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Glynn Jones

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British Entrepreneurs Must Be Bolder

Posted: 23/01/2013 12:04

The BBC's new series about invention (The Genius of Invention, Thursday 24 January at 9pm BBC2) is yet another chance for us to revel in our inventive past. Once again we'll be reminded of the Victorians and our modern characteristic to invent and failure to commercialise.

Facebook's announcement last week to establish a new search engine to take on Google was very bold. Facebook is everywhere and they appear invincible. The smokescreen story about the release of the long rumoured 'Facebook Phone' must have amused Facebook HQ and highlights to the rest of us how self-assured they are in the market.

To consumers and tech entrepreneurs, companies like Facebook, Apple and Google who seem to have such a huge presence in everyday life seem unchallengeable. With the occasional one-off success, our technology industry has been blinded by the bright lights coming across the Atlantic. It stuns me that our tech sector is so focused on service delivery and lacks the confidence our American friends have for building global products. As the BBC will show, we have a long history of invention so why don't we get on with it?

Before the 2010 General Election, David Cameron famously asked the question, "Why is there no British Google?" I'm not a fierce patriot but it does seem odd that very few of us really are prepared to 'have a go'.

Perhaps two things prevent daring British entrepreneurs from progressing. Among the banking community the consensus is that British investors don't take risks. They tend to plan for every investment to succeed and therefore take too much time making ambitious entrepreneurs jump through hoops to gain investment and by the time all that jumping is finished, the entrepreneur has either given up or has paired the ambition down to make it safer. US investors on the whole plan portfolios for a mix of success and failure. It works for them.

Secondly, for some reason, British consumers are totally oblivious to the import of technology brands. We're a long way from the 'Buy British' campaigns of the 60s and 80s, when consumers did think about these issues. I'm not suggesting the government launches a campaign like this but it tells us something about the admirable ability of companies like Apple, Google and Amazon to be able to put entire nations into a trance; a trance so effective that consumers haven't shed a single red, white and blue tear for UK firms like HMV.

It's time for us Brits to act on our inventive nature and get to grips with generating our own trance. We've got to take a leaf out of the books of Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page and dare to build really big companies to take the giants on.

The last 40 years tell us time and time again that it can be done. When I created my first technology start-up in the 90s the Internet had just arrived, Microsoft dominated and Bill Gates was everywhere. Microsoft famously had beaten another invincible; they outmanoeuvred big blue IBM in the 80s and 10 years later we were all mesmerised.

Again in 1998, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, built Google from a few PCs in a garage. Now, Google's annual revenues are around $40billion. Microsoft's billions haven't succeeded in shifting Google dominance in search technology.

History repeats itself.

Facebook's story was of course told in film; another driven entrepreneur willing to take on the established giants. This time is has been Google's turn to play catch-up.

At some point Facebook will find themselves locked into a failing strategy, challenged by a newcomer just as Microsoft and Google have been challenged before them. Nobody is invincible and British entrepreneurs and investors should be open to the idea that we could produce that challenger.

 

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