Interview with a tech entrepreneur
British and 26 years-old. Blimey
TechScape Richard Stubbs speaks at a mile a minute - unusual for an Englishman, I’ve found. He also a self-admitted “tech geek” who’s managed to learn social skills and network through music, hanging out programming and hacking at uni and keeping his finger on the pulse of technology.
And there's another unusual thing about Stubbs - in his case the geek finally gets the girl.
Sitting with two laptops balanced on his knees, two external hard drives on the floor between his legs and his Dell PDA on the table in front of him, he’s a master juggler of high-tech chainsaws.
While he’s installing Fedora on one laptop, he’s furiously surfing the net and showing me different interesting sites, new technology and commenting with insults or praise in equal measure.
This young man is amusing - at first I wasn’t so sure that a complete lack of focus on anything for more than 30 seconds was a good thing, but it turned out to be infectious and liberating.
Richard Stubbs is a fun guy to be around. It’s because he’s so interesting, so interested and so passionate.
He may also represent an example of the most important economic demographic for the future of the UK: the homegrown technology entrepreneur. If the UK churns out more local brainpower like Stubbs, the economic and financial future of the UK within the EU will be bright.
Take Ireland, for example, which turned its economy around from 19.8 per cent unemployment to a surplus of jobs. How? Simple - just ensure there are enough tempting posts for graduates so they don't run off abroad and "brain drain" the country into recession. Provide decent housing and facilities for your tech community and there you have it - economic growth.
And Britain must do the same; with intention and commitment.
Stubbs, of course, has no idea I’m positioning him as Cool Britannia’s future, he’s just rambling on about the coolness of Netcraft and how many of the world’s websites with the least downtime are running on FreeBSD.
So, just what has Stubbs contributed to the UK economy so far? Well, he joined his first board of directors at 19, but more of that later. Here's how the whizz infant got started and eventually became the whizz, er, young man he is now.
When he was six, Stubbs's Dad - who had an accountancy firm in London - brought home the first computer for Richard, an Apple II (he’s very nostalgic about this Apple dinosaur, saying: “I still have it; when I get rich and famous, I’m going to get it reconditioned and put it on display.”) The Apple soon gave way to an IBM PC and Stubbs started saving up to buy a 386. He admits: “I wanted a 486 DX266 - whoa!! - but couldn’t afford it.”
Nonetheless, “The 386 did the trick through school, almost. I liked it because it had a VGA screen.”
An Amstrad 1512 followed, which “ran a GEM desktop which was rather good - GEM Paint was great, I loved the spray can,” Stubbs enthused. In 1996, he progressed to his first laptop, a DEC that ran Windows 3.11, which he also still has.
“Strangely enough,” Stubbs admits, “my best computers were a couple of custom-built jobbies which I made for myself.” From 1993 on, Stubbs was surrounded by a plethora of computer parts remaindered and cannibalized from his numerous machines.
“When I was four years old, my older brother Marcus had a Commodore 64 which using a programming magazine, he and his friend had plugged in a tape deck then typed 'load' and it began playing ‘Row, row, row your boat.’ I was fascinated,” Stubbs recalls.
He continued: “Then I took the very same programming magazine (remember, this is a four-year old), typed out a simple BASIC program from the magazine, typed the ubiquitous ‘run’ and the response told me there was an ‘error in the code.’ The manual suggested I type ‘list’ and as if by magic thousands of lines of code appeared. I was hooked.”
Stubbs remembers seeing the film War Games and being influenced by it tremendously. “I tried to unscrew the telephone (to emulate Matthew Broderick’s modem lines in the movie) just being inquisitive. I also had a massive line printing feeder with a massive sound-proofing box that was fun to keep my toys in. At this point, I’m five or six years old.”
Here, the subject changes to Stubbs’ dyslexia. Of course, dyslexia is no indication of intelligence, so no big deal, I say. For Stubbs however, it is a very big deal. “It’s soul-destroying and totally demoralizing for me,” he stated strongly. “It’s so frustrating to have to have other people constantly proofread what I’ve written,” he barked. “Everyone knows I can’t spell but I find it so annoying. In school they wanted me to type out papers because my handwriting is so atrocious.”
And at school, age 13, Stubbs finally got to make some IT mischief: “My school had Novell Netware and I could just run amok. There was a special debugger which allowed me to get into the console. We gave ourselves extra storage, staff folder access and Super User status.” Wasn’t he afraid of getting caught? “No, we were undetectable; you learn to hide your tracks,” he divulged with an enormous grin, “we’d find students who left the school and use their accounts.”
Speaking of his time studying computers at the College of Arts & Technology in Eastbourne, Stubbs said there were “a bigger and better computer system and a couple of nice-looking girls”, with the emphasis on the girls. He met his best friend there and the mother of his child, and also acted as Treasurer of the Student Union - an excellent opportunity to socialise, get into music and sink a few thousand pints.
But, he admitted, “it was not challenging enough for my mind.”
He moved on to the University of Brighton, where “there was a good atmosphere and really insightful lecturers but I learned nothing. I knew it all about computers. The only thing I learned at Uni was Business. I knew Technology and the next thing was to make money out of it.”
Stubbs didn’t finish university, though he says it bugs him and he intends to finish up someday. “I didn’t finish university because I started making money,” he recalled, “especially in my industry, you don’t necessarily have to have a degree - experience and knowledge is more important.”
“I’d been making websites since 1995,” Stubbs said, “and I saw the dot-coms making money and knew I could do the same.” Stubbs' first business - which didn’t survive the Tech Wreck - was called “English Village” and involved building e-commerce stores for people with things to sell. “It was money for nothing really,” Stubbs says, “these businesses were riding the dot-com wave and when that tanked, well our business did too.”
Stubbs then found himself in an Eastbourne pub with friend Mark Roberts, an Aussie with a business background, discussing politics. The subject shifted through Democracy, on-line voting/polling and how “can we inspire people’s interest in their local councils?”
“People don’t go to or get involved in their local council meetings,” Stubbs explained, “so we came up with a web-casting service for the UK councils which allows residents to get involved; watch council meetings on their mobile phones; go to an internet café; go into archives and watch their councilors and what they said and how they voted.” UK Council Ltd. (http://www.public-i.info/) was born.
What the Stubbs/Roberts' initiative did was to install the cameras, hardware and servers for the council and handle the broadcasting of meetings over the internet. This increased council transparency to the taxpayers, offered a better way to interest citizens, and eliminated the need to disseminate information via expensive printed mailers.
This enterprise was self-funded by Stubbs and Roberts until they successfully raised £1 million from investors.
In 2001, Stubbs left UK Council Ltd., although he remains a significant stockholder. He then worked for a start-up - where he supplied all of the technical and programming acumen with a particular emphasis on networking - and began to mull new possibilities.
He was concentrating on building a very big, interconnected business. He wanted it to provide networking services to customers then also subsume their web apps, bespoke system design and software development for the clients they initially engaged for network services. “This is a heavily open-standards-based business,” Stubbs insisted animatedly.
The Network Factory (www.thenetworkfactory.co.uk) is Stubbs’ new business. This start-up counts amongst its clients the UK’s largest monthly-turnover online mortgage processor for whom they designed a bespoke system and also run all other IT systems. “Everybody says they do ‘bespoke systems’ but at the end of the day, they’ve just installed other people’s products,” Stubbs observed pointedly.
“We design the software, hardware and use best-of-breed technology,” he said with satisfaction.
This kind of passion/enthusiasm is the crucial ingredient in any entrepreneurial enterprise development. Without it, the start-up is doomed. Britain’s entrepreneurs must seize and maintain this motivated maverick mindset in order for this country to build anything even faintly resembling Silicon Valley.
However, to suggest that ultimate success is just a matter of pure energy would be misleading. Stubbs is expecting his first child soon. Until that happy event, he has got to get his cash flow together and scale his business baby quickly. Then, and only then, can he build something robust and sustainable. ®
Bill Robinson has appeared on CNN, PBS, Bloomberg and had his own segment on SKY News commenting on high-tech and marketing issues and has written columns and articles for FORTUNE Small Business, The Financial Times, Marketing Magazine (UK), Forbes.com, The Moscow Times, Cisco Systems iQ Magazine, United Airline's Hemispheres Magazine and Upside Magazine. Bill may be reached at: email@example.com