Roger Trapp: Becoming an entrepreneur does not mean getting out of managing
Tuesday 11 September 2007
To judge from the remarks attributed to him in the press statement announcing his appointment, one would have thought Peter Biddle was an over-eager fresh-faced graduate embarking on his first job. "I'm incredibly stoked to be moving to London to work in this promising new space, " he is quoted as saying of his move from a senior position at Microsoft to become vice president of development at Trampoline Systems, a little-known London-based enterprise software developer. "The people here at Trampoline are super smart and I feel like I really fit in. We're in a brand new field of computing that I think will be as important to our customers five years from now as security has been for the past five. It's awesome to be making the future a better place again."
Ignore for a moment the West Coast enthusiasm that is still regarded by many on this side of the Atlantic as suspect and leave aside any qualms about whether computer companies are really making the future better. What comes across is his love of a challenge, a thrill to be in at the start of something. It is this attitude that separates the real innovators from the corporate plodders.
As Biddle pointed out in a conversation soon after his arrival in London, he had enjoyed 17 productive years at Microsoft. During this time he started "a couple of core businesses", including leading Bill Gates's company into the DVD market, and was active as "a strategist, innovator and technical communicator, serving both the enterprise and consumer markets". Lately, his work has been in the security field, masterminding and shipping core enterprise security features, including BitLocker drive encryption, in Microsoft Windows.
It sounds like pioneering and exciting stuff. But people like Biddle crave the new and even more exciting and a chat at a conference with Trampoline chief executive Charles Armstrong was enough to whet his appetite. "I was really impressed with how smart and savvy he was," Biddle says of Armstrong. But it was not just the man who attracted Biddle's admiration. "I fully believe that the market Trampoline is in the process of designing and building is going to be worth a billion dollars. Somebody is going to make a ton of money in this space," he says.
The "space" in question is using technology to crack the hurdle confronting "knowledge management" enthusiasts: gaining easy access to all the information that individuals within organisations hold. Essentially, it uses social behaviour to identify "knowledge assets, expertise and relationship networks within an organisation, enhancing productivity and efficiency and bringing archived information to life". The sort of technology that Trampoline is developing will mean that rather than relying on individuals to set down what they know about subjects systems will be able to track e-mails and other social interchanges to establish in which areas employees are expert. "By uniting information with the social behaviour which surrounds it, organisations can empower their employees to find the people and answers they need," it says. Biddle believes this is "just the start". "Think about all the data out there," he says, imagining the possibilities.
In stark contrast to Biddle's experience of business is the story in Typo, a book by David Silverman recently published in the US. Subtitled The Last American Typesetter or How I Lost 4 Million Dollars (An Entrepreneur's Education), it is a tale, quite simply of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Inspired by an older and supposedly experienced businessman and armed with his father's life savings, the author becomes head of a Mid-western typesetting business with the dream of making a fortune. Unfortunately, he is in an industry that is struggling to stay on its feet. Publishers, themselves struggling to make money in the face of competition from new technology, are forcing costs down, while the idea of globalisation in the shape of low-cost services in the Far east is only too apparent.
What really makes this book is the often entertaining picture it paints of the tribulations of trying to run a business. Much of Silverman's time before the catastrophe seems to be spent in meetings that are hijacked by the competing interests of those present. It is no wonder that at least one business school is making it mandatory reading for anyone considering starting their own business.
Governments and other policy makers are right to foster enterprise, but they should not lose sight of the fact that even a so-called entrepreneurial business can easily become bogged down in bureaucracy, jealousies and other less positive aspects of the human condition. Becoming an entrepreneur does not mean getting out of managing, which no amount of technology and vision can stop being a time-consuming and downright perilous business. We are fortunate that, while Silverman lost his business, it did not take his sense of humour with it.
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