Ben Brabyn’s handshake is textbook firm. I’d expected bone-crunching. Then again, I’d also expected camouflage and SA80s, not the shirt and jacket combo, sans tie, that’s typical of the fintech sector. But in my defence, I’d never met a Royal Marine Commando before.
‘You may well have done without knowing it,’ the head of Canary Wharf tech hub Level 39 says, with a smile and welcoming slice of carrot cake. ‘We pop up in all sorts of places.’
Brabyn left the family farm (literally) to study philosophy and literature at university, before spending five years as a marine in the late 90s. Not a traditional business background, he admits, but a surprisingly effective one.
‘There are four commando qualities which are stamped into your soul as you go through selection and training – determination, unselfishness, cheerfulness in adversity and courage. I can’t say I’ve banked them all, but that’s a pretty good rulebook for life.’
If there is a stereotype of military veterans as slow, rigid thinkers or command-and-control managers, Brabyn says, it’s misplaced. ‘A common characteristic is the willingness to not defend a position, to admit to curiosity and uncertainty and then to adapt. There’s a fluidity of approach that often surprises civilians.’
The qualities required for success in military and business life may be more similar than you’d think, but the experience itself is of course drastically different. Amphibious landings and storming villages are unlikely to come up running a start-up hub in the heart of corporate London, even if some entrepreneurs would argue it feels like it. There’s a fundamental contrast in Brabyn’s role too. Where before he was taking control, here at Level 39 his job is essentially to build bridges.
There are 1250 people from 48 countries across the three floors of Level 39, in One Canada Square (no prizes for guessing which floor they started on). While the focus is on fintech, cybersecurity, retail tech and smart cities, Brabyn says it reflects a huge diversity of backgrounds and approaches. The only common feature is global ambition.
UK tech vs the world
Canary Wharf Group set up Level 39 partly as an effort to lessen their reliance on tenants from the traditional financial services, and partly to invigorate those other tenants by providing a space for them to interact with nimble, fresh-thinking start-ups. Ties and T-shirts mingle freely here. It’s telling that, yes, there is a ping pong table, but it’s in a room out of sight, so as not to deter visiting senior executives from major financial institutions.
Brabyn views Level 39’s strengths in fostering relationships between start-ups, big corporates, regulators and academics as a microcosm for the UK’s own position in the world. Perhaps we shouldn’t be aiming to create ‘the next Google’ or ‘the next Facebook’, he suggests.
‘You have to be careful what you wish for. If you want to succeed in the same way as someone else, then it’s important to consider whether your starting conditions are remotely comparable. I would suggest the key competitive advantages of the UK and London are as a global broker, as a great convener,’ Brabyn says. ‘We’re a great global soft power, we’re trusted in a way which is quite unusual.’
Animated, he goes on to talk about the good work that companies here are doing, by bringing excluded people into the financial system worldwide and by advancing cybersecurity for the benefit of all, with the UK both a global leader in its own right and a pioneer in helping to forge global standards.
‘Warfare’s been slightly less wretched as a result of the Geneva and Hague conventions. This country is at the forefront of conceiving rules for cybersecurity, protecting infrastructure not only for our citizens but other citizens of other parts of the world.’
There’s something somewhat political about the way Brabyn talks about the big picture, as though each word, though delivered quickly, is chosen carefully. It was no surprise to learn he once toyed with local politics, and it wouldn’t shock if he found his way into national politics at some point.
‘We speak softly and carry a stick that’s big enough to continue to have those conversations...’
The early days of crowdfunding
Going political would certainly cap a richly varied career. After the marines he worked for JP Morgan (‘where I became a devotee of Excel’), and in more recent years he was at UK Trade and Investment, but Brabyn really cut his business teeth as an entrepreneur.
While studying for an MBA in 2001, he co-founded fundraising site Bmycharity with a former comrade from the marines, Matt Cooper (‘we met digging a fox hole, so to speak’). ‘We can reasonably claim to have been the first crowdfunding platform,’ Brabyn says, pointing out that rival Just Giving launched ‘frustratingly’ in the same month.
‘It was a true bootstrapping exercise. We were two guys when they were 20. We were four when they were 60. But we got up to a good market share, 30% in the first year.’
They sold in 2010, and Brabyn began what he calls a portfolio life. Then, one day, he went to the doctor after suffering from persistent, low-level headaches. They found a brain tumour the size of a fist.
‘I didn’t really have a great amount of time to get used to the idea. I was diagnosed on a Tuesday afternoon, admitted to hospital immediately, was scanned continuously for 36 hours and then had it removed on the Thursday morning. In between the scans, I had extraordinary conversations with my wife about what this meant for her, for me, for our marriage and our children. They’re conversations I wouldn’t wish on anyone.’
He describes himself as ‘incredibly lucky’ to have survived undamaged, having been warned that loss of cognitive functions was likely, but even at the time he was wary of the idea that this would somehow transform the way he saw the world.
‘I’m conscious that everyone looks for meaning in an episode like this, for there to be a Damascene moment of epiphany. At a time when I was at my most disoriented, I quickly realised I couldn’t trust other people to report reliably. They just said nice things like "you look great", which was obviously untrue – I looked like a zombie in a horror film.
‘But it was a great moment for humility. I am a wreck and will take the time to allow clarity to re-emerge without needing to leap to conclusions. After six months, my main insight was that time’s flying. I was in a reasonable hurry before, but I’m in more of a hurry now.’
The pace of life in Level 39 clearly suits him then, and he hasn’t announced any intention of leaving any time soon. But one still can’t help wondering what’s next. ‘As far as I can tell you only get to live once, which is a real frustration, because I’ve got about six parallel lives I want to be leading.’
Image credit: Level 39