Characterised by community, collaboration and a supportive outlook on things, Europe’s growing startup ecosystem is bolstered by networks and connections.
Amid times of crisis, inflation and escalating challenges to contend with, the current obstacles for businesses at the point of scaling across Europe to overcome are higher than those ever faced before. To solve these challenges, collaboration between businesses and knowledge sharing is the way forward.
Aiming to help nurture collaboration across the continent is Boardwave. A new European network for software leaders that aims to become Europe’s answer to Silicon Valley’s software community.
Founded this year by Phill Robinson, Boardwave consists of over 550 founder members, from startup founders to global business leaders, backed by internationally recognised brands, including Bank of America, Blackstone and Rothschild & Co. It operates on a not-for-profit basis, aiming to directly support founders and CEOs in European software to build successful organisations, from first-time CEOs and founders of startups to highly experienced leaders of global companies.
Before launching this purpose-driven venture, Phill has gathered experience as an experienced Chairman, CEO and Non-Executive Board Member in the software industry. He was also previously CMO at SalesForce. We sat down with him to learn more about Boardwave and its aims for the year ahead.
Can you tell us a bit about Boardwave?
Boardwave is a new high-powered community for European software leaders at all stages of development. Our overarching aim is to help foster a generation of businesses capable of competing on a global scale, providing Europe’s answer to Silicon Valley’s collaborative nature. We are working with the very best investors and advisory firms in the space, all of which recognise we have a problem that needs addressing if we want to realise our potential.
In a world where transaction currency tends to outrank all else in terms of truly harnessing growth, our backers – including Advent International, Apax Partners, Bain & Co, Bank of America, Blackstone, General Atlantic, Heidrick & Struggles, Index Ventures, Marks & Clerk, Rothschild & Co, among others – are willingly bringing their networks to play in one place, for the first time ever. This is enormously powerful and unique, recognising that for too long a more siloed approach has hindered rather than helped our scaleups to reach those of their US counterparts.
What was the inspiration behind setting up this community?
Having worked in Silicon Valley and held c-suite roles at a number of software companies, there is a palpable difference between the networking culture in Silicon Valley compared to Europe. The leaders of Silicon Valley’s biggest software companies are bound together by informal networks, whether it be sending children to the same school or even bumping into each other at a coffee shop. After all, Silicon Valley is small, it’s only 40 miles long. In Europe, capital was once the barrier to building ‘household name’ companies, but this just isn’t the case anymore. What we lack is the secret ingredient that makes Silicon Valley thrive – peer to peer networks. Boardwave seeks to meet this need and give access to software CEOs at all stages of growth access to Europe’s best and brightest for impartial, targeted advice and mentoring.
You’ve had C-Level experience working with Salesforce.com, one of the world’s most recognisable software companies. Can you tell us some of your personal entrepreneurial journey? Where you’ve been, and what you’re working on now?
I’ve always thrived off the experience of leading and building companies – I’ve worn many hats, Chairman, CEO, CMO, at a number of businesses and I’ve always strived to make transformative change and leave companies in a better place than when I’ve found them. Boardwave is the first business I’ve founded outright and I’m relishing the founder experience so far.
Based on your experience, what are the main pillars of success that software companies should embed in their business?
It’s about getting the fundamentals right – making sure you have the right investors who are going to not just support, but enhance your business; finding product market fit as soon as possible, professionalising and streamlining sales processes and building a team around you that are both committed to the mission and that each bring a unique value-add to the company. I would be remiss not to say that networking is also key: the right advice, and knowing where to get it, can make a seismic difference.
Why does Europe need Boardwave? And why has something like this not existed before?
Of course there are many networking organisations across Europe, but they lack a targeted approach. Relationship building is difficult, especially for time-poor founders and CEOs and that’s why these other groups experience such a high level of churn. What people need from these organisations, and what Boardwave offers, is a targeted experience – we ensure every interaction is of value and we don’t waste anyone’s time. Europe needs Boardwave to allow European software businesses to compete with the big household name tech players – it’s the missing piece of the puzzle in supercharging European software success stories.
While this model has been seen in the US in the iconic Silicon Valley – do you think the fact Europe is full of different languages, customs, cultures, and approaches to business will prove a challenge to overcome?
This might have applied once, but in such a digitally connected world, the pandemic has taught us that borders do not mean what they used to – companies small and large have their employees spread across the world. Indeed, Europe’s cultural diversity isn’t a hindrance but rather a benefit: we want to bring together as many unique experiences as possible and so we absolutely want to create as diverse a network as we can.
As we go through hard times, the importance of community has really stood out – in both business lives to personal lives. What, in your opinion, are the core benefits of community approaches to business?
Communities are critical in that, particularly in this context, they remove the adversarial nature of business. They mean that people can come together, share problems and ideas and we all collectively benefit from the outcomes. Of course it’s utopian to think direct competitors will share trade secrets with one another, but by creating more open dialogues across the software industry, we can all help each other to realise our ambitions.
And how can a collaborative ecosystem better innovation and society in the long run?
Because connections can be pivotal in forging innovation. Discussing a business problem with someone with similar experience may give you the tools to crack the issue you’ve been facing. In the long term, we can create an ecosystem that by its very nature supports the next generation and supercharges innovation, with experience working in harmony with ambition, producing a whole wave of transformative new businesses.
Did you have a mentor/community that helped you in your journey to success?
In the last two CEO roles that I had; Exact in the Netherlands and IRIS Software in the UK, I had a coach and mentor. Someone with vast experience, that I could call for advice and support. Someone who helped me develop my executive leadership team and create a diverse culture and successful business. They were independent from my Board (who were mostly my private equity investors), which is important as you always want impartial advice from someone without a vested interest.
How can startup founders and innovators support each other?
By coming together more often. Entrepreneurship can be a lonely business and founders are often left with few options when it comes to getting advice from their peers. There’s no need to suffer in silence – through organisations such as Boardwave, CEOs can find like-minded individuals dealing with parallel problems, and as such have a forum through which they can explore their issues and get expert advice – everybody wins.
How can governments, big organisations and corporates support startup innovation and collaboration?
Corporates and large organisations need to understand the value of giving back to companies at the growth stage – while it may feel like helping competitors, healthy competition stands to benefit us all and drive innovation. The leaders of major businesses have so much accrued knowledge and insight which can be pivotal in supporting growing businesses on their journey to scale. Indeed, this is also a two way street: undoubtedly leaders of larger organisations stand to benefit from increasing their awareness of the cutting edge of innovation and the startup mindset.
What long-term impact do you hope to have with Boardwave?
I hope Boardwave will be the ‘tide that raises all ships’ in the European software industry. We have all of the expertise, capital, and tools to lead the world in software innovation, we just need to bring the right people together and great things will happen.