Man on a mission: Sam Michel of Chinwag


He helps London’s tech SMEs expand internationally and connect with each other – could he benefit your business?

“It’s not what I would call a proper job and I do wonder how I ended up doing it,” laughs Sam Michel, CEO and founder of Chinwag.

It’s the end of our interview and I find myself laughing too. I’m astounded by Michel’s humility.

This, coming from a man who’s been for meetings at the White House, works closely with government, could claim to be the first paid webmaster in the UK, and who was one of the first people to bring together the UK’s digital community right at the dawn of the internet.

He’s an important man with a very real job. Chinwag is an online community, editorial site and jobs board for the digital industry, that also hosts offline events. The brand, and indeed Michel, are highly feted among London’s tech crowd.

We’re sitting in a bustling café on Leather Lane, the trendy kind that serves flat whites. We’ve been nursing the coffees for an hour or so, I’ve been completely enraptured by not only Michel’s story but also his genial charm. He chuckles and giggles his way through the conversation in a pleasant softly spoken manner; I could happily hang out all day in his company and smash down 10 more flat whites.

Chinwag was formed by Michel in 1996, born out of a need for early internet marketing pioneers to keep in touch and discuss web developments.

“Some people were fairly new to the whole marketing thing and everybody was new to the internet thing. We had all sorts of conversations like ‘is this banner ad thing ever going to catch on?’ ” recalls Michel.

Michel had been involved in early website building. When he started Chinwag, essentially as a chat forum, he had no idea how much and how fast it would grow.

“Once we all started chatting it grew and grew, I started organising events which proved popular and in the end it started to take up two or three days a week which I had to fit in with my proper job.”

Something had to give and in 2005 Michel left his consulting job to work on Chinwag full time.

He went on to launch Chinwag Jobs – now the one of the largest job board for digital roles, and Chinwag Live (a series of events and discussions casting light on trends in the digital media) and continued to support the burgeoning digital industry.

So what can Michel and Chinwag do to help support London’s tech SMEs?

London is currently buzzing with an extra flurry of social media action. It’s Social Media Week (SMW), a global event held across 21 cities. London is holding over 150 events as part of SMW’s hundreds of locations across the city.

“I’ve never worked in such an open industry [as digital], it gives you a warm feeling inside,” he beams.

You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s team Chinwag running the event from their HQ on Leather Lane, as they have done for the past three years.

“It’s bonkers – last year the event ballooned and this year is the same,” Michel tells me.

“There are dozens of organisations involved, like Channel 4, Ogilvy and Nokia. It’s really strange – we’ve found people who compete against each other ferociously for business, working together on an event, suggesting speakers for each other and sharing client contacts.

“I’ve never worked in such an open industry, it gives you a warm feeling inside,” he beams.

I wonder why he thinks the digital industry is so different in that respect from others. Is it because the technology moves so fast that people need to be open and communicative with each other to succeed?

“That’s part of it,” he agrees. “But I also think it’s because people move a lot between companies. While they’re loyal to their business, they are mindful that a person could easily become a client or could create a start-up that they want to be part of.”

It’s all part of a nebulous industry that seems to thrive from lack of defined boundaries; something which seems to mirror Chinwag’s own difficult-to-define nature and could perhaps explain Michel’s self-perceived “lack of a proper job”.

On a mission for UK tech businesses

Digital mission

Digital mission

And now, to the White House.

About four years ago Chinwag was approached by UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) who asked it to pitch for a number of trade missions. Without any experience in that area, the team put together a proposal for a week in New York, introducing British companies to the new market.

The efforts of Michel and co went down a storm. Chinwag have since organised and run nine trade missions to various cities including to the effortlessly cool SXSW festival is Austin, Texas.

It was on the mission to Washington DC that Michel found himself in the White House. And by all accounts, he was treated rather nicely.

“We took 15 companies over, it was a phenomenal trip. We met the deputy CTO of the White House – an amazing guy. His PR kept trying to drag him out of the room but he said ‘no no, it’s really interesting, I’m staying!’ ” laughs Michel.

Michel religiously wears his “very British” bowler hat on missions. And uses his union jack laptop case.

“There’s nothing wrong with flying the flag and being a little bit kitsch about being a Brit. We’re such a design-led nation and we always bring that into what we do – if you look at other business sectors they can be quite dry. Not our gang,” he insists.

“The focus among Western governments at the moment is on inward investment, but the trade path and companies doing business with each other is often the bridge over which investment flows”

Whether they’re in DC or Austin or New York, the team certainly fly that flag. Chinwag organises The Great British Breakfast (“with real sausages”) to which it invites international delegates, and a gin and tonic networking event.

“This year we’re bringing plenty of tea too – you can’t get a decent cuppa in the states,” he says knowingly.

But it’s not all frivolous frippery. Michel takes the missions seriously and believes in what he is trying to achieve.

“I think the focus among Western governments at the moment is on inward investment, but the trade path and companies doing business with each other is often the bridge over which investment flows,” he tells me.

“Government funding is increasingly limited so we have started to look beyond UKTI and run the missions with corporate partners.”

Michel’s next mission is to the aforementioned SXSW festival in March.

“The reason I’m looking quite so ropey today is that we were at a
pre-mission briefing last night,” he says, not looking the slightest bit ropey.

“It’s not that often that you give a pre-mission briefing to a group of companies and say ‘you’re going to need really comfortable shoes and I’d wear shorts for half of the day.’ ”

So what kind of companies are signed up for the mission and what, apart from chilling in shorts and sporting a union jack flag, do they do?

Why go on a tech trade mission?

According to Michel, it’s an inexpensive way for a company to find out how to enter a market.

“Having met a potential client/contact face-to-face is so much more valuable than anything else. It’s important in the US but as you go over to the Far East, it’s absolutely critical,” explains Michel.

“It’s much more difficult than going West because of the English and business and living culture is a lot different relationships are much more important because there’s more trust required. And you need to start building link between the cities.”

“Last night we had 40 companies gathered who are coming to SXSW. It’s a total mix, big agencies, companies who are three or five years [old]and solid businesses and scrappy startups”

It sounds like companies that travel with Chinwag on trade missions get a well-rounded experience. They attend briefings about the new market, gain access to specially organized networking events, get the benefit of existing contacts and advice on the logistics of setting up.

But as well as the practical advice and networking within the new market, they build lasting and valuable relationships with the other UK companies that go.

“Last night we had 40 companies gathered who are coming to SXSW. It’s a total mix, big agencies, companies who are three or five years [old]and solid businesses and scrappy startups,” Michel says.

It’s this mix that makes the trips such a success, it seems. With CEOs and founders all gathered together in a place that is foreign to them all, bonding occurs and with it, business.

“You’re guaranteed the companies on the trip will do business together but they will also learn from each other. Established companies are brilliant at some things, like provisions development, client handling, cash flow etc. Scrappy startups have the innovation and the technology.”

There’s also something to be said for power in numbers.

“If you’re at a conference with 40 companies of which you have a working knowledge, and you meet someone who would be interested in one of them, you send them over. You have 40 times the network as your group promotes you,” he explains.

Where to next?

Michel recently asked a group of “missioners” where they would like to head to. He received overwhelming interest in places outside of the US.

“We’re hoping to start running missions to Singapore, Shanghai, Cape Town, Jo-berg and we’ve started having conversations about Australia.”

It all sounds very positive, and as more big corporates get on board, I have no doubt that Chinwag will go to these destinations, sausages and tea in tow. But for the meantime, attention is focused on SXSW as it beckons on the horizon.

“It’s awesome, you should go,” he enthuses (I really want to). “Most of the hard contact building work is done between 6pm and 6am. We jokingly say we are going to an evening networking event but it’s really bar hoping.”

 Hmmm – I kind see what he meant by “not having a proper job”.