Start-up Advice: Dave Coplin, Microsoft UK

24 May 2016

Dave Coplin, Microsoft UK. Photo: Andrew Shaylor

Dave Coplin is the chief envisioning officer with Microsoft UK, a role he has held since 2010.

Dave Coplin joined Microsoft in 2005 and worked in a variety of roles before assuming his current position.

A self-described ‘technology alchemist’, Coplin works to help businesses and individuals realise the potential technology offers a modern society, both at work and at home.

Coplin is also the author of two books on the future or work and our relationship with technology: The Rise of the Humans and Business Reimagined.

A sought-after public speaker, Coplin will be in Dublin next week to speak at FutureScope, which takes place in The Convention Centre Dublin on 31 May.

In your opinion, which areas of technology hold the greatest scope for opportunities?

I would say this, wouldn’t I, but I really think the most important technology that anyone is working on right now is that of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Without doubt, these technologies are going to change the world around us and there isn’t an industry or organisation, or even individual, whose life won’t be profoundly changed by the power of what this technology offers. That’s the hyperbole over with, the real issue is that, while most people get the scale of the potential this technology offers, most normal humans and businesses struggle to figure out where to start and how to apply the technology to best effect. As a result, there’s huge potential for start-ups and individuals to bring all of the potential of AI to new and existing industries.

Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

I would hope that all entrepreneurs have to be born! I think we’re still a while away yet from being able to make our own out of toilet rolls, Fairy Liquid bottles and sticky-backed plastic. Seriously, though, I think being entrepreneurial is simply a question of mindset. Whether it’s the cliché of saying “why not?” instead of “what if?” or its simply having a curious mind, all of these traits can be developed in anyone, you simply need the environment that nurtures and values those traits, along with the aspiration of the individuals to want to make a difference.

What are the qualities of a good founder?

Tenacity, pragmatism, imagination, and creativity.

‘In the great scope of life, the most important thing is breathing, and being able to sustain your ability to breathe for the long run’

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?

A successful entrepreneur needs to be focused. Not just on the initiative, but on a small number (less than three) of life-long priorities. Every single day, a good entrepreneur needs to qualify every single action against whether they move closer towards those priorities. If they don’t, don’t do them. The other trick here is balance – which doesn’t necessarily mean equal portions. Burnout is common in entrepreneurs and it’s a shameful, preventable waste of talent and life, not just of the individual but also of those closest to them. I may be reflecting a little of my own philosophy here, but being the best entrepreneur in town is not much use if you’re the only one left standing to appreciate it. Take time out for your family, take time out for your friends, be true to your values and play for the long game. Do this every day and you’ll be successful, regardless of whether your business is.

What resources and tools are an absolute must for your arsenal?

Sleep; good food; friends, family, and laughter.

Beyond that, being connected to the right people and sources is crucial.

How do you assemble a good team?

Diversity is everything. It’s hard in a small team to get the right balance, but be mindful of understandable yet preventable bias (be it conscious or subconscious). Balance the team with those who can sprint as well as run marathons, those who can dream as well as those who love the minutiae of process. Have too much of anything and you’ll be in trouble.

What are the critical ingredients to start-up success?

  • Luck
  • Patience and tenacity
  • Stamina

What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?

Thinking that your business or start-up is the most important thing in the world.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that it’s not important, but in the great scope of life, the most important thing is breathing, and being able to sustain your ability to breathe for the long run. After that, the rest is pretty much up for grabs. I would argue next it’s family and then it’s the work you love. I guess it depends on your family, though…

‘I worry a lot about the pressures and risk of burnout in the caricature of the founder/entrepreneur that has become commonplace and aspirational’

Who is your business hero and why?

Satya Nadella, because he pays my salary and he might be reading this.

No, really, it is Satya, because he has some pretty amazing leadership qualities. My favourite is the fact that he believes in purpose and empowerment. He ensures that we all understand the purpose of our organisation (i.e. what is it that we actually do for our customers?) and then, rather than telling us what to do, he gets out of the way and empowers us to deliver that purpose with all of the skills we have available to us. It’s very liberating to work within a culture like that.

Whats the No 1 piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs?

Play for the long game and try not to take it all so seriously. I know that’s patronising, but I worry a lot about the pressures and risk of burnout in the caricature of the founder/entrepreneur that has become commonplace and aspirational.