I attended a conference recently where many of the regulators of Europe’s banks, senior EU policy makers, and think tank Directors lined most of the panels. Pretty quickly all questions and discussions led to: how do we create growth? Quantitative easing? More lending? But there’s not demand for it. Capital markets’ union? Political union? Maybe technology has something to do with it? The men on stage were scratching their heads literally and figuratively, unaware it seems that the elephant on stage with them was: Europe’s entrepreneurs.
Across the world, but certainly here in the UK by NESTA twice, it has been proven that growth companies from the young innovative high-growth start-ups. NESTA’s ‘Vital 6%’ study shows that 54% of all new jobs come from the high-growth 6%.
I met Alberto Rodríguez de Lama at a recent Madrid based conference where I was keynoting. As I spoke about how most people are Saturday Night Dinner Party entrepreneurs, talking big on the weekend, but returning to work without any plan of taking the plunge on Monday mornings, he applauded loudly. I mentioned that the role of the financier is to find the entrepreneur; capital follows ideas not the other way around. He smiled and nodded vigorously. When I spoke about near death experiences being followed by breakthrough moments, he again met my eye knowingly from the third row. I learned that he had created Nexium Customer Solutions, a Madrid—based software firm which sold retail tech solutions into firms, acquired by Nielsen in February 2014 when it had 150 employees and $15 m of revenue. He told me that no one thought he would be successful. Madrid wasn’t known for software firms. He didn’t have any venture capital backing. What did he know about retail? People told him to give up repeatedly. Now Alberto is taking his considerable money from the all cash exit and building new businesses, investing in others, and his inner circle at Nexium have all become entrepreneurs themselves, not of the Saturday Night Dinner Party variety. They have tasted start-up success, and their confidence is soaring about what else they can build.
Voila the virtuous circle. Voila the origins of growth. Voila the face of entrepreneurship.
Europe is being redefined by its entrepreneurs right now. There is one version of the future where the Facebooks, Apples, Amazons, and Googles of the world – the digital platforms – take over every industry. In their free time with all of their surpluses, they are putting rockets in the air (Amazon/ Blue Origin), taking drivers out of cars (Google), and putting TVs in the home and watches on the body (Apple). You’d be forgiven for buying that version of the future, because the marketing of it is pretty robust.
There is a second version of the future where their digital baby brothers, the Ubers, AirBnBs and LinkedIns dominate the future. They too are valued in the multiple tens of billions, are organising the economics of their industries, and have profound network effects by providing a platform for peers (individuals) mobilising other peers.
But the question I started asking myself 8 years ago is the question that we all need to ask ourselves, and certainly those policy makers, regulators, and every CEO of every traditional non-tech firm outside of Palo Alto: ‘What happens to the rest of the world?’ (ROW)
Clearly, it can’t be that the future belongs to 25 to 50 companies in Palo Alto, and every other firm goes bust? I get that the technology discontinuity is deep, and creative destructive is a fact. But is there a third version of the future where those non-technology traditional businesses thrive? Can the Empire Strike Back?
Back to the entrepreneur. Back to the Future. Back to Growth.
Entrepreneurs and their start-ups are merely algorithms about how the future will work. Technology start-ups are literally algorithms about new lean infrastructure or means by which digital revenues are created.
In 2015, no venture capitalist is going to give that entrepreneur 50 m £, $, or € to build a route to market (distribution); she/ he is going to expect them to do a partnership deal to get access to customers. The start-up is a car which needs a highway.
The problem is that the best highways to go to market through are the digital platforms, most of whom are based in Palo Alto. So Europe’s tech start-ups take their revenue-generating ability to the platform firms of the US. The platform companies are making super profits due to an inherent network effect at the core of what they do: they are leveraging our data to build value. So between Google, your data, and the advertiser, they have exponential growth. Among Apple, developers, your data, they are growing exponentially.
For the Rest of the World to have a growth story, it must understand the design of why the first and second versions of the future are dominant. And then it must understand and develop its assets.
Europe’s entrepreneurs’ ingenuity whether in science, art, media, industry, financial services, or medicine represent its best potential for a viable and dynamic third version of the future. Healthcare entrepreneurs like Pablo Gravier of Trial Reach are opening up pharma companies to become platforms by structuring all of the data which has been in the clinical trial world. Ed Bussey’s Quill is structuring content for retailers in a more cost-effective way than they could possibly do internally or through an agency. Usman Khan’s Algomi is providing real-time bond information to the parties in the transactions enabling traders.
By engaging with these Digital Enablers, large traditional firms stand a chance to profit from the digital future, not cower in fear. I am not arguing for non-tech traditional firms to be a dumb pipe, but a smart highway. They must provide the most inviting and attractive launch pad for start-ups who are looking for customer bases from which to create digital revenues. They are competing with the US digital platform firms who are ace at this, and they must beat them
I see and hear encouraging signs. Credit Agricole have opened up the data of their customers for start-ups to build with. Santander Chairman Ana Botin talks about 100 million Santander customers through which fintech start-ups can go to market.
There is a profound sense of urgency about this if you care about ROW prosperity.
What we know from Carlotta Perez’s Theory of Disruption Technology is that the arc from disruptive technology to a new common sense is either 60 to 80 years based on whether society embraces the new derivative technologies. These cycles have occurred 5 times over the past 300 years. Wait late and you get a society riven with billionaires who made fortunes when the rest of the population was wringing their hands and scratching their heads looking for growth. Embrace the future early as the new potential innovative start-ups are bubbling up and prosperity rips through society.
It is no longer early. We are wringing our hands and scratching our heads in Europe and elsewhere in the ROW while Silicon Valley has created 50+ new digital platform firms who are imposing their economics on their industries. These platform firms are ensuring that the future ecosystems will also be in Palo Alto.
We urgently need to back the non-Palo Alto-based entrepreneurs who understand the contours of the future of insurance, travel, retail, healthcare, media and banking. These enabling tech firms need to be brought into the companies who are trying to reinvent insurance, travel, retail, healthcare, media and banking – not to be acquired but to help the big boys create Digital P&L’s. By applying the business models that the digital entrepreneurs understand which have consumer data at their core to the customer bases of large companies in the context of a network-orientation to all business, traditional businesses can iterate themselves into digital platforms. This in turn will build ecosystems in Europe and ROW.
This is not easy, but there is no other way. What every successful entrepreneur knows is that they have an insight into consumer behaviour that needs to be verified in the market. The process of doing this is called ‘getting Product/ Market fit’. In the third version of the future where traditional companies are fighting for relevance, and start-ups are looking for a highway, Goliath and David dance awkwardly until they fit the new products with the existing markets of scale. Product / market fit occurs by the cars going down the highway, by the application economy engaging with new platform firms. Volkswagen, BauerMedia, the NHS, Credit Agricole etc will not have the next major insight into profound consumer behaviour in the digital world. But they can have the most consistent and systematic relationship with the entrepreneurs who will.
In not even 5 years time, we will see how the third version of the future plays out. Either more European and ROW entrepreneurs will be persuaded to go to Palo Alto for their funding, go to Palo Alto for their distribution, and then some European VC will sell them to a platform firm in Palo Alto, or…..
The Empire will indeed fight back. Here in Europe we will decide to organise society around the entrepreneur. That will put their creative ingenuity at the heart of solving Europe’s challenges and finding its growth story. Entrepreneurs instinctively know where demand is. Their insights into next generation products, services, applications are fundamentally their observations of latent demand for products, services and applications not yet in the market.
As Machiavelli stated so well: There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. He was speaking about Europe’s entrepreneurs, and they are up to the task. We urgently need to invite them to not board the flights to SFO airport and build the future of Europe.