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20 December 2018

The Dark Side of Entrepreneurship in a Digitally Disrupted World



Reading Time: 2 minutes

One of the clear consequences of digital disruption is the rapid pace of change in the tech industry. New ideas emerge, are explored, and transformed in weeks. New companies are born, scale rapidly, and morph into existing commercial entities. This has many positive aspects…but also creates some huge pressures. The case of Autonomy’s purchase by HP is an interesting lens through which to see this struggle.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-46397367

Lauded as perhaps the UK’s finest digital technology success story, Autonomy was bought by HP for more than $10B. Within a few months, however, the deal became seen as a major disaster for HP and it began backing away from the valuation it had placed on them. It has since turned into a legal nightmare.

I won’t even try to comment on the specifics of the Autonomy situation (plenty of commentary on-line for you to read). But this story brings to mind my own experiences of over 20 years in the tech industry. I have been bought and sold many times. From Texas Instruments to Sterling Software. From Sterling Software to CA. From Catapulse to Rational Software Corporation. And from Rational to IBM. And these are just the ones I can remember. I moved house 12 times in less than 15 years. The business (and personal) pressures involved in that journey were immense. The quarterly revenue targets, pipeline generation, territory coverage, end of year P&L margins, investor briefings, urgent cost cutting. These are the usual day-to-day concerns for all businesses. But it feels very different when the line of sight in a digitally-driven technology field is so limited, and you must constantly ask questions about what you sell, who buys it, and who you compete against. Remember that Intel claim that as much as 90% of the revenues they generate in a financial year come from products they didn’t even have in the market at the start of that year.

But there is another layer that is often forgotten. The entrepreneurial business pressures mean that while you need to look forward, you are also constantly looking over your shoulder to see who is about to buy you, who you will buy, how you will make yourself attractive to a potential suitor, etc. I remember in one case we spent fully 6 months doing almost nothing except preparing ourselves to look as attractive as possible to a much larger organization so they would acquire us before we ran out of revenue runway. I won’t list all the activities this involved (!) but it consumed a lot of our energy, and I would argue that it produced little in concrete value. Regardless, it was an essential part of the entrepreneurial journey, and represents a significant part of what you see happening in Silicon Valley, Shoreditch, Tel Aviv, and many other of the so-called “engine rooms of innovation”. This will inevitably have its dark side.

This is a pressure that only increases as more and more investment money pours into the digital tech world. Remember the old joke….why do Venture Capital investors walk into a room backwards? They always want to keep an eye on the exit!