Preparing for a Digital Future| A Q&A with Former Google UK MD Dan Cobley

3 January 2020

We sat down with Former Google UK MD, Dan Cobley to talk about his journey from oil exploration engineer, to Google, to now helping new ventures and large organisations prepare for a more digital future.

Can you tell us a bit about your journey?

My career has never lacked variety. I have been an oil exploration engineer in Pakistan, seen the dot com bubble burst from close quarters in San Francisco, helped Google to grow in the UK from less than 200 to over 2000, and co-founded two of Europe’s top 50 fintechs.

It has not always been plain sailing; at one point I was laid off three times in two years by shrinking tech companies, but then again I probably learnt more in those two years than at any other time.

Having tried many things, I think I am now doing what I enjoy most, which is helping build new ventures that genuinely solve customer problems, and through my keynotes, helping larger organisations prepare for a more digital future.

In a 2010 TED talk you spoke about the importance of physics and how it applies to marketing. How are you currently using your previous experiences to inform your current role as FinTech Venture Builder, Founder and investor?

My studies in physics help me think about everything from first principles, which is an extremely useful approach to most things in business. And now, having learned the challenger approach to ‘Fin’ through Capital One, and the innovation-led approach to ‘Tech’ of Google, I am doing my best to combine them in the FinTech work I do today.

Salary Finance, which I chair, is a great example of this; providing amazing value financial services to employees by partnering with employers and integrating with payroll. This tech-led approach reduces costs and risks and the savings are passed on to the staff.

Working across some of the greats like Google, Capital One, and PepsiCo, what have you found to be the biggest differences between working for huge organisations and starting your own venture?

The bigger a company, the more it has to lose from things changing; so big companies are naturally risk averse and slow to change. Even Google, although fantastically nimble for a £100B+ revenue company, cannot move as fast as it used to.

The great thing about a startup venture is you have very little to lose and everything to gain by trying new things, and you are always in a race with other start-ups, so speed is key. I love the pace, energy and excitement that comes with this dynamic.

How do you see companies responding to consumer behaviour over the next 5-10 years?

Driven by technology, consumer behaviour is changing at a faster rate than ever before. The smarter organisations will realise that they need help to keep up, and specifically they need to find ways to partner with start-ups. Remember, however great your team is, most of the smartest people in the world do not work for you! Even Google says that.

So, your best bet for staying ahead is to be better than your competition at bringing good ideas in from the outside, and that means building a capability for working with and partnering with start-ups. This is an area that I often touch on in my keynotes.

There's a real start-up culture in the air. Can you share some smart ways you've observed start-ups competing with bigger companies?

Many of the best startup ideas come from entrepreneurs observing changes in technology, regulation or consumer behaviour and being quicker to respond to them than the bigger incumbents.

Take SME accounting platform Xero; they were enabled by the new technology of cloud computing and have accelerated hugely in the UK thanks to the ‘Making Tax Digital’ regulation, because they made complying with it really simple.

More generally starts-ups often compete initially by solving a narrow niche need really well, and then offering better value and a slicker user experience than the big guys.

You support the founding and growth of companies that are seeking to help consumers and small businesses address their financial needs through technology. What are some key pointers that you can share?

For most start-ups, the best place to start is with a clear customer problem that you can solve. Google, when it was a start-up, solved the problem of finding quality sites on the growing web. Salary Finance (as mentioned above) solved the pain of very high borrowing costs for ordinary working people. Modulr (a digital payments business I advise) solves the problem of automating payments for digital businesses.

After that it’s about hiring a great team and finding a way to grow by cost-effectively scaling your solution, often through partnership.

If there was one message that you would want an audience to take away from your talk, what would it be?

Every talk is different, and each depends on the event, the audience and the objectives of the client. But a very common takeaway is that technology will change your industry more than you can imagine, and if you don’t take action now, you will be left behind.

Finally Dan, What's next for you?

I have never planned ahead in my career. I have just sought to do a good job and keep learning. Somehow, the next exciting thing always seems to show up at the right time.

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