Mark Dowds: Bringing Silicon Valley to Belfast

Mark Dowds is a serial high tech entrepreneur, who has founded companies in the United States and Canada. Originally from Comber, he has recently returned to Northern Ireland from Silicon Valley as co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer for Trov, a successful InsureTech company. Not content with starting and running new companies, Mark is also a seasoned ultra-mountain biker, racing up and down mountains across California, Oregon and Colorado.

I caught up with Mark in the newly refurbished Ormeau Baths, Mark’s passion project which is creating a hub in downtown Belfast for high tech start-ups.

Trov – transforming InsureTech

Gary: Mark, aside from family, your primary role is with Trov, a company you co-founded and is based on the West Coast of the US. Tell us, first of all what Trov is and what it does.

As the Chief Strategy Officer for Trov, I’m accountable for the revenue of the company, thinking through how we grow, scale, and expand into international markets or within existing territories. Trov is bang in the middle of InsureTech. When we originally started the company, InsureTech, as a sector, did not exist.  After I had just sold my last company, Scott, our CEO, sat me down and said, “Mark, what if we could create the world’s largest database about the things that people own?” So that was the seed of the idea. And then we thought, if we knew who owned what and we knew the value of those things, what industries could it disrupt? Scott has this great saying, “assume success for a moment…” So, imagine you have a company as big as Google, and you had all this data around what people owned and who they were, how could we serve that customer better and what industries could we disrupt?

We investigated that for a while, and it didn’t take long before we ended up in the insurance world. When we talked to insurance companies, we asked them, “how well do you know what people own?” They had a reasonable understanding of bricks and mortar buildings, but the things that were inside or the things that people brought with them on a day-to-day basis were unknown and just guess-work.

Long story short – we discovered that the millennials, the under 35s, were significantly under insured. The least insured generation since the 2nd World War. People older than 35 – 89% have contents insurance, since they own a home. But younger people – especially those living in London, Sydney, San Francisco, they can’t afford to do anything but rent. And only about 13% of them take out contents insurance. So, we realized there was a nice gap in the market we could target – the untethered – those people who move around, living a different lifestyle and taking things with them

Used to be, you go on holiday, you bring your trunks and towel; now you bring your laptop, tablet, phone and so on, You’ve got thousands of pounds in your bag. So how do we effectively cover those people on the go?

So we’ve developed the world’s first micro-moment insurance platform, which powers multiple insurance experiences for that generation. We help people protect the things they care about and are also venturing into on-demand car insurance. We found that the insurance world is legacy bound. These old systems are holding insurers back from delivering the products that a new generation need. On our journey we built a virtual insurance company in the cloud that deploy almost any type of insurance product internationally.

Gary: Where in the world is Trov working?

Mark: We started in Australia, then we launched in the UK and we are just deploying in the US. The US is more complex.  You’ve got one regulator in Australia and one in the UK, but you’ve got 51 different jurisdictions in the US, so it’s like launching in 51 countries at once. And there are some states that mandate that you need to use paper and the mail – so there are some states in which we will not launch – they need to keep up with the times!

Gary: And you’ve been pretty successful so far, Mark. The company hasn’t been going that long, but you’ve had a significant amount of investment, and you’ve started to work with some very large insurance companies?

Mark: Yes, we’ve been very fortunate. We are partnered with Suncorp in Australia. And in the UK we partner with AXA, and then there’s Munich Re, the large re-insurer for the US, and there’s SOMPO for Japan. And we are finalizing some agreements for Canada as well. So we have a licence to operate anywhere in the world at the moment. We feel very thankful.

And then from a capitalization perspective, we have raised just shy of $95m since we started 5 years ago. We find ourselves in the midst of a hot environment from a VC perspective but we now have the insurers themselves financing us, backing us. Having the strategic partners beginning to play is a nice sign of our future.

Gary: You’re the chief strategy officer of this successful company based in California, and here you are based on a small island on the edge of Europe. How does that work?

Mark: There are days it’s a challenge! We have a five-person executive. So I spend at least one week a month in head office in California. But we’re also working in Australia, so I send time there. And a lot of the innovation, disruption in the insurance world is in London and Germany. So being close by that helps. There is at least one insurance tech gathering a week in London. Plus Munich Re and Axa, our partners, are based in London. So it’s quite helpful to be close to that.

But some days it’s tough and I miss not being in head office.

Silicon Valley’s Energy & Drive

Gary: So how did a young guy from Comber end up setting up a successful high tech business in the US?

Mark: I’ll try to keep a long story short! When I was here I worked in a family business and I then became a youth worker. I had a flair for technology at school – it was probably the only thing in school I had an interest in! After getting married I moved to Vancouver and found a need to help students help through their path out into the world and that led me to set up a centre to help students find their way – almost a career path. Before long it was a co-working facility, with about 30 people, and we had people like Josh, a biology student, who came to me one day and said he wanted to set up an ideas factory. So, I helped him think through what it would mean practically to set something up to make ideas a reality. In doing that, I accidently set up Canada’s first start-up accelerator. And that taught me what it took to set up and develop a company in North America.

I then went and set up a bigger facility in Toronto and we helped connect people with ideas to venture capital, and I did whatever I could to try and make those companies successful. I had a couple of successes of my own at that time and then I started another company which got funded out of Silicon Valley. The board then wanted to have a presence there; I was getting tired of the Toronto winters and decided that some sunshine wouldn’t be a bad thing, so we went there.

And over time I got embedded in the Silicon Valley system and network, started a couple of companies, sold them, and then on the back of selling the last company to, Scott Walchek approached me to start Trov with him. Scott had been my first investor about 18 years ago when I was in Vancouver. He was the one that really helped me to think through what an entrepreneur is and shaped me. Scott has built many successful companies, and was a founding board member of Baidu, the Google of China – he knows what he’s doing and he’s kept my feet on the ground.

Gary: You talked about the Silicon Valley environment. How would you describe that? It’s a very expensive place to start up a business and skilled technology resources are highly in demand and scarce for a new organization, so what’s the benefit of being there?

Mark: When I was in Toronto, it was around the time of the emergence of Web 2.0, and I remember one of my friends ran a start-up camp and we had about 80-100 people in the room, maybe 30 start-ups. And then I heard about start-up camp in San Francisco, so I thought I would go and check it out.

I went to the Moscone Center in San Francisco and there were at least 1,000 start-ups in the room and several thousand people, and I’d never seen anything like that energy and drive.

Gary: So the scale, the dynamic, the environment fosters that?

Mark: Yes. They had a panel of specialists that evening and someone –  I think he was from New York – asked, “if you’ve a great idea and you’re not in Silicon Valley, what would you do?” And it was a resounding, “Move!” Which I felt was Silicon Valley arrogance. Which it does have. One side is arrogance, but the other side is confidence. And some of that confidence is due, because of the eco-system and the history it has.

Now I don’t know what that guy did, but I took the advice, and thought, if I genuinely want to become a strong entrepreneur and the best in my game, Silicon Valley is where it’s at. The history that grew out of Stanford, all the venture capital, everywhere you go, every coffee shop you go into, the people you meet – it’s not like any other place in the world.

There’s a downside. It can be a bubble, it’s expensive, finding and hiring people can be tough, but there is the ability to go for it and if you fail, it’s part of earning your stripes of being an entrepreneur.

On Being An Entrepreneur

Gary: Mark, after all you’ve done, what would you say you are really good at, and how did you get good at it?

Mark: I’m good at bringing ideas to reality. Listening to an idea and knowing the building blocks to make that happen. And that’s because I’ve done it so many times. I’m good at helping things get capitalized because I’ve got to know people over 20 years. I’m resilient, I don’t give up – that’s very key. I’ve failed more than once, but I haven’t let that hold me down.

Gary: You’ve failed and presumably had other disappointments – how do you cope with disappointment and frustration?

Mark: The first loss – I lost everything the day my first child was born. Coping comes through meaning, drive and passion. If I have a vision for something, if there’s a problem that need solved, and if I fail at it the first time, it doesn’t mean it still doesn’t need solved. It’s just that my strategy needs to change.

Gary: You can’t go at it the same way again and again. Like Einstein says…

Mark: Yes. I recognize that someone will change it and it might as well be me. I’m driven by meaning and social change. If it’s just a random idea, it doesn’t move me. But being able to keep getting up and going again is because I find meaning in what I do.

Northern Ireland’s Technology Scene

Gary: You lived and worked in Canada and the United States for many years, Mark. What differences did you notice in coming back to Northern Ireland?

Mark: The positive of Northern Ireland – there’s a quite grounded nature. It’s not as driven, and there’s a strong commitment to relationships. Not just to an idea, not just to the company, but to the people involved. So that aspect of community is good. Another thing is it’s a very small world; in some bigger place, like Silicon Valley, say, it can take you longer to find out that someone’s a shark. Whereas in Northern Ireland, if you’re dishonest, people will find out really quickly. So I think that tight community is really good for accountability.

The downside is that there is still a small mindedness. We are part of an interconnected world, but people sometimes still think about it as just Northern Ireland! The great connections, telecommunications we have here – we forget about that sometimes. But we can innovate here just as well as anywhere else. It may be tougher here to raise capital, because we don’t yet have the eco-system, but then what Catalyst and Ormeau Business Park are doing to bring that together is strong. It’s certainly getting better. But sometimes we forget how big the world is and the opportunity that exists.

Gary: Are you encouraged by what you see in the technology scene here?

Mark: When I left I didn’t really think there was a technology scene! When I look back I was a dreamer with lots of ambition and Northern Ireland didn’t seem to have much to offer. But going away and getting the stuffing kicked out of me a few times, getting seasoned, allows me to come back and do something. It feels like Northern Ireland is ripe for growth right now.

It is really encouraging because there are lots of start-ups, lots of ideas. I think there’s a lot of wisdom needed to shape these ideas, but at least people are surfacing. They’re coming out of school and university wanting to do something other than become a banker or doctor. There’s now an avenue and a belief that you can do new things here.

Gary: What do we need to be doing better? What would help us make a step change in terms of success as a high tech region?

Mark: the next big step is learning what it would mean to scale the companies that are coming through. We’re getting better at seed financing some companies and leading them towards early Series A stage capital, getting the £1m-£2m of investment. That might sound like a lot of money, but with a technology company when you’ve got to scale it, there’s a lot of work upfront. A couple of million is enough to get a proof of concept and get something that is viable in the market. But to really grow it to the next level, we need to have the next tier of financing where someone can raise £3-£7m. That’s a gap in our market. Once you get past that there is other money from other places that can start to play.

But there’s a middle tier that’s lacking at the moment. So we’ve got Techstart that is doing a phenomenal job at the early stage, but it’s the next level – whether that’s bridging to an ecosystem in London or Silicon Valley –  that we need.

Gary: And what about skilled technology resources? Are we OK with that, or is it challenging?

Mark: It is beginning to get challenging. There are new tech companies coming from the US and the UK and are sucking up some of the development talent. Then those entrepreneurs who need those resources – they can’t compete on salary against those coming in from the outside, so yes, that is a challenge. We lack the development resources, and we lack the product design skillset as well. There is good design thinking around, but not enough yet of strong product leadership.

Advice for Entrepreneurs

Gary: For technology entrepreneurs, as someone who’s been there and done that – what advice would you give people starting out in a new business venture?

Mark: First, surround yourself with people who are really bought in to what you’re doing. You need to believe in yourself and believe you can do it. But then you need to get others who are willing to buy in just as much as you. People who are willing to take a risk, whether that is early stage finance, or finding a co-founder, or someone who will join your executive with you. Before you raise capital, you probably want to find those people.

The hardest thing in building a business is finding the people. The capital can come if the idea is right, but finding the talent is the hardest piece.

Gary: And what about personal attributes, or outlook or approach…?

Mark: Definitely resilience is number one, the ability to keep going, no matter what. It can be a tough slog. I’ve never done a start-up that was easy. In fact, the only people I’ve ever met that have done one that was easy are people I don’t want to be around, because they thought it was all about them. There’s a little bit of timing and fortune in the midst of it all as well.

Gary: So if it’s so hard along the way, what is the benefit of doing it?

Mark: Social change.

Gary: It’s not about making a fortune?

Mark: No. The moment an entrepreneur focuses on money, it’ll all go south. I’ve met entrepreneurs that are focused on money, but they are people I’d never want to work with. That’s not to say you ignore money, but it’s secondary. But money follows good ideas. I think there needs to be a mission behind a company that’s genuine and real – whether that’s connecting people, enhancing communications, solving homelessness and so on – the good entrepreneurs I know are problem solvers. They’ve looked at the world, they’ve seen something wrong and they’re moved by it. And then they’re motivated by change.

A lot of people do that charitably, but I think we can do good in the world and make money at the same time. The benefit of making money is that you can do it again.

Bringing Silicon Valley to Belfast

Gary: We’re sitting here in the old Ormeau Baths, which have been completely refurbished as office accommodation. Tell us about what’s going on here and what you’re hoping to achieve.

Mark: In some ways I wanted to bring a little bit of Silicon Valley to Belfast. The city centre core needs a hub. To bring vibrancy and life and a community to those that do want to take a risk. So that they don’t feel alone, but they can be in an environment where they see other people doing the same thing, taking the same risk, having that support around them. Other people who have done it before and others who are in the trenches with them.

So it’s a creative environment to work in, but it’s also a community of support. It’s a central hub that brings the community together to support the start-ups and those folks who could change our economy – that’s why we’ve done it.

Dr. Gary Burnett is an IT professional and writer. He runs a boutique consultancy company which helps technology companies change and grow.

About Gary Burnett

Fabrio's Gary Burnett has many years experience in the ICT industry, working in Ireland, the UK, Europe, India and the US. He helps technology companies change and grow.
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