One of the joys of moving to the UK from South Africa in the late ‘80’s were the newspapers. A frustration of living under the apartheid regime was the censorship of newspapers and the banning of certain books and magazines. For me, the size and scale of The Sunday Times here was such a delight and one of the most exciting parts was a magazine that arrived inside the paper about once a month selling extraordinary gadgets, called Innovations – a catalogue with a difference and a real point of view.
I first met Robin Klein by chance in 1997 when he was Managing Director of home shopping at the Burton Group – now Arcadia. A fellow South African, I immediately needed to make sense of how a self-starter, entrepreneur was working in an apparel corporate, which at the time was being run by American department store retailer, John Hoerner. When Robin told me that he got there by selling his company, Innovations to them, I knew that he was someone incredibly special. Twenty-two years later, and I am still as inspired by Robin now as I was then.
Actually, it is now well documented that Robin conducted the first ecommerce transaction in the UK when he sold Innovations to Arcadia. John Hoerner had seen the success that Next was having with its home shopping catalogue, Next Directory. John had engaged management consultants to help the Burton Group to find a way to go head to head with the Directory and after doing their research, the advice was for the Burton Group to buy Innovations which they duly did. This kicked off their home shopping channel and Robin spent two years there afterwards embedding in and running the division for John as well as becoming the Group Marketing Director.
Already back then, Robin had the foresight to know that technology would be the future and that it would only get better and better. At Innovations, he had already hired what he called Data Statisticians – today they would be called Data Scientists. Innovations developed and pioneered inventory free retail – they never carried any stock and used an EDI system that sent the labels to suppliers electronically for them to ship to customers (Robin was already thinking like FarFetch, notonthehighstreet and Etsy and had created a marketplace linking customers directly to suppliers).
In 1994, his son Saul was working for the Telegraph where they were working to launch the newspaper online. Saul began to talk to Robin about this new phenomenon becoming the printing press of the 21st century and that he could see a time where the Innovations sales would be online. A trip with the Telegraph to interview the founders of Netscape in Silicon Valley pre-IPO sparked something further and Saul reported back to his dad about Netscape and the web. Soon after, Saul went to work in Silicon Valley for Ogilivy Digital and by then they both knew that this was where their future lay. In 1995, Innovations began to sell on the web via a dial up modem. “I stuck with it as I knew it would improve with time – and by the time Innovations was sold to Arcadia we had a run rate of £80,000 a month,” Robin explained to me. After two invaluable and informative years – his first in the corporate world and the first time that he had ever had a boss, Robin left to begin his own venture vehicle investing in tech start-ups. It was the beginning of the first dot.com boom and he invested in 8 start-ups. Robin tells me: ‘Seven of the investments failed and went bust and only one succeeded and that was Brent Hoberman and Martha Lane Fox’s business, lastminute.com.’ Robin continues: “You only need that one outlier to succeed – that’s all it takes and I embedded that philosophy into everything that I did. I continue to apply that philosophy today”.
Interestingly, in parallel, Saul was developing his own successful career in tech. He was part of the team that developed Skype and he founded his own company Video Island, which went on to become Love Film which was ultimately sold to Amazon. Saul joined Danny Rimer at Index Ventures and they approached Robin to do their seed investing for them, which he did very successfully, whilst at the same time continuing with his own investments. This period was hugely rewarding as Robin was able to invest like an angel but with institutional backing. The key moment though was in 2015 when Robin and Saul turned Local Globe into a reality – a seed-stage VC firm, with a team, a building and a successful slate of investments. Their brand-new building has just opened. Phoenix Court is no normal, ‘run of the mill’, VC office. At the back of Kings Cross behind the Crick Institute it acts as a hub for founders and their teams. Designed by Spanish Architects, Selgas Cano – think Rohan Silva and Second Home – it is a place for people who are building organisations for the future. A library, a programme of talks and discussions and a studio for podcasts are all on site. Robin says: “What we wanted to do was build something to last. This is the vision that Saul and I have. When we left Index, it was, ‘let’s build something that isn’t just about making investments and hopefully helping some great companies emerge, but let’s build something that is going to last and is enduring beyond me, beyond Saul,’ and so on. An institution, if you like, in its own right, in our peculiar way”.
I normally associate start-ups and particularly technology start-ups with millennials. Robin was born in 1947 and this year he will be 72. So, I asked him what has kept him thinking in a millennial-minded way for the past 50 years? “I put it down to my curiosity and I am always wanting to learn. I am always looking ahead and I never look backwards. My life force is to look ahead and if you dwell on the past, it drains the life force. I have always been fascinated by the future and it is what propels me forward.” I go on to ask him how he sees the future? Robin says: ‘These days I am older than everyone else that I work with and by being with young founders and younger venture partners most days of the week, keeps me up to date and very current. Because I have been around for so many years, I can offer something to founders that they cannot get from their peers because usually I will have dealt with the problem they are going through at some point in my career.’
As the interview draws to a close, I realise I am not that far behind Robin because like him, I have also lived and worked in both the old and the new economy. I come away wanting to remember to always look forward, to respect the views and opinions of the young, and to never be afraid of the new but to embrace it and most importantly of all, to remember to take the long view.
Born: Senderwood, Johannesburg. Moved to London in 1976 after the Soweto Riots in South Africa with his wife Hanna and their two children Saul and Melanie, then aged 6 and 4
What excites you about tech?: “Tech will change the world and it can change it for the better. As leaders, it is always our obligation and opportunity to make the contribution of technology positive rather than negative. I also like seeing dreams turning into reality. I like helping founders to realise their dreams of building and scaling companies – it’s not about the money but for the fulfilment of the dream and knowing that it can be possible.”
Who are your mentors?: “I would have to say Saul for his exceptional mind, his foresight but also his fierce sense of loyalty, justice and his community spirit. I learnt a great deal when I spent two years working for John Hoerner at the Burton Group who had the vision to let me start building an ecommerce business for the group. Jeff Bezos: I have never met him but once a year I read the letter that he wrote to his shareholders in 1997 because like him, I believe that it is all about the long term.”
Your legacy?: “I would like Local Globe to be seen as a venture firm that reinvented venture, constantly pushed the boundaries forward and significantly contributed to its wider world and the community around it.”