Russ Shaw is the brains behind Tech London Advocates, the private sector network of 6,000 tech leaders.
Launched in 2013, he has built it into London’s most powerful tech lobbying group and arguably its most influential business network. But Shaw isn’t satisfied. This is a man on a mission to turn London into one of the defining tech capitals of the digital era, alongside Silicon Valley in California and the Pearl River Delta in China. And he knows what’s needed to get there.
Tech London Advocates’ latest report, 2023: The Future of London Tech, sets out ten big objectives for the capital’s tech scene. This includes: committing 1% of profits to social initiatives and local communities; achieving 33% gender diversity in the tech workforce; creating a new Secretary of State for Digital; and attracting $6bn into London-based tech firms annually.
Shaw describes himself as a ‘coverted Londoner’. He was born in New York’s Long Island. His parents ran an upmarket furniture business but had to file for bankruptcy in the mid-seventies when the recession hit. ‘We had food on the table – but not much more than that,’ he says. The family moved to Phoenix in Arizona and started again, launching Stool and Dinette Factory and growing it into a chain of seven stores. ‘My father worked seven days a week and was gone most of the time,’ recalls Shaw.
In his late teens, Shaw took on an after-school job with a cleaning agency to help cover his uni fees. ‘It was the ultimate eye-opener,’ he says. ‘I cleaned people’s homes and offices – some of them treated me well, others treated me like an animal.’ In the two years that Shaw worked there, the company grew from 10 to 50 employees, and the owner was named Phoenix Businesswoman of the Year. But Shaw also witnessed her fall: ‘I saw how hard she worked – and how badly she then messed up. She mixed with the wrong crowd, she got involved with drugs and she let success go to her head. When I left the company just before I went to uni, my pay cheque bounced and she skipped town.’
Those experiences ultimately shaped – and tarnished – Shaw’s view of entrepreneurship. ‘People would ask me: "Don’t you want to work in your parents’ business?" or "Don’t you want to start your own venture?" and I’d say: "Are you kidding me? No way!"’
Instead, Shaw qualified as a chartered accountant (‘It was boring but I wanted to understand how to read a financial statement and manage a balance sheet’), then did an MBA at Harvard Business School. It was there he met his wife Lesley, a mechanical engineer – and a Brit. ‘I sat next to her on the first day of class and plucked up the courage to ask her out halfway through the first year. I think she said yes because she felt sorry for me! Our first date was at Legal Seafood in Boston. I proposed to her there – at the same table – exactly one year later.’
Shaw spent the next decade working for American Express, initially in San Francisco then relocating to London in 1992 when Lesley’s US visa ran out, then he set up the first ever online share-dealing platform for Charles Schwab.
He then did a ‘career pivot’, leaving financial services for the world of telecoms. He spent two years as managing director at NTL before joining start-up Mobileway as CEO in 2003. His brief: to make the company profitable, do a Series D funding round and clean up the board. With Shaw at the helm, the business’s valuation went from $27m to $90m. ‘Of all my jobs, that was the hardest. I was on 24/7 and travelled between London and Silicon Valley, where our investors were based. I had three young sons at home and Lesley had been diagnosed with Leukemia two years earlier. It was a tough time and it took its toll.’
But those ’12 months of hell’ came with a reward. Shaw left in 2004 when Mobileway merged with InphoMatch to form Mobile365 – but he kept hold of his equity. When the company was later bought by Sybase for $425m, Shaw got a windfall.
Next came a stint as marketing director at O2, where Shaw negotiated the sponsorship deal that turned the Millennium Dome (Shaw calls it 'the D-word') into The O2: it’s his name on the contract.
‘I had to get approval from the board and I remember Peter Erskine [then CEO of O2] saying to me: "Do you really want to sponsor this thing? Are you crazy?" It took two years to get the deal through but it’s one of the things I’m most proud of. The O2 is now the most successful indoor entertainment venue in the world, surpassing Madison Square Garden. That's part of my legacy.’
When Telefónica brought O2 for £17.7bn (another windfall for Shaw), he became the firm’s global innovation director. Then came Skype. Shaw ran Europe, Middle East and Africa and set up a mobile division to put Skype on iPhone and Android. When the company was snapped up by Microsoft in 2011, Shaw took his winnings and quit.
Life beyond the corporate world
Shaw is a wealthy man – but he isn’t showy. ‘I’m not into buying fancy cars,’ he jokes. His biggest extravagances have been family holidays to Cairo and New Zealand.
While Shaw vowed that he’d never work in a corporate job again, he wasn’t ready to hang up his hat. He took on some non-exec positions and became an angel investor – but it wasn’t enough.
‘The tech sector has been good to me and London is my home. An ecosystem was emerging here and I wanted to be part of it.
‘The government and City Hall were doing a good job of promoting the sector but the voice of the private sector was missing,' he continues. 'I could see an opportunity to build an influential group of tech leaders, experts and investors.’
And that’s exactly what he’s done. Tech London Advocates has played a big part in London’s remarkable growth trajectory. The UK now has 22 of Europe’s 57 tech unicorns, the vast majority of which are based in the capital. Nearly £3bn was invested into London’s tech companies in 2017, which now employ more than 300,000 people in the capital.
‘I waited until I was 50 to become an entrepreneur – and I’ve been able to do it on my own terms and with my own money. I hope I can make a difference.’
Image credit: Russ Shaw