The adage about waiting ages for a bus and then three come along has some resonance in the IT business. Like buses, opportunities can sometimes seem thin on the ground and then the next minute a whole fleet hovers into view.
With buses, though, they're usually clearly numbered so you know their general direction.
IT opportunities, alas, are not so clearly signposted and just when you think you've leapt aboard what appears to be a winning technology, you find the destination has inexplicably changed - and you're on a fast ride to nowhere.
It was probably reflecting along such lines that prompted a young, would-be entrepreneur to ask that old route master Bill Gates recently if fortunes could still be carved out of software development or whether that particular bus had long since departed.
Microsoft's founder - responding in this month's issue of Management Today - affirmed that they can, but only if the application is aimed at a niche market: 'I won't say you can build another Microsoft, but you can shoot for $200 million a year in sales by selling 10,000 copies of a $200 product. But the product has to do something specific or give practical information in areas such as medicine or accounting.'
However, judging by his actions, Gates' real view seems to be that the next highway to riches has more to do with cable viewing, remote access and internet-driven telecoms rather than software, and that ownership of the digital infrastructure and its associated standards is the place to be. Quite where hardware dealers fit into this roadmap is anyone's guess, although it probably has more to do with integration and next-generation mobile devices than mere PCs or application development.
Then there's the issue of funding - an area in which US innovators do far better than their UK cousins. If you have a bright idea in Silicon Valley, you'll find venture capitalists beating a path to your door. Not so in the UK. In his book Making it Big in Software, Peter McHugh highlights the plight of one UK firm - modelling tools specialist Select Software - which took nine months to persuade 3i to stump up seed money. That 3i provided backing within just nine months was itself regarded as a record, so God help anyone with a more time-critical idea.
Not only that, says McHugh, but UK venture capitalists usually seek a 40-plus per cent compound annual return and want to get out quickly so that they can cash in their shares.
Of course, UK entrepreneurs can raise their money in the US and then, typically, go for a Nasdaq listing. But the latter's strict quarterly reporting requirements mean spending nearly all your time in the US while striving to deliver impressive dividends every three months. No easy balancing act.
The alternative is to stay here and watch your ideas fade into the sand for want of cash backing. Little wonder then that, as a nation, we all miss the bus when it comes to IT entrepreneurship.
Dave Evans is a freelance IT journalist.
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