Alex Schey: A journey from the Pan-American highway to hybrid buses
Podcast transcription - 7th November 2017
Peter Cowley: Hello. Following on the success of our last podcast, I'm here to talk to Alex Schey, the co-founder of Vantage Power. I've known Alex for about five years now and been on his whole journey so far, from I helped you raise the first funding, joining the board soon after that as an observer, and then an investor-director, and taking it forward to exciting times. Alex.
Alex Schey: Yes. Thanks, Peter. It's great to be here. I was born in 1987, so it's my 30th birthday in a couple of months time. I was always really interested in engineering and science and technology from very young age. I then got very interested in geography of all things, due to a string of quite inspiring teachers at school, and by the end of school I was really concerned about pollution, climate change, and resource scarcities as major topics affecting our society and planet.
It was towards the end of university when I wanted to merge those two passions with business. I ended up starting a project to design and build the world's longest range electric car, which is essential my first successful venture, even though it was not for profit.
Peter Cowley: And that was by yourself or with a group of people?
Alex Schey: Yes, I started it by myself, and then I built up a team of about 10 recently graduated engineers from Imperial College London. Raised about £700,000 in corporate sponsorship and designed what was, at the time, the longest range electric car in the world.
Peter Cowley: And successfully drove it from North America to South America.
Alex Schey: I did, yeah. What better road to test it on than the longest road in the world, which is the Pan-American Highway. 26 and a half thousand kilometers long, from the top of Alaska to the bottom of Argentina. And no electric car had ever done before then and I don't think one's done it since.
Peter Cowley: And I think there's something on DVD, isn't there?
Alex Schey: There is indeed, yes. BBC made an 8-part documentary series of our project. We had a film crew with us all the way. That aired in 2011 and is not available on iTunes on DVD, but buy it on iTunes because if you buy it on DVD, I have to send you a DVD in the post.
Peter Cowley: Yes. Though, of course, during that process you thought you'd be entrepreneurial and you could've chosen electric racing cars, couldn't you?
Alex Schey: Yeah. Finishing off the project, my co-founder Toby and I wanted to start a business, we just didn't know what, and it could easily have been electric cars. I say easily, but actually it would be very difficult because the general automotive industry is immensely difficult for two young guys with no money to get involved in. So we spent a lot of time trying to find our niche in an area which excited us, and that was hybrid electric vehicles. And the niche ended up being the bus industry.
Peter Cowley: Yes. So you decided on hybrid electric vehicles. What did you think about getting involved with?
Alex Schey: We had to find an area where, if we implemented hybrid and electric technology, there would be a strong commercial proposition. And back then, and probably even now, there's not a strong commercial argument for buying a much more expensive electric car because you're not going to get the savings through fuel reduction. If you look at the industries which use a lot of fuel, that need some sort of hybridization to reduce fuel consumption, the bus industry fits the bill. Big heavy vehicles operating up to 24 hours a day in heavy stop-start, fuel-heavy environments in the city. And we found that if a hybrid system could be installed into existing buses to reduce fuel consumption, you could pay for itself and essentially make the transition towards cleaner vehicle technology much more affordable.
Peter Cowley: You did something rather interesting there, then, didn't you? You actually got somebody in the industry involved quite early on.
Alex Schey: That's right, yeah. When we came up with the idea, we ended up pitching it to the UK's largest bus dealer, which is a company called Ensignbus, and they were one of our first supporters. They gave us a double-decker bus to do all our initial prototyping on and have supported us since.
Peter Cowley: Yes, and clearly, this was going to take some time to get to market, and therefore you'd need funding to do the development work. Can you describe the process of approaching angels or angel groups?
Alex Schey: My story, I think, was a bit fortuitous. Once Toby and I had settled on the business idea, we coincidentally had a follow-up interview by the BBC about a year after having completed our car journey. The interviewer said, "So what are you up to now," and rather than keeping our idea a secret, we decided, "Let's just talk about it on international radio and see what happens." And, very fortunately, a guy called Richard was meant to be skiing with his family, he had broken his arm so he was sitting in his ski chalet instead, listening to the radio, and he heard us talk about our idea and he got in contact. Richard turned out to be an investor and became our first angel investor. Richard then introduced us to two people, Peter being one of them, and from that moment onwards, we were introduced to a whole range of new business angels that helped form our first seed round.
Peter Cowley: Yeah, Richard I had known actually because he had been introduced by somebody else. He lives in Krakow, doesn't he? In Poland.
Alex Schey: He does, yes. He actually flew over for our first meeting and we met in a restaurant in St. James in London, and he's been an investor ever since.
Peter Cowley: And so I took Vantage Power to the Cambridge Angels and other groups. You went from an accelerator in Cambridge, didn't you?
Alex Schey: Yeah, we did. Yeah.
Peter Cowley: And that-
Alex Schey: Which was actually quite a transformative experience. We had no real understanding as how to approach a business model, per se, and how to communicate our concept as well as we could. And that two-day accelerator really helped us fine tune our concept.
Peter Cowley: And find some investors, of course, as well.
Alex Schey: And find some investors, yeah. And we got some really great investors on board as a result. I think that's possibly where you decided you were interested as well.
Peter Cowley: Well I think I had seen you before that. I think I came down to see you in your mother's house-
Alex Schey: Yeah.
Peter Cowley: -in Ealing where the car, the Racing Green car, was in the basement or in the garage, wasn’t it.
Alex Schey: Right, yeah. Yeah.
Peter Cowley: And from that I introduced you to Nathan and the Qi3. So that round ... You had a lot to learn, I suspect, from the point of initially us pledging some money and closing. Can you talk about that?
Alex Schey: Yeah. It's really, really exciting when you're on that journey first. You talk to investors who are generally quite an inspiring bunch. They've all done lots of different businesses and they're very well-educated and lots of great stories. So you feel like you're in very good company. And then you start negotiating and you start getting into legals and, at least for us, particularly with hindsight, we were woefully ill-prepared for such a negotiation. I think we came out of it alright in the end, but we'd never seen a proper shareholders agreement before. We didn't know what an investment agreement was before. We didn't know what pre-emption rights were. We were learning a lot as we went along, which is an okay way of doing it, but not necessarily when you're negotiating for things that could have very substantial impacts on your business later on.
Peter Cowley: And who were you getting advice from? The lawyer? Possibly the internet? Other entrepreneurs? The angels?
Alex Schey: Our advice initially came from using a bit of common sense, doing a lot of research on the internet, and, unfortunately, a lawyer that we later decided was not very fit for purpose. We had a quite a few errors in that documentation that cost a lot of time and money at a later point to get retrofied. So my first piece of advice from that piece of hindsight was invest in decent lawyers when you're starting up a business because they are definitely worth their weight in gold when it comes to problems later down the line and you do need to dust off those agreements and have a look at what they said.
The other thing that would've been very helpful would be some sort of guide as to what the process actually entails. You make a pitch, you might have another meeting, you might pitch to some other people, and do you chase up? Does the investor chase up? Do you get heads of terms in place? Do you get an NDA in place? Some investors are okay with NDAs, some aren't. In our first case, actually, we issued the first heads of terms a first group of investors and then had another heads of terms issued to us by another set of investors, and it was all a little bit of a mess. Had there been a very clear, generic process that we could've followed, possibly tweaking where necessary, I think that would've been very helpful.
Peter Cowley: Good. I do remember that your business plan was excellent. That you put an awful lot of effort into understanding the market, understanding the route to market, understanding costs and everything. One of the bets I've ever seen.
Alex Schey: Thank you.
Peter Cowley: I'm sure that helped with raising money from the group of investors. How many investors have we got now?
Alex Schey: We're approaching 50.
Peter Cowley: 50.
Alex Schey: 50 shareholders.
Peter Cowley: Yes, I think we'll ... maybe at some point later we'll talk about both the difficulties and the usefulness of a large shareholder base.
Alex Schey: Yeah, definitely.
Peter Cowley: But let's talk about it. So you raised some funding, we're now in the beginning of 2013. What did you do with our funding?
Alex Schey: The first thing that Toby and I did ... To set the scene, we were paying ourselves nothing. We were living in my mom's house in Ealing and we had no space to do any of our tech development. Obviously we couldn't hire anybody because nobody would be prepared to work in our bedrooms. So the first thing we did is we went out and found a small property that we could lease which had a little office space for five people, and a little warehouse where we could get a bus in there and start doing our initial prototyping. That is the first thing we did in parallel with getting the first bit of tech prototype to developed. And I would say then the third thing being looking for people. It became immediately apparent that two people in this industry are not going to get very far very quickly.
Peter Cowley: And, of course, from the angel viewpoint, you can't scale a business with just two people. We would have put some pressure on you to start hiring soon. You'd raised a few hundreds pounds, I believe. Quite a few hundred thousand. Therefore, you had the money available, not to just spend on premises, but on people.
So we've now got a prototype passed for early 2014. What's next? When was the next funding required?
Alex Schey: Well actually, if we go back to 2013, we entered a couple of awards, which the one in question was the Lloyds Best Enterprise Awards, and we were fortunate enough to win Best Enterprise for London in the Southeast. That resulted in a very small article in the Sunday Telegraph, this being March, April 2013. So actually, only about three or four months since we closed our first proper funding round. Unbeknownst to us, there was a couple of guys sitting in Singapore who read that article and became very excited about the business and came and visited us over in London, along with some of their other business partners. And they decided to invest around about £300,000, which convinced some of our existing investors to invest about £300,000. So we actually had an unanticipated extra about £600,000 closed by September of 2013 when we had never actually anticipated doing that. So that pushed our funding requirement out to ... Our next bit of funding came in at the beginning of 2015, so it last us about 18 months.
Peter Cowley: Plus grants, of course. The Innovate UK were very pleased with what you were doing and offered grants and gave grants.
Alex Schey: Definitely. I'd say grants are an invaluable source of money, particularly the larger ones, because the difference in effort required to go for a large one and small one's actually not that great, but the amount of money you get can be many hundreds of thousands. We've had I think around £1, £1.1 million worth of funding from various sources. Most have come from two innovate/what used to be called TSB funds, and another one from what was the Department for Energy and Climate Change, but now it's the Department of BEIS.
Peter Cowley: BEIS?
Alex Schey: Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, I think it is.
Peter Cowley: So Alex, before we continue with the journey, can we just talk about the board? Who joined the board to begin with and how that board has developed and how that's helped you.
Alex Schey: You introduced us originally to a gentleman called Nat Billington during the investment process and he became our investor-director, so nominally, he was representing the investors on the cap table, and he was the director alongside Toby and I. We also had several board observers. You were one of them. [Sardoff 00:12:46] with, and we had a few others as well. The board stayed in that structure for about a year until, unfortunately, Nat became ill and had to retire from the board. And this is a really good example of why a strength in depth in your investor base and having an engaged investor base is so important because then you were able to step in, initially part-time, and then ultimately full-time to take over from Nat and become our investor-director. It's a really good example of us being able to continue our corporate governance, keep the board going, and keep critically the advice and mentorship to the two founders going, because I truly believe that's helped us navigate many of the pitfalls that early stage companies often face.
It then also became quite apparent that we needed a chairman. Up until that point it was a sort of ad hoc arrangement of mostly me chairing a board meeting, which is, as a CEO, really not a good thing to do because you need to be held accountable at a board meeting, which you can't really do if you're also chairing it and selecting the themes for discussion and moving the conversation on as you would like. So we needed a chairman that had gravitas, that could relate to the industry, the bus industry, but wasn't necessarily in the industry, had a firm appreciation for the technology, and we went on a bit of a search. We wrote a job description and before long, we kind of realized that actually the job description described the CEO of one of our major investors, which is Marshall of Cambridge, which is a massive engineering business based in Cambridge. The CEO of that company, Robert Marshall, really fulfilled every single one of these criteria, so we approached him in mid-2015 to see if he would be interested in becoming our chairman, and he very fortunately accepted.
At this point we were now four directors, a very strong team very well-supported by strong board observers as well, and we stayed like that for the next two years until a couple of weeks ago when we had our fifth director join us; a gentleman called Dr. Till Becker, who's previously CEO and president of various Daimler subsidiaries, including CEO and president of Daimler Turkey, Portugal, and Northeast China. Really good corporate board member there to help us strategize for the future.
Peter Cowley: But the board is there not just to assist you, but it's also to challenge you, isn't it? So there are times when you wouldn't necessarily agree with what the board was deciding to do.
Alex Schey: Definitely. I would actually say that I think the board could've challenged us more in the past, but one time where I think it was particularly effective in challenging the management team and getting us to change our mind was the beginning of this year where I was very keen on spinning out one of our software products into a separate business, getting it separately funded, and allowing it to sort of take flight on its own. There was a quite a strong pushback by varying members of the board pointing to the fact that didn't really have the management bandwidth to take on such an ambitious project. I think with hindsight that was correct. It was probably something that I wouldn't have necessarily seen or possibly would've optimistically ignored had I not had that input.
Peter Cowley: And, in fact, last night at a half past ten, we had three board members and a board observer discussing exactly this point.
Alex Schey: Yes.
Peter Cowley: It was late. When you're an angel, you tend to get involved very late, and obviously get involved with some long hours.
Good. Excellent. Funding rounds. How many funding rounds have happened so far?
Alex Schey: It depends how you characterize them, but I would say we're probably on our fifth funding round.
Peter Cowley: And the reason that you hesitated is because some of these have not been closed on a specific date, but have been over a period.
Alex Schey: Yes. They've been over a period, or they might be two that are very close together and so essentially somebody else has piggybacked off a previous funding round, and it's not like you've specifically gone out for that money. Case in point: that second round that we had in early 2013 which came as a result of the newspaper article. We didn't go through any of the normal funding round procedures that would typically be expected. We'd just closed our previous funding round, we were fine for cash, and this sort of was just tagged on to the last one, albeit at a different valuation. So I don't really consider those as two separate funding rounds.
Peter Cowley: Right. And can you give an example of the other money that has come in, particularly the angel co-fund and some of the other high net worths?
Alex Schey: The majority of our shareholder base, in terms of different shareholders, are made up of business angels, but we have a number of non-business angels which have been very important. I've already mentioned Marshall of Cambridge, which is our largest single investor. Our largest shareholder aside from the two founders. That has been very valuable, not just because of Robert Marshall's involvement, but also on the many technical and commercial ways we've been able to get support from them. We've needed to do supplier due diligence, for example, and we got some help from one of their FDs. We were once looking at buying a company and we had some tremendous support there, and we've had some great engineering courses and lessons laid on by some of the very experienced personnel in that company. That's helped our team out immensely as well.
Of course we've had Ensignbus, which is our industry partner, and they're a pretty substantial shareholder as well. The angel co-fund which invests alongside angels but is a relatively silent investor, brings a lot of cash, but doesn't sit on the board, per se. It has a board representative. And probably the last one I'd mention, the last couple I'd mention there, is some pretty big influential angels that we have. John Winter is one that joined us about a year ago, who's ex-CEO of Barclays Corporate Bank and brings tremendous strategic and financial advice to the board where possibly that was an area we didn't have so much representation on. And Till Becker, as well, which I previously mentioned.
Peter Cowley: And the total amount raised is ... ?
Alex Schey: If you include grant funding, we've raised about £7.4 million to date.
Peter Cowley: And, of course, in the end, one wants customers. Can you describe how the customer interactions occurred and what that's resulted in?
Alex Schey: Yeah. Customer interaction ... First of all, we're a B to B business, so introductions, personal relationships, are probably of much greater importance than a B to C when you're really trying to market to millions and millions of people. Our first break came when we were able to demonstrate our first prototype to Transport for London, which is one of the biggest transit authorities in the world, of course, and controls the bus network within London. They were very excited by the technology, very excited by the prospect of being able to upgrade existing buses to the latest in hybrid technology. They said that if we could find the customers, they would fund our initial trial. We spent the next year or so pitching the concept and explaining the concept to customers. This is another very big difference between a B to C business in that we have a high value proposition, so it's not a quick decision that's made by the customer. This is a multi-month, sometimes six months, easily, sales process where you educate the customers to what it is. They can do due diligence on your team, understand the technology better.
So we spent the course of 2015 doing that, and we found three really great customer partners, launch partners, for our retrofit product, which is Go-Ahead, London United, and Arriva, three of the largest bus operators in the UK. That was an incredibly educational learning experience, dealing with multi-billion pound corporates and getting our first sales through that. Tremendous achievement. Obviously just the beginning of the road, but a very, very important first step.
Since then, we've morphed into selling our technology into a new bus manufacturer, which has been the sort of second phase of our three-phase master plan to ultimately become a technology provider to the heavy duty diesel industry to help them reposition their product portfolio towards the no diesel future.
Peter Cowley: And, in fact, this industry you're in is changing quite rapidly. Pressure from the EU, pressure from locally, pressure from politicians to improve our air. Can you talk through the speed of change and how that's affected the business and whether it had to pivot at all?
Alex Schey: Definitely. Legislation, we often think, moves quite slowly, but in this particular case it's moved very, very rapidly and caught us off guard on one occasion at least. When we started out developing the concept in 2011, talk was really about reducing CO2 emissions, so the greenhouse gas that influences climate change. That was the basis behind developing a hybrid system that reduced fuel consumption, which would reduce CO2, and also, in reducing fuel consumption, we would give a saving to the operator that could pay for the system.
Then, within the next couple of years after that, the industry changed very much towards reducing emissions of nitrogen dioxide primarily as the main pollutant that's actually killing people as we speak. About 40 to 50,000 people in the UK per year are dying prematurely due to air quality issues, diesel tailpipe emissions being among the worst. Within that shift, we had made a certain choice as to the internal combustion engine within our product, and we had focused that choice based on cost and ease of integration rather than its ability to reduce NOx emissions. We developed and sold our first batch of products using that engine. In the meantime, the industry had leapfrogged that engine standard and gone to the latest engine standard so that even a retrofit solution would have to make use of what's called Euro 6 engine standard, rather than the Euro 5 that we were previously using. That has meant we've had to quite radically integrate that new technology into our product, whereas a couple of years ago it was a pretty safe assumption to assume that Euro 5 would've been an acceptable solution as a retrofit.
That was an example of how legislation has moved very rapidly, pivoted essentially, from CO2 towards NOx, and how it's caused us to have to pivot from basing our technology around a Euro 5 engine towards a Euro 6.
Peter Cowley: Thank you. Two things that matter a lot to both entrepreneurs and angel investors are competition and defensibility. Defensibility matters more in terms of a tech product because of barrier to entry. Can you just describe where you are on both those fronts, competition and defensibility?
Alex Schey: In terms of competition, we are still the only hybrid retrofit system on the market for buses, and it has afforded us quite a unique status in the sense that the market in general is quite crowded now. If you're an operator, you're going to have people trying to sell you new buses. The diesel variety, hybrid, gas, electric, single-decker, double-decker. If you're in the retrofit space, people might be trying to sell you engine upgrades or exhaust gas aftertreatments. It's a lot of competition, but nobody in our specific space, so we're quite fortunate in that sense. I think we've spotted a very good hole in the market which hasn't yet been filled by anybody else other than us.
But you have to remember, even if your product is unique, that doesn't mean customers can't spend their money in other ways. You're always competing against, in our case, would somebody prefer to buy a new bus, which is a lot more expensive but they might get a bit more life out of it, or would they like to go for the cheap solution that doesn't necessarily upgrade their bus, doesn't give them all the other benefits our system does, but would help them with their compliance for a lower price? We sit somewhere in the middle.
Peter Cowley: And defensibility is both the time it's taken to develop it and potentially protecting with patents. Can you talk through those?
Alex Schey: Yeah. Firstly, on patents, as a small business I'm very conflicted because if you are a small business and you do have a patent, the only way that patent is of value is if you sue somebody that's infringed upon it and win. And if ... take a random company name, Mercedes Benz decided to copy us and we felt they'd infringed on our intellectual property, practically there's very little that we can do. The best two scenarios that could possibly come out of having a patent is maybe they license it from us or they buy us. But both are quite small likelihoods when you consider the cost of a patenting to a small business, and also particularly patenting before your technology has matured.
We actually did file two patents at the end of 2013, and within about a year or two our technology had superseded what was in those patents and they were worthless to us anyway. So I would caution companies in patenting too early because I think the value is limited. But when you do become larger, your strategy is clearer, your technology has matured, I think picking the intellectual property that is of most value to the business becomes a lot easier. The two patents that we filed back in 2013, one was within the battery pack technology, which is still highly relevant to us and our business. The second was in a clutch mechanism between the engine and generator, which we now do not value at all, and in fact we're dropping that technology from our product in the next iteration. So it's a good example of how waiting is possibly better in that case. The way in which we've identified the areas of value and defensibility is done a very detailed intellectual property capture session with our IP attorneys to identify the areas of high value.
Peter Cowley: But, I mean, at this point we're not talking about an exit that we're obviously planning on doing that at some point. But it definitely should be said that some acquirers of companies do value patents. I had an exit last year where the majority of what the value of the business was was a patent portfolio. Now this was a deep tech business in sensing technology and had about 10 or so patents, so although it seems wrong, it's expensive, we talk about £50,000 or more per patent, at some point the acquirer may value that strongly.
Alex Schey: I definitely agree and, on balance, I'm on board with registered IP. I think there is value in it. I just don't think there's value in doing it too early. I think if you can stay in tech stealth mode for a while, and there is risks associated with that as well, of course, and patent when your strategy is clearer and your technology is more mature, I think then there's a lot more value in doing it then.
Peter Cowley: Let's talk about pitching then, Alex. You were quite young when you first raised money with Racing Green. What have you learned? How has it changed? You were very confident in what you ... on this podcast, generally, but I bet you weren't to start with.
Alex Schey: No, I wasn't. I remember doing my first public talk as part of Racing Green and I had three lines printed on a piece of paper, which I could've easily memorized, but I was so petrified about forgetting. I was holding this piece of paper in my two hands and I was actually shaking. I was excited, but very nervous at the same time, so I kind of enjoy it, but it felt like I was a bit out of my depth.
Since then, I've found a few things that have really helped me become a lot more comfortable, a lot more confident speaking publicly. The first is ... One of the big things that people get nervous about is forgetting what to say. But in normal day-to-day conversation when you're talking to somebody, you're telling them a story, you don't forget what you're going to say because the story is somehow formed in your mind. So if you make the pitch a story, some sort of logical timeline that you can walk through in your mind, this is the way you'd talk to a mate who you're walking down the road with, the you'll find it a lot more comfortable.
The second thing is if you feel like you're blagging it, you will become more nervous. If you really know your stuff and you've done your research and you're confident you can answer pretty much any question that comes your way, then you will be a lot more relaxed. Bearing in mind, of course, you won't be able to answer every question, and then the really important thing is to not pretend like you do know the answer, but just admit that you don't.
And then the third thing is really just try and practice. Get yourself out there. Particularly if you are starting a business, business promotion is so important, so you should be doing that anyway, and just taking every opportunity that comes your way to talk to people, talk to groups of people, and I think very quickly your confidence level improves and your ability to communicate improves as well.
Peter Cowley: Yes, you'll get feedback from the people you pitch to, particularly if it's a smaller group, and you will improve that. That's very noticeable in people. I see pitching gradually to a number of groups before and coming back to us. What I should also say is having seen, I reckon, 500 to 800 live pitches, nevermind what I've seen on video, over the last 10 years, that being too confident, being too polished can actually put people off. Being a performer on stage is actually, "Is there substance there?" As an angel, we'll think about that?
Alex Schey: You could look at it both ways. You could see somebody's being a bit show and masking a lack of depth behind them or depth of business, or you could look at somebody just wanting to put across a really good impression and maybe going a little bit overboard. In the end, though, you have to remember that maybe at the beginning of a business you have time to spend, you know, three weeks working on a pitch, but later on you don't, so you might as well just scrap the idea of having a perfectly polished performance because it never will be like that in real life. You might have a couple of hours to prepare, if you're lucky.
The second thing is it's all about people in the end, and you are trying to create a personal connection with somebody. Say you go down to the pub and you have a drink with somebody. You do not know word perfect exactly what you're going to say to them, but you will relate to them through imperfections in the way in which you talk. You might start a sentence and then go back on another one because you thought something else, and so on. In a way, a pitch is relating to people, but just many people at the same time. So they need to see that human, somewhat fallible side to gain that emotional connection, because people on the most part, correct me if I'm wrong, Peter, will invest more on emotion, particularly early-stage angel investment, than on how perfectly precise your pitch is.
Peter Cowley: Exactly. It's based on guts to a large extent at a very early stage. Later stage, when you get to the VC and the larger amounts of money where they're managing somebody else's money, that's very different. There are a lot more processes involved in that.
Alex Schey: Yeah, for sure.
Peter Cowley: We're almost finished here, Alex. Been a really great time. Couple of things I just really wanted to talk to you about. One is where are we going next, which is real tennis, but first of all, you went to the Burning Man.
Alex Schey: I did, yeah. So Burning Man festival in August and September of this year. A festival of 70,000 people that camp out in the desert of northern Nevada for a week. Basically it's a mass experimentation of radical survival where there's no waters, no foods, no electricity; you have to bring in everything you need to survive for a week. It is possibly the most surreal, exciting, humbling, educational experience I've ever had in my life.
Peter Cowley: And you found that you could be very, very open, or had to be very, very open with people.
Alex Schey: Yes. Definitely. I think there's something about being in this extreme environment. Everybody's sort of covered in desert dust and you're very far away from the normal world, but the general social structures of what you can say, what you can't say, just seem to fall by the wayside and you end up having very rapidly evolving and genuine interactions with people, which I think you almost need years to build up that kind of relationship with people in the real world before you're having those kind of conversations.
Peter Cowley: And you know you'll probably never meet them again as well. It's like sitting next to somebody on an airline, where I end up being very open about with somebody knowing that I will never meet them again.
Alex Schey: There is that definitely that possibility, although having said that, on the first night my girlfriend and I were sitting on this swing in the middle of the desert and these three people just come and say, "Can we join you?" So I said, "Of course." There was a lady on there and we get talking. She was Danish but lives in America, and it turns out we lived in the same building in West Ealing at the same time during 2013. And I never saw her again for the rest of Burning Man, but I do remember seeing her when we were in London. So there are paths that you never know how they might cross in the future.
One of the other principles of Burning Man is immediacy, so live in the moment. Don't think what ... you might see this person in 10 years’ time so you're not going to tell them something today. Just let it out, I'd say.
Peter Cowley: Right. Yeah, my oldest son has actually been to Burning Man twice, and I suspect you'll be going back, won't you, at some point?
Alex Schey: Definitely.
Peter Cowley: Finally, we're just about to go and play, I'm going to introduce you to real tennis. Real tennis is the precursor to lawn tennis. There are only 40-odd courts in the world. There's only about 4,000 or 5,000 of us that play. We've all got world rankings. It’ll be interesting to see how easily you beat me at that.
Alex Schey: Well, yeah, you're a bit more of an expert. I don't even know the rules yet, so straight after this podcast I'm going to go and read up and see what I need to do to win.
Peter Cowley: Thank you very much indeed, Alex. I've been really, really interesting. We've learned a huge amount from that.
Alex Schey: Thank you.
Peter Cowley: And I look forward to the audience joining me again shortly for the next podcast.
Alex Schey: Thanks a lot, Peter.