Revolutionary Measures

Hubs, bridges and the discovery of America

English: Columbus_1892_Issue-$5.jpg Christophe...

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.

December 4, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, Creative, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cambridge Clever and Shoreditch Smarts

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.mike-lynch

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.

September 25, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

When to give up

failure

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.

 

April 24, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Standing out from the Crowd (funding)

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.The Pebble iOS Smartwatch

And another option that is expanding rapidly is crowdfundingsharing 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.

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January 23, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing, PR, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A weekend to change the world (part 2)

Judge Business School, Cambridge, England.

At a time when the world seems full of young companies aiming to be the next Facebook, it is easy to write off technology startups as predominantly pointless pipe dreams that won’t contribute anything meaningful to society.

But the good news is that the power of technology can change the world. Whether it is in education, improving the environment, revolutionising healthcare or helping communities the power of technologies such as the internet, mobile telephony and even social networks can change many people’s lives for the better.

Unlocking these ideas and giving them the help and support they need to take realise their potential is the mission of Idea Transform. A Cambridge-based initiative, backed by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (CfEL) it supports meaningful startups through events and mentoring.

Run by a stellar organising team (including myself), the first Idea Transform weekend attracted over 100 entrepreneurs, developers, students, business people and mentors. 26 ideas were pitched on the Friday evening and teams then formed to work on projects, which were judged on the Sunday evening. Projects spanned healthcare, education, the environment and community.

The range of ideas was astounding – from in-road electric charging to biometric identification for healthcare. What united them was that they all had the potential to change the world – and a plan for achieving it. Attendees threw themselves into the weekend, bringing their skills to bear on helping develop the ideas, ably supported by our experienced mentors and inspiring speakers.

The great news is that Idea Transform 2013 is now up and running. It will be held between 15-17 March 2013 at the Cambridge Judge Business School and promises to be as exciting and exhilarating as the 2012 edition.

Whether you’ve got an idea that you want to work on or have skills or energy that can help develop projects, take a look at www.ideatransform.org and come along in March. With high level speakers and experienced mentors, you’ll learn new skills, meet new contacts, have fun and contribute to making the world a better place. Sign up now!

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November 28, 2012 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cows, herds, social media and innovation

Cows on Coe Fen

Cows on Coe Fen (Photo credit: James Bowe)

When it burst upon the scene, social media (and indeed the whole internet) was seen as a chance for individuals to get their voices heard. Whether it was campaigning on big issues not covered by the mainstream media, providing a stage for new musical or film-making talents, just updating your family and friends or making it easier to find a new job, social media was the great leveller, removing the middlemen and letting us all be ourselves in front of a world audience.

But in fact it hasn’t really worked like that. Those with the highest number of Twitter followers tend to be established celebrities, who use it as a channel to broadcast their views and while a number of new talents have popped up from social media you get the feeling many would have made it through other means. People can share much more of their lives online, but that doesn’t mean the world is listening (or can even be bothered to find them).

This state of affairs isn’t really surprising, for two main reasons. Firstly social networks aren’t that clever. For example, they automatically suggest people you’d like to follow/friend dependent on your background and contacts. So you don’t get exposed to random influences in the same way you would if you picked up a paper, tuned into the radio or went out and physically met people at an event. You get the chance to connect to more people just like you – hardly very individual.

Secondly, seeking social approval is hard-wired into a lot of us. Going back to our early development when we needed to stick together as a tribe to survive, we want to be accepted and within the pale. So in general we’re not likely to make the effort to go off and find random connections or come up with wildly contradictory views. If you want to see this translated into internet terms just look at how quickly some things trend on Twitter or the number of comments on certain Daily Mail articles.

So we’re all part of our herds, likely to think along broadly similar lines on or offline. This makes it a lot easier for marketers (and politicians) – rather than having to deal with people as individuals you can lump them together into particular demographics and then deal with them en masse. The problem with this is that genuine innovation tends to come from the mavericks – the people that run against the tide and aren’t afraid to be different. However in an atmosphere of conformity they can be lost, or, in the case of social media shouted down by the vocal majority. And this means the opportunity for innovation is stifled and rather than someone introducing an earth-shattering new business idea, we get yet another slightly different social network launched.

But all is not lost as there are genuine new ideas out there. And rather than heterogeneous clusters such as Tech City, the majority are coming from academic research, in Cambridge and elsewhere – where blue sky thinking is encouraged. Not every idea will work, not every idea is practical, but it provides an antidote to the herd mentality. And as we become more and more reliant on social media we need to encourage and fund this left field innovation and take the time ourselves to look further afield when we widen our own circles on social networks.

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August 13, 2012 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Idea Transform – where are they now?

idea

idea (Photo credit: Tony Dowler)

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………..

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July 10, 2012 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Unlocking innovation for the good of us all

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.

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April 12, 2012 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Growing some bulls

There’s a continual complaint that the UK simply doesn’t produce the numbers of heavyweight tech companies that the US spawns. And looking around, the pattern seems to be true – for every ARM, Sage or CSR in the UK, you could name a dozen similar size companies in the US.

While some of this is gap is obviously down to relative population sizes are there any other factors holding back UK entrepreneurs? This was one of the issues discussed at last week’s Enterprise Tuesday event in Cambridge by an entertaining group of speakers, including company founders and Cambridge Angels, Sherry Coutu, Andy Richards, Robert Sansom and David Gill, managing director of the St John’s Innovation Centre.

The key factor is the ability to scale – the UK creates exactly the same number of startups, per capita, as the US – but only half of them successfully scale up compared to their US rivals. There are plenty of reasons for this – from an inbuilt British fear of change to an inability to cross the chasm

Vayikra (parsha)

Image via Wikipedia

and appeal to the mass market. It seems that for too many UK companies the choice between scaling themselves or selling out is weighted towards the exit option. While this releases investment capital back into the system and gives entrepreneurs the chance to begin again, it has created (in the words of a US VC quoted by Andy Richards) an industrial veal farm in Cambridge, with prized startups nurtured and pampered ready for the inevitable early death/exit.

The UK in general, and Cambridge in particular, has shown that it can grow dominant tech companies, so now is the time for the government and tech ecosystem to encourage entrepreneurs to take a step back, aim higher than an early exit and build businesses that can scale. Given the UK has the ideas we need to move from farming veal calves to growing some bulls……….

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February 27, 2012 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Starting up in Cambridge and London

Ravensbourne College

Image by Ben Terrett via Flickr

Last Saturday I was down at the London Startup Weekend, helping to mentor participants and hone their raw ideas into (hopefully) winning projects. Having been one of the organisers of the Cambridge Startup Weekend earlier in the year it was good to be see the event from another side (with a lot more sleep).

Firstly, a quick explanation of what the Startup Weekend concept entails. Essentially it is a 56 hour event that brings together people with ideas and skills to create some sort of application, product or business idea over the course of the weekend. People pitch their ideas on Friday evening, everyone votes on those they’d like to work on, groups form and they then frantically develop their projects ahead of judging on Sunday evening. The role of mentors is to provide encouragement, advice and occasionally a reality check.

Having now been to two Startup Weekends what conclusions have I come to? Here are five points that stood out for me:

Firstly the energy and enthusiasm of the participants never ceases to amaze me. These are people who believe in what they are doing, enjoying the experience and learning while they do it. While their current ideas might not make it, these are the entrepreneurs of the (near) future, which is heartening to see.

The range of ideas from both events was staggering, covering apps and websites from all sectors. I’d say there were more ‘physical’ services amongst the groups I talked to in London (such as lunch deliveries and pamper boxes for pregnant women/mothers), which is an interesting development from the normal software based businesses.

Scale – the Cambridge and London events were light years apart in size. Cambridge had around 110 participants, and London 200+. Due to space constraints London was split across two sites (Ravensbourne College next to the O2 Arena and Club Workspace in Clerkenwell). Obviously this meant more mixing between different groups in Cambridge (where everyone was in one, smaller space) and I think this benefited ideas development and networking. However I’m sure the Sunday evening judging and party brought everyone back together in London.

Hearteningly everyone realised they need marketing. Rather than thinking that the world will come flocking to their door, London participants factored in the need to identify and reach target audiences, with many considering quite sophisticated marketing approaches. London companies seemed to be ahead of Cambridge in this area.

The mix of people. As I said I didn’t talk to all 200 people in London but they seemed to be a bit more of a homogenous bunch in terms of age and where they were based. Cambridge participants seemed to have travelled further (such as from Finland) and spanned the age groups from twenty something to fifty year olds.

But all in all these differences are part of the appeal of Startup Weekends – everyone is different. So, if you’re interested in new ideas I’d urge you to sign up and go along to one as soon as you can – it is a great use of a weekend.

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September 14, 2011 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing, Startup | , , , , | 1 Comment

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