Toner Replacement Dude to Tech City Deputy CEO ... with a little help from his friends

An interview with Ben Southworth

This is the first in a series of interviews for with people who’ve had interesting careers in and around the worlds of technology, startups, design and the creative industries. 

I’m interested in their success and failures, but I’m especially focusing on the role that other people have played in their success and helping them move their personal and professional selves forward.

Today I'm really pleased to be interviewing Ben Southworth, developer, hustler and all round energy machine. Ben is best known in the UK tech scene for his work during 2011-13 as deputy CEO of the Tech City UK, where he bought the voice of the startup community right into the heart of government.

But it wasn't always black tie dinners and corridors of power for Ben. Like many of us in the internet business, he started off hacking in his bedroom and working for a tiny IT firm... 

Hi Ben, so let's start at the start - what was the first job you had and how did you get it? 

Also, I often find that early professional experience has a disproportionate influence on later career choices - is there anything from those early days that has stayed with you? If so, why?

Hi Nick, thanks for asking me to be involved. Gosh, my first job... Well, it was doing IT support for a small local magazine company in Cambridge, I was the server, networking, printer toner replacing dude for a team of about 25,  and it was there that I started learning about design, and most importantly websites. I was 18, and saw the job advertised for 22k and emailed the boss directly and said I’d do it for 11k. 

I got the job straight away. I learnt a bunch of lessons that stayed with me, but mainly, it introduced me to one of my best friends, and showed me how much fun work was compared to school. I’m not sure what effect that job had on my later decisions or life choices, but I suppose I’ve always enjoyed getting stuck in.  

“I was 18, and saw the job advertised for 22k and emailed the boss directly and said I’d do it for 11k.”

Toner Replacement Dude. Did you get a business card with that?! So lets jump forward a bit. You're most well known for being mr internet. What was your first encounter with the web, and when and how did that first translate into a proper job? 

You've done a lot of different roles throughout your career leading up to being deputy CEO at Tech City. What's the best one?

Ha ha! I totally should have. I was bit more earnest back then. My first encounter with the tubes of interwebs was when my father brought home a new Mac, it was a godawful machine in retrospect, a Performa 5200, Apple’s attempt to recreate the Classic. Woefully underpowered, but my father decided to buy a modem so he could send faxes (that was how they were sold back then) it was a Global Village 28.8 and I very quickly ran up huge phone bills exploring the detritus of the early web, Gopher, BBS, Academic FTP servers, AOL, eWorld, Compuserve and I just, thought “This is a much better than telly”. 

So I started reading the theories of the internet, the motivations, the philosophy of a networked world, and this combined with a left leaning family environment, I very quickly started to believe in the power of the a connected world for systemic change. My father was a Professor, and a learned chap, so we’d spend hours discussing the implications that this could have. Once the read/write web became visible I knew where I wanted to be playing. 

Best role? Hmm, very tricky, I’m super happy with my work/life right now, that’s not to mean, it doesn’t frustrate me, I wish I had more time to build things and to sit down and just code, but life doesn’t always go to plan. 

I must say, I found the Deputy CEO role incredibly fascinating, and to have a job that lets  you walk in to Number 10 and get angry with people who really should be doing more was quite the privilege, and something I’ll never forget. 

I think working at Taptu doing a mixture of community and people management, combined with a product pivot and setting up the US office, was the most diverse and fascinating. Especially due to the incredibly smart engineers we had, most of them were with either Oxford/Cambridge post-docs or super smart grads, and working with a team that is so incredibly competent was a joy to be around. It was non-stop learning, and it was where I met one of my great friends and mentors, Gabbi Cahane (@GabbiCahane), who has been so incredibly helpful to making the 3 beards make financial sense. 

“I wish I had more time to build things and to sit down and just code, but life doesn’t always go to plan.”

You mentioned a couple of people there, Gabbi, the 3 beards team... Who are some of the most important people you've met during your career so far, and how have they helped you? I'm particularly interested to learn about people who helped you take important steps forward, for example, who was involved in getting you onboard for the deputy CEO role? 

Wow! Great questions! Hmm, Michael Hobson (@imhobson) and Bryce Keane (@Bryce_Keane) of the 3 beards have been massively influential in lots of ways, from giving me hope in our small participation in the London startup community to listening to my crazy ideas without (too much) judgement. 

When it came to the government gig, a lot came down to my father (who worked in a comparable role, but for education as Director of Research for National College of School Leadership under Blair & Brown) and a crazy outmoded sense of civic duty. When pondering wether to take the role, Bryce & Gabbi were, again, very influential in helping me from my thoughts and in helping me elucidate my ideas. 

However, I am a very prototypical only child and am not really known for taking others opinions on with the same veracity as my own! As Mr Bobby Dylan says “I was just too stubborn to ever be governed by enforced insanity”. However I am attempting to soften in this regard and my great friend Victoria Stoyanova (@vicky_stoyanova) has been crucial in helping me find form to more outlandish thoughts, especially around the more conceptual/high minded projects such as Ada Lovelace as well as a very nascent idea of perhaps running for public office at the election after next. 

When actually in the Deputy CEO role I cannot praise the support and intellectual capacity, vision and courage of Rohan Silva(@rohan__silva) and Keiran Kumaria(@kkumaria) enough, without whom I would never have learnt to navigate (however crudely) the political maze, Caroline Rae also deserves a huge shout out for her unflappable charm and guidance.

On a wider and more general level, Mark Jennings(@markofrespect) and Tom Morgan-Jones(@TomMorganJones) have been crucial in giving me a safe space to rant and rave and have all too frequently indulged my boorish drunkenness in the way that only true brothers can!  

Ok, so what's next? You seem to be a man in a hurry to do a lot of different things! You have a proposal for a school, an investment fund, various client projects - where's all this going? What do you want to be working on in five years time? 

If you don't know that, how are you going to figure out what you want - you have the blessing and curse of the polymath in that you can do lots of stuff. But what stuff is most important to you? Do you know?

Hmm, the old five year plan eh? Gosh, I mean, I don’t really know, and I never have. I certainly never expected or planned to be where I am now, life throws you a few balls and you try to best to make the runs you can. I’d like The Ada Lovelace academy to be in its 4th year, and hopefully having proven that the model works, and to be looking at scaling or expanding that. There’s a couple of super secret projects, one I hope will have exited by then and the other be world renowned. 

I’d like to financially free to just be, and would like to be starting a degree (I never got one, and it pisses me of a bit) hopefully I’ll have written the book I keep promising myself I’ll write, and I guess preparing for the election? But mainly I’d like to be happy, and content with my lot with the great friends I have now.

I tend to choose things based on what excites me and “feels” right, when things are not settled I tend to drop them, and I’ve had to do that with Lean Capital, it stopped feeling exciting, and started to become a chore and whilst I’d love to learn more about being on the other side of the table, it can wait until later, when hopefully I’ll be playing with my own money. I want to focus firstly on Ada then the secret projects this year, with a few personal-life-based goals thrown in.

What matters to me is enjoying my days, working because I want to, not because I have to, and whilst I’m certainly no polymath, being able to do bits and bobs of lots of things means whenever I feeling uninspired, I can switch tasks and do something else; a little design, prep a talk, brainstorm an idea, and I love that freedom, and I’m so very fortunate that I’m in a place, a space and a world that let’s me do that. It really is a blessing. 

“What matters to me is enjoying my days, working because I want to, not because I have to”

All I've known is I want to do what’s important to me and that will have a lasting impact to someone, somewhere. What that will be or looks like.  I don’t know, and I don’t think I’d want to. There is such joy in not knowing what’s around the next corner, or the next meeting, or in the next person you meet and that’s something that makes me smile. 

Thanks Ben. What a whirlwind tour. I wish you all the best.

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