Veteran innovator who has moved from Steel to Silicon

Annabel Denham
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Annabel Palmer talks tech with WANdisco’s founder David Richards

FAR from the groovy nightclub imagery its name conjures, David Richards’s company WANdisco – an acronym for “wide area network distributed computing” – develops the software that allows exact copies of a source to be worked on, simultaneously, by engineers all over the world. You can tell Richards has been living in Silicon Valley for the past 14 years, he has the California tan and toothy grin – which he flashes regularly during our meeting – to prove it. But his Sheffield twang remains, a reminder of his beginnings in Steel City.

He describes WANdisco’s creation as a “typical Silicon Valley story”: a chance meeting with Dr Yeturu Aahlad (now its chief scientist), who informed him – with the aid of 20 pages of hieroglyphics – he’d created an algorithm that solved how “to do data replication very efficiently over a wide area network”. Richards was sold. Within three months they had their first customer, who signed up to a $100,000 deal. Then, in 2009, he signed a $3.75m deal with Hewlett Packard that “propelled the company to the next stage”.

A serial entrepreneur, Richards has created a number of successful start-ups, including Insevo in the late 1990s – which connected accountancy software to the internet. “We raised $20m overnight on the basis of a powerpoint. It was the internet boom in Silicon Valley and you could get almost anything funded.” Access to capital may be more difficult now, but Richards says it’s far easier in the Valley than for entrepreneurs in our own Silicon Roundabout.

And he thinks that’s the key to unlocking Britain’s tech potential. “There isn’t a shortage of people wanting to start a tech business in the UK, nor a shortage of talent. But the venture capital industry – and I’m generalising – is ostensibly run by people from an accounting background, not former entrepreneurs.” It was this faith that led Richards back to where he started: Sheffield. It was 2009, and he was struggling to upscale the business quickly enough, competing as he was with “the Yahoos, the Googles, and the millions of dollars they pay their developers”. The price of software developers in Sheffield was a third less than in California.

By this point, Richards knew he needed to find a way to apply his technology to the world of big data. To do so, he would need more capital. As a relatively late-stage business, growth venture didn’t appeal. So he looked to floating on a public exchange – initially Nasdaq, but the company was “too small”. So, with the bulk of his staff in the UK, he began to look at the Alternative Investment Market. In June 2012, the company floated. It was one of the most successful IPOs in 2012, three times oversubscribed, with shares initially at £1.80 and now £8. “The exchange was happy,” he says.

Why does he think the float was so successful? “First, we were a high-growth technology company and there weren’t many of those around; secondly, we have a customer base to die for – including many Fortune Global 1,000 companies. And, somewhat uniquely, our business was built without venture capital, which gave us discipline.”

And so the company has moved into Hadoop (“the underlying database for most companies – Apple, eBay and Amazon among them), buying a two-person company last year called AltoStor, and with it acquiring Dr Konstantin Shvachko (an inventor of Hadoop architecture). As part of a convoluted but ingenious plan, Richards bought the company so he could use Shvachko’s unique knowledge to apply Aahlad’s algorithm to the product Shvachko had created in 2006. They’ve connected the dots, and if Hadoop becomes the operating system for cloud computing, “the potential for the business is huge”.

I ask what he’s found the biggest challenge. “Having your family as part of the journey. It was never just me, it was my wife and kids, too. And that can be a huge stumbling block – telling your spouse that the kids might not be able to go to private school, or that you have to give up the country club membership.” It’s why his one piece of advice to future entrepreneurs is to start as early as is feasibly possible, and to not be afraid to take a bet on themselves. “Because what’s the worst that can happen? Shouldn’t that country club membership be a sacrifice you’re willing to make?”

Company Name: WANdisco

Job Title: Chairman, chief executive and co-founder

Founded: 2005

Turnover: Over $6m

Number of staff: 120 across the globe, 60 in Sheffield

Age: 42

Born: Sheffield

Lives: Silicon Valley

Studied: Computer Science at the University of Huddersfield

Drinking: Chablis, gin and tonic, builders tea (not usually together)

Eating: Boeuf en croute

Reading: The Match, by Mark Frost and Salt, Sugar, Fat, by Michael Moss

Talents: I really enjoy playing golf but I think I’m better at starting and building software companies from scratch

Motto: “If you can’t explain it

simply then you don’t understand it well enough”

First ambition: To play cricket for Yorkshire and England

Heroes: I admire people who succeed in adversity. I remember reading an article about professor Stephen Hawking on a train in 1990 and was instantly transfixed