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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