By Brian Henderson
Global Customer Acquisition business MVF recently entered the PwC sponsored UK Tech awards which aim to shine a light on the stars of the UK technology industry. They were also ranked number one in the Sunday Times Tech Track 100 and were recognised as the fastest growth earnings technology business in Europe by GB Bullhound’s Media Momentum Awards. Brian Henderson leader of our Fast Growth Companies team caught up with Founder and serial entrepreneur Titus Sharpe in North London as he was about to give a presentation to the House of Commons for the “Ready for Business” initiative. We were interested to find out what is behind the company’s outstanding growth over recent years and how his previous experiences have helped him build a successful group of companies today.
Titus thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to meet with us. You have started four businesses now with a core group of your co-founders and friends. What do you think are the challenges or benefits of working with friends?
When I set up the first business I got a lot of friends involved; Jules Hopkinson, Tom Morgan, Simon Venturi and I have been working together for near on 15 years. There is a lot of trust between the management team and there’s a sort of innate nature of knowing what peoples’ strengths and weaknesses are that just occurs naturally. It is great to introduce new skilled people into the company that add different talents and knowledge, and it’s also good to have some variety. At MVF it’s more than just the founders. We have 15 quite senior people who I have worked with at previous start-ups. The major benefit is that they are up and running before you start, you don’t have to spend time establishing all those processes and getting to know each other. It is quite common practice in Silicon Valley to “hunt in packs.” I think it’s a wonderful concept and I will continue to use the same approach through however many businesses I set up in my career. Many people become my friends through work, but if it is the other way round you have to draw boundaries. What happens at work is work. I still want to be your friend on the outside! I’d advise you to draw that line before you start working together.
In your first venture, you set up the social network Oxbridge Life in 1999 (some four years before Facebook). Is there any advice you would give yourself if you could go back and do it all again?
We created a social networking site for Oxford and Cambridge universities and reached about 20,000 people. I realise now that there was no way we could have built something as big as Facebook without large amounts of Venture Capital funding and a great investment of time. We had some funding but it was not very substantial and, though we saw huge growth potential in the business, we didn’t really know what the business model was. If I could give myself some advice then it would be to have faith. In hindsight we should have gone bigger and longer on that one, and if I’d had more faith and a longer term vision who knows what we would have created. We ended up selling to a recruitment company who wanted to access Oxford & Cambridge educated people, but that was a good thing as it gave us the opportunity to go on to fund other things.
UK Companies are often criticised for selling out to big businesses, a trend which it is argued is unlikely to allow us to produce the next Google or Facebook in the UK. What were your drivers for selling one of your later ventures, Approved Index to Reed Elsevier in 2008?
I think as an entrepreneur it’s a great experience to go through a trade sale. Having a reasonable degree of liquidity gives you a lot of strength and opens opportunities in the future. We were four years into our business and were still growing, but if someone walks in the door and wants to buy your business, you owe it to your shareholders to consider it, unless you see heaps of growth potential or it’s way too early.
I got to work in a large corporate environment and it was brilliant. I worked with lots of other Reed businesses and learnt a lot about big on-line B2B businesses, but I decided that the corporate world was not for me and decided to take some time off with the arrival of my first child, but that didn’t last long!
I agree that we haven’t had an uber global tech giant appearing in London, but we’ve had some pretty decent ones all the same. I am really encouraged that there are lots of leading companies gaining significant profile such as Betfair and Moshi Monsters, where the UK is leading the way.
In a move that echoes the founders of Bebo, you recently bought Approved Index back. How does that feel?
From an emotional perspective, it is really nice to have it back as it was my first big trade sale and it enabled me to do a lot of things I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. However from a business perspective it is really exciting as well. I love that brand and it’s nice to have the opportunity to grow it further. Regardless of my personal feelings, strategically and financially it makes sense.
In the Technology space, the ability to scale and grow your company remains key for creating value and gaining recognition. How has MVF achieved such impressive organic growth?
We have focused on sectors with an international outlook and international clients within that. Having a client you can take from the UK, France or Germany and internationalising them has been really great for us. Additional focus on fast growth industry sectors has also been important. For example, the solar industry and international transport and logistics market have both been very good for us.
Looking to the future, 2013 has been a really transformational year for you, but where do you see the business going over the next 5 years?
MVF is going to be a global powerhouse in customer acquisition. We are planning two overseas offices and some new sector launches. When you look historically at our growth we’ve always pretty much achieved what we set out to do year on year and there is no reason this can’t continue. We have long term plans, but strategically we like to adapt to what we’ve learnt as we go along and to pivot each division as necessary.
We are also focusing on a couple of new markets which are really exciting. We’ve just launched movehub.com which is a site to help and support people looking to move abroad. At any one time 16% of the world’s population wants to move country so it’s a huge potential market. I’m very excited about data driven content like this. The best example of an existing company that has built a successful data driven site is TripAdvisor. People use their data to make strategic decisions about holidays and hotels and we want to do exactly the same and provide the same service for people looking to move abroad.
We mentioned the US earlier - what’s your perspective on how the entrepreneurial space in the UK differs from the US?
I think there is definitely more depth to the entrepreneur community over there. I’d say about 10 years ago in the UK there were only a handful of entrepreneurs investing in the sector. I think now there are more people achieving good exits and as a result have deeper pockets to invest in the next generation. We’re still about 10 years behind the US though. I have just invested in a business which was started by someone who used to work with me and I’m currently contemplating another investment, so I’m kind of creating my own ecosystem of start-ups within my sector.
What do you think stops the UK from creating that big iconic tech business?
In the US it’s easier to raise larger sums of funding, but equally investors are quick to pull out if it’s not working. There is a culture of “go big” and “fail fast”. I think that’s lacking a little here in the UK. My advice would be set yourself a deadline and spend as much money as possible trying to achieve things as quickly as you can, but also know when to move on so you don’t waste time.
I think therefore it’s a combination of entrepreneurial ambition and investor ambition. Those two things need to be aligned. We have a good engineering base here and we are starting to get there, but you need to build confidence and building a global powerhouse takes time. In the US they have already done that. They had Atari back in the day and they have had a lot of global success through a whole host of great Tech businesses since.
There is a lot of positive focus on London and the UK as a centre of excellence what is your perception?
There are some pretty meaningful tech centres in Europe; Berlin, Stockholm and Tel Aviv are probably the other most exciting hubs. In the Nordics, the decline of Nokia has sparked a number of entrepreneurs and new companies. Germany has some great media organisations and a pretty good VC infrastructure and tech and engineering is in its DNA. London though, has some clear advantages; it beats New York in terms of the number of languages spoken which is very beneficial for us and I think the history of the Commonwealth is helpful to some extent as it promotes good business links. From an international perspective, London and the UK is a phenomenal place to do business.
MVF is based in Kentish Town, do you think it matters where you are based in London? Shoreditch seems to be getting a lot of attention!
It is very hard to measure serendipity, but occasionally you meet people just by networking in your local area. But I don’t think we have been penalised being in North London. There is a great East London scene, but we get great local resources here and we also get cheaper rents than you do in East London, so maybe it’s been advantageous.
You are off to the Commons later today is there anything that the UK Government could be doing differently to support growing tech businesses?
I think there could be some really interesting policies to promote or support the hiring of young people, whether by means of a grant or through other incentives to support training. I think that demographic is sometimes overlooked but it can add a lot of value and knowledge to businesses or the economy.
In addition, there’s a lot of pressure at the moment on immigration and I worry about that from a business perspective. There’s just not enough British Tech talent around, whereas there’s some phenomenal talent coming from overseas. If the UK wants to maintain its competitive edge when it comes to technology, we’re going to have to hire technologists from overseas to meet our short term needs. Obviously we need to stimulate the development of home grown talent and there is some great progress in that area. But we need more Tech graduates coming out of British schools and universities for sure.
Have you had difficulties recruiting the people you need?
It’s difficult but I think it just takes longer. You can find really good people but there are not vast numbers of them and their skills, particularly in the digital marketing space, are very much in demand which means salaries are going through the roof!
A lot of my clients that are struggling to get the right resources find themselves competing not just with large US businesses that are coming and setting up offices in London, but also with, for example, large retailers who need their own in-house Tech teams to support their e-commerce businesses. Once you find the right people, how do you keep them?
When you think about what people want in their lives, salary is just part of it. It provides comfort and certainty, but I try and create a culture where people have growth potential in what they are doing. There’s a whole lot of other stuff that’s innate to humans as social beings you need to focus on. I like to “Gamify” the work place, making sure there are lots of awards, prizes and milestones for people to meet and be rewarded for. I want the team to be as collegiate as possible and promote more of a family atmosphere at work.
Also being named fastest growing company on Tech Track was phenomenal for us. Everyone can tell their family and friends we were in the Times! It really makes them proud to work for MVF and elevates the company in the minds of their peers.
That’s a really positive note on which to end – thanks again for your time Titus and we look forward to continuing to watch the growth and success of MVF.
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