The tech market across Europe is on a roll. According to Dow Jones VentureSource European startups raised €2.1 billion (over $2.8 billion) in Q2 2014 from VCs, the highest amount since 2010. The average size of the 365 deals was €2.2 million, up from €1.5 million in Q3 2013. Essentially that means every day of the quarter four startups got funding from VCs.
At the other end of the company journey, Tech.eu counted 92 tech exits in Q2 2014, up 70% from Q1 2014. 10 of these were IPOs, showing a healthy move back to the stock market for tech companies. And while deal size was undisclosed in 72% of cases, 15 were for over €100 million.
So, does this mean that everything is rosy in the tech market and your startup will receive its deserved funding in a heartbeat? Unfortunately not, and there are three worrying points behind the figures:
1 What is a tech company?
I’ve always been suspicious/puritanical on what makes a startup ‘tech’ rather than part of any other sector. Taking a look through both the Tech.eu list of exits and its corresponding index of EU tech funding rounds so far in 2014, I don’t see that many companies I’d class as technology. IPOs and exits included:
- Takeaway platform Just-Eat (food)
- Zoopla (property)
- Markit (financial information)
- Oldford Group (gambling)
- M and M Direct and Game Digital (retail)
- eDreams Odigeo (travel)
- Jobsite (recruitment)
Companies that received the largest amounts of funding mirrored this list – Delivery Hero, which has raised $285 million to date, is an online food ordering platform, while Ozon ($150 million) is an online Russian retailer.
There are what I’d consider genuine tech companies receiving funding (Klarna is a payments provider, Tradeshift is B2B software and Elasticsearch is a search and analytics engine). And looking at the IPOs, Zendesk (customer service software) also fits into my narrow definition of proper tech.
Obviously consumer facing companies need large amounts of funding – they have to market themselves and launch into competitive marketing which takes cash. But my complaint is that technology is part of every business, so just because you sell via the web, that doesn’t make you a tech company. After all, in the early days of the telephone, no-one created a new category for businesses built on the communications power of the phone. By lumping these companies into ‘tech’, investors and commentators overlook the genuine technology companies making software and hardware in favour of more glamourous consumer businesses. It was exactly the same issue in the dotcom boom, with anything that had a website being lauded to the skies as a tech pioneer.
2 Europe lagging the US
The European figures for funding look strong, but in the US private tech companies raised $13.8 billion in the same period. We’re talking about a similar size market in terms of people, yet nearly five times the investment. No wonder that many EU tech firms are crossing the pond to tap into US funding. Zendesk is a good case in point. While founded in Denmark, its successful IPO was on NASDAQ, where it has seen its share price nearly double from $9 to around $17.97 currently.
Clearly, there are structural and funding issues that need to be addressed to convince European companies that this is where they need to build their startups if we are to build a vibrant tech sector across the EU.
3 Selling out too soon?
Some companies are never going to have the scale to survive on their own and fit better as part of a larger entity. So, trade sales are a vital part of the tech ecosystem – investors get their money back (hopefully), enabling them to invest elsewhere, while founders and management teams are able to move on to the next big idea.
But looking through the crop of acquisitions the largest amount (37%) were by US companies. Facebook and TripAdvisor made two European acquisitions, and the likes of Cisco and Intel bought one business each. The risk is that too many smart European tech businesses don’t turn into long term, billion dollar companies with their own ecosystems around them, as they don’t get the chance to grow before being snapped up for their technology or market position. That holds back the wider European tech economy and reinforces US dominance. It would be good to see longer term backing for European tech, with more IPOs and acquisitions by local companies, rather than selling out to US giants.
I don’t want to come across solely as a whingeing naysayer, as it is great news that funding is up for tech businesses across Europe. But I think there needs to be a narrower focus on what tech actually is amongst the media and investors, and a longer term attitude if Europe is ever to come close to building a sustainable tech economy across the continent.
The internet has radically changed how we bank, removing the need to physically visit and turning a thousand and one redundant branches into All Bar Ones and Wetherspoons. But the actual mechanics of transferring money around haven’t really changed. Through a combination of regulation and the sheer complexity of the financial world most of us still entrust our money to a bank and use their systems to move it around. There are some notable new entrants, such as PayPal, and smaller banks, like Metro Bank, have been launched, but the majority of transactions still go through the same channels as before. The only change being that we do the work ourselves online rather than queuing up for hours in a draughty branch behind the man from the arcade paying in his weekly takings one penny at a time.
But most people recognise that the banking system doesn’t deliver the flexibility or mobility that technology can underpin. So how do you do banking without the banks? One way would be to make it simple to transfer money from person to person using a web-based platform that the majority of the world is a member of. Step forward Facebook, which has applied to the regulator in Ireland to launch e-money across Europe. This would allow people to transfer money to others on the social network as well as to buy things online. The combination of Facebook’s reach and brand could provide stiff competition to the likes of Western Union. However those worried about privacy may baulk at giving Facebook access to their bank details in any way, shape or form.
A second way is to change the currency altogether and allow payments and transfers through new forms of money, such as Bitcoin. However, the danger of an unregulated market has come back to haunt Bitcoin, with exchanges mysteriously emptied of money and government concern that the currency is used to pay for drugs, arms and sundry Bad Things.
Now the banking industry itself has come up with a third way. Paym, has been created by umbrella body the Payments Council and enables money to be transferred by simply typing in the phone number of the recipient, provided they are also registered on the service. Fast, direct and no need to give out your bank details to other people through insecure channels such as email. However it looks like the banks themselves are unconvinced by the possibility of doing themselves out of a job. 20 million account holders of RBS (and its subsidiaries NatWest, Ulster Bank, Clydesdale and Yorkshire banks), as well as First Direct, won’t be able to use the scheme until later in the year, while Nationwide’s five million customers will have to wait until 2015. RBS says it is prioritising getting its IT systems straight, after several high profile meltdowns, before joining.
With more and more of our money transferred online to friends and relatives who are further and further away from us, we need options that make it easy to transfer money simply, and quickly. But given our previous bad experiences with banks, will it be Facebook that steals a march and becomes the new financial hub for the internet age? Either way, consumers should benefit through genuine choice and hopefully better service, whoever they pick.
Everyone understands that the bigger a company gets, the more difficult it is to create and nurture ideas. There are a number of reasons. The sheer size of the organisation mitigates against change – it is incredibly difficult to get everyone to understand a game-changing idea and align themselves behind it. You get a fragmented approach and the whole thing can get mired down in bureaucracy and finger-pointing.
Large organisations are inherently conservative, with people not wanting to rock the boat, while there is fierce rivalry between different divisions/departments which can lead to ideas being squashed if they seem to tread on someone else’s turf. There’s also a fine line between a strong company culture and having too inward looking a focus. Even successful companies such as Facebook have been accused of a lack of perspective – because they solely use (and love) their own products they assume they everyone else believes they are equally awesome. Step outside the organisation and your obsession is just a minor part of the lives of your customers.
The good news is that the majority of organisations do understand the need for a stream of fresh ideas. After all, the world today is dominated by companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon that either didn’t exist twenty years ago, or were considerably smaller. Competition in every market is increasing and no-one wants to go the way of Nokia or Woolworths.
So how do you align your company to create the best forum to create ongoing ideas? I’m no management consultant, but I’ve seen a few attempts over the last twenty years and it boils down to three broad types:
1 Innovation silos
In many industries (such as pharmaceuticals), where innovation relies on expensive capital equipment it makes sense to create separate, concentrated, research labs. These have the intellectual muscle and resources but can suffer from their sheer size and distance from the business. They can then hit the same problems as any other big organisation, with divisional rivalry and static corporate culture. Alternatively businesses have focused innovation in standalone business units – either skunkworks operations that are locked away from the rest of the organisation, incubators that support promising ideas at arms length or even smaller companies that have been bought and are run as ideas factories. All of these can work, provided management stay true to their word not to meddle or demand fast results, but there’s still no connection with the wider business and its needs.
2 The campus
You break up your monolithic organisation into a campus style environment, with different divisions occupying their own buildings, but close together. Splitting into smaller teams is good for creativity, and you get the economies of scale of having everyone on a single, but large, site. However the ability to cross-pollenate between groups can be limited – unless you happen to bump into someone over lunch you might be completely in the dark about what other sections of the company are working on.
3 The college
What I think is really interesting about the campus model is that it deliberately mimics the university campus structure. While this makes for a good working environment, it doesn’t help spread ideas. So I think companies need to look at a more collegiate model, similar to that of universities like Cambridge. You have two allegiances/bases – your division (essentially your college) and your actual project (your faculty). So you get the chance to mix with people from other divisions and collaborate on joint projects. Some people may find it disorienting, but if projects are scheduled to last 2-3 years the goal is never that far away.
Innovation is vital in every industry, and the size and structure depends on the sector and the market each company operates in. But I think it is time for more organisations to look at the college structure if they want to nurture and develop a stream of ideas that take their business forward over the long term.