Insights from one of the UK’s best known tech entrepreneurs

First, he futureproofed the BBC by rolling out its iPlayer. Next, he founded and exited two pioneering media tech companies. Now, his new business – SeedLegals, backed to the tune of £4m so far by Index Ventures and other top VC firms – is fundamentally transforming the way start-ups launch and grow. Meanwhile, another Anthony Rose creation, QJAM (strapline: Meet Your Favourite Artists), is shaking up the music industry. 

If you think we’reexaggerating, we’re not. 

Anthony Rose is a unique blend of both  a successful  entrepreneur and leading technologist. His Wikipedia page is an embarrassment of achievements – a Bafta here, 14 tech patents there, a Broadcast Magazine Individual Achievement Award hiding behind the sofa… 

But what drives this impressive founder? And what entrepreneurial insights is he able to share? We spoke to him to find out.

SeedLegals has quickly become the UK’s number one closer of funding rounds. It features more than 15,000 companies and has provided the framework for investment deals worth £300m. Those are incredible stats. How does it work?

“Over the past 18 months, SeedLegals has completely transformed the way UK start-ups raise investment. How does it work? Let’s say I want to set up a contract with you. We need a legally binding agreement. Before SeedLegals, I’d call my lawyer and he or she, for a very large fee, would create an agreement that swings the terms insanely in my favour. Next, we’d send that agreement to your lawyer, who, for a significant sum, would swing the terms back in your favour. Neither of us would understand the legals and our lawyers would then bicker to reach an agreement. With SeedLegals, a machine builds the contract. It takes care of the legals and shows the terms to both parties, allowing for a simple negotiation process to be completed.”

We understand that SeedLegals has raised more than £4m, and Index Ventures is one of the investors. Why are VCs so keen to get involved?

“Using a computer to create contracts is just the start. What’s fantastic about a solution like SeedLegals is the data you gather. We can use that data to do other brilliant things. For example, we can show you the ‘market standard’ terms for many types of contract. Before this innovation, you had no idea whether the conditions you were being offered were crazy or reasonable.

“And now we’re looking further ahead. We initially set out to solve a pain point – to create a contract quickly and efficiently. That was Phase One. Phase Two is even more exciting because we are looking to redefine the problem and therefore transform the market. 

“Self-driving cars are a good analogy. In Phase One, you create the technology and solve the initial problem, allowing you to email, relax or read while your vehicle drives. But in Phase Two, everythingchanges: you revolutionise the concept of car ownership, you make garages and parking spaces unnecessary, you enable roads to become more efficient – all because you solved the first problem. During the next phase of SeedLegals we’ll be offering services that people didn’t even know they wanted, such as a marketplace that introduces investors to founders, and new secondary markets. That’s why I believe it is attracting lots of interest – because VCs are drawn to propositions that can change things fundamentally.”

Let’s rewind. You’re famous for launching the BBC’s iPlayer. How did that come about? 

“It all started at my local computer club in Cape Town! I was into electronics and, aged about 16, I used robotics to make some circuit boards for an Apple II computer. I took them into my local Apple store – to show off what I’d made. They said: ‘Fantastic; we’ll take 20.’ That must have sparked my entrepreneurial drive!

“Later, we moved to Australia and I ended up working at Kazaa, a music file-sharing company. While attending various media events, I met Eric Huggers, head of future media at the BBC. He persuaded me to join him to work on a new online player. I’d been bitten by the bug of having millions of people use your product at Kazaa. I wanted to experience it again but with video rather than music, so I moved to the UK and joined the BBC.”

Wired UK describes you as the “man who saved the BBC”.Why was the iPlayer so transformational?

“Broadcasters always saw their role as delivering high-quality content and deciding what people want to watch at what time. Then the internet came along. Suddenly, we had YouTube and videos of cats on skateboards. Broadcasters dismissed all this as low-quality rubbish – stuff for children. But they were myopic. It took a decade for many to realise they had to change. The BBC saw early on that if it didn’t innovate, it would die and get overtaken by internet players. So they began to look at putting their programming on the internet. iPlayer was the result of that, and it has allowed them to keep up in the market.”

“The sad thing is that although the distribution problem has been solved, broadcasters haven’t innovated on content. So the programmes you see on your phone today are the same ones they put on TV last night. Why aren’t they making interactive programming? Where are the new styles? Why not three-minute programmes? There has been a creative surge on the packaging and distribution of content, but not on the content itself. What programming is and what people want has morphed. Broadcasters are still stuck in the past and they will become dinosaurs if they don’t change.”

Why did you leave the BBC? What did you do next?

“The job was done and the iPlayer had been delivered, so it was time to move to the next challenge. After leaving the BBC, I launched a start-up called Zeebox in 2011. Zeebox sprang from questions such as: ‘Can you have a social experience around TV?’ ‘Can viewers participate in shows?’ The idea was that when you’re watching TV, you’re scrolling through Twitter and Facebook, or maybe moaning at people on Love Island! Since broadcasters weren’t changing the content they were making, could someone else provide that interactive experience? Could you create recommendations that work better than standard on-screen TV guides? Could you show viewers what’s trending in real-time? Could you use your phone as a remote control? Could you turn the usual TV experience into something more interactive for the modern age? Zeebox, which set out to answer some of those questions, [later rebranded Beamly] was eventually sold to COTY in 2015.”

“I sold my next start-up – 6Tribes – to the Top Gear guys in 2016. 6Tribes came about because of all the irrelevant content you see on Facebook and Twitter. You follow people and see everything they publish – that’s the ‘follow’ model. But could you pivot that and decide which topicsto follow? Could you create groups of people whom you follow and become part of their tribe? It took off nicely and it turned out that our major tribes were car lovers. You’d walk down the street, see a gold Lamborghini, take a photo and post it into one of the car tribes. In moments you’d have 50 ‘likes’ or accolades from people who share your passion. If you’d put the same picture in your Twitter feed, it would have been great for car lovers, but for everyone else it would have been like, dude, why are you posting that? Eventually, it made sense to sell 6Tribes and it has now morphed into DriveTribe.” 

“After 6Tribes, I ended up with a few irons in the fire. SeedLegals was one; another was QJAM, which is reinventing the way musicians connect with their fans.”

What key business lessons have you learned over the years?

“Lesson One. Try not to grow faster than your revenues – ironic advice given that we help people to close funding rounds! But you don’t want a huge burn rate. Focus your cash flow to achieve break-even, so you’re not beholden to investors to stay in business. This is sound advice, particularly when unexpected challenges like coronavirus come along. It’s fashionable in start-up land to raise massive amounts and spend huge amounts. It’s almost fashionable to have a no revenue model! When things are going well, that might be OK, but it becomes very difficult when circumstances change.

“Lesson Two. I’m a tech guy, so I love getting involved in tech and product builds. But as your business grows, you might need to spend less time doing what you love and more time building your team. Roles have to change as the business evolves. You may find you have to adapt and, if you can adapt, that’s great. But if you can’t, you might have to find a new role somewhere else. When you start, the founders have complete influence and control, but over a tiny area. As the company grows, their control diminishes – it gets blurred with distance like ripples in a pond, but those ripples now travel a long way.’’

“Lesson Three. A company starts with the founder’s vision. It’s a passion. You want to solve a problem, change the world, and you get others to join you. The question is: how fixated should you be on the vision versus doing what your customers want today? If you utterly fixate on delivering a big vision, you’re probably going to run out of cash before you get there. On the flipside, if you keep asking your customers what they want, that’s fantastic, but you’ll end up delivering a small and incremental – but beautiful – improvement on what’s already available in the market. Customers might say: ‘I want Facebook but with better privacy control.’ So you end up reinventing Facebook. But nobody wants a new Facebook – they want something completely different but don’t know what it is yet. So you need to find the right balance between drinking your own Kool-Aid and listening to what your customers want. Go too far down one of these two paths and you’ll end up with either an undifferentiated product or something that’s totally divorced from what anyone wants.”

FEBE’s final word

So, there we have it – business lessons from one of the UK’s most well-known tech founders, alongside the story of his fascinating entrepreneurial life. Anthony Rose’s talent for building transformative businesses is extraordinary. And it all seems to spring from three elements. First, his engineer-level tech knowledge – the teenager who made commercially successful circuit boards for an Apple II computer was always going to go on to achieve great things. Second, his indefatigable urge to create – “once the iPlayer had been delivered, it was time to move to the next challenge,” he says. Third, his ability to think differently to the crowd while often being several years ahead of the game – as both Zeebox and SeedLegals have proven. Combine this trio of talents and you get one entrepreneurial prodigy – with plenty of insights to share.