How a tech pioneer from Salford almost invented Facebook
Wendy Tan White owes a lot to Maggie Thatcher.
While their politics couldn’t be further apart, it was the so-called Iron Lady who taught the tech entrepreneur a crucial lesson: that women can make it to the top.
So that is what she did, first by helping to create Egg, Europe’s first internet bank, and then by founding Moonfruit, the first cloud-based website builder, which she sold six years ago for a life-changing £23m.
These days Tan White invests her time and money into new tech start-ups, while banging the drum for women in tech and for the unimaginable potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI).
But before this country’s iconic first female Prime Minister came along, Tan White’s mum and dad laid the foundations for her to achieve her ambitions.
When Wendy, 48, stood in front of a packed auditorium at The Lowry, at Salford Quays, recently to accept an honorary doctorate from the University of Salford, there was a sense of her life coming full circle.
It was in Salford where her globe-trotting parents Sydney and Rose met, where she was born, and where the seeds of academic and professional excellence were sewn.
Tan White, who now lives in London, says Salford means a lot to her.
“I’ve been back many times to the city over the years,” she said. “It is a special place. When I received the honorary doctorate, my parents were there. Salford has a special place in their life journey and their 50-year marriage and, of course, I was born here, their career in technology and ultimately mine was born here too.
“That is what makes Salford university so special. It is a place where new ideas, new ambitions are born, where R&D, learning and true industry application is combined to create graduates who are fit for the 21st century.”
An immigrant story
Tan White’s parents are certainly the unsung heroes of her success.
Her father Sydney was just 16 when he left his native Myanmar, then known as Burma, for the UK to avoid the military coup of 1962, which started one of the world’s longest-running on-going civil wars.
He had an interest in electronics and studied electrical engineering at Salford, where he met Wendy’s mother, Rose, a Malaysian whose traditionalist father only permitted university study if she chose midwifery.
As students they lived in Moss Side, Manchester, in the 1970s where Wendy spent her first years.
“My parents were classic immigrants,” she explained. “They came to the UK in the 1960s and have always been very positive about the UK and the opportunities it gave them. I have inherited that sense that we are very lucky to be here.”
Before she went to school, the family moved to Scotland where her father studied for his masters and started his career in IT. Although a qualified midwife, Tan White’s mother was also technically minded and started to work in the sector.
A talent for tech
Tech was clearly in the blood and by 11, Tan White was teaching herself to code on a BBC Micro.
Recalling those initial explorations she said: “It was a postal correspondence course where I got a problem and you’d literally write out the program on a piece of graph paper, post it back and your tutor would mark it. This was before the internet, so it seems a crazy way to do it by modern standards. I remember my tutor telling me I was the only child doing the course.”
After moving to Reading with her parents’ jobs, Tan White studied computing, maths and science before taking up a degree in computer science at Imperial College, London.
But it wasn’t such a straight forward trajectory. Tan White was caught between two worlds.
“Working hard and getting an education is a cultural thing for Asians,” she explained. “It’s family first, then education and a strong work ethic.
“I was tied to that but I was also being offered these huge opportunities and freedom. Not only that, I had my own personal battle going on. I was resistant to following my parents into tech. I loved art and design. I didn’t want to do tech, but I was good at it.”
Tan White also discovered herself in a tiny minority of women pursuing technology careers.
“All my life I had never felt there was any issue as a woman going into tech," she said. "My mum’s bosses were women, we had a female Prime Minister, the top job in the country. But when I got to university I found only seven women on my course compared to 120 guys. I realised that the world was not as I’d imagined. That took some adjustment.”
Undeterred, she threw herself into the world of opportunity at university where she was exposed to the early days of the internet.
Discovering the Web
“In those days, there was no World Wide Web but universities were connected through a network called JANET, which allowed me the ability to connect to California,” Tan White explained. “It was simple stuff, playing scrabble and dungeon crawlers with other gamers, but it was also access to early graphical-user-interface design, when most people were still facing screens full of blocky text.
“It’s only now that I realise how fortunate I was to have been exposed to that.”
Coupled with work experience at Ford, programming the assembly-line robotics, she saw the world she wanted to be a part of.
Graduating during a recession, Tan White found herself falling into a job with accountancy giant Arthur Andersen.
Although unhappy with her career, she juggled work with a masters degree in management science, writing her thesis on AI, which was on the cusp of revolution through the gaming industry which was pushing the boundaries of processing power.
Tan White found herself at a crossroads unable to decide between a doctorate in AI or a job at AIT, a software consultancy building customer relationship management (CRMs) for major banks, working with founder Richard Hicks.
She recalls with amusement a story about how her dad, who felt strongly about his daughter pursuing her academic career, took a call from Hicks while Wendy was out and told him she wouldn’t be taking the job.
“It was probably the interference I needed to make my mind up,” she mused.
Standing at a crossroads
Working with Hicks was a watershed moment. Not only did she find herself a mentor who gave her the freedom she needed to thrive, but he was also the uncle of Joe White, who years later would become Wendy’s husband, father to her children and business partner in Moonfruit.
At AIT Tan White found the perfect combination of work where she was coding and dealing with clients.
Her talents were spotted by Richard Duvall, chief tech officer for Prudential, who convinced her to help launch his latest project, Egg.
At 27, Tan White became the youngest senior manager at the company. “Although we were backed by Prudential, essentially we were a start-up, albeit with £70m behind us,” Tan White recalls.
“I was given great freedom to build the brand. It was a fantastic experience.”
The nearly-inventor of Facebook
During her research into building Egg, she learnt a lot about the idea of online communities.
In fact, Tan White claims she nearly pipped Mark Zuckerberg to the post.
“I realised when I was looking at how to build a network of businesses that there was no blogging and no website-builders,” she said.
“Looking back at it, what I was looking at was building Facebook.”
With the help of Eirik Pettersen, a friend from university, and Joe White, Moonfruit was born.
Her second ‘start-up’ journey was very different to Egg.
Shooting for the moon
Without the financial backing and resources, the trio had to cobble the money together from friends and family, and credit cards at first, before later getting backing from investors like Macromedia, later Adobe, and LVMH, the luxury goods conglomerate.
Based in Soho, London, the Moonfruit team were at the heart of the UK’s tech boom.
“We felt like we were the cool kids,” Tan White admits. “We were working in an attic in Soho, at the heart of a huge, exciting tech industry. We were working really hard and having a lot of fun. Eventually, there was 60 of us in the team, growing to 200,000 users and we were riding high.”
But they weren’t making any money – betting that it would come later.
“The dotcom crash was like hitting a wall. It was brutal. The funding dried up and we went from 60 to just two of us.”
With some financial backing in place, Tan White picked up the pieces of her golden idea and started again, wiser and more savvy. “When I look back to that time, it would’ve have been easier to let it die,” she admits.
“I could’ve gone off and started something knew, but I felt a responsibility for our customers. We didn’t know it at the time but we had created the first cloud-based web-builder in the world. So we went back to building it the old-fashioned way.”
Tan White and Pettersen convinced 10% of the users to pay and Moonfruit grew organically, reinvesting profits back into the product.
Between 2004 and 2008 Wendy took time out to start a family with husband Joe tagging back into the business. She returned to work just as Twitter was finding its feet.
Tan White recalls how curiosity to test the new social platform resulted in a huge scale-up.
After Moonfruit launched a simple campaign asking ‘what is Moonfruit?’, it trended for a staggering seven days and put the business on the global map.
An offer she couldn't refuse
By 2012, the business was booming. It had 150 staff and a huge customer base.
Consequentially, the offers started rolling in and in 2012 Tan White agreed to sell to Yell Group for £23m.
“Yell always felt like the right fit,” the entrepreneur explains. “They had more than a million small businesses around the world that wanted to move online.
“They were also UK based, which meant we could stay involved and stay in the UK with our family rather than move to the US.”
However, the deal of a lifetime almost didn’t happen. “An acquisition process like that takes a long time, so we’d been toing and froing for the best part of 12 months. But on the week we were due to sign, share prices in tech companies were dropping. There was a line in the contract that if Yell’s share price dropped to a certain low the deal would not happen. We came within 1p of it all falling through, before it bounced back. It was an awful moment but a huge relief when it went through.”
Tan White stayed on, helping the business grow from $10m to $150m before she stepped down in 2015.
Channelling success into new start-ups
Since then, she has resisted the urge to lead another start-up. Instead, she has invested her wealth and experience into supporting other SMEs and the UK tech ecosystem.
“It was hard leaving Moonfruit initially,” she admits. “Suddenly, I found myself without a purpose, which was a surreal situation. But I realised that I was in a strong position to give something back.”
She returned to AI – what she calls ‘the new internet’ – joining the Alan Turing Institute, the national centre for data science and artificial intelligence, as a board trustee.
She has also signed herself up as an advisor to her former university, Imperial College, as well as TechNation, a network for tech entrepreneurs, and the government’s Digital Economic Council.
Tan White has long used her position as one of the most prominent women in tech to convince more girls to consider a tech career and to argue that the technology sector must become more diverse.
But her passion is getting her hands dirty with tech as an investor.
In 2015 she, along with husband Joe, became partners of Entrepreneur First (EF), a £40m fund to mentor deep tech companies. Since then, she has become an advisor to a BGF Ventures fund for new tech companies and is now exploring her own fund.
“It has been an organic move into investment,” she said. “I love being close to the technology and the fundraising, taking on these young companies and helping them reach their potential. I want to help create.”
Despite the uncertainties of Brexit, Tan White is excited by the current state of tech in the UK.
“The UK has 13 of the 34 unicorns, $1bn value companies, in Europe, collectively valued at $62bn. While London remains the epicentre of funding in Europe, Cambridge, Oxford and Manchester are now in the top 20 most well-capitalised cities in Europe. Last year, £5.9bn of venture capital came into the UK.
“Manchester has loads of thriving start-ups with a £3.2bn turnover in digital tech businesses, 30,000 jobs in the digital industry and another 70,000 digital tech jobs in the non-digital industries,” the investor enthuses.
“The city’s research into computer vision and machine learning is world-leading. The talent pool flooding from its universities is enviable, and its living costs are significantly cheaper than London.”
It is the above which Tan White sees as making the city and UK attractive to investors, as well as the next generation of migrant talent.
“Global companies like the UK because our R&D is strong, our entrepreneurism, our socialist system, that we do things fairly in this country.
“It’s those sorts of things that brought my parents here in the first place, and that started my entire journey.”
A hi-tech vision of the future
Wendy Tan White wasn’t the only famous name and high-achieving graduate to pick up an honorary degree from the University of Salford.
Musicians Peter Hook (Joy Division, New Order) and Aziz Ibrahim (The Stone Roses, Simply Red) were this year honoured for their contributions to the Greater Manchester rock scene, while Dave Moutrey, CEO of HOME and Mancunian poet Tony Walsh were also recognised.
Mechanical engineering graduate and industry chief Diana Kennedy, a top executive at BP, business graduate Javed Khan, CEO of Barnardos, and chemistry graduate and biotech entrepreneur Dr Darrin Disley were also given honorary doctorates, along with Mancunian Claire Handby, a construction industry figure and director at Deloitte.
In her acceptance speech, Tan White hailed the university’s £800m masterplan for the campus and the surrounding area around the Crescent and Peel Park as ‘ambitious, audacious but refreshingly pragmatic’ and claimed it will put Salford back at the forefront of the industrial revolution.
She also encouraged students and graduates to be part of the technological revolution, which will fundamentally change our work, health, nutrition and homes.
“A decade ago, smartphones didn’t exist. Three decades earlier, no one even owned a computer. Think about that – the first personal computers arrived about 40 years ago.
“Technological evolution speeds up exponentially. Elon Musk announced city to city travel by rocket and a plan to colonise Mars.
“Deep Mind produced AlphaGo, an AI that beat the world’s Go Master five years earlier than expected.
“Social media and machine learning is impacting our consumption of media and impacting our global politics.
“I’m working with deep technology companies that will reprogram cells, manage swarms of drones, democratise space data applications and find new ways of curing disease with artificial intelligence.
“Automation will ensure the future of work is nothing like the jobs we see today.
“We need our most engaged minds on shaping this future.”
Dr Maria Kutar of the University of Salford Business School put Wendy forward for the award.
She said: “It’s amazing to see such a successful and inspirational woman receive an honorary doctorate from Salford.
“She has had a huge influence in the sector and her work mentoring so many new start-ups is vital to keep the country at the forefront of technology and matches our own aims of giving students the opportunity to maximise their potential.”