Spend a couple of hours climbing uphill and you can gaze at the valley below with a real sense of achievement. Then you look up and realise that the peak is still there, waiting to be tackled.
That’s the story of the digital revolution. In the space of 20 years, it’s transformed the world around us, moving from whistling modems serving up static web pages to streaming HD video and buy-on-the-fly.
Whichever way you look at it, this is a revolution that has enabled us to live our lives better, faster, cheaper.
Yet less than half the world is connected properly. And new generations of technology will shift the speed needle way up the clock. The summit is still way above us.
Dan Cobley has been marching up the digital mountain since the 1990s, making some significant ascents along the way.
He’d already had a stint with an online pioneer in San Francisco by the time he landed in Nottingham, splitting his time between London and NG1 while running the European marketing team for Capital One.
“Then I got a call from a recruiter about joining what was then still a relatively small, but very exciting business,” he says. “It was called Google.”
This was quite a journey. As online traffic sky-rocketed, Cobley’s marketing team in the UK division of the search leader grew and grew. He became its head, then MD of Google in the UK: In charge of $5 billion of annual revenues.
That’s one of the most dynamic roles in one of the most dynamic businesses on the planet. Yet in the end Cobley walked away from it.
Why? “I wanted to get much closer to those early stage, very nimble organisations that I enjoyed most earlier in my career.
“Google is a huge organisation now and while it remains innovative and nimble for a business of its size, the pace of progress in a 20-person start-up will always be faster.”
In tracking back to that start-up environment, Cobley has renewed his relationship with Nottingham.
He is now a partner in Blenheim Chalcot, the London-based venture builder currently investing £40m in businesses and a technology hub in Wollaton Street known as Accelerate Places Nottingham.
Accelerate’s arrival is, he says, a significant moment for Nottingham.
On the one hand, it’s concrete evidence of what happens when a city becomes a hotspot for part of the knowledge economy.
Though Blenheim Chalcot’s centre of gravity is London, some of its key people came together at Capital One in Nottingham and went on to launch, build and sell the ground-breaking debt solutions and services business TDX Group in the city.
They’re part of a heavyweight financial technology and data analytics cluster in Nottingham which also includes Experian.
On the other, their combined expertise in building new ventures in the digital space means that Accelerate Places Nottingham has an unfair advantage.
It isn’t just a place where scale-up businesses can come together in funky surroundings; it’s a place which has access to people who’ve already done it several times over.
Cobley explains: “One of the things that helps start-ups get off the ground is being housed in a dedicated space during their formative period where they’re sharing the lift, the coffee machine and the canteen with people going through the same challenges.
“Here, they are also surrounded by central Accelerate services and people who are experts in their field – recruiting, company structuring, IT services, legal matters, marketing.
“If you are a start-up, every time you need external input you have not just the costs but the transaction costs of picking the right partners – and the risks of picking the wrong ones. Accelerate overcomes that and gives you low-cost, low-friction services at a critical early stage. And you have the benefit of being with like-minded people you can learn from.”
It’s a recipe that is evidently working. A few months on from launch, the building has attracted serial tech entrepreneurs like Adam Bird and Phil Randall, scale-up businesses, and even a tech company from London looking to grow in a less hassled location.
So there is a lot to learn from in Accelerate, Blenheim Chalcot and people like Cobley – a whole disruptive digital technology playbook.
Blenheim Chalcot’s origins lie in Net Decisions, a business founded by Manoj Badale and Charles Mindenhall.
They were later joined by Mark Onyett (one of the founders of TDX Group), with Cobley coming on board after his departure from Google. Today, the four lead the business, take the investment decisions, dive into its companies.
Blenheim Chalcot’s track record in the digital space is formidable: 40 businesses across IT services and software platforms, financial services, education and media, a combined turnover of £300m, employment for more than 3,000 people. All of which adds up to that unfair advantage.
“A big player in fintech would be unlikely to do a deep partnership with a start-up because it might run out of money or doesn’t have experienced senior leadership,” says Cobley. “That’s exactly what Blenheim Chalcot gives its portfolio companies.
“For any technology business, talent is the difference between you and the company that’s not as good. We have an in-house talent team that helps ventures source the best people.
“Going back to that unfair advantage, we’re able to attract people to work in an exciting, fast-paced start-up environment where there is also some level of security from an employer who will be around for a while.
“There are very few places where you can get both of those things under one roof but this is one.”
Cobley speaks with conviction because, like his fellow partners, he’s been there, done that…and continues to do so.
On top of their own track records, Blenheim Chalcot’s partners sit on the boards of the businesses they invest in, both as active directors and big picture strategic advisers.
“We all know that the majority of new jobs are created by smaller businesses and BC businesses have created 3,000 since it was started,” says Cobley.
“Eco systems and approaches that improve the chances of small businesses succeeding and growing will be critical to our ability to generate growth and employment nationally.”
That Accelerate started in London (where its concept began in Hammersmith) and also takes in Manchester won’t surprise most observers of the tech industry. But Nottingham?
“One of the key things we need to build successful businesses is great talent,” Cobley explains.
“By choosing Nottingham, we’re recognising that it’s there at the junior level coming out of the universities and at a more senior level with people who have gained experience in top financial services companies like TDX, Capital One and Experian, who are all headquartered here in Nottingham.”
Nottingham’s history in financial services data analytics tracks back to the early 1970s, when a computer programmer by the name of John Peace was part of a team which could see the potential in combining the customer databases kept by a retail conglomerate to generate behavioural information which would illuminate credit decisions.
That business later became Experian, with Sir John Peace its CEO and later chairman.
As the relative decline of manufacturing shows, just because an industry has historic links with a location doesn’t guarantee it a future there.
Cobley says he has seen “massive improvements” in Nottingham since he first came here, but urges its leaders to get out and tell the story of its formula for success in knowledge industries.
He says: “To successfully build any kind of business – particularly tech – you need a balance of great people and a good quality of life. You need high-quality, reliable, fast network access and the quality of the output from your education institutions is key.
“If all these things are true of multiple locations you can be swayed by the welcome you get from city officials – whether that’s a smooth journey through planning or financial support.
“There is also real value in creating the sense of a cluster: when you’ve got foundations of strength in something like fintech you’re likely to get a better return from doing that than you are by starting something completely new.”
He adds: “While you should not trade on being cheap, Nottingham offers people the opportunity to be part of a vibrant tech scene but enjoy a much better quality of life, even if you’re not earning quite as much.
“This is the story that Nottingham needs to tell to the folks squeezed by high cost office space, housing and transport in London.”
Dan Cobley’s digital career
Having studied physics at Oxford, Dan Cobley initially went into oil exploration with energy technology giant Schlumberger. But it wasn’t for him, and after a masters degree in manufacturing management he went to work for the strategy consulting business Monitor.
From there, he went into marketing, first with Pepsi and then with Walkers Crisps. By this point, he’d come to realise that the online revolution was going to be transformational.
“There was just such a buzz around it and with my physics and engineering background it was obvious to me that digital technology would only get faster and cheaper and more capable,” he says.
“It was going to be able to solve problems and reach people in efficient, targeted and engaging ways that had not been possible before.”
Not everyone saw that transformation coming, among them businesses invested heavily in conventional marketing channels. At Walkers, his efforts to get them to ramp up an online presence foundered.
“The response was probably typical of a big company, I guess. Their line was that people didn’t buy crisps online, which was true at the time.
“But people didn’t buy crisps on telly, either, yet millions was being spent on communicating through telly…at a time when the data told us that customers were spending increasing amounts of time online.”
Today, that transformation has happened and is still unfolding at increasing speed.
“The speed of connectivity is going to get another order of magnitude faster and for almost any business that it will make a huge difference.
“Look at the cost of hardware that connects stuff. There are five billion connected devices out there right now and there will be 50 billion by the end of the decade.
“Within the next 10 years anything that costs more than £20 will have some sort of connectivity. Everything on a rack in a shop will have an RFID tag and a trackable lifecycle. Our homes will be scannable.”
Dan Cobley on Google
“When I joined Google it had massive ambitions to change the world. Its philosophy was to start with what consumers needed to make their lives easier, to make information about their lives more accessible, and then figure out the business complications afterwards.
“It was great to be part of a company that was so customer-centric.
“They also focused on two other things more relentlessly than I have ever seen anywhere – hiring the best and smartest people, and continually asking why things can’t be better, faster, smarter.
“Its founders [Larry Page and Sergey Brin] are very inspiring people, quite shy and understated in some ways, and just focused on how things can be 10 times better than they are now.
“One of the things that helps Google innovate is that the conventional mindset of something being a failure is replaced by a mindset that says it is an expensive test which taught us something. As long as you can take away some valuable learning it’s not a failure.”