Over the last few years London, and particularly the area surrounding the roundabout at Old Street in Shoreditch, has gained a reputation as being a haven for technology start-ups looking to make their mark on the world. If recent claims are to be believed, then London’s technology scene is set to grow substantially in the next decade – Oxford Economics suggest by as much as 11,000 new businesses, creating 46,000 new jobs and generating £12 billion. If these predictions come to pass, then London will clearly define itself as Europe’s premier tech hub, and may even challenge Silicon Valley. The calls for Europe’s tech talent to migrate have gone out.
But I’ve got a bit of an issue with this fascination around ‘hubs’, and while the figures suggest this will bolster the city’s economy, I think trying to centralise everything could end up doing more harm than good to Europe’s technology sector overall.
In my eyes, bringing all of Europe’s talent together in one city and placing them around one roundabout goes entirely against the new working world that technology has enabled. What happened to the concept of anywhere working? Technology has allowed us to do meetings from home or on the go, and push through big-money deals while catching rays by the pool. And yet, we’re now making out that being located in London is a prerequisite to being a successful start-up. More specifically, you have to be within a stone’s throw of Silicon Roundabout. It just doesn’t make sense.
Keep doing it in your bedroom
Some of the most successful start-ups in the world were created in dorm rooms, basements and garages. They were created by people that were first focussed on getting their product, their team and the company’s culture right. Then, only once they had perfected these vital elements, would they start to look at location and office space.
Yes, I can absolutely see the opportunities to build teams in London, but I just don’t believe we should put such an emphasis on telling the budding young tech entrepreneurs of tomorrow that they have to be there. Or any specific place, for that matter. What should be of much greater concern is encouraging them to focus on getting their ideas right before we push them into renting old warehouse space in East London. The new-age bedroom entrepreneur can’t afford the high rents.
Build your business, then your network
To really grow a business you need to speak to customers. Learn what they’re looking for, what they think is working and what isn’t, then refine your product. You don’t have to be in a certain postcode to do this well. In fact, you can do it far more effectively, and at a global level, using technology to connect you.
Despite what you hear, don’t spend all your nights out in the right places self-congratulating yourself with peers. It’s just a distraction. I’ve been to too many start-up events in the last year and just found myself rubbing shoulders with peers, not customers. Surrounding yourself with peers doesn’t grow your business. Surrounding yourself with customers does.
Amazing European talent
Europe is full of amazing start-ups that we can all be proud of, and they come from all corners of the continent. There’s Petcube in Kiev, Everythng in Zurich Betegy in Warsaw, and in the UK Datasift, based in Reading. Europe has too much scattered talent for us to try to bring it all together. There’s so much diversity, not just of cultures, but of people and ideas, and that is what keeps Europe at the forefront of innovation.
Silicon Valley is an exceptional place that was formed during a unique time in tech’s history. Europe should not try to replicate it, at a completely different point in the evolution of the technology industry. Europe should take everything that’s great about Silicon Valley and make it even better. I’ve heard too many times that Europe is at least two years behind the Valley. The truth is that we’re actually eight hours ahead – by which I mean we’ve got a unique opportunity to build on the collaboration, cohesiveness and sense of camaraderie the Valley created, make it even better and then do things first. Let’s adopt the unique sense of innovation and roll it out across our own businesses. Europe-wide.
Irfon Watkins is CEO of Coull.