Back in 1996, when the UK only had 300 registered URLs, entrepreneur Neeta Patel launched the first personal finance website in Europe for Legal & General. “I realised that the internet would change business models in Insurance and persuaded the chief executive and board to invest in web products for consumers early, thereby stealing a march on competitors,” she explains. Four years later - also against popular opinion - Patel launched a paid subscription content service at ft.com, which now forms the majority of the Financial Times Group’s revenues. Now CEO of the Centre for Entrepreneurs, a Board Advisor for Tech London Advocates and an Entrepreneur Mentor in Residence at London Business School, Patel’s newest - and Nurole-appointed - role is as a Non-Executive Director of Allianz Technology Trust.
What was it that helped you spot the internet’s possibilities so early, back in the mid 1990s?
I first saw the early internet whilst doing my MBA at Cass Business School in 1994; it was how we accessed academic publications; then when I graduated, I joined L&G and thought this fledgling thing could be really big in terms of communicating with our millions of customers - and I managed to persuade the Chief Executive accordingly. Initially I just thought it was a good way of talking to our customers, but it then became clear that people were going to start buying online and we needed an online presence. This was 1994, when people would say ‘internet what?’ It was quite a struggle to convince an old-fashioned insurer that this ‘internet thing’ would be big.
Where do you think the big opportunities are now, to steal a march on competitors in industry?
We’re almost post-technology - everything we do has tech embedded into it. I watch young founders very quickly build a website, adding different plug-and-play elements of other people’s technology, like someone else’s payments or gaming module. So, I think the big opportunities now are in:
- Cybersecurity - because the data we’re all creating is huge and we need more privacy of that data and we want it to be secure
- Big data and AI engines - because companies need to make sense of that data so that an AI algorithm can work with it
- The cloud. In my first job, a few decades ago, the whole of the office’s ground floor was the server room. Now companies don’t need to store all that data on proprietary servers, it’s all moved to remote servers in ‘the cloud’
- Healthcare tech - diagnostics, surgery and fitness and wellbeing are going to be key to our more demanding, and ageing, population.
- There are still whole industries that need to go through digital ‘distruption’ so there are opportunities for companies in that sector.
Having been in the midst of the first ‘Internet bubble’, are you seeing any indicators of another impending one?
I well remember going through it from 1996-2000 - it was a wild old time where investors threw money at the flimsiest ideas. I think that’s stopped - there’s more savviness and we’re not in danger of that kind of bubble. But there’s quite a lot of “dry powder money” sitting in VCs - they’ve raised huge sums and the danger is of too much investment in companies that are not ready to scale quickly. But I’m a glass half-full kind of person; I think there might be a shake-out but not a collapse - the very good companies with sound fundamentals, huge potential markets and great management teams will still succeed, grow and raise money.
You’ve helped over 200 young aspiring entrepreneurs to launch their tech businesses, what are your mentorship tips?
Listen, question, challenge if you disagree, and connect them with people who can help. Go in assuming you know nothing about the business,and be prepared to learn. Listen carefully to the founder about their vision, and what’s triggered them to create the business, then ask about their business model and financial model. The great thing about mentoring for me is I’ve learnt as much from my mentees about up-and-coming technologies and new areas that I just wouldn’t have known otherwise. I think mentors add value - this is certainly the way I do - by connecting entrepreneurs with people who might be able to help them. Having been around a while, I’ve got a huge network of people in different sectors that can help start-ups.
To mentees, I advise that you really do listen. There’s nothing more frustrating for a mentor than giving up time, pro bono, and feeling you’re being ignored or the mentee thinks they know it all. That quickly becomes quite an unproductive relationship.
You’re a female British Asian, describing yourself as a 'rare beast' in the technology and startup space - what do you think diversity brings to a company?
I think diversity goes beyond background, gender, or race - it’s different views on life. Having a diverse group of people working together is the most powerful way to come up with a successful product or service, because - assuming you listen to all those views - you get a much more rounded perspective. So I like to see candidates with a fine arts degree working alongside mechanical engineers - that kind of diversity is really powerful because of the range of skills and perspectives each person brings.
What have you learnt from your best - and worst - board experiences that you’ll be focusing on in your Chair role?
My first board experience was pitching to L&G’s board to try to convince them to invest in this thing called the internet. I was then presenting bimonthly to the British Council’s large board, I like to see the Chair make sure everyone has a chance to speak, however cynical or supportive they are of what you’re trying to pitch. I also like it when board members later follow up with connections they suggest to you in a meeting - all too often board members attend a meeting every few months, then disappear and nothing happens. The best boards have members who are very interested in what the organisation does, follow up with advice, as well as engage outside meetings with stakeholders and beneficiaries. I’ll be trying to take that on board in my new NED role!
The things I hate to see are heavy, heavy board agendas where important, innovative things get buried amongst financial woes or debate about potential disasters, and intermittent attendance from board members so you have to start again at each meeting. I also get annoyed when formal feedback from meetings takes weeks to reach you - it should be a swift turnaround.
What type of talent can entrepreneurs bring to boards?
Generally, they bring constructive challenge to a board - because they’ve seen things start from very small seedlings, or they’ve seen failure, there’s a sense of healthy scepticism.
How did you find the Nurole experience?
Incredibly efficient - and I liked that its form was wordcount-restricted, which makes you refine your thinking. The process was smooth and informative.
And now for some quick-fire questions…
What was your biggest break?
My first senior role at Legal & General, immediately after my MBA in 1995. It gave me my first experience of leading a large team (over 40 people), managing significant budgets and also led to the opportunity to set up one of the first 'Emerging Media' Units in the sector. This enabled me and my small team to launch the first personal finance website in Europe in 1997, at a time when only 300 URLs were registered in the UK. My next few roles after that followed on from this success.
What are you reading now?
I am listening to 'Becoming' by Michelle Obama on Audible, having just finished Simon Sinek's 'Start with Why'.
What’s your favourite quote?
“You have to be in it to win it” - Anon. And one of my late father's quotes which is loosely translated from Gujerati as, “Deep sleep does not see the hard rocks it sleeps on, deep hunger does not judge the stale bread that is in front of it” - he would quote this every time my siblings and I complained that we disliked particular foods or found our surroundings uncomfortable.
Trips to the Amalfi Coast, particularly Amalfi and Positano.
What do you do to have fun?
Walk my dog Jasper on Hampstead Heath - it always lifts my mood. I love his energy, enthusiasm and loyalty - and meeting up for lunch afterwards with other dog-owning friends.
What’s your favourite app?
London Transport’s BusChecker app which I use at least twice each day! I use buses as much as possible to get around London.
When does your alarm go off and how many hours of sleep do you get?
Depending on how early my first meetings are, any time between 6.00am - 7.00am. I try to get to bed before 11pm but it will be much later if I have to attend awards dinners or other events. I try and get at least 7 hours of sleep every night but don't always succeed.
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