Skype man says have fun, or shrivel up

A co-founder of Skype told an audience of luminaries and me that if you aren’t having fun with your start-up, the chances of success are slim.

Estonian Jaan Tallin, speaking at the Silicon Valley comes to Oxford conference, outlined two elements that could make or break a new kid on the block. Those, he said, were technology and distribution. He spends his time on startup Metamed and is also a co-founder of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. This assesses risks to humanity in the future.

However, he said,  no-one can see into the future, the future is fragile and can be influenced or disrupted by just a few people. He said that Skype – which started off life as Skyper – began to really take off as a voice over IP application in 2003, the year when notebook sales exceeded desktop sales.

One of the problems when a VC injected money into a startup  is that technology developers acted a bit like amoebae. The more money there is sloshing about, the faster amoebae multiply.

Disruptive technologies, by and large, ignored expert opinion.  “The expert concensus was that Skype was a toy,” he said. “Experts just did not believe in Skype.”

But where it succeeded was that unlike other VoIP ventures, setup didn’t require long install procedures. “Users beat expert opinion,” he said.

He said that in questions like this there was always “a man behind the curtain” but every market is ultimately limited by the laws of physics.

He said that Google had at one stage negotiated to buy Skype but it didn’t want to pay the right price.

Now involved in a health care startup called Metamed, Tallin said that he is now turning his mind to improving the lot of humanity. “There’s more R&D spent on lipstick than on the future risks to humanity,” he said.

He said if people didn’t have fun while they were working, and resisted being amoebae, ventures could succeed. He illustrated that with lots of photos and video clips of Skype people partying like it was 1994.