London’s Technology Scene Needs to Up Its Game in 2015

Dec 24, 2014

It’s Christmas party season so London’s entrepreneurs are right now getting pissed on alcohol paid for by whichever office space or “strategic partner” is laying on the rancid mulled wine or festive cocktails. The conversations they’ll be having at these Christmas parties will be the same ones that plague them the rest of the year- mainly chipper but ultimately bleak ruminations on what their startups are lacking right now. There’s an old saying that an entrepreneur must always put on a happy face and say “we’re killing it” when asked how their company’s doing. In America, where I travelled recently, this was definitely the case. Here in the UK, where modesty and mediocrity have long been popular bedfellows, conversation soon turns to two areas which effect all London startups: Lack of funds and lack of talent.

Firstly, let’s talk about lack of talent. Head down to the basement at Google Campus (the beating heart of Tech City in London), and you’ll find a noticeboard crammed with “DEVELOPER URGENTLY NEEDED PLEASE HELP US” posts stuck on top of the other. There is a massive skill shortage that London needs to sort out in 2015. They can not fill those very specific jobs fast enough. Even more worrying, a developer friend of mine warned me “The best developers have given up hope on working for startups for equity on the off-chance they’ll get big and cash out- many are just working for agencies instead.” One program has sprung up, Startup Institute,expanding to London recently and aims to solve this problem by running an intensive two-month course to help people gain the skills and mindset that startups are looking for, helping plug the gaps needed in areas like Web design, development, sales, or technical marketing. These jobs are normally fairly well-paid, and still not enough people are applying. More talent is badly needed.

Tied to lack of talent is the funding gap. The SEIS/EIS scheme (basically, tax breaks for individuals or companies who invest in early stage companies) has meant raising the first £150,000 is much easier than it used to be. As Techstars’ Jen Lapinski once said to me: “If you can’t raise an SEIS round, you probably shouldn’t be an entrepreneur, go and do something else.”

However, the problems begin once you’ve had that early round. Yes, there are a record number of investors now available, but they sit squarely in the Series A (Around £1 million+) range. There’s very few investors in the £150,000 to £1 million bracket, meaning startups can’t afford to pay for talent or have to be extremely careful with their money. The London co-investment fund is a good start but there needs to be many more groups available to close this gap that the aforementioned entrepreneurs are sweating about.

On the face of it, meetups, networking events, and parties seem to indicate a growing and vibrant community of like-minded people. However, it would be interesting to study the return most people/companies get from these events. It irks me to say it, but, as Brits, we hate it when our friends become successful, as Morrissey once said. Listen to how people in London’s Technology scene talk about successful companies, you’ll hear a variation of “they only got big because…”, “They got lucky,” or some other story which discredits the company in question.

More generally, successes involving UK and European companies are not celebrated in the press as much as big exits or funding rounds from America. Heard the one about the Spanish startup who sold to Vodafone for $10 billion earlier this year? Of course not, it was barely mentioned in tech or mainstream press, let alone celebrated.

What does this mean at ground level? There are many different groups in East London, and they’re not actively helping each other. My company did Techstars (an accelerator) earlier this year and Techstars’ motto was “give first.” It was amazing how much all the teams shared contacts, socialised together, and helped each other out. This, spread city-wide, would be dynamite.

Right now, London’s technology scene still seems very fragmented. Tech London Advocates does a good job of bringing influential people together, but a more city-wide change in attitude is needed in making sure everyone knows about and has access to everything that’s happening and available in London, including information about key events, grants, and new investment funds. Centralised information available to all would mean a more inclusive community for everyone involved in tech in London.

With an increase in skilled workers, funding, and Brits’ attitude to helping and community becoming just a bit more like our American friends across the pond, Tech City could finally reach its potential, and see a lot more cheer at Christmas parties this time next year.

This article was originally posted on the Huffington Post.

I spent three days with the world’s most serious geeks at Websummit (2014)

Dec 24, 2014
Web Summit is a technology-industry conference which has been held in Dublin since 2010. The topic of the conference is loosely centred on internet technology and the audience is a mix of CEOs and founders of tech start ups, and everyone in between, from all around the world. The event is held over three days. Attendance at the conference has grown from 500 attendees in 2010, to over 22,000 this year, a massive jump- it’s one of the fastest-growing conferences in the world.

Last year when I reviewed Web Summit, I jokingly called it “Glastonbury for tech geeks.” When I arrived at this year’s festival of technology, I realised I’d been accidentally prophetic – there were now 3 main areas of the festival, accessible by walking for between 5 and 10 minutes, just like the Glastonbury stages. This also meant, Glastonbury-like, you’d have to factor in not just speakers clashing but walking time between stages when planning your day (and this year you really needed to plan your day, with 614 speakers and 10 stages to choose from).

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My intention at Websummit is normally to meet as many startups as possible – I have a great interest in new technology and ideas, and this is a great place to meet founders of exciting companies before they disappear behind a wall of emails that never get answered. So I set about on the first day visiting startups who had stalls and were exhibiting their products/services. I realised at 2 o’ clock that the stalls were never-ending. New rooms would open up into new rooms, filled with ever more young companies. I gave up on discovery to watch Huffington Post CEO Jimmy Maymann’s talk on the future of content in mobile and social. Huffington Post now have 100 million unique visitors a month. They are an internet giant. I attempted to tackle more stalls but had to admit defeat, there were just too many.

The real Adrian Grenier

The Twitter party was as big and brash as you’d expect from a big American company throwing an event. Free bar, lots of Twitter swag, and dubstep-dance-pop being blasted at you from all directions. Ironically, it was probably the worst place for networking at the entire event. No-one wanted to hear elevator pitches, everyone wanted pitchers of cocktails. Far better was the after party at Dakota, which saw TechCrunch editor-at-large Mike Butcher judge an impromptu dance-off while Mind Candy founder Michael Acton-Smith applauded while wearing a nice jacket. At 3am it was all over and everyone was left with the unlikely prospect of a 9am start.

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Other highlights from the week include some strong final day talks from Adrian Grenier, Bono, Eric Wahlforss (Founder & CTO of Soundcloud) and Dana Brunetti, producer of House of Cards. Adrian Grenier’s sober reflection on the music industry that “the days of coke and private jets are over” is probably my favourite quote of the entire weekend. The most impressive startups I met at websummit were Loop 88 and eTalia. Loop 88 uses influencers with thousands of followers on Pinterest to get a brand message out to tens of thousands of people. Their founder Dave Weinberg is the go-to guy for Pinterest knowledge: Through him I found out 41% of all e-commerce sharing happens on Pinterest. Also, eTalia is looking very strong as a new way to discover news.

My highlight of the weekend is the impromptu house party thrown by logograb at their rooftop apartment. A fridge which never ran out of beer, and far more of a local, friendly feel then any of the official nightsummit events. I brought along the Irish natives who had been keeping me in lols the whole week, and two of them ended up going in the (freezing) out door pool while it rained so hard the rest of us were watching with umbrellas. This is my favourite picture of Websummit, from when they re-emerged in towels:

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I laughed harder than I had done in months, a magical moment of freedom in a week of often very serious business discussions and guessworking. I look forward to more next year.


Photos via Websummit, aside from the last one, via my iPhone