Why we need more street fighters – a perspective from Cambridge

This article originally appeared in the Q3 2009 issue of Cambridge Business Magazine.

Both Neil and I would implore you not to track down the hard copy version as it contains possibly the worst photographs ever taken of both of us. It was written by Neil Davidson and I was happy to contribute over beer and separately an excellent Redgate lunch.

See also my previous post on the subject for a more visual perspective.

“We need more street fighters,” Mark said. “Men and women with blood on their knuckles and fire in their eyes. Not thugs, mind you. They need to be smart, and look good in a tuxedo.”

“Like James Bond?” I asked.

“Yes, but Daniel Craig, not Roger Moore.”

Mark Littlewood paused and drank from his pint. We were sitting on a small wall outside the Mill, watching the tourists struggle with the punts.

Good place to watch punts, The Mill

Good place to watch punts, The Mill

“Cambridge is full of people with brains, but we need more than that,” Mark said. “We need people who can execute as well as plan, sense as well as analyse, and that’s what I think we’re missing. Street fighters who know how to do a deal. It’s the difference between strategy and tactics, or theory and practice. Sure, you need to know the theory and understand the strategy, but it’s not enough. At some point you need to put down your copy of the Harvard Business Review, roll up your sleeves and start to do.”

“But surely we’ve got people like that?” I asked.

“Of course we do. Take Alex van Someren, Mike Lynch or Richard Green. They’re street fighters. But we need more of them.”

“But we know plenty of people who’ve got the appetite to succeed,” I said. “Right now, there are lots of Cambridge start-ups who want to change the world. Timetric, Patients Know Best, Broadersheet, Go Test It, Meta Alternative and Magic Solver, just off the top of my head. And they’re the ones who’ve actually got a product to sell: count the people who want to create something, but don’t know exactly what, and there are hundreds if not thousands.”

“I don’t think it’s that the people lack the desire to succeed,” Mark said. “It’s a system that values academia over school of life skills that lets them down. There are plenty of people who have potentially world-changing ideas in this town but, far, far fewer who can make them happen. They need to be given a street fighter’s mentality”

“Aren’t there many places to learn those skills in Cambridge? The Executive MBA that the Judge is about to launch, for example. The Institute for Manufacturing runs courses, and the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning too.”

“Yes, those are all excellent as far as they go. But take the MBA. It doesn’t crack the problem I’m talking about. For a start, it’s aimed at a different audience. The MBA is part of a traditional route – you go to university, you graduate, you get a job at McKinsey, you work for a few years, you get an MBA and then you get a better job. By definition, the people I would want to train don’t want to obey the conventions. They want to break the rules, or create new ones, not follow a path laid down by others.”

“So how would you teach these skills then?”

“I think you learn it by doing it. You put people in pressured situations and help them succeed but let them fail. If I were the university and wanted to teach entrepreneurship, I would hire a market stall and use it to run Apprentice-like competitions for teams of aspirant entrepreneurs. If they did nothing but watch some of the other market holders at work, they would learn more than in most classrooms,” Mark said. “I’d give them permission to be unconventional, to think and act more like a street fighter rather than the educated person they have been brought up believe is them. I’d make sure they spent lots of time with other street fighters too.”

“But is that enough?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe we could create some sort of sandbox,” I said. “A place where people can play-fight but where nobody gets hurt. Some sort of war game, maybe? We could pit today’s street fighters against tomorrow’s. Or mix up professors and entrepreneurs. We could pick a real-life scenario: one team could be Google and the other Microsoft. How can Microsoft get a toehold back into the search market, and how can Google stop them? Or even put them in a Cambridge-specific scenario: get one group to be ARM, the other Intel; or Plastic Logic versus Amazon.”

“It sounds cool, complicated, and probably expensive,” Mark said.

“Yes, but the benefits would be huge. And I don’t think funding would be hard. It’s not just start-ups who need this training. Take Red Gate. One of the problems we face is teaching people how to run business units. We’ve got smart people who know the theory but have never run a business before. They know how to manage developers, or testers, or sales people, but being responsible for the profitability and direction of an entire product group is a very different skill. It’s much more entrepreneurial. It’s like running a start-up, but with a sugar daddy. If our people can get those skills without the scars then that’s enormously valuable.”

“And you can’t be alone.”

“No, I don’t think we are. As companies get larger, their competition changes. It becomes fiercer. Take ARM, Cambridge Silicon Radio and Autonomy and look who they’re up against. Google, Microsoft, Broadcom and Intel are ferocious.”

“Yes, and they don’t always fight clean. I can see why more street fighting skills might help.”

“So it sounds like the bigger companies could subsidise it, and start-ups and students could benefit too?”


“So what do we have to do to get this to happen?”

“Well, the first step is to find somebody who believes in this. Somebody who can make happen. It’s fine for us to chat about this, drinking beer in the early evening sunshine, but somebody’s got to do something now. We need a street fighter.”

“Did someone just volunteer?”

Mark Littlewood is founder of the Business Leaders Network and can be reached at mark@thebln.com or on Twitter at @marklittlewood. Neil Davidson is co-founder of Red Gate Software and chairman of the Cambridge Network. He can be reached at neil.davidson@red-gate.com or on Twitter at @neildavidson.

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