Tony Fish| Interview | Podcast | Maria Franzoni | MFL Global

Interview with investor, author and serial entrepreneur, Tony Fish

Maria’s guest on the show is Maria’s guest is Tony Fish. Tony is an author, investor, serial entrepreneur, and maverick. He’s a visiting fellow at Henley Business School for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and an EC expert for big data.  He is entrepreneur in residence at Bradford School of Management and Law, lecturer in innovation and entrepreneurship at the London Business School, and lecturer in AI and future of disruptive technology at the London School of Economics.

Maria:

Tony, I’m surprised you’ve had time to join me with all of those things that you do. How are you?

Tony Fish: 

I’m very well. Thank you very much, Maria. Yes, I’m very lucky that I have a very diverse portfolio of things that I can get interested in and follow through my passions.

Maria:

Yes, you like to keep busy. What did you want to be when you were a kid? What were your thoughts?

Tony Fish: 

I’m severely dyslexic, slightly autistic, and somewhere on the Asperger’s scale. So, when I was a kid, I did one thing, which was probably climb trees, rode my bike too fast, and avoided everything to do with formal education and schooling. One of my proudest things is I tell my parents is I don’t even have an English O Level.

Maria: 

Brilliant. I don’t think this should be an advert though, should it?

Tony Fish: 

Well, yes and no. It’s one of those things that people get obsessed with qualifications and schooling, and actually reality, your question is, “What did you want to do at school?” Mine was go and have fun, and reality is I can’t manage to maintain that. Yes, and therefore, I’ve never been employed and just goes to show that there is an complete alternative universe out there to just following the same routine that everybody else has done.

Maria: 

Excellent, but you did qualify as an engineer, so how did you become an engineer if you didn’t study?

Tony Fish:  

Yes. Basically, I lied. It was really easy. Thankfully, I went to university at a point where they didn’t verify and have the ability to check what you filled in on the form, so when the applications to university came along, I’d done night school in HNC higher national in electronics and engineering, which actually interested me. You filled in the form and one of the boxes was, “How many O levels have you got?” I didn’t quite fill it in, so I skipped over all of those bits, and nobody really checked. It was all OK.

I got into Reading and read my engineering there, and at the end of the first term, I handed in my first report, which was on goodness knows what. My lecturer gave it back to me. He was Professor Atkins at the engineering school, and he threw it back to me and said I’d failed because my English was so poor. He said, “I bet you haven’t even got an English O level.” I very proudly informed him that I didn’t, of which he went anaphylactic because you had to have an English O level to get into university.

Maria:   

Brilliant. Fantastic. Now, you say you’re a maverick. This is your words. Why are you a maverick would you say? Is it because of what you did with your studies and that you chose a different road, is it because you’ve never been employed, or is there more to it? What else have you done that we don’t know about?

Tony Fish: 

Oh, I’ve climbed some of the world’s highest mountains, done really stupid things. I used the word maverick because I’m not trying to be awkward. It’s just that I’m very bad at just going with the flow. Oddly enough, as a fish, everyone sees people as shoals of fish, and reality is I’m a fish who’s swimming up the stream as opposed to the fishes that are swimming down the stream. Lots of life is people want ease and they like to swim with the flow and just swim down, and I’m not. I will find a way to swim against the flow. It’s just because I enjoy it. So, If you go for what makes you happy, then that’s why.

Maria:  

I love that. That’s really cool. You did your engineering. You’ve come out. You’re qualified, and as you say, nobody’s ever employed you, so did you decide when you started your first business, “I have to do it so that I’ve got some employment,” or did you have a brilliant idea? How did your first business come about?

Tony Fish: 

Because I don’t have any qualifications, employers don’t employ you. It frustrates me that people say, “I want to be an entrepreneur.” It’s like, no, most entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs because they have no choice. Entrepreneur is not a choice. You end up doing it because there is nothing else left for you to do, so you create a business because actually it’s the right thing to do because that is the thing that you’re left with.

Did I have a bright idea? So, this is now 1990, so it’s pre-web, so the internet existed. Came across a protocol called TCP/IP, help you use dial up modems working at 14.4. You could dial up a remote access server, download the still image, put it onto a TV, and then you can navigate with your remote control through still images on your TV to buy and reserve products. It was given the glorious name Electronic Home Catalogue Shopping.

Maria:   

Wow. I understand all those terms because I am of that age, but anybody younger won’t even know what dial up is. They would think, “What are we talking about here?”

Tony Fish:

Correct. We built that business up and got some funding. We listed the business and eventually sold it to Microsoft for $770 million in 1997. I have some wonderful bits of paper from some venture capitalists who basically said, “The idea of anybody doing electronic shopping at home is stupid. Do not ever darken our doors again.”

Maria: 

They said the idea of doing electronic shopping at home is stupid. Oh my goodness. They’ve obviously not been sitting in my house. Fantastic, fantastic. As a serial entrepreneur and investor, you’ve been really successful at growing businesses very fast. What is it do you think that successful businesses have that those that fail don’t have? What are the elements? Is it easy to see that or not?

Tony Fish:

I’ve learned over time a process, and I always come back to the same one thing that differentiates a high growth business from a non-high growth business, which is the team. A team either gets it or don’t. It’s why I’m so against people saying, “I want to be mentored and coached,” and all this when you’re growing a business. If you’re growing a business, there’s not enough time to breathe, let alone to be mentored and coached.

If you’re in a place where you’re not into growth and you’re actually starting an idea, that’s fantastic, but once you’re into growth, you’ve got to run with it. The thing about growth is what you very quickly learn is what you achieve almost every week is more than you achieved the week before, and lots of people, they get very scared when they start achieving more and more and more and faster and faster and faster. Some people want more and more control, and that’s when you slow growth down. It doesn’t happen.

The other side of it is kind of like relief and you let go and you find people, it’s not just you trust, it’s people who actually can just take on the responsibilities and deliver.  As a team, you think community, which is why I always come back to team. It’s not just people capable of delivering, it’s people who also communicate what they’re about to do and deliver and manage the risks and can think through the issues. So many people don’t do those things, and that’s why growth happens to exceptional teams. Exceptional teams make things grow.

Maria: 

Wow. It’s not easy to find and put together an exceptional team, though. That’s the challenge, isn’t it?

Tony Fish: 

I come back and I was challenged about this very question, exceptional teams. I ended up by saying, “Actually, what I mean by an exceptional team is one that has diversity of thinking.”

Now, I’m very careful what I mean by diversity of thinking. In one way, I’m one of those members of the team who’s a bit dyslexic and autistic, but you also need somebody who’s an Oxford graduate who can do something, as well. You need somebody who’s an art literature person. You need somebody who’s a designer. You need lots of different people, so diversity of thought, thinking and delivery.

Now, you can get a room full of white males who have diversity of thinking, or white females, or lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds and different ethnicities, as long as you have diversity of thinking. It’s not diversity in terms of colour, race, creed, and anything else, it’s diversity in the ability to think differently because that’s how you bring together the teams who actually makes things happen.

Maria:

Really good. I like that a lot. Fantastic. That word, ethnicity, is not an easy word to say, so well done on that. I had to put my teeth in while I was listening to that. In your introduction, we said that you are an EC expert for big data. What is that?

Tony Fish: 

I spend roughly two weeks every year. EC has a pile of money under H2020 which it distributes to companies who are trying to work in big data. I’m part of the expert team who actually helps award that money, and then goes and does assessments to see if that money has been well spent. It’s helping people who understand how to use big data in projects which are going to make a difference for humanity.

Maria:    

Oh, I like that. That’s good. Brilliant. Let’s stay on the topic of data because it is such a big topic. Do you think that we as individuals give away our personal data and our identities at the end of the day too freely?  Should we be a bit more careful? Big question, big question.

Tony Fish:  

It’s a big question, and unfortunately, the subtlety in so many aspects of it is insane. You’ve talked about identity and I imagine you probably actually mean identifiers.

Maria:

Yes.

Tony Fish:

You’re talking about your name, and your name is not your identity. It’s a way of identifying who you are. Unfortunately, your name, your parent’s kind of believe they gave it to you, OK, and actually it was society who gave it to you based on a series of preferences that your parents came through. They went to the government, who then wrote down your name. That became your birth certificate, a certification of trying to prove that you are who you say you are.

There’s a whole series of problems, actually, and that record is public. On public record, if you vote, it’s your name and your address. I need it to be public to know who you are and that you can be tracked and you have voted. Why are you worried that you’re giving that piece of data away, because actually it’s public. Your date of birth is public record. So is things like your marriage certificate. It’s public record, and then people are going, “Oh, but it should be private.” It’s like, “What the hell are you talking about?” People are very confused what they mean by identity, identification, the verification of what identity or who you actually are is.

You’ve got a whole question around data, which is that information that you’re picking up because you’re moving around with your mobile phone and a pile of sensors and whatever information from your bank card to your Oyster card, and what happens to that data? We’ve argued for years and put it into silos and said it has value.

Under the latest hacks, we’ve realised that centralised data in single repositories in silos is actually more of a liability than an asset. Under new regulations of GDPR, you now have a right to get a copy of that data back, so you can now take all of your data from every different provider and put it into a single repository. Most users are never going to work out what to do with that or how to do it, so what you’ve got to find is a way to get information or that data into a single repository that has value for you.

We’re not quite there in terms of articulating these arguments to users, and we would do far better to drop words like privacy and actually turn it round and say, “I’m going to give you control,” because there is no privacy, but what you have is a choice of control, who data goes to, and how your data is used. We’ve got some of the words wrong and some of the arguments wrong and we argue some aspects of law versus actually some aspects of interpretation.

The really interesting bit of all of it is that we’re at a point of influx in what the value of data is and the value you’re going to get as a person from having data versus actually the money, being the value of that data. Just making your life easier, which is what a lot of this data could do, is worth its weight in gold.

If you use an equation and you went back and said, “We all now have washing machines and we love washing machines because actually we don’t spend two days of a week washing clothes. We can now just throw them in the washing machine and they wash,” and therefore it has value to us. The same with the dishwasher. The same actually with just cold and hot running water in the house. The same with central heating. They’re not monetary value, but they free time, and data, you’re going to have much more value to you to free more time or make things easier for you. That’s suddenly going to generate a new income for you.

Maria:

I think time is actually our most precious thing though, isn’t it really if you think about it, especially when you get to a certain age. Let’s not go into that.

Tony Fish:

Yes. We don’t have enough of it, do we?

Maria:

No, we don’t, we don’t, we don’t. That’s really interesting. I was very wrong about how I looked at it. I used the wrong terms, so that was really education for me. Thank you. The internet for me is another area which is of concern. I call it the wild wild west rather than the world-wide web. It seems to have limiting policing. There’s a lot of cowboys out there doing all sorts of things. Is that a problem? Should we be worrying about it? Should it be policed? Should we be imposing some kind of behaviours? Can we?

Tony Fish:

In a way, it’s a great question because it’s actually far wider than the internet, which is society has grown up under a centralised authority. We believe that centralisation is the best way of delivering controls. Kind of like when life was relatively simple, a few hundred years ago, and you could centralise and you could have centralised control because actually, the individual citizens were not desperately well-educated and the level of harm created to the individuals was quite limited, centralisation really worked. Actually, you could provide democracy with centralisation.

What is evident today is that our view of what democracy is, is broken and our view that centralisation as the only mechanism for delivering those controls is broken. Now we need centralisation and decentralisation as two methods of control. Neither one works better than the other and you have to pick the right one, and the same with democracy. We are moving into a different view of actually what democracy is.

When you talk about the internet, the internet is actually creating a model of change from centralisation to decentralisation. That becomes the really interesting part. Now, the level of harm currently on the internet is increasing, and so we have to find better mechanisms to be able to deliver to the individual and it’s not about privacy, it’s about control.

If somebody comes along and effectively provides abuse to you online, you should be able to have the ability to control who that is and your ability to go back and say actually that I have been harmed and what happens. That’s not about more centralisation. That is, going back to your point about identity, that’s about knowing who actually has done it and how and hopefully how you can reach them.

It will not happen in a centralised society. Therefore, we do need ideologies of decentralisation, but we do need the immutability of things like the blockchain that have come along, which says actually if you’re going to do something, we can find out who has done what. Anonymity has to disappear, but actually you will end up with a far better and more even-levelled base of democracy. We are in the change. Now, that is not the answer because that’s got to evolve again.

Maria:  

You mentioned that we’re in change, and I think there’s a lot of disruption going on and there’s a lot of fear about what’s changing. One of the big areas that we get asked about compliance and this fear around AI and what that might do in terms of how it might affect the future of work, of course there’s going to be an effect, but what do you think are the immediate effects that we might see?

Tony Fish:  

The Luddites came along as a famous bunch of individuals who broke the weaving machines in the north of England because they believed that the future of work was about to change. Most of the jobs in computing did not exist 50 years ago. In fact, most jobs that we currently do did not exist 50 years ago.

We’ve gone over the last several hundred years from less than a billion people on the planet to eight billion, yet we’ve managed to get unemployment down. This idea that suddenly technology is going to make us all redundant or unemployed is against absolutely every piece of evidence we’ve got.

One of the big issues that annoys me is that people interpret AI from what they’ve seen as Terminator, and they believe the machines are coming to kill them. Now, there’s a difference between effectively specific AI, which is something on your phone which improves the way that you actually have an experience, and generic AI, which is what we perceive as actually an individual human person as a brain being able to do something.

The generic AI, which is part of the singularity in terms of pieces of thinking when the machine becomes more powerful than the person is still a long way off. It’s a long, long, long way off. We’re just nowhere near that ability. It’ll happen at some point, but we’re nowhere near it. Specific AI, we can get loads of benefits from it.

The issue that we’ve got with AI, and it is very specific about bias, so there is no algorithm. It’s not about bias of the algorithm. It’s about bias of data sets. If you take a biased data set and put it into an algorithm that learns or into an AI that learns, what happens is you end up with a biased outcome.

If we take our existing data sets and we put them into an AI, we are going to end up with biased outcomes. Today, white males are favoured over everybody else based on data. If we take our data sets and put it into an AI, we will continue the propagation of bias for white males against everybody else. That’s not good enough. That’s just not good enough.

We’ve actually got to get the machines to learn their own ethic. That fundamentally is a change, because actually if we want to bring around better democracy and we want to bring around better ability for everybody to have the same opportunity, we’ve actually got the machines to start to take control of some of our decisions.

That is so controversial because actually it’s going to affect more than anybody else white middle class males. We’ve got these societal changes coming along. It’s quite amazing, and people will fight for control to defend themselves. To me, these are going to be some of the most interesting debates coming forward.

Maria:

This is interesting. It’s fascinating, really fascinating. Wow, OK. We haven’t got time on this podcast to go into it in the detail that we probably should, but hopefully we’ve whet some people’s appetites. What do you think of the industries that are going to be most disrupted by AI?

Tony Fish: 

I’m glad you used the word disrupted as opposed to say destroyed or lost, because too many people go, “Oh, that’s the end of say, banking or automotive.” It’s just that we’re going to go through change. As an example, I cannot wait for self-driving autonomous vehicles. Just can’t wait.

What’s interesting is the asset change. You Maria as an individual own a car. OK, that car depreciated in value 30% when you drove it off the forecourt and then on a straight line until you basically end up with a pile of rust sitting on your drive and a liability.

In a self-driving autonomous vehicle future, your vehicle if you decide to own it then becomes a pool of cars which then earns money on a daily basis. It’s not so much about changing the way manufacturing works or the way we use it. It’s actually what the asset class is going to be.

Where one asset class is going to be increased, i.e. the car, because actually it becomes a value to society, a value that may be decreasing is banking because actually, it’s just a payment mechanism. We may not need banks in the future because they’re just delivering payments.

We’re going to see changes as industries change to work out what becomes more valuable and less valuable. To me, it’s very exciting because actually all the opportunities come when people start to look at the new economic models, because they’re models that are changing from what we had.

Maria:  

That’s very exciting. I’ve actually got my self-driving car ordered, so I’m really looking forward to it. I never considered the fact that I could actually send it off to earn me some money, but-

Tony Fish: 

You won’t send it off. It will take itself.

Maria: 

It will take itself? OK. As long as it comes back when I need it, that’s fine.

Tony Fish:  

It will come back when you need it because it’s been your diary. No need to order it. It will just arrive. It will know where you want to go. It knows that you’ve got somewhere to go early. It won’t turn up half an hour early, it will turn up five minutes early, on a preference. It might turn up a minute early if you want it on that preference. Suddenly, massive change.

Maria: 

I’ve suddenly got a chauffeur.

Tony Fish:

Yes.

Maria:  

I’ve now got a chauffeur, which is one of the things I wanted. Wow. I’m really excited about that. That’s brilliant. Fantastic. Let’s talk about your speaking. Can you tell us how you got your first speaking gig? Do you remember it?

Tony Fish:  

No, I don’t. Listen, I really, really don’t. It’s probably such a long time ago. I wouldn’t even be able to tell you what it was about. I’ve always been fairly relaxed. I love telling stories, so most of my speaking is trying to take a story about one thing I’ve done and how that works into a piece of learning and the piece of learning, what it allows me to do next.  I’ve kind of always done it. I just love it.

Maria: 

Yes. OK. You are very natural, I know. What are things that clients are coming to you for these days? What are the topics that you are being asked for time and time again?

Tony Fish:  

Some of the stuff you’ve covered here. AI and ethics is one that seems to be coming up on the agenda an awful lot. That’s both understanding what AI means, but also ethical considerations about what AI is.

Lots of people are now asking about blockchain, ICOs, initial coin offerings and tokens, tokenisation, because that’s kind of trendy and what the currencies mean and where they’re going. I spend a fair amount of time on that. Still, obviously, I’m nearly 20 years into digital identity, digital footprints and the value of data, and that still runs as a massive theme because people are interested in it.

A lot of about incubators and how to do innovation. Particularly, corporates drag me in wanting to understand what the hell innovation actually is. They’re usually very upset by the time I leave because innovation is not a word and people like to put down to KPIs, and actually there’s a much bigger philosophical debate around what innovation means and how you carry it forward. I’m trying to think. They’re the core topics I’m tending to focus on.

Maria:  

Excellent. OK. Because you are a bit of a serial entrepreneur, have you got some kind of venture going on the moment?

Tony Fish: 

Fairly recently, I lost my dad and my dad was diagnosed with skin cancer five years ago. I’ve built a service, which is called My Changing Skin, when that happened. It takes photographs of your skin, puts them into a little picture book, and allows you to send them to a doctor to see if your skin is changing, particularly around moles, and he had a mole that became cancerous.

We’re just going through the process of relaunching that, but in a way which actually makes it completely free and the data is owned by the users, so the way we built it originally because we couldn’t build it any other way, we centralised data. Now we’re moving the whole thing over to decentralisation and decentralised data, so that’s really exciting because it means that we can actually provide it to everybody completely free, a service to provide management of their skin. Anything that you want to know about on your body, you can now provide that in a very secure encrypted manner, which can be shared.

Maria:  

That’s great. We’d love to share that, actually, that information with our listeners because I think that’s really important. I’m very sorry about your dad, but something very good is coming out of it that hopefully you’ll prevent.

Tony Fish: 

On his deathbed, I had a chat to him and I said, “Dad, got any regrets?” He went, “No, son.” Do you know what? It kind of sets you free. We’re all going to die, and if you die in a place where actually you’ve got no regrets, job done. I want to be there.

Maria: 

Perfect, perfect. Finally, you’re a really busy, busy man. How do you spend your spare time if you have any, that is?

Tony Fish:

Spare time. Oddly enough, I love the gym, so I go to the gym a couple of times a week. I really enjoy yoga, but more because I love stretching and keeping up flexibility and being fairly nimble. I love mountain biking. I love climbing. I love skiing. Basically, anything that involves adrenaline and doing something a bit obscure, so yes, lots and lots of downtime. If not, I’ve got two daughters. They’re 24 and 19. They tend to keep me very busy as well.

Maria:    

This explains why you’ve had to be a serial entrepreneur to pay for your young ladies there I think.

Tony Fish:  

There’s a truth in that. It’s hardly relevant.

Maria: 

On that note, I think it’s a lovely place to stop. Thank you so much for your time, Tony.

Tony Fish:

Thank you, Maria.

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