How I beat the odds: Serial tech entrepreneur Dan Wagner (video)

The founder of Dialog, Venda and Powa on surviving a dotcom crash and why UK investors lack balls.

by Rachel Savage
Last Updated: 28 May 2015

I started my first business, MAID (later Dialog), to deliver information online when I was 21. It was 1984 - five years before Tim Berners-Lee presented the concept of the worldwide web to Cern.

Everyone thought Dialog wasn't an internet company; we were seen as new media and valued accordingly. I had to fight my way onto Techmark, the collection of dotcom companies on the London Stock Exchange.

Although we accounted for 30% of all the revenue on Techmark, our market cap was less than 1%. But we were beating the FT into a pulp in the online information distribution marketplace. I always had difficult coverage in the FT - it labelled us 'Dial-A-Dog'.

In the end, I relented to pressure from investors to sell up. The business went from being worth $300m (£180m) to $900m in one day - despite the fact that we'd got rid of all the revenue streams. But the real killer was that it was only three weeks before the dotcom crash.

Having been master of the universe, I found myself in a small office in Soho Square with a few people and a new business called Venda, trying to convince everybody that renting an e-commerce platform was the future.

I drove three hours in my Aston Martin in pouring rain for a meeting with a catalogue retailer in Bradford. I arrived drenched, only to have the IT director say: 'You're so naive. You don't understand retail. You're wasting my time.' So I had to drive straight back. That was probably the worst moment of my career, but the next day we signed the BBC and I was absolutely thrilled.

There's a tremendous interaction and personalisation when you're shopping online. Then you walk into the same store on the high street and it's got no idea who you are. My new mobile payments business, Powa, is all about addressing that disparity.

Raising $100m, as we did last summer, would not have been possible in the UK. No investor here would have had the balls to do it. That's wrong, because the value of the business has gone up dramatically since.

There are a number of investment banks that are enthusiastically pursuing us to float. To an entrepreneur who's usually ahead of the time, it's fantastically liberating and endorsing. But I don't think of it as vindication, because my success is in plain sight.

Over the years, there's been a lot of hectoring about my activities, but that's just the British way, I don't think it's anything personal. I've got a lot of those American characteristics of self-promotion, and I think that grates on people here.

But I am British and I love this country. The products and businesses I've created define me, not some duck waistcoat that I wore once. It sounds tacky, but it wasn't. It was a fashionable Moschino waistcoat.

- Here's Wagner, at his office in London's Heron Tower, talking about why the US is better than the UK for business and the future of retail:

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime