Startups and generosity

A couple of the BGV teams have told me recently how surprised they’ve been at the generosity people from the startup world have shown towards them during the programme. When you think about it, it is slightly odd, especially if you watch TV portrayals of business where everything is about ‘dragons’ or ‘you’re fired’. Don’t get me wrong, those people are out there, but far fewer than you’d imagine in the tech startup world and you can generally avoid them. Almost everybody we come into contact with wants to help.

Even if you’re just starting out and focused on trying to get your startup to work it’s worth helping other people. Tim O’Reilly says that companies should “create more value than they capture” and I think that goes for individuals as well. The basic psychology is “if this goes well it will be good for all of us”. In the case of BGV teams we hope there will also be a benefit to society — and the bigger the startup gets, the bigger the benefit. We certainly always try to end all our meetings with ‘how can we help?’ — a trick we learned from Reid Hoffman — even if it’s not with a startup we have a direct stake or interest in.

It might even be that the amount of ‘generosity’ is the best signal of a healthy startup ecosystem. Recently I’ve heard more stories of startups turning investors down if they start coming in heavy on terms, which is interesting. I remember one of the people I most respect in the London startup scene telling me that’s what you should do five years ago but it didn’t use to be like that. While there are still sharks around, London seed stage investors are less like predators now. That’s a very good thing. And you just have to look at the growth of the mentor networks of Seedcamp, Springboard and BGV to see how willing people who’ve ‘made it’ are to give something back. I have no idea how you would measure the amount of generosity in a network, but it certainly feels like it’s increasing in the London startup world at the moment.



Some rights reserved by JD Hancock.

Weak signals

I had a little preview of the violence we’ve seen over the last few days as I walked home on Thursday last week. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a cyclist going faster than normal and then I saw four more. Five kids, teenagers at least, came streaming down the road towards the traffic lights. One of them turned left and the others tried to follow but they were going too fast and the road was slippery from the rain. The final cyclist skidded as he rounded the bend and fell against the bonnet of a stationery car waiting at the traffic lights. He was fine. It was a slow crash.

But then the shouting started. The driver gestured at the kid. The kid let the bike fall to the ground and shouted at the driver through the closed car window. The traffic light was still red. The other kids had circled round and dropped their bikes in the road and were walking up to the car. The kid knew he had backup. He went to open the door of the car but the driver slammed the car into reverse to get away. The door was open but swung shut as the car accelerated away from the kid. Backwards. Car horns started blaring and pedestrians around the junction stopped to see what was going on.

The kids were shouting but shocked that the car had moved. Then to driver accelerated forwards. Quickly. The kid had to jump out of the way. His bike was flattened and then dragged along underneath the car, sparks and smoke streaming out. Then the driver reversed again. This time taking two more of the bikes that were lying in the other lane with him. Three crumpled bikes. The kids now tried to jump onto the car as it couldn’t go any further back — there was a transit van in the way. The driver did reverse though and there was a crunch as the rear bumper of the car crumpled against the transit van. The driver then found first gear and drove out over the lights, turning left and accelerating noisily away.

People were out of their houses and the shops now. Nobody quite knew what had happened. As the car had gone round the corner I tried to get out my phone to take a photo of the number plate but fumbled and he was gone (it was a he — I did see his face as he drove over the lights). I tried to remember the registration plate of the car but i knew that adrenaline was affecting my memory and now I can remember very little. I know it had a T and 4 in it and the car was grey. Possibly it was Peugeot saloon car but I can’t be sure. It’s not that I didn’t see it, it’s that my memory wouldn’t work properly because of the chemicals my body was pumping through it. This was all taking place around 20 metres away from me.

The kids were all unhurt but didn’t know what to think. They picked up the remainders of their bikes and ran into the back streets nearby. All that was left a minute after all this happened was some broken plastic in the road and some astonished onlookers who didn’t know what to think or do.

I can’t help thinking that while something sparked the events we’ve seen over the last few days, the conditions for this to happen have been present for much longer.

The trouble with one ring to rule them all

Ah, Startup Britain, that was a fun week. I don’t think it went exactly according to plan. My take on why the launch went so badly wrong is that there’s no such thing as a single startup community in the UK. There are hundreds of smaller loosely joined communities with their own subcultures and attitudes to themselves and each other and that’s a wonderful thing. But it means that any attempt to create an overarching brand is going to annoy a lot of people.

Just to explain a little more, it’s pretty common for government to assume that the ‘entrepreneurial’ community is the important one. But actually the most talented people don’t go to the bigger (more mainstream) events because they attract some fairly awful people. In London they can be described as the ‘social media experts’. The talented people who are doing the interesting work, wouldn’t be seen dead there. Take things like Dorkbot — there’s not a sniff of startup about it. If things get too ‘cool’ the dorks run a mile and they rarely speak to journalists. A friend told me last night about a ‘proper inventor’ he’s working with who blew the roof off his garage when experimenting with changing the coolant in a gadget he’s developed that could just change the lives of millions of people. He’s unlikely to want to be part of a national campaign or even a startup — he just enjoys tinkering.

I think this is why there’s been such a negative reaction to Startup Britain. A lot of people don’t identify themselves as startups. A lot of people in these communities aren’t that British. And there are thousands of people doing and making interesting things who just don’t want any profile. They want to invent things. I’m not anti Startup Britain, I guess I’m just pointing out why I think it created a reflex response from many of the people who it wanted to involve. It’s the problem with anything that tries to be ‘one ring to rule them all’ and one I’ve seen in other domains — Make Poverty History springs to mind.

My view is the organisers would be best focusing on asking what people want and then going away and developing discrete offers for people based on that. A sort of lean startup approach to creating an industry body I guess. I get the sense from their tweets later in the week that might be what they’re doing. Some of those should be actual offers for startups, others should be laser-like campaigns to get government to change things. The CBI and IoD are frankly useless when it comes to helping small companies so it should be easy to do better.

And the Startup Britain people shouldn’t overclaim about what they’re doing — which I think just through the way they attempted to launch they already have. They should read Matt Jones on how much gardening is required to make these things work and be a little more humble about their part.
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Swings and Roundabouts

It was on the tip of everybody’s tongue, Matt Biddulph just gave it a name. Silicon Roundabout has actually been thriving for over a decade, with hundreds if not thousands of digital businesses in the East End starting up, thriving, failing and starting up again. I’m a fan of the Government’s idea of a tech cluster in East London. They haven’t actually done anything yet — which is fine — but the idea of focusing efforts on one area and clustering support and incentives in an area where something is already going on is a good one.

Last week I was invited along to a meeting at BIS organised by McKinsey where a whole host of London tech and policy bigwigs got together to talk about what the Government should actually ‘do’ to promote the cluster in East London. There were several ideological clashes in the room, most prominent was the idea that Government should do absolutely nothing and just get out of the way. But there is no industrial cluster anywhere in the world that has developed without Government help. Silicon Valley, although held up by this group as being the example, would never have existed if it weren’t for masses of Government money after the Second World War and it continues to thrive because of defence contracts, SBIR grants and public funding of many of its universities.

I talked a little bit about how networks grow and I think they expected me to say everything was terrible but I actually don’t think there are many problems. East London is awash with people plotting new projects and startups and if you want investment and are right for investment, then it’s certainly not impossible to get. There are so many meetups going on it would be impossible to go to all of them. Minibar has been going for five years, Berg and Huddle do their drinks things (as do many other companies) and Seedcamp provides a focus for early stage investing as well. Of course there is far more room to grow and I think the number of tech companies in East London could grow by a factor of ten quite easily provided that the talent keeps coming and the infrastructure keeps improving.

There were a couple of other things I thought were important. First was how it would be better to focus on ‘founders’ than ‘entrepreneurs’. One of the great things about the tech world in the UK and elsewhere is how collaborative people are and how people in this scene realise that the businessy bit of starting something up is only part of it — you need fantastic coders, designers, writers and strategy people to make something work and they’re all equally valuable.

The other thing I talked about was how we could do with a big showpiece digital festival in London. I think we need to make it a celebration: much more of a SXSW than a trade fair so it should be in town and definitely not somewhere like the ExCel. We should also time it to coincide with other great things going on in London and the UK to attract people from around the world who want to launch their products and see what’s going on in the Roundabout.

Finally, the name East London Tech City needs to go. Let’s stick with Silicon Roundabout and be proud.
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My favourite things from 2009


Moon — Duncan Jones’s debut is just stunning. I’ve watched it again on DVD now and there are so many clever bits you don’t notice first time around. Also best original soundtrack for quite some time by Stourbridge’s finest Clint Mansell. It’s been adopted as favourite coding music at Everything HQ.

Anvil — this one surprised me and I basically went along just on the basis of the blurb in the Curzon Soho guide. It’s Spinal Tap but real, there are scenes that had me crying my eyes out and the ending is fantastic.

In the Loop — There was pretty much only one person scary enough to pit Malcolm Tucker against: Tony Soprano. So many perfect comic moments and lots of real insight. I still contend that Thick of It is better for politics than the West Wing.


I’m not very good at describing why I like particular bits of music but these are my favourite albums of the year.

xx by The XX

The Eternal by Sonic Youth

Two Dancers by Wild Beasts

Lungs by Florence + Machine

Sigh No More by Mumford & Sons


I think it’s been a good year for British TV, it feels like the ecosystem is settling into a new pattern which is pretty creative. I hope that programmes like Can Gerry Robinson Fix Dementia Care get more of a run at it next year.

The Inbetweeners — really very simple formula this one but still fantastic. Bit of a cross between Peep Show and Skins.

The Thick of It — As with In the Loop, I don’t know where the spies are but so much of it is true. And just so painfully funny.

Can Gerry Robinson Fix Dementia Care? — I just happened to be watching when this was on but what a fantastic programme. Really taught me a lot and actually might change things. What public service TV should be like.


In Business — Peter Day is a complete legend and when you run a business you realise quite how amazing his analysis and selection of what’s important is compared to most of the guff that comes out of business schools. One program this year in particular might just have shaped the future of School of Everything.

X-posure on X Fm John Kennedy is turning into a bit of a John Peel. I’ve come across quite a few things this year via his show and it shows no sign of getting stale:

Adam and Joe — Still having fun, still causing havoc and still a great way to wake up on Saturday mornings.

Web stuff

Spotify — I had my doubts about the business model but it does seem to be starting to work and the standard of the service is brilliant. I’m now a premium member and the iPhone app is also pretty amazing.

Meetup — this was the year for me when Meetup went mainstream. I heard more and more people saying they were finding it useful and it has been a really great tool for both Long Now London and Social Innovation Camp. Scott and the team have also made it profitable which is no mean feat.

Kickstarter — new this year but a sign of much more to come in changing the ways we finance creativity and invention. Really hope they keep on growing.


Momofuku Ssam Bar, New York — I’m usually at the whim of Rob or other friends when I’m in New York so don’t tend to read reviews or anything but apparently this is quite trendy. Fantastic though.

Champor Champor, London — This place has been around for ages but I hadn’t been for a long time, probably since I was working at Demos five years ago. The Spicy squid salad with ginger flower and mint and papaya salsa was probably my dish of the year.

Glenelg Inn, Glenelg — I’d been to the Applecross Inn a few months previously and this was the other inn with great reviews and within range of amazing walking on the West Coast of Scotland. The basics of Scottish gastropubs are very fresh ingredients cooked as lightly as possible. They managed that brilliantly.

Newspapers and magazines

Although I’ve hardly read a newspaper in 2009, I have read quite a lot of magazines.

Still the best for me is actually one produced by a newspaper — the FT Magazine. It does what I want from a print publication which is to tell me about interesting things that I don’t already know about and uses the format to do that in a compelling way — ie use really top notch photography. I’m a big fan of Charlie Bibby’s stuff.

Wired UK deserves an honorable mention but seeing as I know pretty much everybody who is featured in it or writes for it (that’s a slight exaggeration), that does seem like a bit of a cop out based on my criteria above. The design is great though and they do a very good job of covering the scene I suppose I’m part of.

And then Private Eye has had a storming year. To be fair though they have had a lot of material to go on with the expenses fiasco.


TED in Long Beach. TED is the standard as far as events to inspire and entertain with ideas are concerned. It felt like a massive privilege to get a ticket and I made the most of it.

Social Innovation Camp in Glasgow. OK I’m biased because I played a small part in setting this one up but it was still a brilliant event and I’m just a little bit proud of what’s come out of it.

Interesting in London. One of my favourite days of the year. Loved it.

Meetup, ‘Why Don’t You…’ and 10,000 year thinking in a pub

I love Meetup and there’s a great piece in the FT Weekend Magazine that explains quite what it is that makes it work. It really started to come together for me a few weeks ago when we had a fantastic Long Now London Meetup. Up until then it had just been people I knew, but last month we grew beyond that. It was great to be able to organise something so easily that brought together people around a shared interest.

So what’s it got to do with Why Don’t You? Well, the full title of Why Don’t You was “Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set And Go Out And Do Something Less Boring Instead?” which was pretty revolutionary for a TV program when you think about it. Somebody once described the email magazine Pick Me Up that I used to help out with as Why Don’t You for grown-ups. With our manhunts in Covent Garden, taking cows to Toxteth and journeys to find the source of the Thames, it was all about getting people away from their email.

I like that idea — that we should build technology projects that help people get away from technology and I’d say Meetup are one of the most inspirational companies that already do so. I hope we’re doing it with School of Everything and Social Innovation Camp too.

Oh, and our next Long Now London Meetup is on September 17th. Come along!

Why London will never be (and should never try to be) like Silicon Valley

I went to a really interesting dinner chat on Wednesday night organised by Saul Klein for Fred Wilson the VC who was over from New York. I left a bit unsatisfied with the story we told Fred about London, so in the bar afterwards and on the bus home I tried to work out why.

The conversation centered on how difficult it is to set up tech start-ups in London compared to the US. The other entrepreneurs talked about how incredibly hard it is to raise angel money for tech start-ups, how difficult it is to hire great coders, how risk averse British culture is and how there are no great start-up role-models in the UK. It’s a story that I’ve heard before and all of these things are true.

What frustrates me about this is what it misses out by assuming that London should be just like Silicon Valley. Much as I love and respect the Techcrunches of the world, I do get fed up with the reification of start-ups and entrepreneurs as if it was the only way of creating value and as if the best thing to happen would be if everywhere became like the Californian tech scene.

I don’t think the lack of angels in London is quite such a problem as some people make out. If you really are doing something great then there’s a simple solution — get on a plane. Our experience with School of Everything is that people in other countries are very willing to invest here if you’re doing something they think might change the world (we have angel investors based in the US and Europe). There’s also a very nice ecosystem of early stage funding emerging here that doesn’t come from angels. Nesta, UnLtd and the Young Foundation are all trying out new models. Channel 4 are soon to join them in quite a big way. Even the Cabinet Office is trying.

Then there’s the people. In the US, it’s assumed they will be MBAs or engineering graduates. Here, it’s a totally different community. It’s been most visible to me at three fantastic events — all of which I would heartily recommend to people like Fred — Social Innovation Camp, Interesting and 2gether08. The influx of people into the start-up world to look for from an investment perspective is former (and current) campaigners, activists, policy and civil service people.

Matt Jones put the reason for this neatly when he said that the 80s and 90s were the decades of the think tanks because they were the most cost effective ways of experimenting with ideas that could change the world. Now you can build a start-up for the same cost as a Demos project — with School of Everything we got a site up, team together and “proof of potential” for £20,000.

Just a final note. For me there’s something special about London (and the UK) because this is the beating heart of so many social movements. From anti-slavery to fair trade, universal suffrage to third world debt cancellation, many of them have started or grown from here. And as John Batelle says, every great business is an argument. Umair Haque writes that the tech world needs to solve the world’s big problems. And Fred too has written about his yearning for projects that are a force for positive social change.

So — despite our grumbling on Wednesday, I’m incredibly positive about the potential of London to be a cauldron of new ideas, projects and value creation. We’re just not going to do it the in the same way as Silicon Valley.