December 2, 2010 6:07 pm | By Jonathan Moules
Start-up optimist: Robert Dighero
When Tradus, an online auction business, was sold for £946m ($1.5bn) in 2008, Robert Dighero’s main priority was to take a break and spend time with his wife and four children.
Dighero had joined the former dotcom darling as chief financial officer in 1998, when the company was called Quixell – later QXL.com – and employed barely half a dozen people.
As second in command to Tim Jackson, QXL’s founder, Dighero had experienced both the highs and the lows of an internet business that went from boom to bust and back again.At its lowest point, the company was made an honorary member of the 99 per cent club, so called because of the proportionate drop in its market capitalisation after the dotcom bubble burst in March 2000.
In QXL’s case, this was a fall from £2.5bn to as low as £900,000. “We weren’t just in the 99 per cent club,” Dighero recalls. “We were in the 99.9 per cent club.”
The business revived its fortunes, however, and the shares marched unrelentingly upwards, making it the best-performing stock in London in 2004-05.
At the same time, however, the company found itself in court, accusing its former Polish partners of “stealing” its operations in that country. By the time the case was settled in June 2006, QXL had made its first full-year profit.
“Those three or four years [before the sale] were difficult, but the underlying business was doing well during that time,” Dighero says.
By the time the business was sold to Naspers, an African media group, plans were already afoot to relocate its headquarters from London to Switzerland to be closer to its core markets. Dighero did not want to move out of Wandsworth, a south-west London neighbourhood, where his children had started school.
“The acquisition actually didn’t change that much for me in terms of what I was going to do,” he says. “It was just a cleaner exit.”
Dighero’s share of the proceeds from the sale enabled him to move his family into a larger house. He also took two months off for a spontaneous holiday, the first big break he had taken since leaving university.
“We made it up a few weeks beforehand,” Dighero says about the trip with his wife and four children to Costa Rica and up through North America, white-water rafting and living on ranches.
On his return, Dighero took on various consulting projects and became involved in angel investing. Although he was still working, he was pleased to be able to cut his working week down from roughly 60 hours to a more palatable 40 hours.
“I wanted to rebalance my life,” he says, noting that by this time his family comprised a teenager, 11-year-old twins and a seven-year-old.
“My wife had been very supportive, but I needed time to go to school events and take the children swimming or play football with them,” he says.
Dighero’s life became a bit more structured again this year when he reconnected with Stefan Glaenzer, the co-founder of Ricardo.de, a German online auction company, which had merged with QXL in 2000 to form QXL ricardo.
Glaenzer and Eileen Burbidge had set up White Bear Yard, a hub for ambitious technology start-ups in a former warehouse in London’s Clerkenwell district, and they asked Dighero to join them in running it.
The goal is to create a place for aspiring entrepreneurs to innovate and provide mutual support to other start-up ventures, says Dighero. There are also plans to put together an early-stage venture capital fund of roughly £40m to support the companies on site.
“The idea is that it is much easier to help, work with and mentor companies when they are close at hand. Additionally, they thrive from collaborating and knowledge sharing among themselves,” Dighero says.
White Bear Yard is not unique in London, but Dighero believes the emergence of such support is helping the city to become at least one of Europe’s centres for technology start-ups, if not the continent’s capital.
“We are a long way from the US in terms of scale,” he admits. However, if London is to become the centre of gravity for Europe’s start-up community, Dighero is clearly determined to be a part of it.