I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to launch a startup in the UK. The public profile of the tech industry is incredibly high, and those that create businesses are more likely to be seen as visionary entrepreneurs than cranks who couldn’t get a job in a proper company. Indeed, for those leaving university, setting up your own startup is a valid (if not as initially lucrative) alternative to becoming an accountant, banker or lawyer. I’m sure startups would complain that it is still difficult to raise money, or scale up their businesses, but it feels that there is now wide public and political acceptance of the importance of creating a culture that encourages startups.
Read the press and politicians’ speeches and there seems to be a relentless search to find the ‘European Google’ or ‘British Facebook’, multibillion dollar global companies that can become standard bearers for the industry. Alternatively, other European companies essentially mimic what is being done in the US, taking their business models, localising them and then hoping that first mover advantage will let them create viable businesses before the original enters the market.
The people that run startups are smart, as are the venture capital funds that back them. But are they looking in the right areas when it comes to creating new businesses – as an article by Liam Boogar in Rude Baguette recently asked “Where are the European startups to solve Europe’s biggest problems?” Leaving aside the question of whether Europe is cohesive enough that the same problems apply to life in Edinburgh, Athens and Bucharest, it is a valid point. What issues can be solved, first in Europe, and then expanded globally, to create thriving companies that benefit us all?
The article focuses on the need to shake-up the savings market, and with interest rates in many countries close to (or even below) 0% I can see the opportunity to transform the sector, such as through peer-to-peer lending.
However, what other areas would enable European startups to build global businesses? Thinking about the particular problems Europe faces, here are four that come to mind:
Across Europe, people are living longer and birth rates are falling. Longer lifespans increase pressure on health and social care services, as the elderly battle chronic diseases and poor health. While this isn’t just a European problem, it is one that startups can focus on, particularly given the public money currently being spent on healthcare research. Areas such as wearable monitors and the Internet of Things can potentially help improve the quality of care, even allowing people to remain in their own homes, rather than be treated in hospital.
From driverless cars to drones, technology is revolutionising transport. With its combination of major car and aeroplane makers, Europe is well-positioned to lead the way, but it needs an injection of startup energy and fresh thinking to succeed. Whether it is new ways of charging electric vehicles as they wait at traffic lights or smarter cities where you are automatically guided to the nearest parking space, there is plenty of scope for innovation, along with the chance to scale up to export the technology across the globe.
More than 6 million jobs were lost in the recession between 2008-13, and youth unemployment in many countries remains high. Many of the roles that were made redundant are simply not coming back as they have either been offshored to lower wage economies or replaced by technology. What are needed are ways to reskill European jobseekers so that they can compete in the global market. Much of this should be the responsibility of governments, but technology can help with new ways of training, new opportunities for collaboration and the encouragement of remote working to combat rural depopulation.
4. Cutting bureaucracy
All governments, of whatever political persuasion, seem to delight in creating red tape that tangles up citizens and businesses alike. And, despite the European Union, there is still a range of different measures that need to be met. Many countries have begun to put their services online, but more can be done, and in many cases nimble startups can get things done quicker than lumbering government departments.
I’m sure there are plenty more European problems that need solving, from the environment to education. These don’t just benefit society, but are potentially extremely lucrative as well. So the challenge for startups and entrepreneurs is to try and solve them – and at the same time we might create the European Googles that politicians are so keen on.
The last five years has seen two, separate trends hit marketing. Firstly the use of technology has skyrocketed as digital channels such as the internet, email and social media have risen in importance. Secondly, marketing has increased in importance as businesses across every sector realise that it is central to winning and retaining customers, reaching stakeholders and engaging with external audiences.
At the risk of showing how old I am, it is worth comparing the tools I had in my first PR job twenty something years ago, and what I have now. I started with a computer (yay!), and it even had email – but that was purely internal to the ten person company I worked for. I could just about access the internet, but it was text based, rather than the colourful World Wide Web we know today. If I wanted to communicate with a journalist I looked them up in a paper-based directory and called them. If I needed to give them information I wrote them a letter, printed and posted it. The same applied to press releases, which were faxed over by clients, laboriously re-typed, faxed back to the client for checking and then sent to a mailing house for distribution. Press clippings were sent through the post by a monitoring agency, and I then stuck them on large boards to show to clients or made up physical cuttings books. And I worked for a technology PR agency, so at the advanced end of marketing at the time.
Now marketers have access to a huge variety of online tools and devices. You can find out information instantly about a journalist through the web and send out a press release to the whole world at the touch of a button through mailing software – not to be advised unless you want to get a reputation as a spammer. Email and social media have replaced the telephone as primary communication channels, while digital marketing technology is available to run campaigns from start to finish. You can target audiences based on what they have searched for, what they have talked about on social media or simply the pages they’ve visited online. Marketing has gone from being behind the curve on technology use to being one of the most active spenders on IT. Much of this has been driven by the move to digital, with a corresponding rise in status for marketing chiefs. Rather than Marketing Directors, often reporting to sales, more and more organisations now have Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs), with a seat on the board and budgets to match.
In 2011, Gartner predicted that the CMO will spend more on tech by 2017 than the Chief Information Officer (CIO). People scoffed at the time, but it looks like this is well on the way to becoming a reality. There are now more than 3,000 marketing technology vendors, all aiming to support agencies and in-house marketers in their roles. This frankly dizzying Tube map-style infographic tries to make sense of their relative positioning, but was probably out of date as soon as it was released, such is the rate of growth and innovation.
I’ve longed argued that marketers in general, and PR people in particular, need to change and embrace technology if they want to continue to be relevant. However they shouldn’t just focus on technology for its own sake, but use it to support what they do – engaging with customers and creating long-term relationships that benefit both sides. There’s no point running an award-winning Facebook page if it doesn’t link to your marketing and business objectives and is measured solely by the number of Likes it delivers.
So I’m suspicious of the latest marketing trend – the introduction of the Chief Marketing Technology Officer (CMTO). It aims to bridge the gaps between stereotypically creative marketing people and the more conservative, risk-averse IT department, finding a middle ground so that marketers don’t make the wrong choices, but aren’t held back by out of date IT procurement practices. Despite its spread in the US – Gartner says that 80% of organisations have someone filling a CMTO-type role, even if it isn’t called that, I don’t believe that marketing (or IT) needs one. It is surely better to get both marketing and IT to talk to each other, and learn how to co-operate, than to essentially try and create a half-way house of someone with the range of skills to talk both tech and marketing. If the CMTO sits in marketing you just end up with a silo-based, departmental approach, rather than looking at the wider picture of what the business needs. Technology is a vital part of every department’s role, but that doesn’t mean it is good for them to operate in isolation. Marketers should continue to improve their tech knowledge, but actually use their communication skills to talk to IT and get their help in navigating the marketing tech maze. Otherwise the risk is that money is wasted and the whole business suffers.
This month marks several major anniversaries in my life. I’ll have been married for 15 years and July 1st was the beginning of my sixth year of running my own business. Leaving aside everything I’ve learnt from my marriage, here are the top five things I’ve learnt after setting up on my own:
1. Network, network, network
It doesn’t really matter what type of business you are, the easiest way to bring in new revenues is to be recommended by someone else. That only happens if you both do a good job for existing clients, and more importantly network with the community around you. Trekking out after work to meet new people can seem a bit like going to the gym – you know it is good for you, but you can invent 1001 excuses why you should just stay at home. Just like physical exercise, you need to overrule the little voice in your head and spend time networking. At the very least it’ll get you out and talking to people with potentially similar interests, or who offer complementary services – and it will also increase your public presence and ensure companies know who you are. And networking doesn’t stop there – connect with people on LinkedIn, follow them on Twitter and make sure you make the effort stay in touch.
2. What goes around comes around
This may sound a little Zen, but I’m a firm believer that being nice to people, and helping them, stores up good luck that could help you in the future. Give people that can’t afford to hire you advice, connect them to people that can help them and be supportive of the community around you. Even if it doesn’t bring you direct business you’ll feel better about the world around you and know that you’ve made a bit of a difference.
3. Learn to let go
If you are in a business that revolves around selling your time and expertise, there’s a natural ceiling on how much work you can do. There are only 24 hours in a day, and working on all of them isn’t a long term business strategy. So be ruthless and look through your workload. Hire people to help – whether experts such as an accountant to look after your book-keeping or someone to assist with admin, they will free you up to focus on what clients are actually paying you for. And you’ll (hopefully) get your evenings back too.
4. Keep doing new stuff
I know a lot of people that have built successful businesses, get to year six and decide on a complete change of tack, such as creating their own start-up. While I couldn’t do this myself, it shows the need to keep challenging yourself and doing new stuff. On a less dramatic note it could mean offering new services, taking on clients in a completely different sector or investing in new skills and qualifications. The world is changing fast and failing to change with it will not only leave you bored, but you’ll gradually lose clients as they move to businesses that offer new services that meet their new needs.
5. Build up an ecosystem
No business is an island, and you can’t survive on your own. As well as networking, make sure you plug into people with complementary skills who can help you, whether with advice, mentoring or just providing you with a sympathetic ear from time to time. I know I’d not have built my business without the support of a whole range of people, which is another reason to spend time networking in both the real and virtual worlds.
Don’t get me wrong, the last five years has been a lot of hard work, a few tantrums and occasional worries about where the next job would come from. However it has also been tremendous fun, bringing me into contact with a wide range of interesting, innovative and sometimes quirky people. I’ve learnt a lot, enjoyed being my own boss and been able to (sort of) balance work and life. Here’s to the next five years!