First class delivery as Anderson stamps his class on tech innovation
Ray Anderson co-founded Bango in 1999 after realising that the convergence of the internet with the ubiquity of mobile phones could open-up huge opportunities for content and service providers. He took on the role of Chief Executive Officer when he co-founded the business and moved into the role of Executive Chair in 2020.
Ray has extensive experience in technology and product innovation and development, and strong product foresight. His passion for Bango, its products and customers inspires partners, investors and employees alike. Prior to Bango, Ray established IXI which created the industry standard network GUI – X.desktop. IXI was an early leader in the creation of the web. It sponsored the first ever WWW conference at CERN and shipped the world’s first commercial web browser.
In this latest Cambridge Torchbearers interview, in association with BDB Pitmans, Ray discusses his early entrepreneurial experiences with Business Weekly CEO Tony Quested.
Can you recall when you first took the slightest interest in business and what the circumstances were?
I found a Stanley Gibbons stamp catalog in my school library when I was about 12 and was surprised how expensive used stamps were to buy. I bought 144 used stamps from a hobby shop for 1s 9d, and managed to sell most of them for half the price shown in the catalog to fellow pupils, netting more than £28 – which enabled me to buy a two-channel radio control set. A few days later the school banned stamp trading!
When did you decide you would like to form your own first business and why?
I had a proto-business when I was about 16 just after O Levels. I wanted to buy NiCd batteries that were only sold to businesses by their French manufacturer so I created a business to enable me to buy them. It turned out that a lot of individuals wanted these batteries so I operated it for about two years, enabling me to put the profits into buying model aircraft parts. My first real business came when I went to University.
Where were you located and what were you doing at the time?
I was doing a Computer Science degree in Cambridge.
What age were you and when was it date-wise?
1978 – 20 yrs old.
What was the nature of the business?
Importing Dynamic DAM memory from the USA into the UK.
Did anyone in particular inspire and influence you; why and how?
One of my classmates had a father who worked at the World Bank. He liked the idea of trading cross-border and had access to his father’s private jet and diplomatic bags.
Did you have a Business Plan and who prepared it? Did you know how to compile one?
No. I wanted to buy 16Kbytes of Dynamic RAM chips, to upgrade my homebuilt computer from 2Kb to 18Kb but I could not afford to buy them in the USA – where they cost about a tenth of the UK price – due to high UK import duties imposed to protect the UK government-backed chipmakers InMos – and import them. However, by finding a few other undergrads in the Cambridge Microprocessor Society, who had similar demands – but with access to money – I was able to bulk buy about 240 chips and the profit I made on the deal, even after sharing 50 per cent with my ‘logistics partner’ meant I was able to get 48Kb of memory and upgrade my computer to a heady 50Kb RAM!
How did you fund the enterprise? How much and from what sources?
Pre-payment from my customers funded the initial capital to get going.
Did that process prove stressful or problematical?
There was a lot of stress knowing that I had just taken hundreds of pounds from a load of students and if the chips did not make it back to the UK or if they were damaged by static electricity, I would be in real trouble!
What other problems did you encounter and how did you overcome them?
Mostek in the USA would not sell to private individuals so we had to create a ‘front company’ (Vongsathorn-Anderson Enterprises) to handle the trade. I remember we had to use a gold leaf laminating machine and some Basildon Bond paper to create ‘headed notepaper’ and arrange to have access to a Telex machine to confirm we were a legitimate business. We also had trouble buying US dollars with UK pounds but connections at the World Bank solved that problem.
Did you ever wonder why you bothered? What were the most stressful elements of the experience? Tax? Staff? Red tape? Your own mistakes?
There was no other way to be able to gain access to 16Kb of memory and the project was also quite exciting – involving flying memory chips in anti-static packaging in a private jet from Washington to London etc. Also, a lot of computers were developed in that year that would not have been possible without access to that DRAM memory.
Who did you lean on when times got tough?
My joint venture partner! We got on very well with each other and motivated ourselves by thinking of how big the business could get!
How did the venture fare?
After the first shipment, we did two more – for a next generation of the chips and then for some Z80 processors. It was really a three-hit wonder. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, import duties on chips into the UK were slashed to allow innovation in software and system development. Japanese and US chips were then easy to buy and traditional importers like Radiospares started to pay attention. Germany held out for a while to protect their state chip maker Siemens but even they opened up later.
Did you have co-founders and if so who and what were the respective roles?
My co-founder was responsible for procuring items and transporting them to the UK. I was responsible for deciding what chips to offer and finding enough initial orders to fund a purchase.
Can you recall networking with other business people locally or further afield to help deal with problems or identify people or institutions who could help you progress?
It was through this activity that I got involved with Cambridge Computer Unit (CPU) which morphed into Acorn Computers. I wrote a tape filing system for the Acorn Electron to support a new type of Tape Drive that I had imported from Phillips. That got me a part-time job at Acorn when it was at Market Hill, just pre-BBCmicro.
If you sold the business please outline publishable details – buyer, deal value?
We did not sell it.
Assuming you decided, ‘Well that wasn’t so bad after all,’ did you go on to found/co-found other ventures? Or to finance them as an angel/serial entrepreneur? If so please give details of these businesses, the nature of your involvement and how they fared?
I went to work for a year at a lumbering giant of a UK company (GEC Computers) but it turned out to be a dying giant and in any case I came back to Cambridge to found a new company – Torch Computers – that was going to do a Z80 based computer using the BBC Micro as an IO subsystem. A joint venture, initially, with Acorn.
Did you see any of the same old problems regurgitated?
Not really. The company was venture capital funded and the only problem we had with chips was that Acorn was three years late delivering a key component called ‘the Tube’ to connect the BBC micro with our Z80 system, so we had to develop our own equivalent from off the shelf components.
Given your time again what would you do differently - if anything?
I would probably have expanded my initial market beyond the Cambridge Microprocessor Community – but that was hard in those days – as there was no internet and comms was expensive.
What advice would you give to young people keen to follow in your footsteps?
Business is really challenging and fun – so if you like challenge and solving problems, get stuck in.
Is the UK environment receptive to supporting entrepreneurial ventures? In which areas could things be improved to stimulate more sustainable businesses in Cambridge and the UK?
2022 is massively more supportive than 1979. In particular the internet is a huge help to trading and communicating, and the business environment is good – although there are always terrible red tape pressures trying to stop innovation and growth. I am optimistic that Brexit will give businesses more freedom to operate but we all know that politicians are pretty hopeless when it comes to actually getting anything done!
Do enough of our businesses scale up to maximum potential? Indeed is there a scale-up model? Or are the majority of businesses founded by Cambridge entrepreneurs limited by ambition?
Probably not. In the ’90’s Cambridge had a bit of a ‘Porsche and 2 secretaries’ phenomenon – where people stopped growing when the founder/CEO got to a certain level.However, I think there is now a new wave of more ambitious people starting to show what can be done on a global scale. The slight challenge is a funding one for scale-up businesses. ‘Scale Up’ sounds less risky, so investors start to be more conservative – or you use AIM finance which can be difficult to leverage for ambitious activity. There is a bit of an ‘Under promise and Over-deliver’ mentality that is dampening progress and ambition in the UK. The US has a lot more of a ‘let’s try to achieve amazing things’ support network and culture.