Revolutionary Measures

Ten lessons from ten years of YouTube

Español: Logo Vectorial de YouTube

This year YouTube celebrates its tenth anniversary. Originally founded in 2005 it has grown to have over 1 billion users, with 300 hours of video currently uploaded every minute of every day. For those without a calculator that’s 432,000 hours of new content every day.

Available in 70 countries and languages it made its founders $1.65 billion when Google bought the site back in 2006. At the time many thought they were mad, but the phenomenal growth and the amount of user data that it provides to Google has proved the doubters very wrong.

So what can startups and marketers learn from YouTube and the growth of video more generally? To mark ten years of YouTube, here are ten lessons I’ve drawn from its success:

1. Don’t always follow the rules
One of the big issues with startups in new markets is that existing legislation doesn’t cater for their disruptive power. Think of Uber and Airbnb and the regulatory issues they are having as they look to sidestep rules governing taxis and accommodation respectively. With YouTube and other video sites that launched at a similar time the big issue was users uploading copyrighted material. Competitors protected themselves by checking content before it was uploaded – slowing down their growth and adding to their overheads. In comparison YouTube let users upload anything and then took it down if lawyers or rights holders complained. This gave it a key differentiator, attracted more users and reduced its costs.

2. It is all about You
Despite the growth of brands on the site, the vast majority of content on YouTube is still created by amateurs. By giving a platform for everyone to easily share video, YouTube has been part of a democratisation of the web – as shown by the viral success of many of its videos, and the helping hand it has given to the careers of artists and bloggers such as Psy, Ed Sheeran, Zoella and many others. Brands trying to connect with audiences on YouTube need to understand that it is a two-way street – it isn’t just about providing your own content, but encouraging consumers to work with you and share what they are doing if you want to increase engagement.

3. Video is worth 10,000 words

It may have taken a few years for broadband and mobile data speeds to be able to comfortably cope with streaming video, but now it is the medium of choice for many. If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, video is at least 10x as effective as it allows people to see what is happening, rather than relying on words or static images.

4. It isn’t just cute cats
A few years ago I did some market research with C-level executives to find out where they got information from. The big surprise was that YouTube featured highly in their responses. But a quick look at some of the business content on the site – from the Harvard Business Review to TED talks and The Economist – shows that there’s plenty for any audience to learn from YouTube, whatever demographic they are part of.

5. It can be monetised
People do make money from YouTube. Aside from the celebrities and stars that have used the channel to launch themselves, owners of popular channels are able to make money from the ads around their content. The targeted audiences YouTube delivers (thanks to Google’s knowledge of viewer’s demographics), make it an important way for marketers to reach the right people quickly and easily.

6. Media has become multimedia
Ten years ago there was a sharp divide between traditional print media and the broadcast world. The combination of YouTube and cheaper, higher quality video cameras (or even just smartphones), mean that any journalist or publication can create and upload multimedia content quickly and easily. From interviews to reports, people now expect to see embedded video on news sites, with most media outlets now having their own YouTube channel to host and share content.

7. YouTube is the back end, not just the front end
For every video accessed directly on the site, many hundreds more are reached through other sites. Essentially YouTube provides a complete infrastructure for brands to set up their own channels, for free, and then embed links in their own site or other media. Again, it makes it easy for companies to share video, on or off the site.

8. Attention spans are shorter
People, particularly on mobile devices, are increasingly browsing video content, rather than settling down to watch it for a long time. While there are plenty of exceptions – my children would watch 10-15 minute videos of Stampylongnose playing Minecraft all day – most people don’t want to watch long form content on YouTube. So videos need to be short, snappy and broken up into bite size chunks if they are to be watched and shared.

9. Showing is easier than telling
Doing a DIY job used to involve poring through a manual or asking friends and family for advice. Now you simply go onto YouTube and watch a professional doing it, explaining as they go. The same applies to lots of jobs and hobbies, and with YouTube results prominently displayed in Google searches, it has never been easier to work out how to do something for the first time.

10. Innovation is constant
YouTube may be ten, but it still faces challenges. Facebook is looking to compete by making it simple for its users to share videos on the network, while streaming music services are waking up to the amount of music content watched on the site. Recently Snapchat announced that it has 100 million users watching 2 billion mobile videos every day. The shift to mobile and the fact that as video grows up it becomes more of a commodity means that YouTube needs to constantly evolve if it is to remain relevant.

Ten years is a long time in tech and social media, and the growth of YouTube shows how it has managed to build a brand by understanding what people want and giving them a platform to share. It will be interesting to see what the next decade brings – hopefully not another Justin Bieber………….

May 27, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Algorithms versus spontaneity – striking the happy medium

There’s been a number of recent pieces about the rise of self-learning technology that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to carry out tasks that would previously have been too complex for a machine. From stock trading to automated translations and even playing Frogger, computers will increasingly take on roles that used to rely on people’s skills.

English: NEW YORK (May 31, 2010) Visitors inte...

Netflix used an algorithm to analyse the most watched content on its service, and found that it included three key ingredients – Kevin Spacey, director David Fincher and BBC political dramas. So when it commissioned original content, it began with House of Cards, a remake of a BBC drama, starring Spacey and directed by (you’ve guessed it) Fincher.

This rise of artificial intelligence is worrying a lot of people – and not just Luddites. The likes of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk have all described it as a threat to the existence of humanity. They worry that we’ll see the development of autonomous machines with brains many thousands of times larger than our own, and whose interests (and logic) may not square with our own. Essentially the concern is that we’re building a future generation of Terminators without realising it.

They are right to be wary, but a couple of recent stories made me think that human beings actually have several big advantages – we’re not logical, we don’t follow the facts and we don’t give up. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for uncovering the fact that the human mind is made up of two systems, one intuitive and one rational. The emotional, intuitive brain is the default for decision making – without people realising it. So in many ways AI-powered computers do the things we don’t want to do, leaving us free to be more creative (or lazy, dependent on your point of view).

Going back to the advantages that humans have over systems, the first example I’d pick is the UK general election. All the polls predicted a close contest, and an inevitable hung parliament – but voters didn’t behave logically or according to the research and the Tories trounced the opposition. While you might disagree with the result, it shows that you can’t predict the future with the clarity that some expect.

Humans also have an in-built ability to try and game a system and find ways round it, often with unintended consequences. This has been dubbed the Cobra effect after events in colonial India. Alarmed by the number of cobras on the loose, the authorities in Delhi offered a bounty for every dead cobra handed in. People began to play the system, breeding snakes specifically to kill and claim their reward. When the authorities cottoned on and abandoned the programme, the breeders released the now worthless snakes, dramatically increasing the wild cobra population. You can see the same attempt to rig the system in the case of Navinder Singh Sarao, the day trader who is accused of causing the 2010 ‘flash crash’ by spoofing – sending sell orders that he intended to cancel but that tricked trading computers into thinking the market was moving downwards. Despite their intelligence, trading systems cannot spot this sort of behaviour – until it is obviously too late.

The final example is when humans simply ignore the odds and upset the form book. Take Leicester City. Rock bottom of the English Premiership, the Foxes looked odds-on to be relegated. Yet the players believed otherwise, kept confident and continued to plug away. The tide now looks as if it has turned, and the team is just a couple of points away from safety. A robot would have long since given up……..

So artificial intelligence isn’t everything. Giving computers the ability to learn and process huge amounts of data in fractions of a second does threaten the jobs of workers in the knowledge economy. However it also frees up humans to do what they do best – be bloody minded and subversive, think their way around problems, and use their intuition rather than the rational side of their brain. And of course, computers still do have an off switch………….

May 13, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

5 lessons marketers can learn from the UK general election

Essentially a general election campaign is an exercise in marketing. Parties are trying to reach distinct audiences with their key messages and convince them to put a cross in the box next to their candidate’s name. To confuse matters slightly you have both national and local campaigns, potentially with different issues that have to be addressed. For example in some constituencies it is simply a matter of defending a majority by making sure people go out to vote, while in the marginals where the election will be won or lost it is about securing every vote possible.

Rt Hon David Cameron, MP, Conservative Party l...

It is also a pressure cooker environment. General election marketing is carried out in an intense campaigning period, with the eyes of the media permanently trained on everything that the parties do. So, for normal marketers what lessons can we learn – both positive and negative? I’d pick out five key ones:

1. Show passion
One of the criticisms levelled against David Cameron is that he doesn’t seem to care about the election and potentially winning a second term in office. Whether this is true or not, his perceived insouciance stands in stark contrast to the firebrand rhetoric of the challenger parties such as UKIP and the SNP. If you want to connect with your audience, show that you really are engaged with them and demonstrate you understand their concerns.

2. Don’t take your audience for granted
The days of a two party system appear to be consigned to history, with some of the safest Tory and Labour seats under attack from challenger parties. This is part of a wider dissatisfaction with professional politicians, which the electorate feel is out of touch with their lives and concerns. The lesson for marketers is that challengers can pop up in any industry, no matter how high the barriers to entry, if you fail to deliver what your audience wants.

3. Check, check and check again
I’ve had an election leaflet that says “insert local message here” at the bottom, while Tory MP Matthew Hancock has been embarrassed by an unfortunate fold of a campaign flyer that removes the first three letters from his name. The message is clear – no matter how pressured you are, it is vital to check everything that goes out if you are to avoid slip-ups.

4. Innovate
There hasn’t been a lot of innovation in how the main parties have campaigned during this election. Speeches, battle buses, visits, kissing babies and celebrity endorsements have been the norm. Ed Miliband visited Russell Brand, but given that Brand had earlier told his followers not to bother voting it remains to be seen what the impact of his chat actually will be. The TV debates that helped Nick Clegg to power last time did happen, but in a variety of formats that meant they lost their overall potency – exactly as David Cameron had hoped. Perhaps what is really needed is innovation within the whole process. You can register online to vote, but you can’t yet vote online or via text. Surely it is time to change this to encourage greater participation?

5. Embrace all channels
One of the key differences between most marketing and a general election is that each party is aiming to appeal to a wide age range. So you have to have specific messages for older audiences and the millennials who could be voting for the first time. That’s one of the reasons that this was predicted to be an election that embraced social media, particularly to reach younger voters, who traditionally have been less likely to vote. I’m not convinced that any party really nailed social media – or even if that is possible – but think that most of them could have done more to build engagement on the channel. Still, Twitter saw some interesting memes, with #milifandom making Ed Miliband an unlikely sex symbol.

As I write this on the morning of polling day the expected result is a hung parliament, with no party having a sufficient majority to govern alone. So on that score the major parties’ marketing will have failed. However if you look at the campaign as a whole, there are plenty of lessons to learn about what to do – and probably most importantly, what not to.

May 7, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moore’s Law – will it make 60?

50 years ago, engineer Gordon Moore wrote an article that has become the bedrock of computing. Moore’s Law, as first described in the article, states that the number of elements that could be fitted onto the same size piece of silicon doubles every year. It was then revised to every two years, and elements changed to transistors, but has basically held true for five decades. Essentially it means that computing power doubles every two years – and consequently gets considerably cheaper over time.

"The new Hewlett-Packard 9100A personal c...

What is interesting is to look back over the last 50 years and see how completely different the IT landscape is today. Pretty much all companies that were active in the market when Moore’s Law was penned have disappeared (with IBM being a notable exception and HP staggering on). Even Intel, the company Moore co-founded, didn’t get started until after he’d written the original article. At the same time IT has moved from a centralised mainframe world, with users interacting through dumb terminals to a more distributed model of a powerful PC on every desk. Arguably, it is now is heading back to an environment where the Cloud provides the processing power and we use PCs, tablets or phones that, while powerful, cannot come close to the speed of Cloud-based servers. This centralised model works well when you have fast connectivity but doesn’t function at all when your internet connection is down, leaving you twiddling your thumbs.

Looking around and comparing a 1960’s mainframe and today’s smartphone you can see Moore’s Law in action, but how long will it continue to work for? The law’s demise has been predicted for some time, and as chips become ever smaller the processes and fabs needed to make them become more complex and therefore more expensive. This means that the costs have to be passed on somehow – at the moment high end smartphone users are happy to pay a premium for the latest, fastest model, but it is difficult to see this lasting for ever, particularly as the whizzier the processor the quicker batteries drain. The Internet of Things (IoT) will require chips with everything, but size and power constraints, and the fact that the majority of IoT sensors will not need huge processing power means that Moore’s Law isn’t necessary to build the smart environments of the future.

Desktop and laptop PCs used to be the biggest users of chips, and the largest beneficiaries of Moore’s Law, becoming increasingly powerful without the form factor having to be changed. But sales are slowing, as people turn to a combination of tablets/phones and the processing power of the Cloud. Devices such as Google Chromebooks can use lower spec chips as it uses the Cloud for the heavy lifting, thus making it cheaper. At the same time, the servers within the datacentres that are running these Cloud services aren’t as space constrained, so miniaturisation is less of a priority.

Taken together these factors probably mean that while Moore’s Law could theoretically carry on for a long time, the economics of a changing IT landscape could finish it off within the next 10 years. However, its death has been predicted many times before, so it would take a brave person to write its epitaph just yet.

April 22, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The future of advertising – no ads at all

Aggressive marketing campaigns are common, thi...

Think about it – what was the last advert you saw that you really remember or which made you take action? The likelihood is that nothing comes immediately to mind. This is ironic as we are now surrounded by more and more ads, whether on the internet, TV or billboards. And they should be increasingly better targeted given that advertisers can see our browsing history, previous searches and even what we Like on Facebook.

Why don’t we remember ads? I think there are three reasons. Firstly, we’re getting better at blanking them out ourselves. Our brains are struggling to cope with the huge amount of information around us, and are therefore becoming more ruthless and ignoring things that aren’t relevant.

Secondly, as well as giving us greater opportunities to see ads, technology is also helping us to skip them. Most of us fast forward through the ads on recorded programmes, and given that more TV is no longer watched live (or on a TV), we can save time by avoiding commercial breaks. Even if you begin watching a recording of a programme on ITV 15 minutes after it starts, you’ll catch up by the end, without missing anything but the ads. Websites are also waking up to the idea that you can offer a premium, ad free product to increase revenues. YouTube is looking at subscription model that means you don’t have to see any ads on the site, for example.

Finally, most ads aren’t actually that interesting anymore. Big budget TV ads still exist, but the vast majority are much more basic and programmatic – you do a search for a toaster, and small, mostly text-based ads then follow your round the internet for a week, appearing on every page you visit for example. The creativity is more in the algorithm that understands your intent, finds a corresponding ad and then keeps tracking you from site to site. It would be physically impossible for the advertiser to create hundreds of creative ads telling you about how their toaster will change your life – there simply isn’t the time or space to do it.

I’m sure there are wonderful long form TV ads out there, but apart from the Christmas campaigns (which have become part of the festive experience) I’m not watching them, and I don’t know who else is either. There don’t appear to be ads that tell your friends about, like the Tango, Guinness or Levis campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s. Too many TV or billboard ads are generic or ‘good enough’ in the eyes of the client, rather than pushing the boundaries. Targeting is replacing creativity as the key factor in success, so what does this mean for the advertising industry?

It could mean the end of ads as we know it. Brands are looking for different ways to engage with customers, so are putting their money into sponsorship of programmes, sports and events, content marketing and campaigns on social media. However swapping the TV ads you’ve always done for a Facebook or YouTube-based programme requires a leap of faith from marketing directors and ad planners alike. At the moment many have added the internet to their campaigns, for example sharing their ads on their own site, Facebook and YouTube and using cut down versions for internet advertising.

However I think that there’s going to be a moment when the advertising industry becomes ‘digital first’ and the swashbuckling creatives and Don Drapers will be replaced by data scientists and content marketers who can use technology to understand and reach audiences, as opposed to untargeted TV ads that may win prizes for creativity but don’t deliver ROI. In many ways this will be a shame, but shows that whatever industry you are in, digital can and will disrupt everything you do.

April 15, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Up Periscope?

I’ve mentioned previously that Twitter is at a bit of a crossroads. Compared to its social media brethren Facebook and LinkedIn it has found it hard to make the move from a network with lots of users to a viable business making significant profits. Twitter may have grown revenues to $1.4 billion in its 2014 financial year, but it is dwarfed by Facebook, and made a net loss. It even lost 20 million users in the last quarter of the year.

English: Up periscope!

Therefore it has been looking around for ways of increasing both engagement and revenues. Given that the 140 character limit on tweets is more than a little stifling, it has made a big bet on video – first with Vines and now with Periscope. With Vines being extremely short (essentially 6 second loops) they at least fitted in with the stripped down nature of Twitter.

However Periscope is something much more long form. Essentially it is an app that lets you live stream pictures from your mobile phone, in real-time, to your followers. It isn’t a new idea – apps such as Bambuser and Livestream have allowed this before. Even more recently Meerkat was the hit of the SXSW festival and raised $12m in funding, announced on the day that Periscope launched. As is the way of cool free new stuff, Periscope has quickly become wildly popular (in social media land at least). This is partly due to its ease of use, but probably more to the prevalence of wifi networks and all you can eat 3G/4G data packages that mean live streaming isn’t going to run up huge bills.

Unlike Vines, which have not really moved beyond being a niche application, there is obviously a lot of potential in live streaming, provided that Twitter can capitalise on its early mover advantage over the likes of Facebook. I can see five ways it can be easily used.

1. Journalism
We live in a real-time news cycle, driven by the likes of Twitter. Therefore it makes a lot of sense to add video to tweets from a press conference or the scene of a breaking story. It won’t replace having a full camera crew on hand, but will fill the gap between recording and going live. And it will be a boon to citizen journalists and members of the public, giving them another way of recording and sharing stories.

2. Adding to the buzz around events
Twitter works really well at collating and sharing what is happening at events such as conferences. By creating a hashtag and encouraging its use, information and opinions can be quickly published and, most importantly, found easily. It is even possible to skip the conference altogether and just follow the key points on Twitter. Expect conference organisers to embrace Periscope and encourage its use to give a fuller insight into events.

3. Sharing sports events
Much of the internet is driven by either porn or sports, and the X-rated opportunities for Periscope are pretty obvious. I presume Twitter will be quick to crack down on them, but the fact that you can live stream from a sporting event has more lasting possibilities. On one hand it will enable people to share football matches as they happen (expect screams of indignation from rights holders), but more importantly it will let niche sports get their coverage to more people, while using a minimum of infrastructure and at low cost.

4. Catching out celebrities/politicians
I’ll wager that it’ll be about a week before the first politician is caught saying something stupid/offensive while being live streamed. And, unlike Meerkat, Periscope video streams are kept for 24 hours, meaning that the evidence will be there to be shared, retweeted and generally distributed to the world. Celebrities are likely to fall into the same trap – expect people to use live streaming to replace selfies and photo bombing as a way of interacting with/embarrassing their heroes.

5. Live streaming cats
If cat videos are the most popular things on YouTube, it won’t be long before someone puts their cat on Periscope, either live streaming everything they do or finding a way of rigging up a camera to them to show everything they are doing.

Time will tell if Periscope actually does provide an extra dimension (and revenue earner) to Twitter. However, given I’ve seen people taking photos of all their meals and putting them on Facebook, be prepared for a combination of a lot of mundane content (and complaints from phone users who rack up huge bills) in the early days before it potentially finds its place.

 

April 1, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Printing the future

It is easy to write off 3D printing as a niche technology, best left to hobbyists or for businesses producing extremely specialised, one-off components. But having seen some of the latest products made with the technology, I think it is moving very quickly towards the mainstream. You can now produce incredibly intricate pieces on a home 3D printer, albeit a high spec one, and industrial 3D printers provide even more power, speed and performance. There are now more and more community spaces with 3D printers (like Makespace in Cambridge), and even some local copy shops have one, delivering another way of bringing the technology to the mass market.

English: Miniature turbine 3D print from Rapid...

So, why do I think 3D printing is going mainstream? Because it taps into three key trends:

1          Personalisation
In our mass produced, brand-led world, we have an increasing a desire for personalisation. Many people want to show their individuality, and are willing to pay for it. So whether it is jewellery customised to fit your own body shape or a sculpture you’ve designed yourself, there is a market for 3D printed objects.

2          Need for precision
The boundaries of the possible are being pushed back. Medical science can do things that were previously thought impossible, while miniaturisation is shrinking the size of everyday objects around us, while making them much more complex. 3D printing enables the creation of precisely made replacement bones for medical use, as well as significant parts of intricate jet engines. All of these are high value objects, but the same methods can be used on more mundane applications. Take spare parts for consumer goods – normally if something small breaks (such as the shelf bracket of your fridge), you need to buy a replacement from the manufacturer at an exorbitant price. And that’s if you can even track down the part. Now, it is technically possible to 3D print the replacement, and while this obviously infringes copyright, it will be difficult for the original manufacturer to find out, let alone prosecute, you.

3          Infrastructure in the Cloud
The combination of the internet, the Cloud and smartphones provides a complete, cost-effective infrastructure to support 3D printing. You can take high resolution photos with your phone, upload them and have them turned into product plans by using the immense processing power available on the Cloud. Short of inspiration? You can find and download plans for just about anything to make yourself (unfortunately including guns) through a quick search.

So what markets will it disrupt? Recent announcements point to two that have real potential. As mentioned before, parts for jet engines are being made experimentally using 3D printing by both Rolls-Royce and academic researchers in Australia. As well as the ability to work to extremely fine tolerances, 3D printing also has the benefit of producing much less waste, as objects are built up, layer by layer, rather than carved out from a larger block of expensive material.

Secondly, and more in the consumer space, Argos has announced that it will run a trial that allows people to customise jewellery, both by adding messages and also changing the item’s dimensions. Previously the likes of the Royal Mail, Amazon and Asda have run 3D printing trials. Moving to more of a “make to order” model will help Argos in keeping stock costs down – and also help differentiate it against other retailers on the high street through exclusive products. Given that the likes of Argos have been hard hit by the rise of online shopping, it is a smart move that could well be expanded to other products.

Like many technologies, 3D printing will not only change existing markets, but also spawn completely new ones that have not yet been thought up. What is definite is that it provides brands and companies with a challenge – will the ability for complex customisation be a threat or an opportunity to their business?

March 18, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Startup | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How smart can a smartphone get?

If you needed evidence of the growth of the smartphone market and its move into every part of our lives, then this week’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) provides it. It wasn’t that long ago that the event was dominated by network infrastructure companies, but now it is essentially a consumer electronics show in all but name. And one that looks far beyond the handset itself. Ford launched an electric bike, Ikea announced furniture that charged your smartphone and a crowdfunded startup showed a suitcase that knows where it is and how much it weighs.

English: Steve Jobs shows off the white iPhone...

Five years ago none of these companies would have even thought of attending MWC – and it is all down to the rise of the smartphone. It is difficult to comprehend that the first iPhone was only launched in 2007, at a time when Apple was a niche technology player. It is now worth more than any other company in the world and 2 billion people globally have an internet-connected smartphone. By 2020 analysts predict that 80% of the world’s adults will own a smartphone.

As any honest iPhone owner will freely admit, they may be sleek, but they are actually rubbish for making and receiving calls. What they do provide is two things – a truly personal computer that fits in your pocket, and access to a global network of cloud-based apps. It is the mixture of the personal and the industrial that make smartphones central to our lives. We can monitor our own vital signs, and the environment around us through fitness and health trackers and mapping apps, and at the same time access any piece of information in the world and monitor and control devices hundreds or thousands of miles away. Provided you have a signal……….

Essentially the smartphone is a universal platform that companies can build on – whether it is a disruptive taxi business (Uber) or completely new ways of dating such as Tinder and Grindr.

So, based on what is on show at MWC, what are the next steps for the smartphone? So far it seems to split into two strands – virtual reality and the Internet of Things. HTC launched a new virtual reality headset, joining the likes of Sony, Microsoft, Samsung and Oculus Rift, promising a more immersive experience. Sensors to measure (and control) everything from bikes and cars to tennis racquets are also on show. The sole common denominator is that they rely on a smartphone and its connectivity to get information in and out quickly.

It is easy to look at some of the more outlandish predictions for connected technology and write them off as unlikely to make it into the mainstream. But then, back in 2007, when Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone, there were plenty of people who thought it would never take off. The smartphone revolution will continue to take over our lives – though I’m not looking forward to navigating streets full of people wearing virtual reality headsets who think they are on the beach, rather than on their way to work…………

March 4, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Education, education and skills

This week the election campaign has been focusing on education, with the Conservative Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, promising that every child leaving primary school must know their times tables up to 12 and be able to use correct punctuation, spelling and grammar. It follows her predecessor, Michael Gove, revamping the history curriculum to ensure that pupils know about key dates in British history – a move that some saw as a return to Victorian rote learning of facts.

English: British school children in London, En...

English: British school children in London, England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Morgan complains that Britain has slumped in international education league tables, and has vowed to move the country up in rankings for maths and English. But ignoring the fact that children are already tested on times tables, I think she’s missing the point about modern education and the skills it teaches. Of course, children should know their times tables, and be able to read and write. These are basic skills that everyone should have.

But we are in an era of enormous change, and the skills that the workforce of tomorrow requires will be very different to those of today. Increased globalisation, the advent of the knowledge economy and greater technology are impacting on all jobs. Previously safe, middle income management occupations will be broken into smaller chunks and either computerised or outsourced, hollowing out the workforce so that what remains are high end, knowledge-based roles or more menial tasks.

What we need to do is prepare our children for this world by helping them to develop the skills that they require to work in this brave new world. A large proportion of today’s pupils will end up working in jobs that don’t currently exist, so you need to focus on three areas:

1. Learning to learn
Rather than simply teaching facts and tables, you need to instil in children the skills they need to keep learning. These range from problem solving, resilience and working as a team, to ensuring they have inquiring minds and are always pushing themselves.

2. Lifelong learning
Alongside learning to learn, everyone needs to understand that education doesn’t stop when you leave school or university. Whatever field you are in, you’ll need new skills as your career evolves, so it has to be seen as natural to keep learning. The days of working for the same company for ever are long gone, and the days of working in the same role throughout your career are going the same way. So, people will have to make radical moves into new industries and careers, and that will require ongoing investment in learning new skills.

3. Technology
The UK government has re-introduced coding to the school curriculum, which is a major step forward in ensuring that everyone has the basic skills needed to understand and work with technology. While most jobs have required IT for a while, the spread of software into every corner of our lives means that those who understand and program computers will have a big advantage over those that just use them to type emails or surf the net. I’d like to see more government investment in coding for all, alongside schools, so that everyone learns the skills they need.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a laudable aim that every child should leave primary school knowing that 12×12 is 144 and how to use an apostrophe. But we need to be teaching our children a lot more than that if we want to nurture a workforce of self-starting, motivated and problem solving adults that can drive innovation and wealth for the country and wider society.

February 4, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Startup, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Building a tech cluster – the five key ingredients

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.

English: Cambridge Science Park Trinity Centre...

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.

3. Money
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.

5. Champions
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.

January 28, 2015 Posted by | Cambridge, Creative, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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