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A Techie in the Land of the Lounge Lizards

written by Steve Barlow, Impulse Mentor

I was fascinated by electronics and software when I was a teenager, and the only thing I wanted to do was design and build hobby projects. While studying for my A levels in the sixth form at school, I designed my own computer using a 6502, (a popular 8-bit microprocessor at the time), for which I bought a BASIC interpreter on cassette tape from what was then a small company in Seattle called Microsoft Corporation. I put in my “10,000 hours” early. I was shy and narrowly focused, completely hopeless at achieving anything on the telephone and business was the last thing I was interested in. I was a geek before the term was invented.

Wind forward through a student apprenticeship at Marconi Radar Systems and an engineering degree at Emmanuel College and I was approached to leave the backwaters of Marconi and join Cambridge Consultants. It was a daunting prospect because everyone was so articulate and business savvy/aware.

Working at a consultancy meant that I was able to work on a wide variety of design projects in many different industries. Although the backdrop was more professional than for hobby development, the technical challenges were often very similar and I had a lot of fun on a wide range of industrial and consumer product developments.

Step by step alongside the engineering work, I began to absorb a range of business skills, learning how to manage a project, how to talk with customers, how to communicate clearly and to not be afraid of the telephone, how to construct a narrative to explain complex issues, and how to occasionally be a show man to pitch what we had done in the best light. I also progressively learnt how to delegate to others, to technically lead others, to write proposals and to negotiate.

I came across a lot of daft ideas and started to be able to see which ones had a chance and which ones didn’t. There was the classic mad inventor who had invented a perpetual motion machine who you came to recognise straight away. But there were a lot of very sensible ideas too. Hopefully we helped some of those along.

It was a long slow process, but over 15 years, I had learnt in a practical way by being immersed in the Cambridge Consultants environment, what made a good idea and how a successful technology business should work. Indeed, the consultancy experience has been pivotal in the success of many successful start-ups in the Cambridge area, with many founders having a period at one of the consultancies on their CV.

It was now 1999 and the dot-com boom was in full swing. I was leading a project for the mobile operator Orange, who wanted to create the first mobile videophone. This was a technically difficult project and as we worked on the project, it was clear to Robert Swann (who was working on the project with me) and myself, that there were huge opportunities from adding cameras to phones and also that the integrated circuits that were needed to make a phone support multimedia currently didn’t exist.

What should a mid-sized corporation do with a business opportunity and some people who have learnt over a career with them how to take it forward?

Cambridge Consultants’ solution was to send Robert and me on an entrepreneurship course at the Judge Institute, a forerunner of the Impulse course run now at the Maxwell Centre.

Their idea was that we could create a venture-capital backed spin-out where they would hold an equity stake. It was the same approach that they had taken with CSR a year earlier. Whilst their approach was a spin-out, the same arguments would hold for a spin-in where an entrepreneurial team forms a new business unit or where a company wants to make an existing business unit more entrepreneurial or market focused.

The course was a one-week intensive course. It hit us exactly on resonance. There were four things that it provided – a perfect kit for forming a VC-backed business:

  1. Talks from existing entrepreneurs, each telling their own story, which gave us the confidence not to be daunted and that “we could do this too”

  2. A crash course in market research, defining a business proposition, the structure of a company, financial spreadsheets, building a team and pitching for investment

  3. Support during the week to write a business plan

  4. Networking and introductions to all the people you need to know to get started – industry experts, accountants, lawyers, head-hunters, marketing specialists, local VCs etc.

During the course, we were extremely fortunate to be introduced to John Read, an industry expert who had been a senior manager at Texas Instruments, who became a Non-Exec on our board. He had an immense range of contacts and opened doors to semiconductor fabs, suppliers, reps and talent. On one occasion, we needed an FPGA (an electronic component) that had only just been released, to prototype our design and within a day he had the Chairman of Xilinx arranging to courier it to us.

We won first prize in the pitching session at the end of the course and went on to found Alphamosaic Ltd. The company grew from 6 people to about 45 people in three exciting and challenging years. We developed pioneering multimedia integrated circuits that were used by our lead customers: Samsung in their early Smartphones, Nokia in their imaging phones and Apple in their video iPod. In total we raised £20M in funding, eventually creating a successful exit for our investors by selling the company to Broadcom Corporation in 2004 for $123M.

I have since co-founded a new company, Argon Design Ltd, a bootstrapped electronics and software design consultancy, now 26 people, and completely different to the rocket-fuelled Alphamosaic. One thing that we’ve retained from my Cambridge Consultants days, is that as well as developing our employees’ engineering experience, we aim to pass on business and project management skills to our technology geeks. We often refer to ourselves as breeding entrepreneurs.

As well as mentoring interns and work experience students at Argon, I’m also one of the mentors on the Impulse programme. I really like Impulse because it embodies all the things I needed when starting Alphamosaic. It’s rewarding to help people with energy and a good idea, to develop and focus that idea and get it to a point where it can become a business. The two-module structure of Impulse gives more time to explore directions and allows you to build a strong bond with your mentees and help them over an extended period.

I’m biased, but I firmly believe programmes like Impulse are the best way for corporates to explore a new business idea and to develop a team of entrepreneurs to pursue/ execute/ deliver it, whether as a separate start-up or within the existing company.

October 2018, written by Steve Barlow


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