Andrew Grill put down his tablet and stepped up to the stage. The serial technology entrepreneur and former Kred CEO was busy checking his Twitter feed before his keynote speech kicked-off.
Away from the spotlight of an annual entrepreneurship event in Central London, he is an entrepreneur in a big corporate world – but for 30 minutes on Thursday morning, he had the crowd as his mercy.
Andrew, a current Global Partner of IBM, the technology giant, made the leap from the start-up world several years after his MBA with trepidation.
MBA entrepreneurs in the tech sector have a new best friend. Goliath – known as IBM to the rest of us – is giving David a leg-up. And for Andrew, there were few regrets when he stepped down from Kred, the leading social influence platform, and became a Global Social Business Partner at IBM in London.
He stepped up to the mic, his pin-striped suit setting him apart from the other delegates in the room. “The reason I joined IBM was that in 12 years I learnt a lot – but I thought how can I leverage my skills over a much wider area?” Andrew says.
Part sales pitch it was, but there is a gem hidden beneath the veneer.
IBM has a $100 million fund to invest in start-ups, Andrew shouts. “We are absolutely serious. We are literally putting our money where our mouth is,” he says, stepping in front of the podium.
Technology is a hot prospect, and MBAs and entrepreneurs have never been more interested. Andrew is not the only one to notice. Each year hundreds of delegates gather at the EntrepreneurCountry Forum, to drink coffee, exchange business cards and talk up the market.
This year in London’s Mayfair, almost every talk turned into a conversation about Europe’s up-and-coming tech scene, fuelled by IPOs, Wall Street’s tech float let-down and more cash in the European Investment Fund for SMEs. Last year alone, they committed €1.5 billion into more than 60 VC funds.
IBM wants social businesses: companies that apply social networking tools and culture to business roles, processes and outcomes. And they want entrepreneurs.
Tech start-ups are taking advantage of the explosive growth of mobile, cloud and big data. When Andrew graduated from the MBA program at the University of Technology, Sydney in 2000, the revolution had yet to take effect.
“When I joined Twitter I thought it was the biggest waste of time,” he says, audience laughing in reply. Yet arguably the most successful tech business he ran, Kred, harnessed social media’s power.
Kred is a platform that determines online influence based on content sourced from social media networks. The company’s clients included the BBC, eBay and Dell. Andrew was the CEO for two years and managed teams in the U.S, Europe and UK. He was “directly responsible for the growth of Kred from a standing start”.
He is an Australian and was introduced to entrepreneurship by his father. “My father was probably one of my first mentors. He got me into the entrepreneurial spirit,” says Andrew.
One of his first management positions was chief executive of PropertyLook - one of Australia's largest commercial property portals. Andrew was responsible for the start-up and growth of the business for two years. It was subsequently sold to realestate.com.au in 2006 for around $A9 million.
He worked at a raft of technology and mobile start-ups after leaving PropertyLook in 2003, before being appointed as a South Australian Business Ambassador by the country’s then Premier, Mike Rann.
But his job now is to deliver social business solutions to key IBM clients. Entrepreneurs have been drawn into IBM’s remit by the prospect of greater visibility and access to free technology.
And MBAs can find a home for their start-ups with the global tech leader. IBM Global Entrepreneur, a program for early stage businesses, is snapping up bright young technology entrepreneurs in droves.
“It’s the people with the smart idea who need that leg-up with access to funding and technology,” says Andrew. “IBM loves start-ups.”
For up to three years, start-ups that make it onto the IBM Global Entrepreneur scheme can access a variety of IBM software for development, test, and demonstration for free.
Entrepreneurs will be assigned a manager to help with the start-up's development, as well as help with standing out in a crowded market through IBM’s Smarter Planet agenda which seeks to provide exposure.
MBAs in the sector may fear that there is a flood of competition on the tech-front. The majority (14 per cent) of self-employed graduates and entrepreneurs from 2010 to 2013 work in the technology industries – a steady 12 per cent increase over 13 years, according to GMAC.
“Entrepreneurship is a hot topic and is a very popular course of study at today's business schools,” says Sangeet Chowfla, president and CEO of GMAC, the leading graduate management education research company.
Technology is what keeps CEOS awake at night, says Andrew. “Where the shift has come, undoubtedly, is that technology is becoming more important. Social media, security; these are the sort of problems we are able to solve,” he enthuses.
IBM also invested $150 million in 2011 to fund programs that promote entrepreneurs and new business opportunities in the U.S, part of the government’s Startup America campaign.
Tech-focused MBAs will benefit from enterprise-class virtual server environments that are well suited for development and test activities, as well as other workloads. IBM also set-up a new department to house Watson, an artificially intelligent computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language.
“How do we get it into the hands of the start-ups and entrepreneurs out there? We have invested in bringing people and tech and resources in Europe to house Watson,” says Andrew.
There are certain requirements, however. To get involved with the IBM Global Entrepreneur initiative, start-ups must be privately held, have been in business for less than five years and must be actively engaged in developing a software-based product or service.
“Software is now the largest part of our company. IBM is about seeing where the future lies,” says Andrew.
IBM’s entrepreneurial program has had some success, he says, but they need more tech start-ups. “We’re running programs to look at start-ups. And to give them a real head-start.