Playfish boss Kristian Segerstrale on the opportunity for UK startups

Playfish boss Kristian Segerstrale on the opportunity for UK startups

‘Make sure you have a vision that goes out and changes the world versus just creating the incremental win…’

At tonight’s ME Top 50 Innovators event in London, Playfish boss Kristian Segerstrale – now running EA’s social gaming business – gave a rabble-rousing call to action for British mobile startups.

The event brought together 50 of the most innovative mobile firms in the UK, who were told by Segerstrale that “Today is a truly awesome time to be a startup.”

Why? Because small, nimble mobile companies are well placed to disrupt whatever industry they are in. “It is horrible today to be a big company and want to do something new and innovative and different,” said Segerstrale, referring to the current economic climate and the cutbacks that are being forced on many large companies as a result.

“Yet today, consumers for the first time have access to really usable mobile platforms and tablets. And those consumers want to shift how they operate.”

Segerstale also pointed out that it’s also easier now to set up a company using various cloud services and software-as-a-service tools for almost anything you want as a company, creating a new venture within days.

“Never before has there been a time where as a small company you have such an unbelievable opportunity to challenge the big giants in any sector,” he said. “And nowhere is there such an opportunity as in mobile.”

Segerstrale used to work in the mobile games industry, first at UK developer Macrospace, and then as EMEA head of Glu Mobile after it acquired that company. He left a few years later to set up Playfish.

“What’s very cool about mobile now is that not only is the user experience great: we may be reaching that tipping point where manufacturing mobile devices and smartphones is becoming as cheap and simple as manufacturing feature phones,” he said.

“In the next 3-5 years, we will see this market flip from feature phones into smartphones, even in emerging economies. That’s going from a billion or 1.5 billion people with smartphones to 4-5 billion, which is just unreal.”

Segerstrale had five specific pieces of advice for mobile startups in the UK – although they apply much more widely too. Here are the salient points:

1. Think big

“When you think of your vision, make it bigger and make it bolder. Not just taking a product to market and making some money off it, but genuinely changing the world. There’s an opportunity that big companies can’t do: it’s hard to focus on this platform when you’re big. People are migrating from desktops to mobiles, and big companies won’t do it: you guys will.”

“Don’t have a small dream when you can have a big dream: it costs just the same. Make sure you have a vision that goes out and changes the world versus just creating the incremental win. It’s much too fun, life’s too short, and this is ultimately how you will both attract talent and the funding.”

2. Raise more money

“Big vision, big money. I come across a lot of startups here in Europe, and every time they talk about raising money, people tend to think too small: they don’t raise enough. If we continue to raise money that’s one quarter or one fifth of what our brethren in Silicon Valley raise, they will continue acquiring the companies here and ultimately creating the world-beating companies.”

“We have smart capital and smart investors here, and there is lots of capital around for early-stage investments. But go out and dare to put a zero on that number that you’re raising, in order to chase that vision that is exponentially bigger than what you were going to put on that PowerPoint. When you walk in with the PowerPoint looking for a $50 million round, it feels really good. You won’t use it all now, but you’ll invest $10 million to make this a $100 million dollar business in the next five years.”

3. Dare to pivot

“If the thing that your company is working on feels like it’s stagnating, dare to pivot. When things aren’t gong in the right direction, dare to take a radical turn. If you had this money, backing, people and friends, what would you do with those if you had nothing? The greatest companies in the world have been built on pivots in various directions. It’s fine to call a board meeting and say ‘This isn’t working…'”

4. Don’t be shy…

“Tell your stories. There are far too many bright university graduates in consultancies and banks, plugging their heads into the machines that suck the cleverness out of them. We need these bright young things to join the startups, and change the world together with us. The only way is to tell our stories: they’re not told enough.”

“We need to tell them, we need to help the press to tell them for us, and we have a government that is really interested in backing startups, with Tech City and all that stuff.”

5. …But don’t get hung up on geographic clusters

“People talk a lot about clusters in the UK, with Silicon Roundabout and Tech City and all these things. But if you read the story about Silicon Valley, it started off as a semiconductor place, where a bunch of talent figured out how to make various things, and constantly moved up one layer in the stack – learning to make embedded software for CPUs, writing operating systems, drivers… right the way through to Web 2.0 and the social web.”

“People talk about Silicon Valley as if there is some kind of magic – as if it’s a place where magic happens. But clusters are not about geographic location: that’s not really what it’s about, although it helps. It’s really about people that work and try again and again to push technology and services forward, and work with each other to make it happen.”

“Every time Silicon Valley has negotiated the next big thing, it’s by having a ton of talent available to throw at the new thing, and learn quicker than anybody …

“I believe that the shift from consumer internet services onto mobile devices and tablets will be more fundamental than any shift we’ve seen before, including Web 1.0, Web 2.0, the social web and all of that. And there is a unique opportunity for us as London – forget east, west, north or south – for London to start forming our own cluster based not just on the fact that we live in the same city and have fantastic investors, technology talent and user experience talent – but also on the fact that we are passionate, talented entrepreneurs.”

“If we spend enough time together and bother to listen to one another and work together, we can raise London up from a distant second cousin to Silicon Valley to a genuine driver of where the mobile internet is going.”

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