Business Management

Cisco UK CEO Talks Start-Ups, Entrepreneurialism & Playing in Bands

Phil Smith joined Cisco 19 years’ ago when there were only 10 people in the UK office. Now there are 5,500 and Cisco is nurturing start-ups for itself. Kathryn Cave catches up with him after the BIG Awards to discuss global innovation and what it’s like handing small companies big money to progress their entrepreneurial dreams.

“We’re doing this in the judging room,” says Rachael the girl from the PR agency conspiratorially, “I’ve just got to go and get the key.” This is after the BIG Awards, a Dragon’s Den style pitch-off, which saw UK start-up, uMotif  receive a cheque for $200,000 to include $100,000 cash, along with mentoring sessions from Cisco and its partners.

“It has been really interesting,” says Phil Smith CEO of Cisco UK and Ireland when I ask about the event and his own long-term involvement in start-ups. “Being a company that began as a Silicon Valley start-up then came over to the UK we still have a start-up culture in Cisco… even though there are now 75,000 people.”

Smith was one of the judges at the BIG Awards and is speaking to me in the boardroom in IDEALondon, a venue created by Cisco to incubate small companies.  Yet company policy aside, Smith’s personal passion for start-up culture appears to stem from his own background. “I grew up in East Kilbride, which is on the west side [of Scotland] near to Glasgow,” he tells me. “It was a new post-war town [and a] fabulous place because it was full of young people. I was into music and [have] played in loads of bands throughout my life.”

“Growing up in the 60s and 70s, every room in the youth centre I used to go to was full. [In fact] my last drummer [who] played with me before I came down here won two Grammy awards. (Stephen Lironi is married to Claire Grogan).  It was a [vibrant] working class environment where people were trying to do different things. There was creativity around music, around sport [and other creative ways] people could express themselves.  Today there is probably loads of digital creativity…”

The hub at IDEALondon is based in the heart of Tech City and is consciously trying to push the creative angle with ivy on the inside wall, green mood lighting and very funky circular glass meeting rooms  that look like something out of Star Trek. “I think start up culture is an interesting thing generally,” says Smith. “Because you put a set of parameters round it and people innovate.”

“The parameters here in the UK are you have to differentiate yourself, you have to find a market, you have to set a brand - if you’re in Africa it’s not so important. It is more how can I solve a social problem, how can I help people communicate, how can I get water.”

“There are different sets of parameters, but I think you see the same innovation everywhere. I went to Malawi a couple of years ago with Comic Relief. It was great. There were small companies creating designs for building toilet blocks… because sanitation helps everything. They were looking at making bricks themselves, building the toilet blocks, recycling the waste and then using it for irrigation. It was really clever, but not something you’d make over here.”  

Outside Cisco, Smith is Chair of the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), a UK public body which aims “to accelerate economic growth by stimulating and supporting business-led innovation.” But big picture aside, giving people money to fulfil their personal aspirations and potentially address social problems is a pretty powerful thing to be able to do.   

“The most exciting time in Cisco was [when] I started working with a load of start-ups in the run up to the dot com crash. Between about ’97 and 2000 I set up a group inside Cisco selling to them.  [We were] working with the VCs – and of course most of those dot coms needed big web type services and the capability to be online all the time, so we put together a [complete] package to work with [them]. We got engaged at that level in the late 90s…”

“It was funny,” says Phil Smith “[Back then] Cisco was already being a corporation and I was driving round in a company car and all that sort of stuff, [but] I remember driving up to see a company somewhere round Marylebone/ Paddington area [of London]. They gave us an address and it turned out it was a house. We drove up and were sitting in the living room on the settee, having tea, type of thing… and they’d got £5 million of funding.”

The potential for small companies, then as now is immense, especially with an organisation like Cisco behind them. “What we have been doing under the banner of BIG (British Innovation Gateway),” says Smith “is some of what we’d already started back in the early 2000s.”

“In 2009 and 2010 we were starting to see some interesting things in Greenwich, Birmingham and Scotland. When the government came along with its Tech City program and we were already looking at sponsoring the Olympics we thought let’s bring all these things together.”

“We decided to set up the BIG initiative and we’re committed to investing in the UK for the next five years, we’re [also] committed to creating these innovation centres of which this [IDEALondon] is one. We’re committed to joining up innovation centres with Network Virtual Incubators (NVI) [which are] all connected together using technology that we’ve put in there.”

Cisco is currently involved in a huge range of initiatives across the UK and “in each of these regional areas we’ve got people involved in the start-up [scene],” explains Smith. “Sometimes [this is] funding them, sometimes collaborating with them, sometimes joining them up.” Whatever they’re interested in we can help. “We can [even] potentially introduce them to [other] large companies.”

The rise in small businesses all vying to create the solution that will become industry standard in the future is well documented and it is inevitable that it will attract the attention of larger companies that can benefit. “For me personally [though],” says Smith “whenever you touch a start-up you think isn’t that amazing what a good idea, why didn’t I think of it.

“It is very energising, it is a lot like bringing young people into an organisation, when you bring graduates and apprentices you find a lot of energy injected, really keen to do things and excited about it.”


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect


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