Programming, pitching and patents – five questions with tech expert Tom Bell
Electronic Engineering alumnus Tom Bell has specialised in Intellectual Property Law since exploring several entrepreneurial ventures during his studies at the University of Southampton.
As part of Future Worlds’ Five Questions (5Qs) series, he explains how programming has become one of the most desired skills on the planet and offers his advice to the next generation of student entrepreneurs.
How would you describe your experience of studying at the University of Southampton?
It was a fantastic time of immense fun and excitement as I faced new opportunities and challenges, as well as learning the skills to equip me for the future. It was also the ideal place to make good friendships with talented people to share many of my experiences with.
The University of Southampton was the perfect place for all of that to happen. Its students are undoubtedly some of the very best and the academic support was incredible.
I found the resources available to undergraduates at Southampton to be first-rate. The responsibility to make the most of university is of course down to the individual themselves. However, I found that the University offered all of the tools and services that I needed to walk away from my Master’s degree four years later, having really made the most of it.
What were some of the startup ideas that you explored during your studies?
During those four years at university, I can recall dozens of projects I worked on, products I tried to build, founders I mentored and roles I had within other companies.
I spent almost two years playing a leading role in a team of developers working on an iPad game for a company called Lastmarch. I designed a new social network; led the business development of an innovative e-commerce platform; developed an intelligent mobile-application for a local bus service; and implemented a low-cost acoustic vehicle detection unit, among several others.
In my fourth year, I met my friend Cameron Jenkinson, founder of Trackstack. From his extensive experience in the music industry, he had identified the need for an accessible music discovery platform, aimed particularly at DJs. Having already developed a basic prototype, he invited me to join the team and we spent a good portion of the year working on building our network, making adjustments to the business model, undertaking technical research of product development options and consulting the experts.
In early May 2015, I was given the opportunity present our pitch to a panel of investors at the Dragons’ Den event at the University of Southampton and was able to meet Reuben Wilcock and discover Future Worlds. At the event, the panel of Dragons included Russell Champion, Max Toti, Josh Valman and Carl Churchill and having been well prepared by Reuben it was a huge privilege to pitch our startup idea to them. We were able to receive expert advice from the Dragons that enabled us to make well-informed decisions about the way forward.
Through each startup I worked on, I have learned more about planning, commitment, product and business development, technology and leadership than I could have ever hoped for, and I am grateful to the University for providing that opportunity.
In what ways have your entrepreneurial experiences impacted on what you’re doing now?
For me, entrepreneurship isn’t just a title that can be claimed by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg or Richard Branson. I think it is all about having a mind-set of risk-taking and problem-solving. It’s about using all of the resources at your disposal, including your skills, energy and confidence, in order to fix stuff that others can’t or won’t. That’s something that can be applied to almost any area of industry.
I spend most of my time working for an intellectual property law firm training to be a patent attorney. It’s an incredibly broad profession in which client-relationships, business development and a strong technical expertise are just as important as efficiency, legal knowledge and effective communication. My experiences in entrepreneurship have hugely benefitted me in preparation for this demanding role and I am sure they have enabled me to perform to a higher standard than I otherwise could.
Entrepreneurship has helped me to see opportunity in everything and I know that as I travel through my career, I will take that mind-set with me.
You’ve recently published your book ‘Programming: A Primer’. How can programming be a useful tool for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Over the past few decades, technology has immeasurably changed the way we live our lives. This means that the economy maybe 50 years ago is entirely unrecognisable compared to that of the modern era. The widespread availability of technology, and the immense power at the fingertips of anyone who can use it, has meant that programming literacy has become one of the most sought-after skills on the planet.
Yet coding is a skill that’s still seriously under-recognised by the general population. It’s not yet accepted as a skill to be applied to every area of work.
Programming: A Primer is a book which I wrote in 2014 to address this situation and I was privileged to have it published by Imperial College Press. It’s written to be an informal and inspiring book covering the fundamental ideas behind programming. It uses the essentials of the Python programming language as well as basic web development to guide the reader through some key topics.
Even over the past few months, hundreds of copies have been sold and readers are giving extraordinary feedback about how it’s helping them to be more productive, creative and successful. I feel really fortunate to be able to contribute in a positive way to so many peoples’ lives. Whoever you are, programming can benefit you too!
What would be one piece of advice you’d want to share with students interested in exploring entrepreneurship at university?
It may not feel like it at particular points in the year, but at university you have a lot of space to think outside the box and get involved in projects or causes which are just not always possible when you leave.
I define entrepreneurship broadly. It’s not just about creating a funky new app or a niche drop-shipping e-commerce website. Instead, it’s about intentionally taking risks using your creativity, time and energy to leverage technology, people and other resources, in order to solve real problems.
If that excites you, I would recommend spending a good amount of time at university placing yourself in situations where you will face new challenges. Be willing to accept bigger responsibilities and expectations, and learn how to strategically manage the allocation of your energy in order to produce results which are congruent to your goals.
Find a problem, assemble a team, build a solution, distribute, test and repeat. It’s that simple. And as you do, you’ll find your confidence, skills and standards being raised significantly.
Also, I’ve realised that people tend to become the average of the people they spend the most amount of time with – so always be the dumbest person in the room. Focus on making yourself more valuable to others and you’ll become irreplaceable.
But it all starts with one word – intentionality. Make it a choice, not an accident.
Practically, maybe that choice could begin with you joining ECS Entrepreneurs and getting plugged in to Future Worlds.