In previous blogs I’ve talked at length about the UK’s inability to turn a high enough percentage of tech startups into market leaders, compared to countries such as the USA. This may be changing, according to a new report from the Startup Europe Partnership (SEP). This identifies around 400 tech ‘scale-ups’ – essentially startups that have raised more than $1 million over the last three years. 70% of these received funding of between $1-$9 million, with 15 raising over $100m.
Taken at face value this looks like great news – investment is up and the UK is leading Europe when it comes to building viable, long term businesses. However dig a bit deeper into the data and some issues emerge. SEP is upfront that its research just covers what it calls ‘ICT’, and misses out biotech, cleantech and what it calls hard-tech (and there was me thinking all tech was hard).
So the lists of companies named are dominated by companies that essentially use the internet as a platform for their business – such as Wonga, Truphone, Funding Circle and white goods retailer AO World. All, with the exception of Wonga, solid companies that are expanding rapidly, but not really what I’d class as technology companies. The problem is that they tend to attract more capital, and consequently elbow the likes of Ubisense (which raised $14.5 million through its IPO in 2011) from the front page of the pretty graphs. And if you grow organically, without needing additional investment, you don’t show up at all.
Is this an issue? I think it is from both a perception and a valuation point of view. The general public ends up thinking of a startup as being something like Spotify or Just Eat, rather than a company that provides clever technology that may operate invisibly to them, supporting the wider digital economy. This can have a knock-on effect on press coverage, recruitment and ultimately the type of startups that are founded. Additionally investors are motivated by returns, and if they see that the payback is better with less technical, more consumer-focused businesses they are likely to invest accordingly.
It would be rude of me to sound like I’m completely knocking SEP. They are shining a light on the European tech sector and at the same time lobbying to increase the support that startups get, in particular by connecting the fragmented European tech economy. But, if we are to present the tech sector in the best possible light, we need to widen the discussion away from the flashier end of the market and embrace the difficult hardtech area. After all these are the ideas and companies that have the potential power to really change the way we live, work and play, and consequently deliver the biggest benefits to Europe as a whole. We need more ARMs, and fewer Wongas, and to start, more rigorous definitions of what a tech startup – or scale-up – actually is.
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.
There can be a tendency in Cambridge to think that innovation ends at the city limits, and particularly that we’ve got the monopoly on tech startups in East Anglia.
Proof positive that this isn’t the case was on show last week at SyncNorwich, where more than 300 entrepreneurs, developers and members of the Norwich tech cluster talked about their diverse successes. This included market leaders such as FXhome, which produces special effects software for both Hollywood blockbusters and amateur filmmakers, Liftshare.com, the world’s most popular car sharing site and mobile interaction/payment firm Proxama. A whole host of newer startups, such as targeted mobile advertising company Kuoob, music community site SupaPass and educational software provider Wordwides (set up by a 16 year old) also talked about what they could offer.
There’s obviously been lots of activity in Norwich for quite a while (FXhome has been going for 10 years and Liftshare.com for 15), but what the evening did was give outside endorsement to the cluster. Mike Butcher from Tech Crunch came along and it gave everyone present belief that they were on the right road and that they should be shouting about it. In the days since, I’ve seen emails offering co-working spaces and there’s even a cluster name (Silicon Broads) being bandied about, along with a startup map.
Norwich isn’t the only cluster rising to prominence across Europe – the growth of cloud-based technologies, new agile development methodologies and a focus on entrepreneurship mean they are springing up everywhere. Some people see this as a bad thing – they point to the size of Silicon Valley and wonder how hundreds of disparate European cities can compete or scale. But as Butcher pointed out, the Valley has a 60 year head start and what is needed is to build bridges between the different hubs – after all takes 2 hours to drive from London to Norwich (or Cambridge), the same time to get from one end of Silicon Valley to the other.
What Europe needs to do is to use the nimbleness of having multiple centres to its advantage and turn disparateness into diversity. I’m reminded of the story of the ‘discovery’ of America. At the same time as Christopher Columbus was touting his plans around the courts of Europe, the Chinese Emperor was assembling a great fleet to explore the same area. Given the scale and backing put into the expedition it would have been likely that the first non-native settlers in the present day United States would have been Chinese, not European. However the Emperor died and his plans died with him – there was no alternative power that could take them on. In contrast Columbus, originally Genoese, travelled round Europe for years until he found a backer in the Spanish monarchy. The result? The world we know today.
So it is time that European startups (and political leaders) stopped dreaming of a single super hub that on its own can rival Silicon Valley. It’ll never happen and what we need to do is build bridges between the enormous variety of hubs across Europe. Making everyone aware of what is going on up the road (or further afield) is crucial to driving collaboration, unlocking opportunities and building a successful pan-European tech ecosystem that can break down barriers and silo working and deliver jobs and growth.
Last week Mike Lynch, founder of Autonomy, announced the first investment by his latest venture, Invoke Capital. It has put money into Darktrace, a security company founded by Cambridge mathematicians. Darktrace uses Bayesian logic to spot cyber security issues by learning what is normal inside a company network and then flagging behaviour that differs from this.
Lynch is a divisive figure, but whatever your views on him, he built Autonomy into a multi-billion pound business, achieving the biggest ever sale price for a UK tech company when he sold it to HP for £6.2 billion. Of course, since then HP has sacked Lynch, written down Autonomy’s value substantially and asked authorities on both sides of the Atlantic to investigate possible accounting irregularities at the firm.
But two things that Lynch said stood out for me. Firstly, he believes too many European tech companies are sold too early in their development (normally to US rivals) – raising tens of millions rather than billions. Invoke plans to change that by investing for the longer term and providing experienced managers to take businesses to the next level.
The second thing he really encapsulated was the difference between Cambridge and Tech City businesses. Speaking in The Economist, he said “What you will find in Cambridge is something which is fundamentally clever, while what you are going to find in Tech City is something where the raw science isn’t fundamentally clever, but its more attuned to the market and the consumer.”
So the difference is between Cambridge clever and Shoreditch smart – but (as Lynch also says) we need both if we are going to build strong, vibrant tech sector in the UK. After all there’s no point in clever technology if it doesn’t have a market, while there is a limited opportunity for low IP businesses – we already have enough social networks.
What we need is to bring the two clusters together and develop a mutual understanding so that both can learn from each other, cross-fertilise ideas and even work in partnership. Let’s face it – they are only 60 miles away from each other, just a bit more than the distance from San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Some people in Cambridge have a tendency to look down on any ideas that haven’t originated here (or spent years in development in the lab). In contrast denizens of Silicon Roundabout often view Cambridge companies as too technical, too geeky and taking too long to build in comparison with their agile media startups.
Two immediate things would help this necessary cross-fertilisation. Firstly, a forum to bring the two groups together to share ideas and network, and secondly, a realisation by the government that you’ve got to look at the tech sector as a whole. At the moment a lot of effort goes into TechCity but that needs to be widened to encompass tech companies across the UK (not just in Cambridge, but in other clusters too) with a cohesive set of policies that encourage innovation and longer term investing. Otherwise Lynch’s vision of building billion dollar businesses in the UK simply won’t be realised, and that will hurt everybody.
- Invoke Capital Makes First Investment in Fundamental Cyber Security Technology (prnewswire.com)
- Invoke Capital Makes First Investment in Fundamental Cyber Security Technology (virtual-strategy.com)
It used to be that failing in business was a potentially catastrophic black mark in the UK – essentially the end of your career. But over the last decade attitudes have changed, driven by a more American view that it is better to have tried and not succeeded than to not to have bothered at all. There are a thousand and one reasons that a venture might fail, many outside your control, and as long as you learn lessons you can bounce back stronger.
This more relaxed attitude to failure is reflected in the growth of startups in the UK. Rather than leave university and go and work in corporate Britain, setting up on your own is a viable choice – if it doesn’t work you can always try the 9 to 5 in a few years time. And as the Seth Godin quote goes, “If failure isn’t an option, neither is success.”
But if the stigma of failure has been removed it brings another big question – when do you give up on your idea/business? Do you shut up shop at the first signs of trouble or soldier on when all chances of success are gone? That was the topic of an entertaining discussion at last week’s Pitch and Mix in Cambridge, which got me thinking about the whole topic.
It is easy to look at businesses or individuals where it would have been easy to give up when they hit the first roadblock. Harvard made Mark Zuckerberg take down the first version of Facebook and nearly expelled him – but he learnt from the experience and moved on. In Cambridge, ARM was essentially created within Acorn as Intel wouldn’t sell the computer manufacturer the chips they needed. The business pivoted and is now a multi-billion dollar world leader.
What came out from the discussion were two main ways of helping you to know when you’ve really failed and it is time to give up.
Firstly, set realistic objectives and goals for your company/project, with a timeframe attached. It shouldn’t be a hundred page business plan that controls your life but an idea of what success looks like and the time it should take to get there. Whether as simple as “we need to have made our first sale in 18 months” or more complex, use it as a guide to when to stop. If you get to 18 months and there’s no sign of a customer then you should probably give up, but if you’re negotiating with a couple, then extend your timeframe. Build a plan to get to your objectives – what needs to happen for you to make that sale/launch the project within your timeframe.
Secondly, get independent advice. Everyone involved in startups must have passion – if you aren’t enthusiastic about the idea you won’t put in the hours to make it work. However perspective is more difficult – you are simply too close to the coalface to provide an objective view of reality. So find yourself an independent mentor, who understands your business and what you are trying to do and give you advice and perspective on the way forward.
More businesses fail than succeed, but don’t take it personally, learn and move on. And marry passion with perspective to work out when to throw in the towel and start again.
Turning your brilliant idea into a world-beating product requires a lot of things – drive, commitment, flexibility and often a large slice of luck. But one element it can’t really do without is money – whether to develop prototypes, employ staff or simply pay your own bills.
Finding funding has never been easy, but the range of potential sources does seem to be growing. As well as traditional sources such as VCs, banks, angels and friends and family, there are a range of government grants and multiple competitions that can potentially help startups take a step forward. I’m not saying this necessarily makes gaining investment easy, but it does give more options.
And another option that is expanding rapidly is crowdfunding – sharing your idea with the world and getting them to back it before you start the expensive business of actually producing anything. If you don’t attract the pre-orders then it should probably act as a wake-up call – are you producing the right product that people actually want?
There’s been a run of successful, over-subscribed launches on sites like KickStarter. The company behind the Pebble smart watch raised over $10m and will start shipping real products this month. On a smaller scale, projects like photography book I Drink Lead Paint hit its target of £10,000, unleashing the thoughts and images of Mr Flibble onto the world. And B2B versions like Funding Circle have attracted government backing, making £20m available to British businesses over the next 12-24 months.
With growth like this, it is no wonder that Deloitte predicts that crowdfunding will double in 2013, raising £1.9 billion globally this year. Not huge in the scheme of overall investment, but potentially opening up funding options to smaller scale projects in a simple way.
But, with more and more projects out there looking for crowdfunding, how do entrepreneurs get people to view what they are doing – and potentially part with their cash? Kickstarter’s own stats show that just over 40% of projects hit their funding targets, showing it isn’t as simple as launching and waiting for the money to roll in.
This is where an enormous opportunity arises for the marketing and PR industries to get involved. Crowdfunding projects need marketing in the same way as any other product, identifying target audiences and demonstrating the benefits your new wonder widget brings to them. And then you’ve got to reach them, using both social and traditional media to identify the influencers that are likely to help you spread the word and convincing them and the world at large. Obviously the downside is that projects don’t tend to have any ready cash, but for anyone brave enough to go for payment by results the business is out there. At a time when the PR industry is suffering financially, creating smart, all-in-one services that help you get crowdfunding or launch your new iPhone app are just what it needs to be developing to recapture growth and build relationships with the next generation of smart businesses.
Technology has the potential to deliver immense benefits to society in areas in diverse as healthcare, education and transport. The first Idea Transform weekend, held in Cambridge in April, aimed to unlock this potential, providing the skills and mentoring to turn ideas into reality.
So what’s been happening in the last three months? To find out Idea Transform held a meet up last week to give the chance for projects to discuss their process, and attendees to catch up. As an added bonus, Nic Lawrence of Light Blue Optics shared his thoughts on the startup experience and what lessons he’d learnt over the last eight years. Be hungry, keep learning, ask questions (both of yourself and other people) and build an outstanding team and culture if you want to succeed.
Two of the winning teams, Sim-Prints and Imvoto provided an update on progress, while Michele Mattioni talked about his project to link local food producers with their local buyers, which he pitched at Idea Transform and has been working on subsequently.
Sim-Prints uses a combination of finger-print biometrics and mobile phones to enable healthcare workers to collect and check patient information in the developing world. Winners of both the overall and healthcare prizes at the Idea Transform event the project has moved forward and is currently looking to create a prototype, while continuing to talk to both investors and foundations/NGOs to fund next steps. It has also made important decisions about structure, adopting the social enterprise model and abandoning the idea of patenting its technology, instead focusing on the delivery of the system.
Mobile learning provider Imvoto has also used the lessons learnt at Idea Transform to refine its project. Imvoto allows teachers to set maths questions for pupils to answer on mobile devices, enabling them to monitor attainment quickly and easily. In response to feedback from mentors, Imvoto has introduced adaptive testing to the product – meaning that future questions are made either harder or easier depending on a pupil’s answers as well as completely rewriting the teacher module. Following initial testing Imvoto is looking to launch a full beta programme in September.
So three months after Idea Transform, the good news is that most of the winning projects – and several that never made it past the pitch stage at the weekend are both still going strong and seem to be well on-track to help turn their promise into reality. Watch this space for more updates as they develop………..
An unashamed plug this week for Idea Transform, an event I’m helping organise between 20-22 April 2012 (so just a week’s time, depending on when you read this).
Essentially Idea Transform aims to support people with bright ideas that use technology to benefit society in general – whether in the fields of healthcare, education, environment or the community.
While technology has lowered the barriers to turning ideas into reality, the majority of potential projects still come unstuck along the way – either because they are missing a crucial skillset or lack the mentoring support to help overcome inevitable hurdles.
Idea Transform will help these ideas through a combination of events and ongoing mentoring. The first weekend bootcamp event (20-22 April, Cambridge Judge Business School, tickets at www.ideatransform.org) will bring together those with ideas and people with business, development, marketing and creative skills to help them. People pitch their ideas on Friday evening, teams form and then work on ideas over the course of the weekend, before a high profile judging session on Sunday evening. Winners get the opportunity to develop their ideas through mentoring, support and the chance to potentially pitch for funding from the Cambridge Angels.
And for anyone worried that it will just be a weekend of hard work, there will be the chance to network, have fun, listen to high profile speakers and get advice from a team of experienced mentors. We’ve already heard about a whole range of ideas, from mobile health tracking using biometric technology to mobile and experimental maths learning to mapping the disused rail network so we can put it to better use, and there are bound to be many more pitched on the evening itself.
It promises to be an exhilarating, exciting and enjoyable experience – take a look at www.ideatransform.org and I hope to see you there.
- Owlstone, Raspberry Pi and Pneumacare join keynote speaker line-up! (ideatransform.org)