One loss, seven draws and an outright victory: an interview with Russell Buckley

 

“In 25 years, mobiles today will be the size of a red blood cell and one billion times more powerful. 3D printing will mean that consumers own the means of producing anything they want. Other technologies ranging from energy to clean water will mean affluence for everyone on the planet. Everyone will have a life envied by the richest monarch of the 19 century,” explains Russell Buckley, the founder and ex-MD of the now Google-owned AdMob.

"Businesses need to change decision making to accommodate this now or perish."

The tech entrepreneur sold AdMob to Google for $750million in June 2010 and now runs an early-stage venture fund in between running a blog and hanging out at the ‘Singularity University’ with American author and futurist Raymond Kurzweil. We spoke to him about his background, emerging technologies and advice for budding entrepreneurs.

You’re a leading expert on mobile marketing but probably most famous for your pivotal role in AdMob in Europe. What is the secret behind AdMob’s success?

“I think timing is always the most important factor of a company’s success. Two years earlier and AdMob would never have got off the ground, two years later; there would have been too much competition. We did, however, have a brilliant team at all levels of the company, led by the talented Omar Hamoui – I’m still watching with interest to see what he does next - as well as some great investors, ranging from angels through to world class VCs, which makes a real difference.”

In your view, what is the future direction for mobile advertising?

“I think the fundamental shift that’s going to happen is that the mobile will become the most powerful marketing medium in history – so far, anyway. Most of us will be using the mobile as our primary digital device in the next five years and ad budgets will follow the eyeballs.

“That said, I think we’re only at the beginning of mobile advertising and new formats are going to emerge that engage the consumer and genuinely add value to their day-to-day lives. The mobile will find deals that they want, share information of interest and amuse or entertain them within a mobile ad format.

“I’m still very interested in where location will go next – no one has cracked this yet, but I’m still a believer.”

The concept of 'the singularity' has long been an interest of yours and you recently graduated from the executive program at the Singularity University, founded by futurists Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis. Could you explain this idea?

“It’s a hugely complex idea to explain in a few sentences. But 'the singularity' is normally used to describe the result of artificial intelligence development in the coming years. As computers get exponentially more powerful, they will dwarf human intellect and eventually we’ll either merge with them to create a super-race or they’ll take over. Ray Kurzweil suggests that this will be around 2045.”

Based on this, what are the business and social implications of a future marked by the exponential growth of information technologies?

“The basic implication is that change is going to happen increasingly and bafflingly fast. Fortunes will be won and lost in quicker and quicker cycles – we’ve already seen Instagram sell for $1 billion, two years after launch – and this will be the first of many.

“In 25 years, mobiles today will be the size of a red blood cell and one billion times more powerful. 3D printing will mean that consumers own the means of producing anything they want. Other technologies ranging from energy to clean water will mean affluence for everyone on the planet. Everyone will have a life envied by the richest monarch of the 19th century.

“To summarise; great change and businesses need to change decision making to accommodate this or perish.”

What do you think is going to happen in the next decade or so in technology, with the caveat that it would have been difficult to predict the iPad or the rise of the smartphone?

“I’ve already written above about 3D printing that is potentially hugely disruptive but another one is the rapid increase in life extension over the next 20 years. The combination of real-time health monitoring and personalised drug treatment based on DNA is going to be transformative.

“I still however worry about humankind’s ability to soil our own nest and possibly be the only species that we know about to self-destruct. Nuclear war is always a danger, but there’s also a possibility of another health epidemic, which may or may not be invented by humans in the first place. And there might be the odd comet that knocks us off course. So it’s not all gold at the end of the rainbow – there’s no room for complacency.”

Given your view of the landscape of the future what would your advice be for young people that are interested in starting their own business?

“Just get going. There’s never been a better time to start a business from availability of funding to access to a vast array of technology tools at minimal or no cost.

“At the same time, there is going to be disruption in many established professions, ranging from teaching to banking to military to legal – you’re much better off being in charge of your own destiny.”

And how did you start?

“I started pretty young, with my first social entrepreneurial venture at about 10 – organising jumble/garage sales at my house for local charities. I also had a market stall as my holiday job at university, selling household goods. But I was about 30 when I launched my own first company.

“In all I’ve been involved in about 10 start-ups over the years as founder or among first employees. In a sporting analogy, this has resulted in one loss, seven draws and one outright victory – with one still too early to say. This is roughly the proportion of successes and failures that VCs experience.”

What did you study at university and, given what you now know, what would you study if you were starting university again?

“I studied business (well, managerial and administrative sciences at Aston University, to be precise).

“Today, I'm not actually sure I'd go to university at all actually; some of my thinking around this is on my blog. In exponential times, I'm not sure what a university can teach that might be relevant. And what they could teach, they don't, as they're a long way behind where they should be too.

“I suspect that joining a start-up right out of school might be a more valuable way to go. And in some cases, people might even start their own business from the start - but that's not for the majority, I think.”

Is there anything you would have done differently in terms of your career?

“I think I was actually in the right place at the right time, which always helps! But, actually, no I wouldn’t have done anything differently as I would have ended up in a different place and that wouldn’t necessarily be a better one.”

What are the key attributes of what makes a ‘good’ entrepreneur?

“That’s a tough question, especially as I think that timing is a major factor in success and even the best people get that wrong from time-to-time.

“I’d say the fundamental characteristics are the ability to gather and lead a team that share your vision, the ability to stick with it when things get tough (which they will) and to be passionate about learning. Every scenario, good and bad, is a learning opportunity.

“You also need the ability to overcome the fear of starting in the first place – actually, this is illusory for most people. What exactly have you got to lose and look at what you could win in terms of learning, experience, quality of life and that’s without a potential financial upside.”

Russell Buckley is the founder and ex-MD of the now Google-owned AdMob. Read his blog here or follow him on Twitter.

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