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.
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.
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.
Cambridge is rightly highlighted as one of Europe’s biggest innovation hubs, particularly when it comes to commercialising ideas that began in the research lab. This has spawned a huge biotech sector, and helped create a series of billion dollar tech companies that lead their industries, such as ARM and Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR).
The Internet of Things (IoT) has been identified by many commentators as a key emerging market – and one where Cambridge has the ecosystem, experience and ideas to play a major role. So the news that IoT pioneer Neul has been sold to Chinese telecoms equipment behemoth Huawei depressed me. Not for nationalistic reasons, but simply due to the low reported purchase price ($25m) and the fact that the company has cashed out so early in the growth process. While there was a fair amount of PR spin around Neul’s progress to date, I genuinely believed it could join the billion dollar Cambridge club by developing its technology and building alliances and routes to market.
At the same time, Cambridge Silicon Radio is mulling a multi-billion pound sale to US firm Microchip Technology, reducing the number of major, independent, quoted Cambridge companies. Obviously investors and founders do look to realise their profits at some point, but it is important to balance this by looking longer term. While those that put money into Neul no doubt got a decent return, think how much more they’d have received if the company had been allowed to grow and exploit its market position.
I’m not alone in taking this stance. Cambridge Innovation Capital (CIC), the University of Cambridge-backed VC fund, recently warned its portfolio companies against selling out too early and promised to provide long term, founder friendly, capital to help grow the next ARMs and CSRs.
So what we need is the support, both financial and in terms of time, that gives companies the ability to achieve their potential. Not all of them will make it, and many will be niche players that logically fit better within bigger companies – but at least they’ll have had the ability to aim for the stars before finding their real place in the world. Otherwise Cambridge (and other parts of the UK tech scene), will simply act as incubators that turn bright ideas into viable businesses that can be snapped up and digested by tech giants looking for the newest innovation. It is much better for both the local and national economy that some of these startups make it the stock market as fully fledged businesses, creating ecosystems that generate new sectors and jobs. This requires longer term thinking from everyone involved – otherwise the number of billion dollar Cambridge companies will shrink even further.
As I’ve said before, startup clusters are springing up all over the place and that’s great. There’s even one in my village (population 3,000) – well, two startups and a group of support services, including myself.
Clusters encourage innovation, particularly through external economies of scale – i.e. by providing access to the people, resources and infrastructure that startups need but don’t have themselves. And the more startups there are in an area, the lower the price of these services as they are shared across a greater number of companies.
A lot of these clusters seem to be driven from outside, particularly as both central and local governments realise that startup clusters are (a) sexy and (b) cheap. Why not give them a small pot of money/some space/a patronising visit to show you’re supporting innovation?
So, putting cynicism aside, what does a startup cluster require – and how does Cambridge measure up? I’ve been looking at Brad Feld’s work on building a startup ecosystem, based on 20 years experience in Boulder, Colorado. The aptly named Boulder Thesis highlights four things that these communities must have:
- They should involve entrepreneurs and feeders (people/institutions like universities, government, venture capitalists, lawyers, PR people). BUT they have to be led by entrepreneurs if they are to truly take off.
- Long term. It can take 20 years to build a community, so entrepreneurs need to stick around, even if they’ve built and sold their company long ago. And the same goes for those that fail – encourage them to stick around.
- They need to be inclusive, welcoming anyone, no matter what their skills or ideas.
- They need to be active, with a range of events and accelerator programmes to help encourage and nurture startups.
That’s Boulder. Let’s compare it to Cambridge.
Firstly there’s a large community of entrepreneurs and feeders in the city (so a tick there) and entrepreneurs are taking a leading role. And given the longevity of the Silicon Fen success story there are plenty of long term entrepreneurs who have stuck around, from Hermann Hauser to Mike Lynch.
It’s the third and fourth points where I believe Cambridge has issues. Don’t get me wrong, there are some incredibly welcoming people in the Cambridge community and some great events/accelerators that nurture startups. But, perhaps because of the size and depth of the community, spanning everything from medtech to green IT, groups can appear disconnected, with everyone focused on their niche. Some of this may come from the research-led nature of many Cambridge innovations, but, even in academia, cross-discipline working is becoming more normal after centuries of specialism. Compare this to places such as Norwich, which has a smaller (but still substantial) startup community that seems more cohesive, with greater communication between disparate companies with radically different ideas.
What Cambridge does have, and that I think is missing from Feld’s thesis, is the combination of new and old blood. The universities, and increasingly tech businesses, attract talent, much of which stays on and contributes to the ecosystem. But enough leaves to make space for new ideas so that things don’t go stale.
So, in true end of term report style, Cambridge needs to try harder when it comes to building a cohesive, overarching supercluster. It has the constituent parts, but what is needed is stronger glue to stick it together and help connect the bigger picture. Let’s see if 2014 brings a solution to this long term problem.
This week BBC director general Tony Hall launched a slew of initiatives designed to reposition the beleaguered broadcaster. The aim is to show that the BBC is central to meeting the needs of consumers now and in the future, and to draw a line under an annus horribilis for the corporation, which has been plagued by scandals from Jimmy Savile to excessive payoffs for senior managers.
Amongst the news of a BBC One + 1 channel (by my maths that’s BBC Two), and expansion of iPlayer, one thing that caught my eye was a pledge to “bring coding into every home, business and school in the UK”. As someone who grew up in the 1980s it made me misty-eyed with nostalgia for the last time the BBC got involved in technology, with the original BBC Micro. Essentially the BBC put up the money for the machine to be given to every school in the UK, as well as producing TV programmes and courses on coding.
While I never had a BBC (I was a Sinclair Spectrum diehard), we used them in at school and it did help me learn to code. It really was a golden age for UK computing, as it introduced a generation to computers they could play games on, but equally program and learn with. Programming your own creations was a viable alternative to just treating these machines as games consoles – particularly as a Spectrum game took about 10 minutes to load (and often mysteriously crashed just before it should have started). I was incredibly proud of my amazing horse racing game (complete with betting and flickering graphics), even if my programming days are now long behind me.
Not only did the BBC/Spectrum age produce a generation that wasn’t afraid of coding, but it also helped shape the UK IT industry. Acorn, the makers of the BBC Micro, spawned ARM, now a world leader in chip design, while countless games companies developed from bedrooms into multi-million pound concerns. You could easily argue that Cambridge wouldn’t be the technology powerhouse it is today if it wasn’t for the BBC.
But then IT became marginalised as a school subject – essentially replaced with learning to use desktop applications rather than program. In a global economy where companies compete on knowledge, the need to rekindle that interest in coding has never been greater. The BBC is not the first to understand this – the Cambridge-designed Raspberry Pi has become a global phenomenon as it brings back the spirit of adventure and exploration to children weaned on iPads and Wiis. There’s also a new computer science curriculum for schools and coding courses are becoming increasingly popular across the UK.
So where does the BBC fit into this? There’s a lot of hyperbole in the announcement about “using world class TV, radio and online services to stimulate a national conversation about digital creativity”, but very little detail. The challenge for the BBC is to pitch whatever it offers in a way that doesn’t replicate what is being done in the private sector and doesn’t dumb down coding to a simple point and click level. As seen in the 1980s, the backing of the BBC can be a major force for good, but it could equally stifle the innovation and creativity that it is trying to encourage. The jury’s out, but I hope it can turn the undoubted niche success of the coding revival into a mainstream movement – working with the industry to create the Acorns and ARMs of tomorrow.
It used to be that failing in business was a potentially catastrophic black mark in the UK – essentially the end of your career. But over the last decade attitudes have changed, driven by a more American view that it is better to have tried and not succeeded than to not to have bothered at all. There are a thousand and one reasons that a venture might fail, many outside your control, and as long as you learn lessons you can bounce back stronger.
This more relaxed attitude to failure is reflected in the growth of startups in the UK. Rather than leave university and go and work in corporate Britain, setting up on your own is a viable choice – if it doesn’t work you can always try the 9 to 5 in a few years time. And as the Seth Godin quote goes, “If failure isn’t an option, neither is success.”
But if the stigma of failure has been removed it brings another big question – when do you give up on your idea/business? Do you shut up shop at the first signs of trouble or soldier on when all chances of success are gone? That was the topic of an entertaining discussion at last week’s Pitch and Mix in Cambridge, which got me thinking about the whole topic.
It is easy to look at businesses or individuals where it would have been easy to give up when they hit the first roadblock. Harvard made Mark Zuckerberg take down the first version of Facebook and nearly expelled him – but he learnt from the experience and moved on. In Cambridge, ARM was essentially created within Acorn as Intel wouldn’t sell the computer manufacturer the chips they needed. The business pivoted and is now a multi-billion dollar world leader.
What came out from the discussion were two main ways of helping you to know when you’ve really failed and it is time to give up.
Firstly, set realistic objectives and goals for your company/project, with a timeframe attached. It shouldn’t be a hundred page business plan that controls your life but an idea of what success looks like and the time it should take to get there. Whether as simple as “we need to have made our first sale in 18 months” or more complex, use it as a guide to when to stop. If you get to 18 months and there’s no sign of a customer then you should probably give up, but if you’re negotiating with a couple, then extend your timeframe. Build a plan to get to your objectives – what needs to happen for you to make that sale/launch the project within your timeframe.
Secondly, get independent advice. Everyone involved in startups must have passion – if you aren’t enthusiastic about the idea you won’t put in the hours to make it work. However perspective is more difficult – you are simply too close to the coalface to provide an objective view of reality. So find yourself an independent mentor, who understands your business and what you are trying to do and give you advice and perspective on the way forward.
More businesses fail than succeed, but don’t take it personally, learn and move on. And marry passion with perspective to work out when to throw in the towel and start again.