Agents of Change
Creating powerful relationships that aim to transform Europe into a software superpower
with Phill Robinson, Founder and Chair, Boardwave
In this episode of Agents of Change, we’re joined by Phill Robinson, Founder and Chair of Boardwave, to discuss the European software industry, his career journey and reasons for setting up Boardwave. Phill is a successful software entrepreneur who has worked in the software industry for many years, and during this time he has helped US businesses establish a foothold and grow the European presence. Today, he is encouraging the European community to be more successful and created Boardwave – an exclusive network connecting European software leaders, founders, CEOs, chairs, Independent NEDs and their Investors.
Hi, everyone, Clive Armitage, CEO and co-founder of Agent3. I’m here on the latest Agents of Change with someone I’ve known for an awful long time, Phill Robinson who in his latest venture is the founder and chair of Boardwave, a network that’s been set up to really drive European software development and innovation, and to encourage that industry to be ever more successful. So I’m going to talk to Phill about that today. As I said, I’ve known for an awful long time, I’m not going to do justice to his CV. I’m going to let him do that. But Phill, I’m going to pass to you. You’ve been in the industry a long time. Maybe you can just tell us a bit about your background and then why you founded Boardwave and what you want to achieve with it.
Sure, Clive. Thanks for inviting me and reminding me how long we’ve known each other, which is I’m afraid, an awful long time. I’ve been in the software industry since the mid 1980s and I guess my journey has had two phases. The first phase was helping American software companies get started in Europe. So I was in the early days of Oracle. I was actually a programmer for a while in Silicon Valley and then came back to the UK. And then I worked for a company called CyBase and Siebel, then subsequently Salesforce and then I went back to Silicon Valley, and this is of course for 15 years to be their CMO and then lived there for a few years and came back to the UK. So this was all about helping US businesses establish a foothold and grow the European presence, and subsequently went to head office and as a CMO role.
And then the second half was saying to myself, well, actually I think I’ve learned quite a lot about software companies now. Maybe I could run one, I’ll be a CEO. And I actually was a CEO three, three and a half times over the last 15 or so years, combination with a role at a company called Exact in the Netherlands, which we sold to KKR backend of 2018, ’19. And I came back to the UK with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. So I have some health issues. And so I came back to spend time with my family and sort of retire. But over the last couple of years through the end of the pandemic, we were reflecting on the arc of the European software industry and its journey as it’s developed, if you like, and asking the question of ourselves, and a question I feel we’ve been asking for a really long time, which is why do we not build as many global leading software companies and brands in Europe as we do in the US?
Why couldn’t we be a leading force in Europe and in the UK in terms of innovation and technology, and lead the world as a powerful force for good and a powerful industry for Europe? And I guess the question hasn’t changed, but maybe the answers have changed a little bit over the years. Today, we’ve got quite a vibrant startup into scale up phase of software companies coming through in the UK, based on some innovation or stimulus supported by the government since 2011. So there’s quite a number of software companies coming through that have got the power to change the world and do really good things, but there’s very, very few leading companies. So if you read the stats, I think as of last year, there were 36 in the top 100 companies by value in the US with software or software enabled businesses. In Europe, it’s 7 out of 100, which is way behind. In the UK, it’s just one now. So there were three and now two of them have been taken over. So there’s just one, which is Sage, which is a poor state of affairs.
So we’ve done a good job at the beginning of the journey of supporting and nurturing founders, but how do we help them get along the journey to finish the mission? And that’s what Boardwave was set up to do. So when we’re asking this question of ourselves about why we’re not more successful, one answer used to be access to capital was a problem. People would invest in California and Silicon Valley startups before the Europeans. Today, that’s not the case. Access to capital is available. There’s available capital through a venture capital in PAE, more than we need to build the great software companies of the world in Europe. The second question was around community. So in California, as you know, you spent time there as well, it’s 40 miles long. Everybody’s sort of knows everybody else. They go to the same gyms and go to the same restaurants and similar schools, or the kids go to the same schools. And so as a consequence of this community, everybody sort of is helpful to each other and they share their ideas and they riff off of each other, and they talk to one another in social settings about their businesses setting up.
And it’s a nurturing ground for new businesses to come through and then pull them all the way through their journey to the end of their mission as a global company. And we don’t have that in Europe. We have as much expertise as they do, for sure, but it’s highly fragmented and highly disparate across Europe, fragmented by culture, language, distance, but also by scale. It’s really difficult to get access to the talent of the major companies or the big, the more senior people in the industry for someone that’s starting. Or get access to the experience of other peers across the European community. So that nurturing ground that they have, a community they have in California we don’t have in Europe. And that’s one of the reasons to start up Boardwave. And the third reason is risk appetite. So Californian startup CEOs have got a higher appetite for risk and therefore are prepared to go further on the journey before stopping.
So in a sense, we created Boardwave last March and thanks for being so supportive over that journey because you’ve really helped us a lot. But which is trying to create a community platform for building community in Europe to allow European software leaders, CEOs and founders, to talk to each other, share best practice, share their ideas, share their knowledge and experience so that they can help one another build this next generation of software company together. And so we’ve built a community already of 650 CEOs and founders across Europe and it’s growing rapidly each month that are helping each other, mentoring each other, supporting each other through the platform and through the programs that we’ve been running since we started. And I think that there’s a consequence of that as we grow, our ambition is to help solve the other two problems which is risk appetite and access to capital.
So today we have 25 investors, early stage VCs through mid-stage through private equity investors that are supporting the program financially. And we therefore provide access to that capital, to all the people that are members who are founders and CEOs of software companies, to start to begin to solve the problem of access to capital and removing the friction from them getting access to those people in a senior position in those companies. And the third is the risk appetite. So if you are a successful software company in Europe, you might get to 20, 30, 40 million of revenue, begin to have some success in scaling the business. Undoubtedly, someone will come along and make an offer for the business, which will be probably a very attractive valuation, might be a US software company trying to get a better position in Europe.
And nine times out of 10, the founder in Europe will go, you know what? I’ve been doing this 10 years, it’s been a hard journey. I can pay off the mortgage, put the kids through school and university, buy a new car, go on holiday and we’ll just do something else. And they will do that, because they’ve got a lower appetite for risk than the Californians who will say, “Actually, I’m going to continue the mission.” And that’s because the guy in Europe is standing all on his own somewhere in one country or another, building his company on his own without peers around him to compare and benchmark himself to, or peers around him that have gone on the journey and gone to the next stage of the journey and the mission.
So he’s sitting alone without anybody to boost his confidence about the fact that he can actually get this mission he started and finish it and build a global company. And so we want to surround him with a talent that will give him the confidence to continue. Whereas if you’re in Silicon Valley driving down the Highway 101, you’ve got Facebook and Google and Twitter and Oracle and Salesforce and Workday and all these great companies. 30, 40 million of AR is not success
You will have the confidence to continue.
I think that last point is so true. I think Rory Cellan-Jones is on your board, isn’t he? And I remember having a conversation with him when he just took over the tech at the BBC in the late ’90s about this very challenge. And he identified it then, that was over 20 years ago as access to capital, access to talent and risk appetite. Now I think the first two, as you said, we’ve probably taken care of them or we’re taking care of them. The latter one, it’s got to be a barrier to growth if too many of our great startups just basically gets gobbled up too early in their growth journey.
And it has to be down to the fact that when you’re in the valley, you’re surrounded by the companies that have made it to that size and they’re inspirations to you. But you don’t get that when you’re on the M4 and you don’t get that when you’re driving out of Berlin Airport or in Paris. And so there aren’t those visions where you can say, I can get to that size. And it’s probably why it explains we’ve got 7 out of 100 of the largest software companies in the world, only in Europe. It should be much more than that.
It should be much more than that. And I think that Boardwave’s trying to solve that problem. So if you join Boardwave as a software leader, we’ll surround you with Jennifer Nandes, who’s CEO of Workday or Leo, who built SAP, or Garnett who built Salesforce in Europe. A number of our patrons and committee members and other members in different countries, all with great experience and have built these businesses either themselves like Leo, or for the Americans like Steve. And you can actually sit alongside them and spend time with them and perhaps be inspired to say, “Actually, you know what? It can be done. It is possible to do this.” So and-
The thing I’ve noticed about Boardwave, Phil, I’ve been part of it is, what’s really refreshing, and I’d encourage anyone listening to this who are not part to try and get involved if they can, is people genuinely giving their time for free to support the growth of the industry. Networking comes with inherent value. But everyone I spoke to was there to say, how can I give back? How can I support you? How can I help you grow your business? Because if we grow the sector, it’s good for everyone.
Yeah, totally. Right. And I think this is about, there’s an ESG component to this for people that’s supporting it, which actually this is about supporting a community and growing it for its own benefit, not for your own personal needs and giving something back on an individual level. So when people join, so say the 650 leaders that have joined so far, we ask if you’ll be a mentor to somebody else and pledge time to the program, your own time to spend with them. And 300 of 650 people are mentors. Now you can say, “Glass half empty, why don’t the other 350 do it?” But actually, 300 people that are in senior leadership positions in European software companies are prepared to spend time, their own time for free with other people helping them on their journey. That’s amazing.
Well, you’ve got to remember also that you’ve got a number of people who are starting their journey and want to learn. They’re not in a position yet to mentor others because they’re learning themselves. That’s why they join the community.
So no matter where you are on your journey from startup to multinational, anybody that’s in Boardwave as a member can be helped and supported by somebody on the step above them in the ladder or on their journey. And it can help other people on the step below. And that’s sort of the ethos of the community, which is why I think you get this feeling that everyone’s there for the greater good and wanting to help each other.
That’s brilliant. Phill, I’ve been inspired since I’ve been involved in Boardwave. Thanks for including me. We’re going to get the message out ever more widely and hopefully more people will join. People watching this will see the Boardwave address at the bottom of the video. So if you’re interested, please click. But today, thanks for your time. Thanks for doing what you’re doing for the European software industry and long may it continue to thrive.