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.
The current civil war and use of chemical weapons in Syria is destroying the lives of millions in that country. With deaths from the conflict estimated at over 100,000 and an estimated 7 million people in need of aid, it is a humanitarian disaster across the region.
But alongside the actual fighting there is an equally hard fought war going on for the hearts and minds of the rest of the world, including voters, MPs, senators and governments. Western citizens and legislators are worried about being dragged into the worsening situation in Syria through military action, despite widespread abhorrence of the use of chemical weapons on civilians and children, leading to indecision on next steps.
This has triggered a media offensive, with all sides using the power of public relations to jockey for position:
- Bashar Al Asad has appeared on CBS and PBS in the US, defending his actions and denying responsibility for the use of chemical weapons
- Barack Obama appealed to the American people through a series of TV interviews as well as a direct address calling on Congress to support his stance
- Francois Holland sought to elbow Britain from its position as the US’s most trusted ally, hawkishly supporting military action in Syria
- Vladimir Putin put his point of view to the US and world media through a comment piece published in the New York Times, setting out his plan for independent decommissioning of Syrian chemical weapons.
Whatever your views on culpability, the winners from this PR battle have been the Syrian regime and the Russian government. By coming up with an alternative proposal to military action (dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons), Vladimir Putin has moved the debate on and surprised the US government’s PR machine. Using the global media cleverly he’s been able to exploit widespread worries about the consequences of war and change the direction of discussions. A combination of message and media has essentially delivered the PR success that has met his objectives.
If diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means, then PR is demonstrating that it is a vital general in the ranks – whether you believe it is used for the right or wrong reasons.
Very few of us like paying tax, but there’s a fine line between legitimately reducing your tax bill and actively avoiding paying the tax that is due. And at a time of austerity where everyone is tightening their belts, there’s obviously a push by governments to close loopholes and maximise the revenues they receive.
Given their high profile and obvious success Starbucks and Amazon have both been the subject of widespread condemnation of their tax avoidance methods, and I’ve covered Starbucks inept PR response in a previous blog. Google was up before a House of Commons Select Committee last week (for the second time), backing up its claims that, despite revenue of £3 billion in the UK, all its advertising sales actually take place in the lower tax environment of Ireland. Google boss Eric Schmidt has countered that the company invests heavily in the UK with its profits, including spending £1 billion on a new HQ that he estimates will raise £80m per year in employment taxes and £50m in stamp duty.
Apple is the next company caught in the public spotlight, with CEO Tim Cook appearing before a US Senate committee that had accused it of ‘being among America’s largest tax avoiders’. Meanwhile, the loophole that sees Amazon and other big US ecommerce companies avoid paying local sales taxes is being challenged by a new law passing through Congress, with estimates of between $12 and $23 billion extra being collected.
Given the close links between Google and UK politicians (Ed Miliband is appearing at a Google event this week and Schmidt is expected to meet David Cameron on his current UK trip), the cynical view is that this is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But it does create an image problem for the companies involved, particularly at a time when we’re all meant to be in it together.
Obviously the most popular thing for companies to do would be to re-organise their tax affairs so that they meet the spirit as well as the letter of the law. But that’s not likely to happen given the enormous sums at stake. Instead expect increased calls for global tax reform (so that the organisations involved don’t have to operate the way they are currently ‘forced’ to) and a slew of feel good announcements that demonstrate the level of investment and support for the UK economy by the companies concerned. Being ultra cynical perhaps the whole tax situation explains the huge support by big tech companies for Tech City – it is simply an elaborate way of diverting attention from their financial affairs…………..
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
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……….
There’s currently a press frenzy about the death of the printed book, driven by the rise of the tablet/iPad and Amazon’s recent announcement that it is selling more e-books than paperbacks. Commentators are beginning to prophesise rampant e-book piracy and publishers going the way of the record industry in the brave new digital world.
But if you take a closer look you’ll see we’re nowhere near a digital tipping point, particularly in the UK. While Amazon is selling more e-books on the Kindle in the US than paperbacks, the margin is not that great (105 e-books vs 100 print books). However as pointed out in PaidContent, in the UK we’re nowhere near that yet. Amazon is selling more e-books than hardbacks (by a factor of 2 to 1), but not paperbacks.
Add in that the revenue for each e-book is much lower, and you’ll see that while e-books are having an impact, digital isn’t yet reaching market dominance. The PR behind this reminds me of Amazon’s claim that more people bought e-books last Christmas Day than hard copy books – eye catching as a headline, but hardly surprising as new Kindle owners added content to their toys. How many book lovers spend Christmas buying physical items that won’t be delivered for a week at least?
I’ll admit I’m biased but I think there’s a way to go before e-books take over. Screen technology needs to improve further and usability has to take into account the mass market, rather than early adopters that are happy to fiddle with technology. So don’t believe the hype – the physical book will be alive and well for years to come.
- Sales of Kindle books outstrip print books (i-programmer.info)
- Amazon UK selling twice as many e-books as hardbacks (telegraph.co.uk)
- Amazon and Waterstones report downloads eclipsing printed book sales (guardian.co.uk)
Last week’s US raid and subsequent death of Osama Bin Laden demonstrates both the power and the pitfalls of creating and reporting news in the internet world. If the advent of 24 hour rolling news channels sped up reporting, social media makes it even faster, simpler and consequently more difficult to control. We’ve all seen rumours that have gone from raw unsubstantiated tweets to reporting as actual news due to the lack of editorial filters in an open network world.
Given one of the first reports of Bin Laden’s death was via Twitter you’d think the US Government had seen and understood the double edged sword that is social media. But not really – in their anxiety to get the news out they claimed various details (Bin Laden’s wife was killed, he was armed) that later proved to be untrue. And that’s not getting into the whole issue of whether they should release the photo of his body or not.
It seems to me that there is a key lesson to be learnt – have a communications plan. Obviously a military operation like this has been meticulously planned, but the same doesn’t seem to be true of how the information was released. In a world where words are deeds, PR is a key part of the mix and one of the ways that success is judged. Release what you can, don’t make assumptions until you know the facts and consequently control the story rather than be forced into restating it multiple times. Only then will the US and its allies start to win the PR battle in the War on Terror.
- Even With bin Laden Dead, War on Terrorism Isn’t Over (usnews.com)
- Did Osama Bin Laden Win the “War on Terror”? (alternet.org)
On a first look, the publication of 90,000 US military records on Wikileaks shows the power of citizen journalism and social media. It is extremely unlikely that any organisation would have been able to get legal clearance to publish the leaked Afghan War records – you can see the lawyers going apoplectic at the very thought of it.
But how did Wikileaks get the crucial second source and endorsement for the documents? Not through its own resources or credibility but by sharing them with the New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel. Only when they had cross-checked the information (and the media organisations had their exclusives) were they released.
It shows the essentiallybetween ‘old’ media and new channels. Both sides need each other if they are to break big stories – and I can’t see this changing in the near future.