Stephen Douglas




United States


Public Administration


Jan 2016 - Sep 2017

By Stephen Douglas

Palo Alto: Bringing Us Closer to Our Unknown Liquid Futures

Executive MBA Entrepreneurial Finance module in Palo Alto

The future is here—it’s just unevenly distributed

We were in Palo Alto for the second last Entrepreneurship Finance module of our Oxford Saïd Executive MBA.

EMBA students hire a catamaran in San Francisco Bay

It wasn’t all work – a few of us rented a Catamaran and sailed around San Francisco Bay and under the Golden Gate Bridge at night fall

The key questions we came to Palo Alto to answer were:

Why do 50% of NASDAQ companies and 50% of the world’s US$100b+ companies come from this locality – Google Airbnb HP Lyft Uber Apple LinkedIn Adobe Twitter Planet Cisco Facebook IDEO AMD Lockheed Martin NASA Ames Research Center Tesla GoPro Intel Corporation Juniper Networks National Semiconductor Seagate Technology PayPal Alphabet Inc. eBay Salesforce SurveyMonkey Yahoo! Inc. YouTube NETGEAR Intuit Mozilla Oracle Palantir Symantec Cloud Services Flickr Agilent Technologies…?


What are the ingredients necessary to maintain such an innovative market-building edge as Silicon Valley consistently displays?

The Ethernet, the graphical interface and the mouse were all invented here, at Xerox Parc, Palo Alto. Yet, famously, Xerox was never able to monetise these world-changing inventions.

This is the classic bind all innovative businesses face: how to bring the explore:exploit ratios into sync so one innovates, at the same time as growing ones revenues?

I asked a former Xerox executive, with whom I was networking this week, about Xerox’s failure:

“It’s tragically ironic that our Palo Alto geniuses changed the way we all communicate across the world today. They just couldn’t successfully communicate with our marketing organisation, and vice-versa. Senior management, too, we never understood how to monetise completely the value of what we held within our company: our culture of innovation.”

What this Exec really was saying is that the Xerox organisation needed to have a liquid “company culture” in which functional divisions are not allowed to hinder the flow of information inside and outside the company.

A liquid company culture, the software, if you like, of any organisation, needs to allow for the learnings from every single part of the company to seep into and inform decisions in every other part of the organisation – top-to-bottom and across functions.

And out of this liquidity will flow the kinds of market-building and market-winning innovation necessary for tech businesses to continue thriving.

Palo Alto itself is an example of a liquid culture, through which the world’s ideas flow in order to win appropriate shares of capital and, crucially, the know-how of investors who actively then contribute to the scaling of the companies in which they invest.

We were introduced here in Palo Alto to many of the world’s most successful angel investors and venture capitalists. They shared with us how they assess innovative business plans.

We were even given an opportunity to pitch our own business ideas.

Oxford EMBA, Silicon Valley module - pitch to angel investors

Two of my entrepreneurship project partners running through our deck in a diner in Palo Alto before pitching our business to an angel investor


Entrepreneurs collaborate on a mixed reality software project, Oxford Executive MBA, Silicon Valley

I was connected to this entrepreneur by Silicon Valley luminary Jamis McNiven. His “Mixed Reality” software project (see focuses on the chronic pain alleviation market. I was enabled by what I had learned during the module to provide strategic advice to Martin for scaling his project. We will stay in touch and mentor each other as we continue on our respective high-tech entrepreneurial journeys

We also negotiated Cap Tables, liquidation preferences and Term Sheets for Seed, Series A, B, C and onwards’ funding rounds. We were taught, as entrepreneurs, how to look at our business plans from the perspectives of venture capitalists.

Our previous work in accounting; Strategy and Innovation; corporate finance; in Analytics for Decision Makers; and for our Entrepreneurship Project itself proved to be a great preparation for these tasks.

We also visited actual Silicon Valley companies which are at various stages in their evolution from seed size up to US$100b+. Hat tip to Ibby, our EMBA12 Oxford University alum for proposing and organising this field trip.

Oxford EMBA class visit to JFrog, Palo Alto

EMBA class visit to JFrog


Oxford Executive MBA Alum Ibby Rahmani, Director of Product Marketing at JFrog

Oxford University Executive MBA Alum Ibby Rahmani, Director of Product Marketing at JFrog, and me at a dinner to celebrate the end of the module. 

Somewhere in between these two extremes was JFrog, whose users include, basically, everyone (clue: anyone who’s ever downloaded an Android App or bought online has used JFrog’s solutions).

At JFrog I encountered the idea of “liquid software”. This is the idea that remaining secure on an ongoing basis means that all companies which have software (and all companies now have proprietary software – which company doesn’t have an App these days?!) need to have protocols/structures in place that enable their software to be updated constantly. The days of periodic updates and “please restart” old fashioned upgrades are fast disappearing. JFrog’s tech provides the capacity to do this and already serves a vast array of companies, including most of the largest tech companies in the world. JFrog’s marketing strategy intrigued me, not least because it is not really a marketing strategy, and yet it is.

JFrog’s software engineers seem so knowledgeable about everything to do with enterprise solutions (Know Thine Competitors, after all, is the Second Commandment of Capitalism!) that even if an enterprise asks JFrog’s engineers about a non-JFrog solution they’re having problems with, JFrog’s engineers will do their best to help it solve the problem. This generosity, which is a core element of its corporate culture, itself helps drive, not only innovation (this is a way for JFrog to understand problems in competitors’ solutions), but also the conversion of non-customers into customers.

JFrog’s a perfect example of a new kind of liquid company – a company which doesn’t advertise using traditional methods and whose innovation strategy incorporates real-time feed-back from customers and non-customers into its liquid products and services. At JFrog marketing, operations, culture and sales align, even as they evolve. It’s an embodiment of the state of the art in company composition that we have been learning about over the past twenty-one months at Oxford University’s Said Business School.

Oxford EMBA Entrepreneurial Finance class, Silicon Valley

Our Entrepreneurial Finance class, pictured along with our teachers Allen Morgan and Tim Jenkinson, course director, Associate Dean Kathy Harvey and Isabel Finch, Senior Programme Administrator.

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