Star: Ben White
The unlikely entrepreneur who went from technology virgin to geek and capitalised on his new hobby
Ben White isn’t your average technology entrepreneur. He doesn’t have a degree in his chosen field, he has never worked as a programmer or coder and he doesn’t have an MBA. What he does possess however is a tremendous amount of business nous.
Having launched three successful technology businesses it is safe to assume that White has garnered a great deal of knowledge in his chosen industry, as he is only to happy to admit. “I am a real geek”, he says unashamedly at our lunch meeting near West London’s Charlotte Street. “I really am interested in how it all works.”
The interest in technology began to be nurtured after White’s school friend, Rory Sweeps, got him a job working for an IBM reseller. As he got to know more about technology and began to recognise technological innovation, he realised the lucrative potential of setting up a business reselling routers to large organisations. So the school pals set up RBR Networks, which went on to become Europe’s largest Cisco reseller.
Like most first-time entrepreneurs, White and Sweeps had no idea how quickly the business would grow. And grow it did: In the first six months revenues went from zero to £100m. While this was obviously fantastic for the business, it highlighted cashflow issues within the company.
Ten years after RBR Networks was sold for a mightily impressive £60m, the same problems continue to hinder his current businesses, says White. “Cashflow issues will never improve until you stop growing,” he says, tucking into a mouthful of minestrone.
White’s current portfolio includes business internet service provider Star and the company that Star gave birth to, MessageLabs. Set up in 1995 by White and his brother Jos White, Star was designed to help satiate small and medium companies’ internet-related requirements. Two years later the company launched the first internet-level scanning technology and its runaway success signalled a yawning chasm in the security market. “So I said, ‘why don’t we build a great big cleaning station so when customers turn on their internet tap, it’s clean’,” White recalls.
And so the offering was scaled up and two years later MessageLabs was born meaning that Star could continue to flog its wares to the small and medium business market, while MessageLabs could cater for companies from micro-businesses to banking behemoths. But, MessageLabs eye-watering growth wouldn’t have been achievable without the cooperation with other vendors; “even a little ISP couldn’t sell a service to other internet providers,” explains White.
In 2006, the self-confessed technology nerd faced one of his toughest challenges yet: handing over his responsibilities as chief executive of MessageLabs while he bought parent company Star from its shareholders. The separation of the two firms was designed to make it easier for each to grow. MessageLabs wants to continue to grow globally – “we’ve taken it to Yanks and we’re kicking their arse in America”, says a smug White – whereas Star wants to provide converged services for its small and medium business clients in the UK, he explains.
While he remains on the board of MessageLabs and retains a key strategist role, taking a backwards step from the business he and his sibling created was a huge emotional upheaval. “The first year tore me to pieces, it was very, very difficult,” he says convincingly. Needless to say, White’s focus is now on business ISP Star which is going from strength to strength.
Allowing MessageLabs to fly the nest was a wise move. “Next month, the internet security company will have 10m subscribers, 700 members of staff and turns over $200m in revenue,” says the matter-of-fact entrepreneur with only the tiniest hint of smugness.
As a result of his standing down at MessageLabs and the subsequent purchase of Star, White has fostered some strong opinions on the role of a chief executive and when it is time to step aside. “”I believe that many small businesses are unsuccessful because the founder stays on too long and unfortunately the very thing that created the business in the first place becomes its biggest enemy. It’s ironic.”
However, the handover to his successor Adrian Chamberlain was less than smooth. “Unfortunately, private equity guys are not very good at sitting down with an entrepreneur and saying ‘you’ve done wonderfully, you’ve still got a role here but you’re not the right person to take this forward.’ For White, it was an emotional retreat, for the investors it was about driving the business forward and increasing their return. “A classic example is when I lost my temper in a meeting when somebody said to me ‘this isn’t personal’ and I said ‘you don’t fucking understand this; it’s deeply personal for me’.'”
Taking a backwards step from MessageLabs and retaining a focus on just one of the businesses has allowed White to spend more time with his very young family – his youngest son is under a year old. It also allowed him time for one of his more recent ventures, building a house in Devon. The internet tycoon spent several weeks ‘driving around’ California and South Africa photographing houses he liked. He then commissioned three architects to come up with sketches of his ‘dream house’. The two remaining candidates were then asked to create models of his not-so-humble abode to be, from which he picked one. Let’s face it; the guy’s got style.
But even filling his increased leisure time with building luxury property, playing golf with his successor and cruising around in his 10 year old Ferrari and more recently purchased Bentley can not distract White from the task before him. “Paying many millions for something tends to fix the mind on making it work,” he adds.