Dan Wagner: the “chancer” who won’t accept failure

Entrepreneur Dan Wagner is not short on vision. But his investors are running short on patience.


Dan Wagner set out to build the "biggest tech company in living memory"
(Image credit: © 2015 Bloomberg Finance LP.)

How long does it take for a "unicorn" to "trip up on the way to the promised land"? In the case of Powa, around three years, says The Guardian. That's how long it took the company, founded by the former tech wunderkind, Dan Wagner, to burn through some $200m of investment cash before its explosive collapse into bankruptcy in February.

At its height, Powa was worth an estimated £2bn in Silicon Valley-speak, that made it a "unicorn", ie, a firm with a valuation of more than $1bn and was fted by former prime minister David Cameron as a rare "jewel in the nation's computing crown", says the Daily Mail. Now, however, it is arguably "Britain's biggest ever tech failure", triggering "a bitter transatlantic row over what went wrong" between Wagner and his former leading investor, Boston-based Wellington Management.

Wagner, 53, boasted he would build the firm into the "biggest tech company in living memory". But he is a "controversial figure", says The Daily Telegraph. "Some admire his entrepreneurial nous; others think he's a chancer." And, as the latter camp are quick to point out, we've been here before: Wagner's previously best-known venture, Dialog, lost 95% of its value during the dotcom bust. For years after "Dial-a-dog", Wagner "struggled to be taken seriously". But when he founded Powa Technologies in 2007, the company seemed to have a great future.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

"Launched before mobile payments had really caught on", its main breakthrough was a smartphone app called PowaTag, which bridged the gap between physical and digital media by allowing consumers to "scan and tap" to buy goods via any media be it print, video or billboards. The technology "caught the imagination of some serious institutions" including Goldman Sachs, which helped sell the outfit and its "visionary" founder to prospective investors, describing Powa as the "tech investment of the decade", partly because of its prospects in China.

Wagner's entrepreneurial career began young. The son of a senior car executive, he describes himself as "a joker and troublemaker" who left school at 16, says Management Today. Wagner "parlayed" early jobs with Richer Sounds and the ad firm, WCRS, "into a vision for his own start-up", founding the business information database, MAID, in 1984, before floating it (renamed Dialog) a decade later in London and on Nasdaq. Then it all came crashing down.

Back then, Wagner was quick to blame external forces for Dialog's demise. It looks like the same story now, says The Daily Telegraph. Wagner's vision of running a global empire from his swanky City HQ in Heron Tower has crumbled to dust, but he just "cannot accept that he failed". Despite reports of chaotic management, he's convinced that Powa was tipped into administration by director Ben White who has since teamed up with Wellington to acquire the rump of the business and he is readying for a legal battle. "We keep coming back to the same issue," a London analyst told The Wall Street Journal back in 2001. "The bloke running the show." Wagner is "long on ideas and announcements and short on the figures". Plus a change?