Inside MEEM: the British company making data backup simple
There are many reasons why people want to be a CEO of a startup, but a poor backhand isn’t usually one of them. Yet after a career that spanned stints as the head of Commodore UK and running games companies that produced massive hits such as Guitar Hero and Grand Theft Auto, Kelly Sumner realised retirement wasn’t for him.
“I got bored,” said Sumner, explaining why he’s back at the helm of a new company, having twice come out of retirement – the first when he was still only in his early forties. “I was at home trying to play tennis and I wasn’t getting any better.”
Instead of working on his serve, Sumner ploughed his energy into mentoring startups. This is how he met an entrepreneur with an idea he believed was so brilliant that he decided to help out and run the company himself. Now, as the unpaid CEO of MEEM – a phone-charging cable that also backs up all of the data on the device – he believes he’s sitting on another billion-pound opportunity.
Kelly Sumner certainly doesn’t need the hassle of running a startup. He joined Commodore when he was 16 as a trainee electronics engineer and worked his way up to CEO in 13 rapid years. The Amiga-maker famously imploded in the mid-1990s, but Sumner moved on to enjoy even greater success, becoming the CEO of US game publisher GameTek, which was eventually sold to Take-Two Interactive.
While Sumner was at Take-Two, he helped put together a last-minute deal to acquire British games publisher BMG Interactive, which at that time had a middling games franchise called Grand Theft Auto on its books. GTA went on to become an enormous worldwide hit and Sumner became Take-Two’s CEO, before retiring early and selling his shares in the company in 2003.
Sumner soon tired of tennis lessons and returned to the games industry as non-executive director of RedOctane, where his team came up with the idea for another seminal gaming hit: Guitar Hero. He took over as CEO in early 2006, but, just months into his tenure, RedOctane was sold to Activision and Sumner was looking for a new challenge.
Grand Theft Auto 3 has made it onto Android and iOS since Sumner’s days at Take-Two
After spending some time living in New York, Sumner returned to the UK, but decided he couldn’t face another job in the games industry. “I thought, I’ve played in the Premier League a couple of times, I don’t really want to play Sunday League now, and I don’t want the corporate bullshit, for want of a better word,” he said. Without any financial need to ever work again, Sumner decided to start investing in small companies and mentoring entrepreneurs, effectively becoming a “Dragon” without the camera crew. “No-one’s paid me a wage, no-one’s paid me any consultancy, I’ve done everything for free because – you know something – I was very lucky and successful, and I think I’ve got a responsibility to help other people.”
A backup plan
It was while scouring for his next investment that Sumner ended up chatting with an inventor called Anil Goel for hours. Goel had come up with a stupidly simple device that would stop people losing their photos, videos and messages every time they lost their phone. Called MEEM, the device is essentially a block of flash memory built into a smartphone-charging cable, which backs up the contents of the device every time it’s plugged in to charge. There’s no chance of forgetting backups and no need to set up cloud services: all you have to do is enter a PIN when it’s first set up. It’s perhaps the simplest backup system ever created.
Sumner immediately thought it was brilliant, but Goel was struggling to get the product off the ground.“He is a really lovely guy, but he looks like an Indian rock star,” said Sumner. “And with the greatest respect, rock stars don’t often garner the idea that you’re going to give them lots of money to produce a product, and he’d never produced one before. He needed someone to help him, he really did.” Sumner wasn’t only motivated by helping Goel stop sleeping on other people’s floors – he also wanted to find out if his own achievements were something of a fluke. “From an ego perspective, I have been very successful, but maybe I’ve been really lucky. Grand Theft Auto and Take-Two? Maybe it was really luck – I don’t think it was. Maybe Guitar Hero was really luck? I don’t think it was. How many times can someone be lucky? This will be the third time, and in a different industry so, from a personal perspective, I’ve something to prove to myself.”