Mankind has always had a fascination for mythical beasts, and none more so than the unicorn. Despite allegedly dying out in the flood after failing to board Noah’s Ark in time, they are still all around us in popular culture, from Harry Potter to children’s toys. I even found an exhibit in a Vienna museum labelled matter of factly as a “unicorn horn” – it was actually from a narwhal.
The horned horses are back in the news, in the world of tech at least, with any startup valued at over $1 billion by venture capitalists now dubbed a unicorn. However with more than 100 companies now achieving unicorn status there’s a growing worry that startups are trading short term valuations for longer term success. True, unicorn status helps attract skilled staff, but down the line it requires either a trade buyer that is willing to pay big money or an IPO to translate mythical (paper) valuations into hard cash. There have also been a raft of stories on how investors have structured their unicorn funding in ways that protect their cash (rather than the shares of others, such as founding teams) if the company should lose its value.
A focus on unicorns also favours certain sectors and types of company. A browse through Fortune’s latest unicorn list reveals a large number of consumer electronics (Xiaomi, Jawbone), retail (FlipKart, Snapdeal) and sharing economy (Uber, Airbnb) companies. In many ways this is what you expect – company valuations are based on what the addressable market is, so the biggest investment goes into those startups that can make most money.
However, it does potentially limit where investors put their money. There are lots of startups that will never be a Facebook or an Uber, but have the potential to be extremely successful niche players that could well grow into billion dollar valued companies. Look at ARM – when it began as a spin-off from Acorn Computers with a completely new business model, very few would have predicted its current success.
There’s also a definite geographic bias where unicorn investors are putting their money – Silicon Valley, China and India. Out of the latest Fortune list just three are in Europe, one in Australia and one in Israel. This doesn’t reflect the energy, ideas and potential in any of these places, particularly in emerging sectors. The danger is that if investors spend their time chasing unicorns they’ll miss out on the startups that could do with their help to build long term businesses that can make a difference to many markets.
So I think we need to add another category alongside unicorns. Keeping the mythical theme I’d go for centaurs. Sturdier than a unicorn, probably better in a fight and with a bit more intelligence (and opposable thumbs). They may not have the beauty or the (frankly over the top) horn of their flashier cousins but they are built for the long term, rather than mythical valuations that don’t necessarily deliver. Given the potential returns they can produce, it is time for investors to move away from the fascination with unicorns to more realistic startups that may be uglier, but have just as much potential.
According to a new report, more and more of us are working in digital technology companies. Research led by Tech Nation has found that 1.46 million people (or 7% of the workforce) are employed by more than 47,000 digital companies across the UK – and of these just 250,000 are working in inner London. 74% of digital companies are located outside London.
To put that in perspective, according to other government figures, agriculture employs 535,000 workers, construction 2.2 million and manufacturing 2.6 million. So nearly three times as many people tend computers instead of animals. Heartening stuff, and a welcome antidote to some of the more extreme London-oriented digital stories seen in the media.
The highest density clusters in the report are Brighton & Hove, Inner London, Berkshire (including Reading), Edinburgh and Cambridge, while the highest rates of digital employment are in London, Bristol and Bath, Greater Manchester, Berkshire and Leeds.
It is easy to be cynical about the timing of the government-backed report, with an election coming up fast. I’d also query the definition of ‘digital’ – my PR business makes it in, which seems to show a wide classification range (not that I’m complaining). The headline findings that certain sectors have more digital companies than the national average (Brighton 3.3x, Cambridge 1.5x, for example), is interesting, but needs to be put into context. Brighton employs 7,458 people in digital, out of a population of 155,000 – under 5% compared to other clusters that potentially have a greater proportion of digital workers.
But what is more interesting is how the research reinforces the importance of clusters. Statistics include:
- 77% of respondents have a network of entrepreneurs with whom they share experiences and ideas. This rises to 90% in Cambridge.
- 54% believe their clusters help attract talent (65% in Cambridge).
- 40% believe their cluster gets them access to affordable property (such as science parks or co-working spaces).
- 33% believe their cluster helps attract inward investment
- For Cambridge, access to advice and mentorship was seen as twice as important to growth than nationally (scoring +100%), and the positive perception of the Cambridge brand (+62%), was also a key driver for expansion.
- Issues highlighted in Cambridge include poor transport infrastructure (scoring -111% compared to the UK average) and lack of available property (-31%).
This clearly demonstrates that to succeed and grow, tech businesses need to be part of an ecosystem that provides support, the right conditions to start (and grow) and that more and more of these are springing up across the UK. Nurturing a cluster takes time, so everyone involved, from local government to academia and investors have to think long term if they want to develop a tech ecosystem in their area.
What I’d like to see is companies and regions use this report as a starting point to build closer ties. Firstly, any businesses that feel they’ve missed out need to get on board and be given the chance to be added to the report. This is vital to keep it as a living, interactive document that maps changes over time.
Secondly, local government and organisations need to take a look and make sure that they are reaching the companies in their area, and providing them with the conditions for growth. At the very least local networks (or in their absence, local councils) should be making digital companies aware of their existence, and what they can do to help them. That way more sub clusters will form and grow, strengthening the overall picture.
I don’t think we’re yet the full Tech Nation that the report and research promises, but we’re definitely on the way – we therefore need continued focus and investment if we’re going to move forward, across the country.
Countries and cities across the world are busily trying to build tech clusters. Partly this is due to the sexiness of tech (expect the UK election to feature plenty of photo opportunities of candidates with startups), partly down to the fact that it seems easy to do, and a lot to do with the benefits it delivers to a local economy. In an era where technology is radically changing how we work, play and live, high value tech companies are always going to be prized.
But how do you build a tech cluster? It may seem easy to do on the outside – set up some co-working spaces, provide some money and sit back and wait for the ideas to flourish, but it is actually incredibly difficult. This is demonstrated by the diverging fortunes of the locations of England’s oldest universities – Oxford and Cambridge. As a recent piece in The Economist explains, over the last few years Cambridge has added more well-paid jobs, highly educated residents and workers in general than its rival. This prompted a visit last October to the city from an Oxford delegation, with the leader of Oxford City Council admitting that “Cambridge is at least 20 years ahead of us.”
Given the longstanding competition between the two cities, it is easy for people in Cambridge to sit back smugly, pat each other on the back and congratulate themselves on a job well done. However, a better course of action is to take a look at what is behind Cambridge’s success, and see what can be done to improve things. After all, there are startup and tech clusters around the world – competition is global – so there’s nothing to stop entrepreneurs setting up in Silicon Valley, Munich, Paris or London rather than Cambridge.
I see five factors underpinning the success of any tech cluster:
1. Ideas and skills
The first thing you need to build any business is obviously a good idea. Universities, particularly those involved in scientific research such as Oxford and Cambridge have plenty of these. But you need a specific type of person to be involved with the research – with a mindset that goes beyond academia and understands how a breakthrough idea can be turned into a viable business. You then need to be able to access the right skills to develop the idea technically, whether through commercial research or programming.
2. Support infrastructure
This is where Cambridge scores highly in being able to commercialise discoveries, through a long-established support infrastructure. The Cambridge Science Park opened in the 1970s, while the University has put in place teams to help researchers turn their ideas into businesses. Research-led consultancies, such as Cambridge Consultants, provide another outlet to develop ideas, as well as helping to keep bright graduates in the city. There is also a full range of experienced lawyers, PR people, accountants and other key support businesses to help companies form and grow.
Obviously without money no idea is going to make it off the drawing board. Cambridge has attracted investment from local and international venture capital, and has a thriving group of angel investors, who can share their experiences as well as their funding. Due to the length of time Silicon Fen has been operating, investment has been recycled, with successful exits fuelling new startups that then have the opportunity to grow.
4. Space to expand
Cambridge is a small city, and the combination of its green belt, lack of post-industrial brownfield sites and an historic centre owned by colleges, puts a huge pressure on housing stocks. As anyone that lives in Cambridge knows, house prices are not far shy of London – but spare a thought for Oxford residents. In 2014 an Oxford home costs 11.3 times average local earnings, nearly double the British norm of 5.8 times. Additionally, as The Economist points out, there is space outside the Cambridge greenbelt for people to build on, with South Cambridgeshire Council, which surrounds the city, understanding the importance of helping the local economy. In contrast, Oxford has four different district councils, and a powerful lobby of wealthy residents who want to keep their countryside pristine, hampering housing development. That’s not to say that Cambridge is perfect, far from it. More can be done to improve transport links to reduce commuting time and to spread the benefits of Cambridge’s economic success.
Ultimately tech clusters are judged by the success of the companies they produce. And Cambridge, partly due to the longevity of the cluster, has created multiple billion dollar businesses, from ARM to Cambridge Silicon Radio. This not only puts the area on the map for investors, but attracts entrepreneurs who want to tap into talent and spawns new businesses as staff move on and set up on their own. You therefore see sub-clusters in particular areas of tech develop as specialists use their knowledge to solve different problems. This then further strengthens the ecosystem.
Tech clusters are slow to build and can’t be simply willed into existence by governments opening their wallets. They need patience, a full range of skills and co-operation across the ecosystem if they are to grow and flourish – as the relative fortunes of Cambridge and Oxford show.
Forget city-based startup clusters, as, according to new government figures, the countryside is now the place to launch your business. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) report points out that the rural population will grow by 6% over the next decade, with more people moving from cities to the countryside than vice versa. More businesses are starting in the countryside than in cities, and rural productivity is growing for the first time since the industrial revolution.
All very positive, leading to Environment Secretary Liz Truss to talk up the innovation within rural areas and point out that people will no longer have to commute to cities, but can work from home using newly deployed superfast broadband.
This all sounds incredibly positive, but as someone who lives (and works) in the countryside I can see four big issues that are holding back rural growth.
1 Networking in a field
While there are more businesses being started outside urban areas, London is still the dominant place for startups, reflecting its position as the centre of the economy. One of the advantages that London and other cities/towns have, is a concentration of people and companies in a small space. This means that it is easy to network, partner and find suppliers to help you grow. Things are much more scattered in rural areas and it is more difficult to identify other companies. I only know about the two people in my village of 3,000 people running complementary businesses to my own because of chance meetings in the school playground. So, there needs to be more done to link rural businesses together in order to help them network.
2 Intermittent infrastructure
A lot has been made about the rollout of rural superfast broadband, and that is improving. But I still don’t have a 3G signal or decent mobile reception in my office, making it more difficult to work. Getting all communications channels right is vital if companies are going to set up and thrive in rural areas. The government has talked about addressing rural mobile “notspots” and this has to be a priority to help everyone in the countryside (not just businesses).
3 Transport by tractor
I’m obviously speaking personally about where I live but rail transport links to London are rickety and slow, while roads can be congested and prone to traffic jams. This means getting anywhere takes time – more time than it should. And, given that for a lot of businesses, including mine, you still need to get to London relatively regularly, this is a cost to doing business in the countryside.
4 Finding skills
Locating staff with the right skills to help your business grow is hard, wherever you are based. But it is much more difficult in rural areas due to the lack of networking and also that a lot of the best talent disappears off to cities and universities straight after school. That is perfectly understandable – but it does mean people don’t tend to return to the countryside until they are settling down and starting a family. This leaves a gap in the market when looking for bright, ambitious staff with some experience who are willing to learn. A lack of affordable housing doesn’t help persuade people to stay in the countryside either.
Don’t get me wrong, I love working in the countryside and contributing to a thriving rural economy. However, government needs to do more if it is to create sustainable, knowledge-based companies and that starts with investment in infrastructure, networking and skills.
Intel must have thought it was onto a winner. Invest in building a new system to help Professor Stephen Hawking to speak, and not only does it get lots of media coverage (to help a good cause of course), but it also put one over on arch rival ARM by linking itself with Cambridge’s most famous living scientist.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite turned out like that. Headlines are dominated by Professor Hawking airing his worries that mankind will be threatened by the rise of artificial intelligence, with the machines (which Intel obviously makes the chips for) posing a threat to our very existence.
It isn’t the first time a big brand has been caught out by its chosen celebrity undermining its carefully thought out plans. Here’s another five that a quick Google search turned up:
nfare. All was going well until he tweeted to his 12 million followers that his phone had just erased all his data and rebooted itself – hardly the message of reliability that Samsung was looking for.
2. Motorola and David Beckham
Another classic issue is a celebrity being caught using a competitor’s product. Sticking with sports stars, footballer Ronaldinho signed a lucrative deal with Coke – and was then caught on camera sipping from a can of Pepsi at a press conference. Not to be outdone, David Beckham lent his celebrity status to Motorola’s £14,000 Aura mobile phone, only to be snapped by paparazzi with an iPhone in his hand. He later claimed he’d been ‘holding it for a friend’.
3. Microsoft and Oprah Winfrey
At least Becks had an attempt at an excuse, unlike Oprah Winfrey. Paid to endorse Microsoft’s Surface tablet, she sent out a tweet extolling its virtues. Trouble was every tweet has the program and platform it was sent from automatically added on the bottom. So “Gotta say love that SURFACE!” was appended by the unfortunate words “sent via Twitter for iPad.”
4. Bacardi and Vinnie Jones
Ex-footballer and professional hardman Vinnie Jones was always a risky choice for an alcohol brand, as Bacardi found out to its cost. After using him as the face of the rum, he had to be hastily removed after he was convicted of a drunken assault on a flight from Heathrow to Tokyo. On a similar, but less dramatic note, car insurer Churchill dropped actor Martin Clunes after he lost his driving licence for speeding. Clunes may have complained, but he should have done his homework – previous star of the ads Vic Reeves was sacked after losing his licence for drink driving.
5. Yardley and Helena Bonham Carter
Perhaps the best example of a brand not doing its homework (and for sheer star insouciance) comes from actress Helena Bonham Carter. Chosen as the face of Yardley cosmetics she admitted in an interview that she rarely wore makeup and couldn’t understand why the brand had chosen her. The deal ended soon after.
All of this puts Professor Hawking (and Intel) in rather exalted company – demonstrating the perils of the celebrity endorsement, no matter how highbrow the name involved actually is.
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.
Rumours are currently rife that Apple is about to open an office, albeit a small one, in Cambridge. The research and development centre would initially employ 20 people, so while it is a coup for the city, it is obviously a drop in the ocean compared to the estimated 54,000 tech employees in Silicon Fen. I’d imagine more people currently work in the electronics department of the city’s John Lewis selling iPads and iPods.
The move comes on the back of Qualcomm buying CSR, HP acquiring Autonomy and the opening of research and development centres by Microsoft and AstraZeneca in the area. Taken together these investments can be seen as a real demonstration of the importance of the ideas and skills within Cambridge – and, the potential benefits (business and PR) of associating with the Cambridge Phenomenon.
However, I think there are positive and negative sides to the interest from tech giants in Cambridge. On the plus side, it reaffirms the city’s strengths as a hub, attracts more skilled staff to the area and, in turn, spawns new startups as employees with ideas leave corporate life to launch out on their own.
But there are also two downsides that potentially impact the good news stories. Firstly, there is a risk that with big investment the tech culture can become too corporate. After all, a lot of Cambridge innovation has come from finding solutions to problems in quirky, very different ways. For example, Intel wouldn’t sell Acorn chips for its new range of computers. The company couldn’t afford to build a billion dollar factory to make its own chips, so came up with the first fabless design. Acorn spun off this knowledge as ARM, now Intel’s biggest competitor.
Before that Clive Sinclair built a scientific calculator that used clever algorithms to run calculations on a single, relatively standard chip. Rivals such as HP used five chips and consequently built machines that were much more expensive. The SureFlap microchip controlled cat flap was created by a physicist who didn’t want neighbourhood moggies invading his house. All of these are examples of the lateral thinking that Cambridge is famous for – but could potentially be stifled by corporate politics (and, ironically too much money).
However I think that while the Cambridge culture may change, it won’t unduly impact its DNA. After all, in Silicon Valley enormous behemoths and nimble startups co-exist with people moving between the two. What is more serious is the second threat of a lack of infrastructure, particularly affordable housing within the city and its locality. It is currently as expensive to live in Cambridge as in London, but with less in the way of facilities. There are plans to build 33,000 more houses by 2031, but the majority are outside the city. And if people live further out and commute by car, rather than bike, it will add to congestion and put further strain on key roads.
Obviously Apple’s 20 researchers aren’t going to add too greatly to current housing woes, but as Silicon Fen grows, now is the time to address infrastructure concerns – or risk losing the city’s status as a tech hub to better equipped rivals.
I’ve always tried to keep my blog apolitical, criticising politicians from all parties equally. But, given the seriousness of the rise of UKIP, I’m suspending my impartiality for a week. Why? Put simply, I believe that Nigel Farage’s party is the biggest threat to face the UK (and in particular Cambridge) tech sector for many years.
First off, I don’t seriously believe that UKIP will garner enough MPs in the 2015 election to be part of a coalition. But what it has done is to shift the debate sharply to the right in two key areas (immigration and the EU), causing the Tories to talk about curbs on the free movement of workers and set a date for an in/out EU referendum. And given that the Tories are likely to be a central part of a future coalition that is potentially very damaging.
Aside from the general business problems that limiting immigration and leaving the EU would bring, it would hit Cambridge and the startup tech scene in four distinct ways:
Many of the highly skilled individuals currently working at or building tech companies originally came from overseas to study in Cambridge. It is already more difficult to get a student visa, and making it harder will simply put off the brightest and the best, who will head elsewhere. And every clever student who goes elsewhere diminishes the wider Cambridge academic population and impacts its reputation and attractiveness to new students.
Pretty much every Cambridge startup I’ve worked with has an incredibly diverse workforce, with employees from every corner of the world. They’ve chosen to come here, or have remained after study, and helped build amazing success stories with their skills. These are incredibly sought after and mobile people – limiting entry for them to the UK will mean they simply go elsewhere.
Charles Wang, the founder of US software company Computer Associates once had a policy of only employing first or second generation immigrants in management roles. Wang himself was born in Shanghai and moved to New York when he was 8 years old. His reasoning was that immigrants had drive, entrepreneurialism and a desire to make something of themselves. Given they often arrived with nothing, they had no safety net, unlike established citizens who had never faced the dangers of real failure. Wang’s view is limited – I know plenty of driven, successful entrepreneurs from stable British families, but he has a point. Limiting immigration removes these potential entrepreneurs and the benefits they bring to their adopted country when it comes to jobs, taxes and the wider economy.
A tech cluster like Cambridge isn’t about individuals, no matter how skilled they are. It is about how they interact together and share and develop ideas, based on their own knowledge and experience. Diversity is key – if you bring together a group of people with similar backgrounds and experience you’re unlikely to get the range of ideas that comes from a wider group. Ideas play off each other and grow – take away diversity and you severely weaken the idea gene pool.
In answering my points, critics may well make one of two arguments. Firstly, that we’ll still let in the best, most skilled people – it is the jobless benefit seekers that we want to turn away. That may be true but will they want to come to a country that appears so unfriendly to outsiders? And, how do you spot the entrepreneur or Nobel Prize winning physicist to be? They could be the yet-to-be-born child of immigrants that initially came over here to work in agriculture or to escape persecution in their home country.
Secondly, people will point to the US, which has restrictive immigration policies, yet the biggest tech/entrepreneur sector in the world. The difference is that the US is a country built on immigration, with a culture that rewards risk-taking and encourages people to try again after failure. We still don’t have that attitude in the UK, and we need free radicals to act as a catalyst to help change things.
The last 20 years have seen a huge expansion in the Cambridge tech scene, driven by the combination of ideas, skills and experience of people from many different backgrounds. Cutting off or limiting the flow of entrepreneurs, workers, students and researchers from outside the UK would completely change this energy and dynamism. It would still survive, but would be weaker, more insular and less exciting. That’s why it is important to tell politicians of all parties that we want to encourage responsible immigration and EU membership to build a successful Cambridge tech sector that benefits us all.
The news that HP is splitting itself in two (ironically a few years after a previous CEO lost his job for proposing the same idea) made me think about the size and structure of tech companies. Some companies invest in growing rapidly and aim to be biggest in their field, others focus on niches, while a third group aim to be a jack of multiple trades, spanning diverse sectors.
HP was previously in the jack of all trades camp, with its fingers in lots of different pies, from enterprise software and services, through servers and networking equipment, to consumer PCs and printers. It will now become two companies, one focused on the enterprise and the other on PCs and printers. Sadly, it has missed the chance to name one H and the other P, going instead for the more prosaic Hewlett Packard Enterprise and HP Inc.
While the two companies will be smaller, they will still each have over $50bn in revenues, and are likely to be hard to disentangle. At the same time eBay has announced it will divest its PayPal subsidiary, following pressure from shareholders and the entrance of Apple into the payments market. I must admit to being cynical about efforts by many tech titans to refocus themselves – it can look suspiciously like a random throw of the dice that keeps investors happy but has no real long term strategy behind it. After all, the world’s most valuable tech company, Apple provides software, hardware (mobile and desktop) and music and video content, alongside payments, maps and health data. And no-one has yet pressured it to split.
However there are definitely optimum size and types of company, depending on the maturity of the market they are in. Emerging sectors, such as the Internet of Things, change fast, so a company needs to be flexible and focused, with the ability to pivot quickly and respond to market conditions. It stands to reason that smaller players will be able to do this faster than legacy behemoths.
Mature markets run less on innovation, with much tighter margins. You are selling a replacement piece of software/hardware and any new features are likely to be incremental not transformative. Consequently the bigger you are the greater the economies of scale when dealing with suppliers and customers. The car industry is a perfect example outside the tech industry, where you need to be big to have a chance of profitability.
The tech industry is going through a rapid wave of change, driven by the move to the cloud and the rise of mobile devices. Previous shifts (such as from the mainframe to the minicomputer and then the server) have led to market leaders falling by the wayside – does anyone remember the likes of Data General for example? In fact HP has done well to survive so long, with a heritage that dates back to 1939. What will be interesting to see is if can make it to its 80th birthday in 2019, or whether it will be carved into even smaller chunks before then………..