When David Richards headed to Silicon Valley from Sheffield 13 years ago he may have dreamt of one day running a successful tech firm, but he didn't expect it to happen. "I went there with my girlfriend and two suitcases and we said we'd try it out for six months. Now we are married and live there with our two children," he says.
A co-founder of WANdisco, an acronym for wide area network distributed computing, Richards met business partner Yeturu Ahhlad at a drinks reception in Palo Alto. "Yeturu is one of the top two or three people in the field of distributed computing, which is basically the way we send things over the internet. He was asking for advice about how to get an idea funded, but he had already solved the problem he had - to do with something called active-active replication over a wide area network - so I suggested we just build the business rather than look for funding," says Richards.
WANdisco makes an open source product, called Subversion that is free to download and free to use for developers. "Half of all the software in the world is developed inside Subversion and that is pretty far-reaching. We make our money by selling an enhanced enterprise version to big companies and our customer list includes companies like HP and Goldman Sachs," says Richards.
Things have moved fast since the launch - over the last couple of years WANdisco has grown 50% every year and are now getting ready to join the AIM on the London stock exchange this April.
Three years ago the firm opened a large office in Sheffield, now employing 30 people. "We have an HQ in Silicon Valley and one in Sheffield, 90 per cent of our sales are into the US market but the products are made in Sheffield. The jobs we are creating in the UK are not the call centre jobs or support positions that US companies normally come here for. We are building core intellectual property in the UK," says Richards. "When we went to Sheffield rather than London, there were some raised eyebrows, but there are a lot of dinosaurs around, particularly in the UK. As far as I'm concerned if you are on the internet it really doesn't matter where you are located."
WANdisco was built without venture capital funding and that is the way Richards prefers it. "I don't think venture capital is very good for early stage start-up companies. You can get lazy and focus on the wrong things. In my first venture funded business we were more concerned about the colour of the carpet and the logo and all that other stuff that really is tangential and should take second place to making money," he says. "I see too many people go to a venture capitalist because they want someone to fund their payroll. But that is not the definition of an entrepreneur; that is the definition of somebody who is not willing to take a risk."
According to Richards the customer should be at the centre of everything you do in a business. "Steve jobs said you can't give people what they want you have to tell them. That is all well and good but when you are a small start-up you have to build something that solves a real problem. The best people to define what you should be doing are the customers," he explains.
With experience on both sides of the Atlantic, he has a unique insight into the differences between the US and UK tech markets and he says it is wrong to assume Silicon Valley can be emulated in the UK. "It drives me bonkers when people ask if we can build a Silicon Valley in the UK because we can't. Silicon Valley exists because of Stanford University and it produces two kinds of people, MBAs who go on to become venture capitalists and great technologists and computer scientists. It is all in the same melting pot in the same area and that is why Silicon Valley exists," he says. "The UK doesn't have that set-up," he says.
Despite the speedy growth of the business Richards doesn't see it slowing down anytime soon. "Technology companies do achieve economies of scale very rapidly; some companies may plateau because they look at a singular market," he says. "We are definitely looking at expansion and I think we'll grow 50 per cent again this year."
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