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Michael Lynch: Secrets To Success,Innovation – And Avoiding Burning Buildings…

September 14, 2011

Starting With The Basics. A sign at Autonomy Corporation's HQ

Over 13 years – a Cambridge University PHd named Michael Lynch took his research into the mysterious world of  ‘pattern based computing’ – added a £2000 chance investment he obtained from a bloke he met in a pub – and turned this into into an international technology giant that last month was purchased by Hewlett-Packard – for something in the region of $10.2 Billion. His story shares a lot of similarities with Mark Zuckerberg – the founder of FaceBook. And as he built up what would become Autonomy Corporation, Lynch agrees that there were indeed lots of late night coding marathons fuelled by chinese takeaways. However, unlike the movie ‘The Social Network’ –  his ‘group of British nerds’ were never ever surrounded by beautiful women…

Would you have given this man £2000?

Last night, Dr. Michael Richard Lynch OBE –  founder and CEO of Autonomy Corporation chatted to a crowd at Adam Street Club – part of the latest series of Mandrake Club events. He’s a visonary who sees  a new phase of ‘hyper-change in the world – one where technology is about being ‘human friendly – not just computer friendly’. Lynch  is the nearest the UK has produced to a global technology superstar and like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates – he has moved from geeky software pioneer to become a genuine trans-Atlantic business tycoon who sits on the Executive Boards of the BBC and investment firm Apax Partners. If you’re considering a career as a 21st century software pioneer it does of course helps if you are firstly incredibly bright. And so it’s indeed no surprise that his doctoral thesis on signal processing is said to be the most widely read PhD paper in the Cambridge University library. Box ticked. But of course, that’s only half of it. Lots of very clever people have the brains but achieve nothing. Critically Lynch comes across as a truly rounded entrepreneur who seems as comfortable discussing City finance, PR, sales and marketing – and sharing a joke, as he is at debating data protocols and bandwidth. When starting out, he placed a sign saying ‘Authorised Personnal Only’ on the door of the broom cupboard to give the impression he had a room full with banks of engineers and developers. He eventually employed over 1900 people from Autonomy Corporation’s HQ’s in San Francisco and Cambridge. He was named CBI’s Entrepreneur of The Year in 1999 and a ‘computing pioneer’ at The World Economic Form in 2000. CNBC made a documentary about him. In 2008, Silicon.com described him as one of the most influential technology pioneers in the world – ranking him alongside the likes of Tim Berners-Lee, Jimmy Wales and Eric Schmidt. So what kind of advice could a father possibly have offered to direct his son towards such success? According to Lynch the career advice from his father was;  “Never get a job where you have to into a burning building”.  His father being a fireman –  this was expert advice.

Lynch is now a champion for the UK tech industry, a huge advocate for entrepreneurship and innovation. He does not come across as a big fan of the City and clearly he has had a few run ins with the investment crowd as they seek to manipulate and hedge company valuations. In  a rare move for British entrepreneurs he went to Silicon valley and built his reputation and fortune from there too.  Autonomy Corporation, steered by Lynch, built a customer base for its sophisticated data management software that now includes the likes of Citrix, Novell and Symantec. Lynch clearly loves the simplisitic beauty of selling successful software. As he puts it, once you’ve written it, you can mass produce it for 2p a piece and sell it for £500,000 a copy. Over the last decade he drove the growth of  Autonomy Corporation as it acquired a collection of  data handling, email management and processing businesses – including Verity Inc, BlinkX and Zanta. Although he said he would never sell, HP made him an offer earlier this year that was hard to refuse.

So, all this begs the question that many of us would like to ask –  ‘how do you do that then?’ Lynch is very clear on what works and what does not, what needs to be encouraged and what needs ditching. As befits someone who studied at the highest level in science and mathematics he strongly emphasises looking at first principles and solving basic problems. To the amusement of a bunch of partisan Londoners he also noted that he originally thought everyone he met in Silicon valley were absolutely brilliant – because they all interviewed and spoke so well. Then, as Lynch says, ‘I found a lot of them were absolutely rubbish’. But  – apart from not taking completely at face value during – what are his top secrets to his success? Well – here they are.

Michael Lynch’s Secrets To Success:

1 – The Hungry Wolf: Even the strongest wolf will have times when it will go hungry and to survive it has  to adapt. In this regard, Lynch advises never to stick rigidly to your original plan. Learn, adapt and move on. Kind of like a wolf …

2 – Beware Of Doing Things Properly: If you hear this, it normally means you are looking to do things like other people. A key element of Lynch’s philosophy is not to follow what other people do ..

3 – Always Take A Gun To A Knife Fight: No, he is not referring to living in the USA or parts of north London but instead he advises finding  ‘an obscene’ advantage over your competition.

4 – Don’t Get Drawn Into Rusty The Clown’s Fight: A strange one –  but interesting. Building on the previous point, he warns not to get drawn into fights that the competition is setting up. Fight the battles that you want ..

5 – Focus: No surprises here. An oldie but goodie and for good reason. Like many others, Lynch is big on Focus. ‘Do five things, then go home’.

6 – No Innovation Team: Steve Jobs famously said that seeing a big corporation setting up an innovation team was like watching your uncle dance at a disco. Writers such as Scott Berkun and TomKelley have said similar – and have emphasised that its is hard to create a top down culture for innovation. Like them, Lynch is not a fan of organised, managed innovation. Instead he favours taking a few risks with the people you hire – and creating a positive atmosphere where ideas are shared and nurtured. As he puts it, entrepreneurs need to help the small seedlings (ideas..) to grow – don’t just stamp on them.

For more articles on innovation, marketing partnerships and alliances visit www.benchstone.co.uk.

And for more information on memberships and events at Adam Street Club call +44-0207 379 8000

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