Revolutionary Measures

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

Will Facebook at Work work?

Last week, Facebook launched Facebook At Work, its latest attempt to bring the social network into the enterprise business mainstream. Cue lots of commentators prophesying doom for the likes of LinkedIn as the social networking behemoth pushed into the world of work.

Facebook logo Español: Logotipo de Facebook Fr...

On a closer look, LinkedIn shouldn’t be too worried, as Facebook At Work is more about collaboration and sharing inside an organisation, rather than looking for new jobs outside the office. In fact it is more of a rival for the likes of Yammer and Huddle.

The other point to note is that this isn’t the first time that Facebook has tried to embrace the enterprise. Back in January 2011, Mark Zuckerberg launched BranchOut, then touted as a rival for LinkedIn. This built a network on top of your Facebook contacts and aimed to find and match you with job opportunities. BranchOut seems to be still going, but is now billed as “letting people capture and share everyday moments in the workplace through photos, news and updates.” While it claims 30 million users, compare that to the 300m+ who have profiles on LinkedIn.

The other factor to bear in mind is the notorious difficulty of getting mainstream workers to adopt collaboration tools, no matter how compelling the user interface or functionality. I remember trying to introduce an intranet into a relatively small organisation and just giving up as no-one wanted to use it, despite the benefits it brought.

So why is Facebook trying again? I can see three benefits for the company – though at least one of them has nothing to do with work……….

1. Add more subscribers
Facebook claims over 24 million active daily users in the UK. This sounds impressive, but that is less than half the population. Obviously some of these holdouts are children, but I’d guess that a fair number are actually the very workers that Facebook At Work is aimed at. While you can keep your Work and personal Facebook accounts separate, I’m sure the company is hoping that a fair proportion of those using the platform in the office will be seduced into setting up a profile for out of hours use. So the social network will get an influx of new members, with the corresponding demographic data and potential revenues that this adds.

2. Easy to use interface
As I’ve said getting workers to use collaboration tools can be like pulling hen’s teeth. But for those already on Facebook I wager that the new At Work interface won’t be very different, encouraging its adoption. This, rather than functionality, will probably be the strongest selling point, when Facebook starts encouraging business use.

3. Spoiling for a fight
While LinkedIn has been successful in many areas, there’s still a huge opportunity in the market. LinkedIn members at present tend to be in professional roles, with a large part of the world of work un-networked. The company itself realises this and is adding a wider range of job ads for roles such as checkout operators and delivery drivers, often directly linked from employer’s websites. Coming from the personal social network space, Facebook believes it can also fill this gap, with the first step being to get within the enterprise and cosy up to HR people through bridgehead initiatives such as At Work.

The benefits for Facebook are clear, but with the network effect being less important for businesses, I’m not sure what the advantages are for the enterprise. Worries about the confidentiality of documents have already been raised, and it would take some strong policing to avoid people slacking off and reading their personal Facebook timelines rather than collaborating internally. Watch this space to see if Facebook can move into the enterprise at its second attempt.

January 21, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moving back to a medieval economy?

Map of medieval Rome depicting the Colosseum.

Map of medieval Rome depicting the Colosseum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My very first blog post, four and a half years ago, talked about how social media had parallels with how people worked in medieval times. Essentially as a worker you attracted business through personal recommendation – do a good job and you’d get more work. Do a bad job for the Lord of the Manor, and you could well be clapped in irons. The industrial age changed all that, with companies mass producing goods or services and the personal link disappearing from many professions. No-one knew if you’d done a good job in your cubicle –the chance to express your individuality was simply not there in a lot of sectors.

In the same way that social media is changing how we interact with companies and how they market to us, the internet is also changing how we work. As a recent piece in The Economist pointed out, we’re increasingly becoming a freelance-based economy, with skilled workers now available on tap to complete specific tasks, with no need to employ them full time. Figures from the Freelancers Union claim that 1 in 3 members of the American workforce do some freelance work.

The internet and smartphone apps mean a business can now find someone to do everything from research a new product to provide legal advice or consulting. Many routine tasks, even in knowledge-based businesses, can either be outsourced or digitised, so why go to the trouble and expense of employing someone to do it? And for those businesses that worry about quality, the platforms that deliver these people will have vetted them and you can read reviews from previous customers.

This is going back to the medieval model – with skilled artisans and craftspeople available to work directly for their end customers, rather than toiling in a factory or office for a regular salary. On the plus side, it delivers freedom and flexibility to those with the right skills. On the other hand, the vast majority of the medieval working population were itinerant labourers, turning up where there might be a job and hoping they’d get picked. Essentially, not much different to a modern zero hours contract, which is the flipside of the freelance economy.

There’s also multiple other challenges to address, both for freelancers themselves and the wider country. I know that as a freelance it is up to me to market myself, provide for my own retirement, sort out my work financial affairs and keep my skills up to date. If I don’t work, through illness or holiday, I don’t get paid. All of these are things that previously my employer would have provided for me as part of the contract between us. For me, that’s not too much of an issue, but for others (thinking again of zero hours contracts), what happens when they reach retirement age without private pension provision? The state will need to provide, where previously an employer did. Education will have to teach people to think in new ways, so that they can pick up skills throughout their working life, rather than training them to do the same thing for their whole career.

The other challenge is that the freelance economy needs corporate businesses in order to survive. Firstly, it is where it recruits many of its members, who’ve got their training within a large organisation and then decided to strike out on their own. Working for a large company not only provides a positive endorsement of quality on a CV but also gives access to an ecosystem of potential assignments within the company and its peers.

Secondly, freelances need larger companies (and those that work for them) as a market. Whether it is selling to organisations that have a specific skills gap or providing on-demand services to the salaried (in the US you can get everything from food, to taxis (Uber) and home cleaning at the touch of a smartphone screen).

Take away this infrastructure and you remove the market and the skills – in fact, essentially moving back to the medieval model. The main difference is now, with the internet, you don’t just have access to your village carpenter, but potentially millions of them all over the world. Like any change there will be winners and losers, but it is important to look at the negatives as well as the benefits before we fully embrace the on-demand world.

January 14, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The City and the Countryside

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.

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Image – Peter Mooney via Flickr

 

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.

January 7, 2015 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing, PR, Startup | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Are online monopolies a good thing?

European flag outside the Commission

European flag outside the Commission (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The cover story in last week’s Economist looked at the growing global dominance of internet giants such as Google and Facebook. This was partly driven by the fact that the European Parliament recently passed a resolution to more tightly regulate internet search and potentially break up Google, as well as by ongoing worries about competition and online privacy.

So are effective online monopolies (Google has 90% of the European search market for example) a good or bad thing?

Obviously in the real world monopolies are viewed with suspicion, particularly when a dominant position is then used to raise prices, unfairly squeeze competitors and generally provide a poor deal to customers. But a monopoly on its own is not enough for regulators to step in. In many niche markets (say chemicals) the investment needed to compete with a dominant incumbent would put off any new entrants, so it becomes a monopoly by default. If it doesn’t abuse its position regulators tend to just monitor the situation without taking action.

So, no-one would argue against the fact that monopolies need to be watched closely. But what is interesting is the difference between the online and offline worlds, in four key ways. Firstly, the cost of entering an internet market is relatively small – you’d don’t need to build an expensive factory, but can rely on scalable, inexpensive cloud-based servers and storage to host your business. This makes expansion easy, particularly given the widespread adoption of the internet and mobile phones across the globe, providing a proven way of connecting with customers.

The second factor that causes internet businesses to grow exponentially is the network effect. Essentially the more users on a service, such as Facebook, the better it is for everyone involved as there are more people to interact with. In turn this attracts more people in a virtuous circle. It can work the other way though – as the fate of early social networks such as MySpace show.

Thirdly, the majority of the internet services being discussed are free to consumers. So they don’t directly see any negative impact from the monopoly (such as a rise in costs). What isn’t immediately obvious to users is the price of free. Essentially their personal data is used to power advertising, direct mail and other marketing campaigns, with many consumers having a hazy understanding of what their information is being used for, or how to increase privacy settings. In fact, it is advertisers that can feel the impact of higher prices, given the online control of the internet giants.

The final difference, and one that The Economist makes much of, is the speed of change in the technology space, and how this makes today’s monopolies tomorrow’s has-beens. Companies find it hard to jump from leading one wave of innovation to competing in a new space. IBM dominated the mainframe market, but has had to reinvent itself in order to survive, while the replacement of the personal computer with tablets and smartphones has dealt a major blow to Microsoft.

However, these are still multi-billion dollar companies and have hardly withered away. Therefore in my view, technology innovation alone is not enough to regulate the internet giants. What is needed aren’t heavy handed rules, but a more measured approach that balances the needs of consumers with the speed of innovation and the potential competitive impact of monopoly positions. It is an incredibly difficult balancing act – and will require give and take from both sides if it is to succeed. Done right and new breakthrough services will be allowed to grow, but without trampling on other businesses. Get it wrong and innovation is stifled, potentially harming consumers and businesses who want to access the latest technology and services.

December 10, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The perils of celebrity endorsement

English: Stephen Hawking giving a lecture for ...

English: Stephen Hawking giving a lecture for NASA’s 50th anniversary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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:

1. Samsung and LeBron James
American basketball player LeBron James was unveiled as the face of the Samsung Galaxy Note III phone amid much fa

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.

December 3, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From startup to scale-up economy?

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.

English: Map of Europe, indicating continental...

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.

November 26, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Uber and PR – how not to handle the media

There are a lot of jobs I wouldn’t want in PR – helping North Korean leader Kim Jong-un or promoting cigarette companies. But head of PR at lift-sharing company Uber has catapulted itself to the top (or should that be bottom) of my list.

London anti-Uber taxi protest June 11 2014 by David Holt via Flickr

London anti-Uber taxi protest June 11 2014 by David Holt via Flickr

Any disruptive tech company is going to hit the headlines, but here are some of the stories that the aforementioned head of PR has had to deal with:

  • Upset cab drivers across the globe, angry with its business model, sparking protests, riots, and bans in countries such as Germany (though some restrictions have now been lifted).
  • Consumer complaints about its practice of charging more at peak times.
  • Taking out full page ads plugging the service on the same day that a mass demonstration of London cabbies brought the City to a halt.
  • Claims by rivals such as Hailo that it tried to squeeze out potential investors in its service.
  • Accusations of dirty tricks, such as getting its employees to book, then cancel rides with competitor Lyft in order to waste driver time and company resources.
  • Safety concerns, focused on the lack of driver vetting at the company, with reports of female abductions and a lack of concern for passenger safety.

And now it faces charges that, at a private dinner attended by journalists, its senior vice president of business, Emil Michael mooted the idea of spending a million dollars to hire a team to dig up dirt on reporters that had written negatively about the company. He has since tried to retract the comments, and a spokesperson has helpfully pointed out that “these remarks have no basis in the reality of our approach.” CEO Travis Kalanick has also issued a rambling, multi-Tweet apology.

But aside from the cosmic stupidness of airing such views at a dinner attended by journalists (and showing that, yet again, there’s no such thing as off the record comments), Uber needs to understand that few things bring journalists together more than an attack on one or more of their number. Not only has the row sparked fresh bad press, but it will have also impacted how journalists see them. And that’s not as the plucky David against the Goliath of the global taxi industry (as Kalanick claims they are), but as a playground bully trying to buy its way to success. More Jerktech than technology leader.

So what would my advice be to the PR team at Uber? To start with, realise you aren’t in a war and everyone isn’t automatically out to get you. Be more open and take on board criticisms and start a dialogue rather than using heavy artillery. If your service and approach are innovative enough you don’t need to bully the opposition so blatantly, risking bad feeling from your customers and the wider world. Essentially, stop acting like a stroppy teenager and grow up. And, above all, never try and threaten a journalist, whatever the circumstances.

November 19, 2014 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Startup | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Will Apple take a bite out of Cambridge?

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.

English: Map of Cambridge dated 1575. The insc...

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.

 

November 12, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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