It has been a great privilege to be Vice-Provost (Enterprise) at UCL and inevitably as I pack my bags to make the long trip from Gordon Street to the Wellcome Trust on Euston Road, I have been reflecting on the last five years. So much has changed and so much has been achieved by UCL.
It’s California Dreaming for the President of UCL Enterprise Society
2 April 2012
Ahmad Bakhiet knew he was in Silicon Valley when the driver of the cab he was taking to his hotel asked: “What start-up are you working on now?” Ahmad says: “That would never happen in London.”
Ahmad, President of the UCL Enterprise Society – one of the university’s largest free societies, with 2,000 members – is referring to a recent trip stateside, courtesy of Silicon Valley Comes to the UK (SVc2UK), a key annual event organised by angel investor Sherry Coutu and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman in an effort to bring US-style innovation to this side of the pond.
Last November, UCL Enterprise Society won the SVc2UK best university event competition with an aviation-themed evening alluding to Reid Hoffman’s quotation, ‘Jump off a cliff and assemble a plane on the way down’. The prize was five days in San Francisco meeting the world’s leading entrepreneurs, followed by three days in Austin, Texas, attending the legendary South By Southwest (SXSW) conference, which showcases the best emerging technologies.
Ahmad (MSc in Technology Entrepreneurship) was one of nine winners who found themselves, in mid-March, “fully immersed” in the atmosphere of Silicon Valley. He says: “The first thing I noticed is that there is innovation everywhere, not just in board rooms or in staff canteens or around the water cooler. On the street, we saw Google’s self-driving car. There were signs everywhere for Apple’s conference to launch iPad 3. We were held up by the Israeli Prime Minister’s motor cavalcade. When we were invited to one of San Francisco’s famous pancake houses there were investors closing deals over their short stacks with maple syrup!”
The group met with a number of leading venture capitalists such as Greylock Partners, GrowthPoint Technology Partners and SoftTech to understand fundamentals such as what makes a good pitch, how to launch a product and how to go about securing funding, but also to get to grips with ‘intangibles’ such as the huge cultural and lifestyle changes that are happening within the workplace.
Ahmad says: “I was very impressed with the way the workplaces are organised, with free healthy food and drinks available at Google and a large open-plan canteen where new employees are officially welcomed at Eventbrite, with all its 200-plus employees on a giant photo wall. Every effort is made to make the workplace a happy and cohesive one, as it’s vital for a start-up to attract and keep the best employees.”
There were VIP tours to some of the valley’s most high-profile companies including Google, 500 Startups, Postmates, StumbleUpon, Twitter, LinkedIn (where they were hosted by co-founder Allen Blue) and Facebook (where they were hosted by Vice President of Engineering Mike Schroepfer).
When asked what is the biggest difference between the US and the UK when it comes to entrepreneurship, Ahmad answers without hesitation. “It’s the attitude to failure. In the US it’s seen as good to fail. We in the UK are more risk-averse and we often wait too long to enter the game because we overanalyse everything. In the US ‘too late’ is the same as being wrong. In fact many American venture capitalists will not invest in a start-up that hasn’t failed at least once, as they want to know what you will do the next time that happens.”
He adds that the Twitter team told him the company would not have been funded if it was European as it did not have a good revenue model: “it was difficult to monetise and its strategy was not the strongest. However in the valley they really put high value on making an impact on the world and Twitter has certainly done so.”
Following his time in California, Ahmad and his compatriots flew to Texas for the SXSW Interactive Festival (it also hosts well-known film and music festivals). Ahmad says: “The festival is focused on emerging technologies, so it’s a breeding ground for new ideas. There are exciting networking events hosted by industry leaders and hundreds of programmes showcasing the best new websites, video games and start-up ideas.
“Best of all is the opportunity to meet some of the 15,000-plus people attending the conference from all over the world. I found on many occasions I was being pitched-to in case I’d consider joining some cool start-ups!”
Favourite quote: “Data is the new oil.” – DJ Patil, Data Scientist at Greylock Partners and former head of a data team at LinkedIn, where his team created People You May Know.
Best physical environment: Airbnb, a global network of locals who rent out spare rooms to travellers. Ahmad says: “All employees are given a MacBook Air and everything else they need to be as productive as possible. Their offices are designed to replicate the most interesting rooms in cities such as Rome, Paris and Tokyo, as voted by customers. They also have War and Peace rooms, where stressful meetings can be followed by yoga and general chilling-out.”
Most valued lesson: After visiting game development company Zynga, now valued at over $10billion, Ahmad says: “They are advocates of something called lean development. They are constantly feeding data in and out of games, changing the parameters for a subset of their millions of players daily to see what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes this is as simple as making a game more difficult or increasing latency to see if some users stop playing, in which case they know they need to invest more in their infrastructure. This kind of analysis could be used to great effect in a lot of other areas.”