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.

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