Betfair co-founder Ed Wray on the future of business in Britain

His company turns over £387m and has almost one million customers. What does he forecast for yours?

Ed Wray is the co-founder of Betfair, the world’s largest online betting exchange. Convinced by business partner Andrew Black’s gambling concept, Wray left his job at JP Morgan and the pair founded their company in 1999. Betfair pioneered the online betting exchange concept, which allows customers to gamble with odds set by themselves or by other users. The idea saw the company enter the FTSE 250 less than 10 years after it formed.

The company now processes more than seven million transactions a day from over 950,000 active customers, a figure the company says is more than all European stock exchanges combined. In 2013, annual revenues hit £387m.

Wray stepped down as chief executive of the company in 2003, moving to Australia to focus on the business’ venture there, remaining as a board member until 2012. Wray has invested in various firms including Kabbee and Funding Circle.

He is currently acting as an ambassador for this summer’s International Festival for Business, a 50-day business festival held in Liverpool that aims to connect businesses and drive growth across the SME sector.

LondonlovesBusiness caught up with Wray to find out why he is so positive about business in the UK at the moment.

Do you think that the UK is a good place to base a business?

I do. It’s got a great culture, great infrastructure, and a great location, there’s a very real innovative culture, and we’ve always had that. If you go back through the ages then people have always said that Britain is great at engineering and at design and we are. We have a very natural flair for that.

If you look at our university network then some of the intellectual property coming out of that is incredibly exciting. In the past we haven’t been so good at maximising that. But half a million businesses were started in this country last year. We’ve got that positive attitude.

London has really established itself from a tech scene point of view, and that’s fantastic, but look at what Liverpool is doing and at what Manchester is doing. There are all these hubs springing up around the country, and they become self-fulfilling. Once you get a few people there and it starts to work very well, the better it works [so] the more people join in. The more people get in, the better it works.

What could the government be doing to encourage British businesses to expand their international coverage?

The UKTI do a fabulous job and it’s interesting that they use the Foreign Office network. I’ve had experience of that and of just how helpful that network can be. A lot of people think about the Foreign Office as being about diplomatic relations, but it’s also fantastically valuable from a commercial point of view; getting into countries, getting business introductions and doing things like that.

If I was to be critical of the effort that is going on right now, then I’d say that lots of good stuff like this is happening, but people aren’t aware that it’s happening. So I think we need to raise the awareness of all these different avenues and the groups that you can call on and who will help you if you knew about them. The communication has been sub-optimal.

What can businesses do to help themselves in that area? Are companies frightened of the international market?

I’m a big believer in that you can’t be afraid to fail. You’ve got to go out and try things, and if you fail then you learn a lot from that, maybe more than if you succeed. Over the last four or five years, everyone’s been cognisant that we’ve been in an incredibly tough economic environment. They’ve rightly been thinking in a safety-first way, and going, “Ok, I’ve just got to make sure I’m still here in three or four years, whenever it turns, to then benefit.”

We’ve now clearly hit that turning point. What’s essential for a lot of businesses now is that they have to get on the front foot, and that’s a different mind-set.

With all the businesses I’m involved in we’re really pushing people and saying “now’s the time”. Time is your most undervalued commodity.

Betfair horse racing

What would you like to see in the Chancellor’s Budget in March?

I think a continuation of setting the frame work for a pro-business environment. We’ve seen it from a tax point of view, not just from a corporation tax point of view, but things like EIS [Enterprise Investment Scheme] and SEIS [Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme], and those are brilliant incentives for starting businesses. We’ve seen a removal of a lot of the onerous red-tape, so I want to see that continue.

Certainty is also important. People need to know that the landscape isn’t going to suddenly change. There needs to be a continuing positive environment, because the most damaging thing by far is the chop and change. But we’re in better shape than I can remember us being for a long time.

Have you got any concerns about increasing regulatory burdens and tax levels?

We’re clearly in a more advantageous position with tax than pretty much any other of the leading nations. In terms of regulation, yes, you’re always worried, and have to make sure that growth happens in the best possible way. You don’t want to over-regulate it and I don’t think we will, but it’s something we need to keep tabs on.

There seems to be a public backlash against large companies that aren’t seen to be paying tax.

There is a public backlash, but it’s against business as a whole. And that does worry me. Too many people have looked at some of the excesses over the last five or six years and have confused that with success today. We want businesses to be successful, we want them to be growing and employing more people. That’s good for everybody. They have to do so in a responsible way, I think 99% of them do, but the sad thing is that we focus on the 1% that don’t.  

What are you most excited about from your own business’ perspective?

I think being in a year where for the first time in ages, everyone in business is confident about the way things are going. If people are confident then they take more exciting decisions and they’re growing their businesses. Last year we didn’t start off confidently, we were still asking if we’d turned the corner yet.

Now we believe we have turned the corner and that becomes self-fulfilling. So I think it will be interesting and exciting to be in a situation where people are saying that they are looking to expand rather than to protect their businesses.

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