As published in The Financial Times on July 20th 2012
In the past, successful British entrepreneurs who reached their goal of selling or listing their business would all too often hang up their business boots following years of toiling against red tape, unsupportive capital markets and other obstacles. They would buy an old vicarage in the Cotswolds, or similar country retreat, and devote their time to collecting antiques, perhaps restore a classic car and occasionally dabble in local politics.
In contrast, the received wisdom is that entrepreneurs from San Francisco, Tel Aviv or Shanghai would take the weekend off, before diving into their next venture. Fortunately for Britain, this “vicarage syndrome” appears to be on the wane and a new pattern is emerging.
In the past five years Oxford Capital has seen a dramatic rise in the number of investment opportunities that are led by second or third time entrepreneurs. Second-time entrepreneurs have already made the most common start-up mistakes and usually they have learnt some valuable lessons. This means that the probability of success second time round is increased.
Much has been discussed about Mike Lynch, entrepreneur and founder of Autonomy, one of the UK’s most successful IT companies, and his exit from Hewlett-Packard less than a year after his business was acquired by the US-based computer company. Those close to him note that success has not dimmed his continued entrepreneurial ambitions. The badge of “serial entrepreneur” is one that more of Britain’s top business talent aspire to and this is to be celebrated.
Many successful entrepreneurs dream of selling their business to a major acquirer. All too often though, big company processes stifle their entrepreneurial spirit. There are more conference calls, new managers, more stringent governance and dramatically slower decision making – the very reasons why the entrepreneur may have left the corporate world in the first place.
Is it any wonder that over a quarter of Autonomy’s 2,700 staff have joined Mike Lynch and left the company since its acquisition?
Since its creation in 1996, Autonomy has created many millionaires and nurtured an extraordinary pool of talent. The HP deal will have infused many programmers and managers with the confidence and opportunity to take their own entrepreneurial steps and create new companies.
They are not alone, as there is a growing entrepreneurial talent pool in the UK as the workforce becomes more attuned with entrepreneurship. Companies such as Powderject, ARM Holdings, CSR, British Biotech, Bookham Technology, Oxford Instruments and Betfair have each spawned new generations of entrepreneurs and angel investors who have brought incredible energy to the UK’s technology sector.
Today, the UK ranks closer than ever to its entrepreneurial peers in the US, Israel or China. Entrepreneurs who have succeeded are now much more likely to get stuck into a new business. The web has transformed the business landscape and pulled down barriers to entrepreneurship. The thrill of creating a business again is driving more British founders to become serial entrepreneurs.
In 2011, entrepreneurs saw the lifetime allowance for entrepreneurs relief, within which they pay capital gains tax of just 10 per cent, double to £10m. In 2012, the government’s flagship Enterprise Investment Scheme, familiar to most of our investors, was expanded to include tax breaks for investment into companies employing up to 250 staff rather than the overly restrictive limit of 50 staff. These moves are welcome and can go further by removing barriers to entrepreneurial activity and targeting support at serial entrepreneurs. But we can and need to do more to foster a spirit of entrepreneurialism and support the talent pool of serial entrepreneurs.
The UK is home to much entrepreneurial talent. We already have a reputation as a country for creating great ideas and it’s our successful entrepreneurs that can help turn them into world-class businesses. Let’s help to get more of them out of the vicarage and back into business.