East London entrepreneur and founder of BookingBug Glenn Shoosmith offers a defence of UKTI’s Tech City Investment Organisation.
So much has been said recently about TechCity, some of it true, some pure speculation, and some quite damaging. It’s time someone said something positive and took up a defence of the TechCity initiative, preferably in a way that doesn’t sound like a press release.
So, first: a disclaimer. I have a stake in this. That, as much as anything, is a good starting point. I spoke at the launch of Tech City back in November 2010. It was an opportunity that came up randomly and at short notice. I grabbed it partly because, well, what entrepreneur trying to build a small business doesn’t want to take the opportunity to get their business mentioned in the national press?
But I mostly did it because they were promising to listen and address some of the concerns I and other entrepreneurs had, which had, fundamentally, to be a good thing. I was sceptical that they’d achieve anything, I was concerned it was just a pointless policy announcement which they would lose interest in and move on from after a few weeks… which is why I decided to get involved.
So I’ve spent quite a bit of the past year haranguing Rohan Silva and his colleagues. My first complaint, presented directly to David Cameron, was about the difficulty of applying for government contracts for small business, with tender frameworks being impossibly hard work. Two months later, I was sitting at the Treasury for an announcement on the scrapping of tender frameworks and a simplification of the government procurement rules to help favour small business – something which I know has already helped several start-ups win government contracts.
Without reading out a catalogue of stuff that will read like a press release – though I could – the reality is that there is a long list of things that have been done over the past year. But much of it has been done in the background. It’s like complaining a submarine isn’t very impressive because you can only see its periscope. The government is hyper-sensitive about not being seen to be taking the credit for things which the community are responsible for.
They are, however, walking a tightrope, as they also want to take on the role of trumpeting the UK’s successes abroad – which inevitably involves talking up UK companies in government bumph.
Last week Jack Lenox argued that much of Tech City is a Potemkin village; but, rather like the myth of the villages themselves, Jack is clearly confused as to what Tech City actually is, what it is designed to achieve and how that is going to happen.
For better or for worse, entrepreneurs are notoriously short-termist. We expect immediate results. The Government (any government for that matter), on the other hand, takes an extremely long view on almost everything, especially when it comes to, say, large-scale urban regeneration.
I live in Hackney Wick, facing the Olympic Park, where the local plans for regeneration take place – “in a period of longer than 10 years”, according the last plan I saw; and it’s exactly the same for much of the Olympic Park. The plans for the regeneration of large parts of East London were started with the creation of the bid for the Olympics nearly eight years ago. Many of them won’t come to fruition until after Crossrail is completed in 2018. That’s a 14-year plan for starters.
The Government tell me they are interested in the 20 year regeneration and growth of the area. The start-up you were hoping to sell in two years is a part of that. They want you to be successful and re-invest in the next round of start-ups, or to go on and build a business that grows over 20 years – but you’re only a small part of a long term plan – so don’t be surprised if things don’t happen to your attention-deficient timescale.
The irony, of course, is that we’re really the only ones putting ourselves down. Americans are the epitome of civic pride and work hard to present a positive image of where they live and what they do. Ireland also does a great job of sending a positive message about why you should start your business there, and both the Irish government and the entrepreneurs speak well of Dublin.
What are we Brits good at? Well, we’re good at apologising that everything is a bit rubbish. You want to come to London to set up your businesses? Don’t bother it’s a bit shit really. Sorry, but no it’s not. It’s fucking awesome. London is one of the best three cities on the planet to live and work in.
Yes, I’m aware of the charms and advantages of Silicon Valley for a tech company, but, putting those aside, there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be setting up an internet business than in the Shoreditch area. There’s a great community, lots of brilliant people around, and I love being here.
It’s genuinely exciting and I’m working harder and having more fun than in any job I’ve ever had. Even those on the other side of the pond can write positive things about TechCity, but somehow we can’t manage to say anything helpful about ourselves.
Speaking of the grass being greener, Lenox’s specific comparisons with Paris are interesting. I remember speaking to several French entrepreneurs earlier in the year in Paris, who were in utter despair. Sarkozy is famously technophobic, he fears the new business models the internet brings and, astonishingly, is pushing for dangerous increases in regulation of the internet.
The French entrepreneurs I spoke to told me that they believe the UK is faring far better. Our government is significantly more pro-internet and we benefit from a far more entrepreneur-friendly environment here than anywhere else in Europe.
Lenox claims the government should be ploughing this TechCity cash directly into start-ups. Well, this is already happening under various guises. The TSB Launchpad, despite a slightly faltering launch, has been well received for providing grant funding for tech start-ups. (There are some who don’t believe that it’s the Government’s position to provide grants to start-ups, but that’s something for a different column.)
As for accelerators, they’re also happening here in the UK. In fact we already have more accelerator programs here in London than anywhere else in Europe. A great example is the government investment of £25 million in Passion Capital. It has the backing of some awesome entrepreneurs in the form of Stefan Glaenzer and Eileen Burbidge, and might also bag you a nice desk at their swanky White Bear Yard offices.
We currently have something that the rest of the tech scene is Europe is envious of, but we’re at serious risk of poisoning our own well. If we continue to put down TechCity and all its initiatives, it’s possible the Government will lose patience with us and give up.
Forget the tax breaks, the grants, the efforts to train more young people in programming, the work on public transport links, the efforts to bring more global inward investment and companies to London. Forget them all – let them go to Ireland, at least they make an effort to be proud of their city and its talent.
I know so many entrepreneurs who have benefited in countless ways from the TechCity initiative. And there are far too many really good honest people involved for it to be anything resembling a Potemkin village.
So maybe I have be to a little more American, perhaps even it’s time that London started drinking at least a little of its own Kool-Aid, but I stand by Tech City. Sure, it has its faults, and it’s not perfect. But I’m an entrepreneur, and entrepreneurs don’t fix problems by standing around and complaining. They get stuck in.