to notice that I hadn't.

Still, you get none of the usual Silicon Valley snake oil with Keith Teare. The CEO of the Valley's next big thing is, after all, a Yorkshireman.

What he does have is the kind of rock-steady self-assurance and focus that has enabled him to turn his obsessions into a series of benign and successful business ventures. And if he is perhaps being a little disingenuous when he claims to feel "prouder about writing a book on racism in Britain than I do about [Centraal]", any kind of perspective, however attenuated, is still rare indeed in the epicentre of hi-tech hyperbole that is Silicon Valley.

"I go after things," says the son of a Scarborough council estate. "The world will pass you by unless you go looking for it."

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible