I would love to tell a totally linear story – from childhood dream through business studies and then into a corporate job, but it hasn’t been like that at all – though I became good at telling a linear story at job interviews.
I studied history and ran away from the small family business, thinking I wanted to chart my own path. I began working for the UN in Sarajevo after the Yugoslav Wars. That started a diplomatic career which took me to Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Brussels and Washington, but throughout I couldn’t shake my family’s entrepreneurial spirit or the enthusiasm for technology that my father – an engineer – has imparted.
So when I took a job advising the Prime Minister I quickly focused on the potential for new, agile technology companies to change society and improve people’s lives.
While the private sector was being transformed by new technology players, the public sector IT market remained dominated by the same large, slow-moving incumbents as always before. And that in some ways was the spark that led me towards PUBLIC.
How did you become CEO of PUBLIC?
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After leaving Number 10 I was looking for the next challenge and I knew there was a need for new technology for public services and a wealth of great entrepreneurial talent that could supply the solution.
I was introduced to my now partner, Alex de Carvalho, by two mutual acquaintances. We were approaching the same problem but from different sides. We ended up having lunch, and on the back of several, vision-filled napkins plotted what became PUBLIC. Incidentally, both of those acquaintances who introduced us ended up being our early investors.
We both share the same vision – seeing GovTech in Europe expand and grow with start-ups leading the charge. The GovTech sector is currently worth $400 billion globally but that figure is only going to increase; in 2005 the UK GovTech market was worth £6.6 billion but in 2025 this figure is predicted to be £20 billion.
There’s a massive economic opportunity here, but there’s also the opportunity for Europe to define the emerging GovTech space as it takes shape and to transform the way citizens interact with public services.
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How does PUBLIC aim to influence the tech sector in the UK, and how do you see yourself driving the change?
PUBLIC helps tech start-ups transform public services improving the lives of both citizens and service providers. We do this through a number of different means.
We invest in, back and build companies – through programmes such as the GovStart accelerator and through the GovTech challenge programme which we run with the Danish Government. We try to shape views about what technology can do by undertaking research that looks at the brightest and most innovative tech opportunities that government can take of advantage of across a range of verticals – health, local government, policing etc.
Start-ups are born through sensing a gap in the market or finding a better way of solving a problem. PUBLIC aims to bridge the gap between policy makers, public buyers and entrepreneurs, so that true innovators and true innovation can see and address challenges much more readily, and ultimately provide solutions that will scale to improve all our lives as citizens.
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Where do you see the technology industry heading, and how do you think this will influence PUBLIC?
The need for technology in public services is only going to grow. We simply cannot solve challenges such as mental health provision, equality in educational provision or care for an aging population without implementing new technology and new ways of thinking.
If these sector experts – as well as great technologists with deep specialist knowledge – can be persuaded to see the public sector as a market and an opportunity to make profitable businesses and improve people’s lives in the process, we have the opportunity to build an incredible GovTech ecosystem that will create benefits across a wide range of verticals and for all members of society.
What’s the biggest challenge about being a CEO?
I’m constantly learning how to be a CEO. At its core it’s really very simple – set a mission, adopt a strategy, recruit and motivate people and then make sure they have the means to deliver. But I think I have two challenges.
First, I constantly battle to determine what I should involve myself and what I should leave to the team. Thankfully we have a great team, and my partner Alex is also brilliant and good at telling me that I need to let go.
My second challenge is to ensure both that we have the right, “stretchy” targets and that I don’t set such impossible aims that the team struggles to follow. My colleagues joke about my madcap ideas and stratospheric ambitions for PUBLIC. But you’re only as big as your dreams.
What’s an accomplishment that has shaped your career?
When I worked in wartime Bosnia I devised and created several of the country’s institutions from scratch, including its Ministry of Defence, Intelligence Agency and its Finance Ministry. Before that I thought a number of things were beyond a normal person to accomplish.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My old boss, Lord Paddy Ashdown, once said to me: there are very few sins associated with moving too quickly.
I think that’s shaped my professional life since I heard the advice.
If you could give advice to another (tech startup) CEO, what would it be?
Focus your business on things that matter. Make sure what you build, lead, create makes a positive difference- beyond shareholder value.
As for the quick fire questions.. what’s the favourite app on your phone?
Sadly Twitter. Wish it was Duolingo!
What’s a book that’s influenced you?
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. An extraordinary book about the need to find meaning in life even in the darkest of times. Or perhaps especially then. I give it to all of PUBLIC’s employees. A life – much as a business – without meaning is a very difficult one.
Name a company that you wish you founded & why.
I think Raspberry Pi is a brilliant business. The drive to put technology – and the skills to build products – into the hands of everyone (but especially children) at very low prices, is one I really admire. The founders had great vision, delivered on it and have built on it.