Portfolio chair Howard Bell talks to Rachel Bridge at Drax about curiosity, the power of technology and the battle for top talent
If you want to get excited about the prospects for investing in entrepreneurial businesses in London, Howard Bell is the man to talk to.
Having spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley, he can see many parallels between what has happened there and what is happening over here. And he thinks that it is a fantastic moment right now for entrepreneurs and the private equity investors who back them.
He says: “It is a unique time in London, both in terms of the willingness of entrepreneurs, the availability of capital, and the genuinely disruptive ideas. Of course there are headwinds and everyone is very nervous about Brexit, but there is a lot of momentum here. We have some of the sharpest minds and a wealth of great ideas and there are opportunities to create really large scale and world beating businesses.”
Howard studied Physics at university but on graduating became a software developer for a bank, writing code for real time trading systems. Director roles in technology-based businesses followed, including Barclaycard, Just-Giving, PayPal and Content Technologies, a cyber technology firm which was backed by 3i and sold in a trade sale for £1 billion.
He says: “I was always fascinated with what technology could do and bring about. I had that curiosity as to how things work.”
His first chair position was with education business Firefly and he currently holds four chair roles, one of which is private equity backed and two of which are VC backed. He is also an advisor with Octopus Ventures, helping portfolio companies maximise their performance and advising on investment decisions.
Howard often finds himself drawing on his experiences of having worked for a range of technology businesses at different stages of evolution. He says: “It has helped enormously having different experiences to draw on - in many cases I have seen situations before. I understand different business models, understand how to get the most out of digital technology and have seen what works and what doesn’t work. That is very valuable. It gives me real confidence when advising a CEO against pitfalls in the road.”
Howard says that one of the biggest challenges for ambitious companies is securing the talent they need in order to grow.
He says: “Companies are having to fight really hard to attract and keep the top technical talent because it is a very competitive market. That is a good thing for individuals because they can walk into jobs and make their mark but it is tougher for companies who need to provide the right environment and have a sharper strategy in order to attract the best people.”
Creating a workforce which has the right digital skills is particularly important, he says: “All the changes that digital brings about require specialist skills and those skills are changing all the time. Artificial intelligence and data science weren’t in the vocabulary five years ago and yet now they are becoming must-have skills.”
He adds: “A business cannot leverage the next technology tools that the industry is bringing about unless it has got the smartest engineers, product managers and designers who understand how to work with business teams and marketing teams. It still seems to be tough to find really great chief product officers and product managers who have worked on a number of digital ventures.”
Howard’s dream is to see more truly global brands emerge from the UK. He says: “We have a lot of businesses here where founders of great, innovative organisations exit at a relatively early stage. There is nothing wrong with that but we don’t have many ventures that go as far as PayPal, Facebook or Spotify and become globally famous."
"I would love to see more world beating brands created here because we have the talent and the investors who are increasingly prepared to go the full way and create world beating companies. That is what we should all be focused on next. That will create jobs, it will make London and the UK more affluent and it will help economically and put us back to where we should be as a real pioneer in technology-enabled business.”
Drax sector lead: Nick Harlock
Director, Chair Network
Tel: 0203 949 9559