Sheffield-born entrepreneur and founder of WANdisco David Richards was always cut out for life in Silicon Valley. But jointly headquartering his company in the UK and the US means he has the best of both worlds
Nestled on the plush sofa in his west London hotel room, David Richards, the CEO of WANdisco, clutches a near-empty takeaway coffee cup. The consumption of its caffeinated contents is the only nod to his hectic schedule: since stepping off a plane a couple of hours ago he’s already conducted an interview ahead of our meeting. The journey from San Francisco isn’t a short one – though he’s well-used to the commute these days.
Living in Silicon Valley with regular trips back to the UK to visit WANdisco’s Sheffield and Belfast offices, Richards lives a transatlantic life. But winding up in California was no accident. “I always wanted to move overseas. That sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it?” he muses.
Growing up in 1970s Sheffield, Richards was faced with the grim reality of the stagnating steel industry. “Sheffield didn’t make the transition from steel to something else and really suffered as a result,” he explains.
His family’s identity, like so many others’, was deeply entrenched in the steel industry. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him had all run steel companies. While he would ultimately follow in their entrepreneurial footsteps, he had set his sights beyond the furnaces and forges of the steel city.
“They had it so much better in the US than we did in the UK in the 1970s. I suppose I was quite jealous of the booming economy in the US: they had all the gadgets, huge houses, huge cars, huge refrigerators. Huge everything,” he admits.
And so the seed was sown. As Richards continued his education and became a young adult, his ambition to live on foreign shores never faltered. “Choosing a career and a career path that would take me in a provincial direction was not really on the cards,” he adds.
Having completed his A-levels at Tapton School, Sheffield, Richards decided he didn’t want to go to university. “I couldn’t really see the point in doing it,” he says, “I went to work at a bank, which was absolutely abysmal. I wasn’t cut out for anything like that.” With his tail between his legs, he returned to school to seek the counsel of Dave Jackson, his former head of sixth form. Jackson has form as a career coach: he also inspired Seb Coe to pursue athletics.
“I walked into his office and he said, ‘you hate this don’t you?’ I said, ‘yes’. He told me to go and do computing. He said I was naturally cut out for it, that there was a huge shortage of people in computing and that he thought I’d enjoy it,” Richards recalls. “And that was it. That was the moment I got into this.”
After graduating from the University of Huddersfield, Richards plumped to work at a start-up over one of the multi-nationals. “I wanted to go and work at a start-up because I’d read all about things that were happening in the US. Microsoft and Bill Gates were just coming into prominence.”
An SAP consultant role at Druid Systems, a ten-person company in Surrey, provided Richards with exactly the kind of experience he’d been lusting after – within a year the fast-growth company had floated on the London Stock Exchange.
Richards stayed for two years, before deciding to go it alone. “I figured I could do this myself and set up my own company,” he explains. “That’s the first and last time I’ve ever worked for anybody.”
Whilst he was enjoying his computing career in the UK, Richards continued to draw comparisons between the UK’s fledgling tech start-up scene and the tectonic disruption in Silicon Valley. In 1998, after a year of running his consulting firm, Richards and his wife, Jane, decided to make the leap across the pond.
“I remember going to pick up a newspaper and reading about the Yahoo! IPO. There were so many things happening in the US that were not happening in the UK. The tech revolution was beginning and it was all in Silicon Valley and I just had to go there,” says Richards.
Before long, Richards was hacking an idea for a new business that would internet-enable SAP systems and enterprise systems, to enable them to do things like online auctions. Commonplace now, this was cutting-edge technology in 1999 when internet commerce was still in its formative years. “We raised $25m for Insevo with just a slide deck. They were crazy times,” said Richards.
“Every single one of our acquaintances and friends were doing the same thing. There was so much capital flying into start-ups at that time, many of which the VCs knew weren’t going to make it but it didn’t matter because the ones that did were going to be huge,” he continues.
But venture cash comes at a price, says Richards. “It could and should have been acquired for a lot more but the venture guys that were in the business really interfered too much. That was the last time I’d raise venture capital.”
The core team from Insevo immediately started a new business called Librados (Spanish for ‘the freed man’). “We were like wild animals,” he laughs. “It was amazing. We were just signing deals so quickly it was incredible. The business was acquired by a company called Netmanage in less than 12 months and we all did supremely well out of it,” he recounts.
Just a few months later, Richards was at a drinks party when an unusual character caught his eye. “I was introduced to Dr Yeturu Aahlad at this cocktail party. He’s this 6ft 4 Indian guy, with inordinately long legs, who was wearing what I rudely described as hot pants and a t-shirt from a trade show. Nobody else was dressed like that in the room,” says Richards, adding: “of course, he’s a genius.”
Dr Aahlad had spent the previous five years solving a problem to do with active data replication – in other words, how to replicate data so it’s always available to whomever in an organisation needs it, wherever they are in the world, without any downtime. This leads to better collaboration.
Having founded the company, WANdisco, on the same premise that they didn’t want to take venture money, Richards, Aahlad and co had to build great, fuss-free products that required minimal support. “We grew much more slowly than we probably would have if we’d have raised venture capital because we couldn’t hire sales people,” the entrepreneur explains.
As the company eventually became more cash-intensive, the leadership team decided to IPO the business. “We listed in June 2012 on the AIM market of the London Stock Exchange. We did that because I knew all about the London market. My friends in the US hadn’t a clue what we were doing,” he laughs.
In the two years since, the business has undergone massive transformation, pivoting into the big data marketplace, helping companies search through vast amounts of data quickly and easily. WANdisco may not be the only business to change direction thanks to the big data revolution, enthuses Richards. “The world is about to see many businesses pivot from what their classic business might be to realising that the most important asset they have is data. The ability to store, curate, manage and then query that data, has significant economic value.”
Some of the biggest companies in the world have already moved into this space. “I would actually say that Google isn’t really a search engine company; it’s a big data company. Facebook is not a social media company; it’s a big data company. Data is the new natural resource,” he adds.
WANdisco’s impressive roll-call of customers speaks for itself: Nokia, Cisco and Apple are all users of its software and it recently signed a deal with British Gas to replace the utility firm’s old database system. And in March the company announced it would be working with University of California’s Irvine Health (UCI Health) hospital, that hopes to use its technology to drastically cut the number deaths caused by medical error – a bigger killer in the US than AIDS, breast cancer and car accidents.
Whilst there is a global appetite for its wares, the US continues to dominate: 80% of WANdisco’s business comes from American companies. And just as its customers are geographically dispersed, so too are the company’s staff. Roughly half of the 175-strong workforce are in Silicon Valley, with the other half being split between WANdisco’s Sheffield and Belfast offices. Why Sheffield? “It’s very difficult to hire lots of java programmers in Silicon Valley,” he explains. “They cost a lot and there are companies like Google and Facebook who have significant presence in the Bay area.”
“We looked at the UK to see if we could make it work having a programming resource in the UK – not just a support centre but actually making products. And we could. We’ve proved that it’s possible. And you don’t necessarily need to do it in Silicon Roundabout. There are other parts of the UK, believe it or not, where tech is happening,” he exclaims.
It’s clear the Silicon Roundabout and Tech City tags irritate Richards. “The UK’s got this amazing knack of being so provincial and wanting to have a cluster of companies in this tiny, miniscule area,” he says. “The UK is small. It’s smaller than California. We need to think about it as a whole because there are things happening all over the place – we don’t have to always have things in just one location.”
It’s clear for Richards where the blame for this parochial mindset lies. “Politicians love soundbites because they’re simple and can communicate with a lot of people very quickly,” he says. And he’s just as critical of their actions as their rhetoric. “They’re throwing up a bunch of offices and showing images of people on space hoppers wearing flip-flops, because that’s what software developers look like, right?”
What really prevents us from competing with the likes of Silicon Valley? The limitations set in place by an archaic education system, argues Richards. “Look at Israel. 25 years ago, it was an arable economy but it gradually transformed itself into a tech economy with more billion dollar exits per capita than any other place in the world. How did they do it? They didn’t do it by saying, ‘everybody: out from the fields into those offices, start writing computer programs and create a billion-dollar company. That’s absolutely the most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard in my life. What they did is overhaul the education system.”
Given his acerbic criticism of the British education system, it’s no surprise that Richards and his wife have chosen to educate son Harry, 15, and daughter, Poppy, 14, in the US. California living seems to suit the entire family. Richards recently built the family a house – and vineyard – in Diablo, Contra Costa County. Not having much of a penchant for fast cars or yachts, this is the physical manifestation of Richards’ success.
But an entrepreneur has to be willing to speculate to accumulate, warns Richards. “The commitment isn’t just taking the risk that you might not get paid for three months, the commitment is for an elongated period of time. And it’s not just me as an entrepreneur taking that risk: it’s about my wife, my kids’ education. You have to be prepared to drag your family through it with you,” he says.
Entrepreneurialism certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted, he adds. “I refuse to give advice to people that say, ‘I’m going to wait and see if this works and then I’ll give up my job’. I won’t even talk to them. The people who are really prepared to make that commitment, to take a risk that might impair them economically; that’s my true definition of an entrepreneur.”