Category Archives: Business

Cambridge ‘best Uni in the world’

Trinity Hall - CambridgeHuzzah for my alma mater in the global round-up, in which Cambridge pips Harvard to the post for the second year running.

Love the Guardian’s take on it: looks at the list, compares the fee-going universities with those that traditionally don’t and drives a political point home.

Whilst I’m massively in favour of free education I think the practical transition of Universities from loss-making organisations to profitable ones will need to see a significant change in culture, or the recruitment of a whole range of entrepreneurial souls to help them do it.

The vast majority of academics and university staff that I’ve met have absolutely no interest in turning their organisation into a profit-centre – their concerns are academia, education, and the pursuit of knowledge (and some internal political wrangling). Beyond applying for grants, most academics (outside business schools, natch) seem to have virtually none of the inclination or capabilities needed to turn their institutions into functioning businesses.

You’ll have experienced it, if you think back to your University days. Ham-fisted experiments with events, renting out student rooms, etc – to make better use of the facilities. Some limited sponsorship efforts. I’m sure places like Cambridge have proper business development departments, although I suspect most of their efforts are focussed on alumni appeals programmes (those horrible, disingenuous phone calls from your old college asking how you are doing before they ask you for some cash).

A friend of ours is working on helping Universities with their events strategies in particular, but there’s a lot more to it than that and we can only hope that Universities make the investment they need to in the right kinds of people to reverse the decay of Britain’s further education system.

Of course, if you charge to rename the colleges at the world’s number one university, that’s good for a few quid.

Yamtastic – investigating Yammer

yammericonI persuaded some colleagues to try Yammer a few years ago and it didn’t really go anywhere. The enterprise collaboration tool that works like the corporate lovechild of Facebook and Twitter, however, seems to have grown up; a more polished Facebook-esque interface, excellent private group collaboration and other features lends it great potential – which I’m only just beginning to scratch, a week in to a new wave of testing.

The real challenge is in driving adoption and the strategy this time around is to define where in the business it’d be useful before we roll it out. I’m exploring lots of different options, as well as working up a dev wish list of the nice people at Yammer (it’s not perfect; what tool is?). Oddly, having told people that its just in testing and not to worry about signing up, I’ve got half the company on there – which is a significantly greater impact than I had when I was trying to get a group of testers together three years go…

A few specific bugbears are beginning to emerge – "open" groups cannot be made private (I can understand why the reverse might be true, but no this), there’s no Tweetdeck integration, the Chrome extension is OK but made by a third party and requires you use a browser to actually view updates, and there’s limited built-in collaboration- you have to spin out to Google Apps or some other third party cloud collaboration tool… And it probably needs a bit more M’sft integrations (vcards, calendar invites).

Still, definitely having fun yammering away. See where it goes.

Apple’s iPad profits

Ipad safari browserAmused to see a bunch of articles comparing Apple’s cash pile to the US cash reserves (spoiler: Apple has more money). More interesting to me is the fact that in its last earnings, Apple had nearly matched Google’s overall quarterly profits with a single product – the iPad (I can’t find the post that crunched the numbers on this but doesn’t seem unlikely).

That is astonishing.

I feel less bad about being an Apple convert. This also made me feel better – as despite now being an Apple fan of sorts, I don’t have a wristwatch made of an iPod Touch, and I never edited a magazine about the rival operating system

Awesome maths geekery

Pi pieI loved this story. Google bid random mathematical numbers for the Nortel patents, including Pi billion dollars. Fantastic. Trying to imagine Dr Evil demanding that in a blackmail demand, and I can’t quite do it – so it must be true that Google isn’t evil…

At the auction for Nortel Networks’ wireless patents this week, Google’s bids were mystifying, such as $1,902,160,540 and $2,614,972,128.

Math whizzes might recognize these numbers as Brun’s constant and Meissel-Mertens constant, but it puzzled many of the people involved in the auction, according to three people with direct knowledge of the situation on Friday.

Blackberry continues to do well in business because it is a terrible phone

BlackBerry vs iPhoneRIM/Blackberry’s days are numbered, IMHO. As a mobile platform, it is lagging painfully behind its rivals and increasingly only die-hard fans, luddites and bankers remain loyal – and the latter generally have little choice.

There are a few reasons it succeeds in the enterprise; its excellent push-email platform and its high level of security. However, one reason why it does well is because it’s a terrible, terrible phone.

Say what?

Well, as anyone that’s ever looked into it will know, managing a business contract with a mobile operator comes with its moments of extreme tedium. One of these is dealing with the monthly billing – where people with disproportionately high monthly bills need to account for their calling patterns, going through a gargantuan itemised list of calls, expensing some and paying for others. Few of the mobile operators are doing such fantastic deals on inclusive minutes at an enterprise level that businesses can afford to ignore high levels of usage by even a small proportion of the user base.

This is one of the reasons why some businesses will hesitate on the iPhone. People will be more likely to use it as a primary device, giving up their personal mobile, and this will drive billing and administration costs up. There’s already a higher initial cost and this would be compounded. Blackberries are so hopelessly clumsy for anything but email they tend to be used as a back-up phone if at all, so this problem is far less significant.

And businesses can’t just subsidise individual mobile tariffs. For my employer to contribute to a mobile tariff I pay personally would constitute a “benefit in kind”, they would have to give it to me gross of tax – so probably a 30-40% premium on the mobile tariff. Which doesn’t make any sense at all.

So – mobile operators, if you want to make the premium on iPhones by selling them to business (as Apple seems to want you to), then launch some more affordable ‘all you can eat’ or flexi tariffs that will cope with rogue users. And RIM? I have no advice for you. I’ve no idea who will acquire you when your fortunes flounder for the last time, but can’t help but think that’s where things are headed…

iPhones for Enterprise


I was talking to a friend about Smartphones in the enterprise. He works for a large public company with a strong heritage of working in the public sector, and therefore an understandably high level of concern about IT security. It was for this reason that – despite the mediocrity of the Blackberry platform against contemporary competition and the plunging market share of RIM – he wanted his organization to standardize on Blackberry.

However, for many people accustomed to more… sophisticated Smartphone platforms, Blackberry seems arcane, counter-intuitive and sometimes an actual hindrance to productivity.  That’s not to say that iPhone, with its Apps, games, ease of use et al won’t cause its own distractions but at least people will be able to effectively browse the web!

So it’s with some satisfaction that I note that Apple is upping the game for its enterprise offer – there’s already Exchange controls on iOS devices (pins enforced etc) and remote wipes and remote management is possible (as is location tracking, natch), so enterprise deployment of Apps is an obvious next step in supporting group policy on App deployments within an enterprise environment. That this holds for non-Appstore apps as well is truly remarkable and a very grown up (and atypical) way for Apple to be dealing with the situation. Now, if Apple could just sort out offline email…

I’m going to write further on why Blackberry’s days in the enterprise are numbered and some thoughts on what mobile operators need to do to create more compelling tariffs for the enterprise for iPhone, as have a few other thoughts bubbling under on this.

NoTW, responsible journalism and business journalism in China

Frontline ClubI’m not really writing about NoTW and NewsInt here, but rather using the case of their recent downfall to segway to a different story – that of Public Business Media, my friend Damian’s NFP charity aimed at supporting investigative journalism. I’ve written about it before.

I’m sure we’d all like to believe that what happened at NoTW was the result of a few, rogue, irresponsible journalists calling out for a no-stones-unturned investigation, no matter the cost. Practical experience tells me that most people are simply ignorant of the techniques and tools of their trade, and therefore aren’t so much lacking a moral compass as they are unable to read one.

Public Business Media is hoping to fund an open approach to investigative journalism that will see the transparent publication of data and the education and upskilling of journalists to do this job. It’s a job that needs to be done to ensure we have a responsible, educated voice in the media looking into the thousands of business issues that touch our lives on a daily basis.

The charity’s hosting a fundraiser and public launch tomorrow night. Go along, you know you want to.

Nice guys finish last. And also first – the Apprentice 2011 finale

I wasn’t expecting that (ref finale of BBC Apprentice 2011). But then, I wasn’t expecting Helen to go off the rails with a totally nonsensical business model on the basis of absolutely no previous experience. For Susan to be stupidly naive, borderline illegal – well, that was predictable. For Jim to be 100% bullshit – again, predictable.

That the single least successful person in the process to make it to the final eventually became the winner kind of nullifies the entire purpose of the process, no? Tom’s 11th hour revelation on how he got his previous product into Walmart must have had a big impact on Alan hiring him for his guts as he’d been as meek as Susan most of the way through the process. Lord Sugar clearly had, however, a soft spot for Tom the whole way through the project. And we liked him too, and were chuffed for him when he won through.

But perhaps the process was never about being the best business person – after all, Helen was unquestionably the best at doing "business" in the process – but perhaps it was about not contributing to stupidity and making your presence felt on collaborative group projects to demonstrate your role within the teams. As the roles filtered down at the end – Alan had a choice between the inventor, the operations person, the sales and marketing douche and the sparky, driven nit-wit with no clear discernible skills. Left with that choice, as a successful, excellent operations person yourself – there really is only one choice, irrespective of their performance in the final task.

Tom and Helen both did badly on the final task. Tom’s business plan was riddled with errors, didn’t mention his major margin product in it, he didn’t fight the case for workplace need before Lord Sugar (every large business’ health & safety requirements is having people fill out workplace health assessments these days), and was generally an affable twit. Helen’s idea was chronically bad; a re-hashed version of a concierge service wrapped in some nonsense about lifting Britain through recovery whilst really being contingent on a ‘recovered’ Britain in which idiots with too much money and too little time would outsource administrative trivia to an army of virtual assistants. My single biggest question about the Apprentice – were they allowed to use the Internet / computers? Surely a spreadsheet and a web-browse could have wheedled out 90% of the idiocy encountered across the course of the series.

The Apprentice process is exactly what it claims to be; it’s about finding the best business partner for Lord Sugar. It’s not about finding the best business person or entrepreneur in Britain – Lord Sugar already has one of those – himself.

For us? Adieu to Apprentice 2011 – it was fantastically entertaining television – and here’s to the next thing.

Entrepreneurial will, pt 2

Damian took issue with my perspective on entrepreneurialism as a thing for people with a more aggressive appetite for risk; that is to say, that a gambler (or someone with a ‘gambling personality’) is more likely to have a desire to (if not aptitude) for starting up a business.

His (reasonable) point was that – unless you’re fronting the capital yourself – you’re not gambling with your own money and therefore the ‘gamble’ is damage limited.

I think, however, that this misses a  number of strands of my view on the issue and – at the risk of stretching the metaphor – doesn’t take into account all the characteristics of a gambler. Specifically:

  1. The consequences of failure – reputationally speaking – are sufficiently high that whose capital you are using is largely irrelevant – true for gamblers and for entrepreneurs, although probably moreso for the latter.
  2. The passion required is high for both. You have to have absolute certainty that not only is this what you want to do, but you can make money from it. I have about 60 of poker losses this year; my friend Matt – a much better poker player than I – is about 600 up.  Neither of us are showing great ROI despite our enjoyment for the game.
  3. The commitment required to both is huge. Pro poker players are up all hours on Pokerstars and other online gambling networks, playing multiple tables and trying to grow their capital. I love my job – but I do also love that I can put it down when I go home, most of the time.

So I maintain my view that gamblers make the best entrepreneurs, although happy to be argued with further.

Successful entrepreneurs are the best gamblers in Britain

In this week’s Apprentice Helen faced Lord Sugar for the first time, and was exposed to his CV inspecting wrath. He made the point to the successful executive assistant that you don’t just wake up one morning and decide you’re a businessman. You have an idea, you have drive, you have passion, and you do it.

I’ve had a few conversations lately about what it means to have entrepreneurial spirit, in this day and age. Like Lord Sugar, I don’t think being clever, inventive, creative or even organised and hardworking are the core of it. Ultimately, to want to be an entrepreneur, the most valuable personality trait is that of a gambler.

You have to roll the dice.

That’s what it boils down to. Numeracy is important, creativity, a sense of strategy, the market and marketing, leadership skills – all key. But one of the reasons I’ve not started a business myself is the same reason that I rarely push all-in with deuces under the gun, even under punishing blind conditions – I don’t like the stress associated with that level of risk. And indeed, British entrepreneurial culture is far less forgiving of failed gambles in the business realm than other countries (like the US).

So is Britain’s ‘growth agenda’, in no small part founded on the idea that we’ll have a nation of burgeoning entrepreneurs, fundamentally flawed? I’m not sure. It wouldn’t surprise me, though, if the idea of taking a risk on a business proposition is less scary to the average Brit. We seem to have a culture of at least (semi-) calculated risk and we do see a lot of start-ups emerging around the UK.

What do you think?