After the combustion engine; Before robodogs and jetpacks: The Age of Deliveroo

It was better than fireworks. There was a time when you could stand on the palatial north east corner of Old Street roundabout and watch flaming comets scream by.

How we laughed. The screaming came from entrepreneurs. The whoosh came from the hover boards they were riding and the flames roared from a fault in the mechanics.

The motorised skateboard is a form of transport whose day will come but not while co-working spaces are sprinkled with techpreneurs dousing their still-smoking socks when they arrive at the office.

It’s not surprising that a high proportion of those people orbiting us like the offspring of Violet Elizabeth Bott and the Human Torch should be tech start-uppers. After all, we speak of people who are by nature early-adopters and future-gazers, forever trying to see where the market opportunity-to-be is opening up. So if someone declares that hoverboards are ”in” but walking is for squares and deadbeats then the theory will be tested and business opportunities sought.

Yet, by the same token we are also dealing with people who are data-driven. (It goes without saying that data-driven early-adopters see no conflict in wearing the latest fitness trackers as they explore the pros and cons of travelling while not walking) In any event, when the data is your melted Stan Smiths it’s back to the drawing board.

In addition to the observation that burning hoverboards are not ready for prime time what else can we learn about the immediate future of entrepreneurial transport. Let us simply stroll around the Old Street neighbourhood and notice how the tech startups who are shaping our future, criss-cross Tech City to meet investors, poach developers, practice their pitch and seek out free pizza. After all, whatever they’re doing today we’ll all be doing in years to come.

I can report with heavy heart that there are no jet packs nor is anyone riding giant robo-dogs to work.

During the day the intrepid ‘treps scuttle from co-working space to coffee shop and back by traditional means: Bicycles, unmotorised skateboards (of the physical exertion sort)and from time-to-time a bus.

It would be remiss in this column not to mention the Boris Bikes, the bright red-sponsored hire bikes whose serried ranks face on to Old Street like Caesars’s 13th Legion on the banks of the fateful Rubicon. But far more interesting is a new genus of road (and pavement) users that zap around the neighbourhood for it is these who tell us something about the future which the startups are creating.

Think of the moment at dusk during your Mediterranean Summer holidays and recall how, as the sun goes down, the swallows and butterflies give the sky over to the erratic flight of bats and moths.

At EC1Y 1BE, dusk signals the moment when the roads are handed over to Uber and Deliveroo cyclists. Instructed by their phones Toyota Priuses cruise the streets at energy-efficient 20mph while the teal-jacketed food couriers of Deliveroo scurry back and forth on scooters and bicycles.

Food deliveries require the transfer of atoms and molecules from one place to another but do meetings? Why, we might ask, in the age of perma-connectedness should tech entrepreneurs (of all people!) even need to go places anyway? Surely they can simply use Holograms, Virtual Reality or Skype to have lean, efficient data-rich online meetings.

But the truth is that anything other than face-to-face is not rich in the sort of data we really want. No amount of financial info, market  or social metrics can transmit a team’s energy, enthusiasm, sincerity or determination. Millenia of socialisation has trained us to prefer looking each other in the eye and picking up on subtle cues like micro yawns, jaw-clenching and fidgeting. Like the hoverboards, virtual reality will take us there one day soon and without question both tech giants and ambitious startups are working on this but we’re not quite there yet.

So let us accept, happily, that today people do still want to meet. This in fact is one of the reasons behind the neighbourhood’s growing success. A world class innovation cluster like the Old Street hub occurs where like-minded (but different) people congregate, form a scenius, and feed off each other’s energy, friction, creativity, competitiveness and burritos.

And all these people; The startuppers, investors, mentors, baristas, marketers, coders, angels and accelerators are so close to each other that the perfect mode of transport in this high tech, future-obsessed world is in fact, Shank’s Pony. The isolated bubble of a car would smother creative friction.  Walkability, in contrast, is one of the fundamental pillars of the the roundabout’s success.

But I miss the flaming comets.

 

 

This is my May Column for BA Business Life magazine

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Schizospaces, artgallerfices and deskxibits

“Welcome to the art gallery”, she said. “We have free desks, free coffee, free wifi and we do classes on coding, social media, building your business, knitting, yoga and you know, the usual stuff. Plus Hoxton FM will be streaming music from here. And there’s art.”

This, of course, is an art gallery-co-working-space.

A leafleteer had caught me by Old Street station in that split second before I’d activated the mask of “not-interested-in-what -you’re-selling”. A few yards further on, by the bin I glanced at what the leaflet was advertising. And this was when I learned about the artgallerfice, the workallery, this multiple-personality space that was neither one thing nor the other.

I confess that alongside the novelty of an art-gallery-co-working-space the word “FREE”, caught my eye. I reoriented my flaneuring in a new direction.

There’s no need to dwell on the weirdness of working at a gallerdesk because you can imagine it. The things on the wall might be modern art. On the other hand they might be a startup’s SWAT analysis. Or they might be a SWAT analysis of modern art. Indeed I might have made the crushingly un-hipster move of sitting not at a desk and chair but upon a Tracy Emin deskxibit.

Schizospaces are a thing. My favourite cafe is actually a bicycle workshop. The coffeeshop side of the business has grown ever more popular but you can’t avoid the observation that you are sitting at a bench that has several bicycles on it.

This is the nature of the area. Every leaseholder is trying to max their chance of paying the rent by placing several bets on their floorspace. By night, offices and shops become yoga studios, cooking schools or poetry slams.

This scrabbling around to pay the rent, this forced openness to new ideas is at the heart of any entrepreneurial, creative scene and it reflects not so much the square footage as the people.

Multi-jobs are the way of the emerging gig economy and soon enough the rarity will be the person who has a single full time job. You may notice that “part-time startup co-founder” is a title that appears with growing frequency on Linkedin, Twitter, Peach or other social network de jour.

Earning income across several activities allows people to take risks in one venture while still paying the bills via another. It provides both the mental space and the incentive to be creative and it supports a fertile culture for new ideas, serendipity and innovation (whether in startups or art or cooking).

But it’s also demanding and you might question whether people would pursue multi-jobs if they could trade it for a single, fat monthly pay check. Indeed, would a leaseholder really sub-let their space to yogis and would-be pastry chefs in the evening if their rent was already covered for the next three years? Possession of such financial security is wonderful (no doubt) but it might be Ambien for your creativity.

I bring this up because Seattle.

This is the home of such giants as Boeing, Amazon and Microsoft and recently Google, Facebook and Twitter have opened engineering centres here. It’s also Starbucks’ hometown which means it has more coffee and programmers than any City should reasonably have.

Accordingly, the laws of startup astrology indicate Seattle ought to be the sausage factory of Startup unicorns.

But it’s not. Seattle underperforms. The reason is Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter etc. What sane programmer would ditch the safe and fabulous compensation at one of the world’s best funded companies in return for the crazy risks of startup ? Not many. And if they did then you’d think twice about hiring them.

Seattle startups find themselves in a city full of programmers they can’t hire. In Silicon Valley, the same problem would exist except that the financiers ply startups with giant funding rounds so they can compete with Apple et al. No other city in the world is so full of investors ready to place such big bets. Yet the biggest Cities – by which I mea London – are increasingly full of Google, Facebook, and their brethren.

Which brings us back to Silicon Roundabout, currently the home of gallerdesks and bicycoffeeshops but increasingly the home of tech giants who are investing in expensive headquarters, growing headcounts and acquisitions. To mention a few: Amazon is shortly moving into an enormous HQ on the Shoreditch-City boundary, Cisco has already moved in around the corner, Google has acquired Deepmind, the machine learning startup and Microsoft recently bought local hero Swiftkey.

These are signs of success. But it doesn’t come without risk. As the giants threaten to dominate Silicon Roundabout the lesson of Seattle tells us to beware the accidental suppression of the area’s creative potential. The art-gallery-co-working-spaces are canaries. Keep your eyes on them.

 

This is from my April Column for BA Business Life magazine

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Do not pass Go

The important thing, when delivering apocalyptic opinions about the future of humanity, is to do it with a smile. On a very big screen.
 
At issue on Sky News was the latest development in AI, specifically, the triumph of AlphaGo over Lee Sedol, the “Roger Federer” of the complex board game “Go”. The 4-1 victory shows, in a nutshell, that AI is getting better and better, faster and faster. And that won’t stop.
 
What are the implications?
 
On one hand AI can be used for good. It can help tackle poverty, water shortages, health problems, clean energy, the environment  and so on. But anything that powerful can have other results, too.
 
The risk is two-fold. The existential threat is that we create a super- intelligence that deliberately or accidentally eliminates many people. Or everyone.
 
And there’s the social threat which is that AI and automation eliminate jobs faster than we can reorganise and restructure society and the distribution of food, water and shelter (and meaning) etc . That’s the one we are sleep-walking towards.
Man v Machine
Mav v Machine 2 Man v Machine 3
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The parallel universe of office furniture showrooms

It’s a well-known abomination against common sense that bumblebees can fly. With their feeble wings and fat furry bodies the idea is nonsense. Yet we’ve all seen them. Even freighted down by pollen there they are, flicking V-signs at our intuition. It’s mystifying. It’s like Clerkenwell.

This neighbourhood of the absurd is only a few minutes from Old Street roundabout. Prohibitively expensive, Clerkenwell’s Café-flation Index* (my patented proxy for office rents) is the highest in the country.

The fight for floor space, as you’d expect, is at a premium round here. And certainly when you visit the cafés you’ll register, knowingly, that the solopreneurs and office refugees are elbow to elbow as they eke out their long-dead coffees.

Yet walk around and something odd becomes apparent. You’ll begin to think you’ve been walking in circles because, well, isn’t that the office furniture showroom you just passed a few minutes ago? But there it is again. And again. So you’ll stop and realise, with a chill down your spine, that you are beset on all sides by office furniture showrooms.

ClerkenwellIt’s extraordinary. These places are not only everywhere but they are vast. Each of them is a prairie of open space compared to the glove box of the coffee shop you were just in or the pocket-sized co-working place you’re headed to. And they are empty. No customers and, come to that, almost no furniture. The gaping windows and acres of parquet flooring command your attention not least because, instinctively, you know that only something precious warrants such generosity of square footage.

What you see before you, however, is an anti-climax so baffling that you wonder whether the showroom has just gone bankrupt because centre stage, in fact the only thing on stage, is an office chair, a clean desk and a pen holder. You walk on and find the next showroom is the same except that the chair is lime green. And the next is red and so on with small variations in chair colour or the artistic intervention of a pencil sharpener.

Being only minutes away from Silicon Roundabout this is perplexing. If you ran a co-working space you would fit 17 startups into such a space and each founder would say, “But this is luxury, you’re spoiling us”, and start hustling to cram three more developers onto each desk.

In the first years of its life, Amazon signalled its frugality by using doors as desks. The bible of the modern entrepreneur is called The Lean Startup. You get the message. Every Shoreditch co-founder can tell you in their sleep how they are performing against their key metric, the burn rate, which indicates how terrifyingly fast cash is being consumed.

The parallel universe occupied by the client-free showrooms of Clerkenwell must operate on different laws of supply and demand: let us call this bumblebee economics. Surely this disparity in the treatment of space can’t go on and I propose that we are at the end days of such showrooms because: Sitting. Is. Deadly. It’s the new smoking, as flocks of lifestyle and healthcare experts have begun warning us. The thing to do is work standing up. And in co-working spaces more and more people are working at their laptops while standing up.

The thing is, they haven’t splashed out on fancy standing desks. And there’s one obvious reason: Because of burn rate. So what you see are cardboard boxes. Like freeze-frame footage of stalagmites forming you can see early adopters shunning their chairs in order to stand at desks upon which they have put one or two boxes to support their laptops. Fittingly, these tend to be Amazon packaging boxes, and just like Amazon’s door-desks they signal the bootstrapping intent of the user.

Eventually such habits become normalised. And as the creative, startup culture continues to seep deeper into the behaviour and aesthetic of our working life then desks made of boxes and doors may become badges of honour within all offices. Meanwhile chairs will be seen as a vestige of the past. A single concession to weakness that is shared among a team.

In such a future the demand for chairs will plummet, the sought-after desks will be made from doors and the boxes in which they were packed. This doesn’t bode well for the expansive showrooms and so, as with the dinosaurs, which were also fabulously gigantic, they will retreat into history books while startups hurtle into the new space like air into a vacuum.

  • The Café-flation Index reflects the demand and supply for flat laptop size surfaces in any neighbourhood. The equation is Cost of flat white (£) / Amount of table space (cm) x (minutes lingered).

This is from my March Column for BA Business Life magazine

http://businesslife.ba.com/Ideas/Features/Outdated-office-furniture.html

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Start-up culture’s lengthening shadow

Can something almost entirely made of glass cast a shadow to be reckoned with? The 1000 ft high Shard that towers over London Bridge is made of enough glass panes to cover eight football pitches.
 
Sitting in its shadow, if indeed there be such a thing, is Glaziers Hall. To the founding members of the “guild of glaziers and painters of glass” in 1328 such a building was unthinkable. The role of glass in real estate was constrained to letting light in, rain out and making instructive pictures about the divine.
 
But technology changes and as it does so it reshapes real estate. And now London’s commercial property drivers are being changed by technology. The surprise that our friends, the medieval glaziers might feel upon gazing at the Shard is now shared by pin-striped bankers whose square mile is now being rebuilt to suit the tastes of Silicon Roundabout.
 
That Old Street Roundabout and the tech companies it is associated with should start pushing around architecture and property prices in the City of London would have seemed absurd even a few years ago. This square mile, after all, is the soil upon which stands the world’s imperturbable banks and financial institutions.
 
It so happens that I came across Glaziers Hall’s neck-cricking view of the Shard when visiting Unbound – a startup event held round the corner near Borough Market. Geographically-sharp readers will note that I have strayed beyond my parameters.
The editor of this fine magazine growls at me from time to time to remember that the column is about the startup scene in Silicon roundabout. “Don’t stray”, he warns, like a character from the Brothers Grimm.
 
London Bridge is fully a mile and half south of our resolutely ugly gyratory. I have strayed far beyond the editor’s Maginot Line. And this is because the startup scene has similarly creeped southward.
 
If you happen to be playing against Liverpool FC you’ll notice that before you take to the pitch you must pass beneath the words: This is Anfield. It’s pride, defiance and intimidation all rolled into one. It doesn’t, I suspect, hold the same weight that it once did. The label “Fortress Twickenham” in the 2015 Rugby World Cup comes to min and you groan.
 
In the same way as the home teams at Anfield and Twickenham get bested by visitors so the City culture is being pushed around by outsiders. The last time this happened was in the 1980s when the so-called Big Bang enabled US investment to take over.
 
And since then City environs and culture swelled ever larger until today. It is now the consumer tech brands, startups and unicorns of the Silicon Roundabout scene who are flexing their muscle.
 
Let us focus on the skirmish for the future being waged over Finsbury Square.
 
The day after my visit to London Bridge I staggered back down City Road to Finsbury Square because PI Labs, an accelerator for property-focused tech startups, was running its demo day there.
 
Finsbury Square is also the new home of Runway East, a co-working space which was just being finished in the weeks running up to Christmas. Alongside the many impressive startups RWE is also host to the Tech City organisation. Tech City UK- the government-sponsored hustler on behalf of tech startups has deliberately planted its flag in a building some way south of Old Street. The Startups are coming, would be the implicit warning.
 
A hop, skip and a jump away is Worship Street where Amazon is building its new head quarters. A few minutes in the other direction will take you to the future head quarters of Cisco. This I concede is not a tech startup, but it is indubitably an internet company not a finance company.
 
And on the north side of the square is a nearly finished development called Alphabeta. The snazzy aesthetic is entirely that of the tech companies a half mile north not the banks to the south. A cycle ramp down to the bike park next to the basketball court is one of its more notable features. In a another testament to the cultural power of the tech startups, the main entrance to Alphabeta is not Finsbury square as it traditionally would be but on the opposite side – facing the direction of the Old Street roundabout
 
Revolutions never run smoothly. The tech companies will win out and the first thing to change will be the culture. Which is why the first tenants to sign up for Alphabeta, were reported to be not a unicorn in the making nor an Internet of Things sensation nor a Virtual Reality innovator but a US hedge fund shifting their HQ from sedate west London in order to immerse themselves in the startup scene of  Silicon Roundabout’s ‘burbs.

This is my February 2016 column for BA Business Life 

 

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American entrepreneurs in London

The land of opportunity, according to startup lore, lies westward. But not always. Seven of America’s best startups took the contra-normal route across the Atlantic in November. Each had been judged to be an extraordinary US business that needed feet on the ground in the UK.

No sooner had they landed than they were parachuted into a giant tech event called unBound. The world, nay Europe, nay, in fact, even just London alone is replete with tech events. Each one has its own shtick because if it doesn’t it gets lost in the confusion of spaghettified startup lanyards. The successful event should be focused on  fintech or property tech or mediatech and so on. The focus of unBound is that particular block of the Venn diagram where giant, world-striding behemoths meet tiny startups and pay attention. It’s the one where ‘big-old’ meets ‘small-new’.

This is worth mentioning because one of the differences between the startups that fly westward to the US and those that fly east to the UK and Europe is one of maturity and size. Startups will fly to the US on the strength of a mere idea if they can. The other direction appeals, generally, to larger and slightly more established companies whose ambition is growth. This then, is why some of the startups that flew to London on 28 November are already success stories as they stand.

Indeed, perhaps this is why they came to the attention of Her Majesty’s Government in the first place. To be more precise, it might be why they came to the attention of the British Consulates General in New York and Boston.

Between them, these two offices patrol the catchment area of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the six New England states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Together with the UK Trade & Investment office, the two Consulates operate an annual competition, the GREAT Tech Awards, designed to encourage high-growth tech companies to choose Britain as a place to grow their global business.

The companies themselves, well, we’ll come to them in a moment. But first — what did they learn? Well they stayed in a very swanky hotel (The Corinthia), which may have swayed their opinions, and they flew on a swish airline (as you are currently doing too). And no doubt they were regaled with The Facts:

“Companies based in the UK can reach more than 500 million consumers across Europe, and the UK has a workforce of over 30 million people. This is the second largest workforce in the EU…” The UKTI body will blast you with this sort of stuff at the drop of a passport.

But what’s it really like to move from the US to the UK? That’s the sort of question that gets to the heart of the matter. Some people who have been there (here) and are currently doing that were on hand to talk about their experiences…

 

For the rest of this piece check out my article for British Airways Business Life here

 

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