We are excited to share May’s feature for GSA’s Get to Know the CEO. This month we sat down with Graham Curren, Founder and CEO, Sondrel.
Graham founded Sondrel in 2002 after identifying a gap in the market for an international company specializing in complex digital IC design.
Prior to establishing Sondrel, Graham graduated in Electronic Engineering from Leeds University and worked in both ASIC design and manufacturing before joining electronic design automation (“EDA”) company, Avant! Corporation. There, he managed the technical and marketing teams across EMEA, supporting products across the whole range of IC design.
In 2010, Graham accompanied the UK prime minster at the time, David Cameron, in his business delegation to China. He also acted as a non-executive director for the China-Britain Business Council between 2011 and 2017. Read the full interview below:
Q: What personal projects will you be working on this weekend?
A: This weekend I will either be pottering around the garden (if it’s not raining), working on a car or motorbike (check my hands on Monday for oil!), or, most likely, doing something with the family. I’ll probably do a bit of catching up on work as well, but hopefully not too much.
Q: What advice would you give to early-career people wanting to start a company in the current climate?
A: I wouldn’t worry about the current climate because if you are going to start your own company you should be planning on doing it for the long, not short term. Were I starting Sondrel again, then I would advise myself
Make sure that you have someone involved in the business who you can trust and will put the company’s interests above their own (as you must). As the company grows, becomes more valuable, and the job roles evolve, then people’s priorities change so just because you are aligned today doesn’t mean that you will be tomorrow. It doesn’t have to be a founder, it could be a friend, partner, or someone who’s done it before, but they need to be able to relate well to your challenges.
Make sure you have the funds to get through bad times. In the early days this will probably mean not taking a salary for an extended period – unless you have a lot of external funding of course!
Expect things to take longer, and not go as well as your original plan. Give yourself plenty of margin, and don’t get disappointed – be persistent.
Give it a go! Better to have tried and failed, than to regret not trying!
Q: What was your first job in the industry?
A: Like most people of my age I started with one of the big UK electronics companies of the time. In my case it was GEC Avionics and I worked on a submarine detection system. I learnt a lot, but mostly how not to do things! Perhaps that is why I’ve spent the rest of my career in smaller companies.
Q: What personal technology could you not be without?
A: I am a bit of a gadget man, and annoy my family by having Alexa powered lights and doors, various robots to clean the house and mow the lawn and so on. To be fair though, it’s the fact that nothing works properly rather than the gadgets that annoy them (there is a dig there to our industry to get our act together and make things easy to use and integrated if we really want smart homes to take off). However, I could and would lose all that and happily go back to the small TV in the corner of the room given the choice. So, I don’t think that there is really anything that I would be sad to give up.
Q: What has been the highlight of your career to date?
A: There have been a few highlights in my career, all whilst at Sondrel.
Traveling with the Prime Minister to China as part of David Cameron’s business delegation was very interesting. Seeing how hard he had to work and yet how much his time was controlled was very illuminating. Regardless of the politics, I was impressed by how hard he worked whilst always manage to seem happy.
Meeting the Queen at Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Award presentation, and then at a Garden Party were fascinating, and bring memories that will last a lifetime. Going to the British Parliament and attending receptions in the Houses of Parliament were also very informative (much more down-to-earth than I expected).
Attending the London Stock Exchange last October for the IPO was of course a highlight. It was wonderful to be able to bring my family to celebrate that with me and with many of other Sondrel staff from around the world.
Q: Who has inspired you most in your life/career?
A: Thinking about this question made me realize that I’ve been pretty lucky with the people that I’ve worked with and for over the years. The first couple were at ES2 – Robin Saxby (later CEO of ARM) and Bryan O’Connell (my line manager who taught me a huge amount about confidence and how to work with customers). Later, at Avant! I worked for Paul Greenfield who has a fantastic leader and one of the best sales professionals I’ve seen. The CEO at Avant! was, Gerry Hsu, who without doubt had a lot of faults, but a lot of talent as well and was inspirational to listen to. I guess I’ve also realised that everyone has good and bad bits to them, and we learn by trying to copy the best and avoid the worst!
Q: What hobbies do you participate in outside of work, or what do you do with your free time?
A: Like most CEO’s I don’t have a lot of free time, and what I do have is very important. I am the chair of governors at the local state school which takes quite a lot of time, although probably not as much as it should. I spend some time in the garden and although I’m not a great or even particularly keen gardener, I like the fact that it is outside (not in the office) and that it doesn’t really matter if I do something or not. Occasionally I’ll do some DIY or work on a car or motorbike in the garage (not as much as I used to) – apart from the modern cars I have a 1973 Lotus Elan, and a 1968 Velocette and 1948 Corgi motorcycles. Most of the time though I do things with my family, which is what I enjoy most.
Q: Who is your favorite musician, writer, or artist?
A: I like a wide range of music, from classical (composers such as Sibelius, Rachmaninov, Widor) to stage musicals (Sondheim, Lloyd-Webber), jazz (especially big band or blues) to rock (Queen, Meat Loaf) and everything in between. If you asked my children they’d probably say Carole King. I thought I’d check this by looking at my Apple playlist most played and I get Meat Loaf, Fleetwood Mac, music from The Greatest Showman, Electric Light Orchestra, music from La La Land, and then a few others that clearly my children have put on!