Rayhan Rafiq Omar discovers an intriguing business in London with many of the same values as the Mountain View behemoth. If only more British companies were run like this, he says.
The tech world bemoans the lack of a Google or Facebook in London, or even Europe, to attract the best developer talent and solidify this small town’s position as a start-up hub. Yes, we have satellite offices, but the headquarters of these businesses is always where it’s at.
The key here is hype. Our distant, language-contorting cousins across the Atlantic talk the talk, whereas we Europeans often see ourselves as above vulgar self-promotion. Our products speak for themselves. Or, they would if people knew about them.
So you’ve likely never heard of Forward, unless you’ve been to meetups like Lean Startup Machine or Failboat, or you actually work for them. But you have likely seen what they build and even used their products.
350 people work for Forward across a portfolio of businesses. The company doesn’t shout about it as much, but they have the hacker attitude down pat, with staff enjoying free lunches, “innovation leave” and freedom to choose any piece tech they want to work on. While Facebook has the now famous “move fast and break things”, Forward characterises their innovative culture with the phrase: “subject to change”.
With a large campus in Camden Town, Forward surely has the most fantastic offices outside of the Maclaren Formula 1 factory in Woking. Essentially, if someone at Forward wants something, it’s provided. The unwritten rule is that results justify the means and walking through the offices – most walls have screens displaying dashboards; some styled as Star Trek Enterprise control panels – it is clear that everyone is hard at work.
So what does Forward do? Almost everything. Started as TrafficBroker in 2004 and adopting their new name after acquiring uSwitch two years ago, Forward is a portfolio umbrella-cum-incubator of technical endeavour. Their strategy is to hire the best developer talent and give them the tools to try out any idea they get in their head.
Using a three-pronged “acquire, invest and invent” strategy, led by Forward director Paul Fisher, Forward “do not fear failure; we fear missing opportunities”. (There was mention when I visited of an internal presentation that celebrates all the ideas that were prototyped and quickly failed.)
In a town like London, where many moonlighters attend meet-ups afraid to hand out their business card or name the app they are working on for fear of their employer finding out, this approach is refreshing. An example of the side projects happening at Forward is the InvisibleHand browser extension created by Robin Landy.
Instead of having him leave to raise VC funding, Forward provided everything Robin needed to build a team, market his product and retain some equity (although they are quiet on percentages). 2.75 million downloads later, InvisibleHand, named after the term Adam Smith used to describe the natural force that guides free market capitalism through competition for scarce resources, serves you the best price for various products on the internet, regardless of which website you are browsing.
Although still young, and growing fast, brands like uSwitch (the comparison and consumer advice site) and Forward3D (a digital marketing agency) provide the cash to create interesting new innovations that the workforces come up with – like InvisibleHand. As at Google, Forward makes money from online advertising and funnels that back into innovation.
Paul Graham, founder of Y-Combinator, emphatically states that only Silicon Valley has the ability to allow someone to fail and quickly pick them up so they can try again. He says only in Silicon Valley is failure recognised as par for the course and part of the learning and experimentation process.
Forward tries to embrace this culture of experimentation, even though they are surrounded by a British culture that vilifies those who fail. They celebrate the ability to quickly test out ideas, and fail them just as quickly if the results don’t stack up. And that is what makes them such an aspirational place to work and innovate; even if it is all being done very quietly.
Maybe Forward Director Paul Fisher is right when he says that the right people know about them. Developers know Forward as a great place to do amazing things with equally amazing people. And customers of each of their portfolio brands love and trust those brands implicitly.
Why ruin those perceptions with vacuous hype? But then again, everything is subject to change.