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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The clash of tribes – hipsters and bankers go elbow to elbow

The boundaries between companies in London’s Square Mile and the tech start-ups of adjacent Shoreditch used to be clear. Not only were they geographically distinct but the two tribes were identifiable by their dress codes, office decor and architecture, and the commercial rent they paid per square foot.

Today, the lines are blurring as start-ups and technology companies press south towards the City of London, because of near parity in rents and an undersupply of space in Shoreditch. At the same time, law firms, banks and other traditional City businesses are adopting the office layouts and working styles of their new neighbours in the hope of fostering innovation, impressing clients and recruiting younger workers.

 

For the rest of my Financial Times article please visit the paper here

 

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The smell of startups

The Queen thinks the world smells of wet paint. So it has been said, anyway. But the thing is, if it’s true, how would she know?

Thus wandered the mind during a talk by a senior honcho at one of the world’s leading tech companies at Shoreditch House recently. All these people worrying about technology and jobs and robots should just “check their cognitive bias”, he advised.
 
So should you, mate, I was going to say, but by then he’d sped off to Mars. 
 
We all slip into obliviousness about our environment because it is for each of us our own particular normal. And so, I wondered,  what might we come across so frequently in Silicon Roundabout that we forget that it is special? 
 
The author David Foster Wallace once gifted us a parable about the ease with which we lose our bearings and lose sight of our life and our world. He said: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
 
What, then, is the water like in Shoreditch? What does it smell like? I decided to find out and took a stroll of curiosity in the manner of Patrick Suskind’s  anti-hero Grenouille in his novel, Perfume. This is what I sniffed out:
 
Two Pizzas
The perfect sized development team can be fed by two pizzas. This was the lean heuristic created by Jeff Bezos as he built up Amazon. More than two Pizzas and the team is getting too big for optimum efficiency, much less and you may not be in growth mode. You smell two pizzas only and you’re near a startup. 
 
Roses
This is the fragrance of the spectacles worn by “n00b” startups as they pitch their first idea to accelerators, angels and friends and family. The whiff sours fast.
 
BS
This permeates the atmosphere almost every time angels or mentors explain to a n00b that they know just how to grow this decent little business into a unicorn …and can be persuaded to share the insight for rolled-up advisory fees and founder shares.
 
Coffee
Shoreditch is mostly a patchwork of coffeeshops separated by the need to stretch your legs. This smell is everywhere. It is the base.
 
Chinese Apples
Every flat surface in Silicon Roundabout supports a silver computer that once smelled of the the Chinese factory where it was manufactured and packed.
 
Red Bull
There is at least one hackathon going on every weekend and  usually many more. Jamie Oliver is judging a “food hackathon” as I write this. He might wish it to smell of fresh baking or lobster bisque but I guarantee that the overpowering pong will be that of all the energy drinks that have kept the hackers up through the night.
 
Sweaty yoga mats
There’s a moment just before morning rush hour when the pavements are overrun by a sub-species of Old Street inhabitant – the top-knotted yoginis. For a brief instant it is as if the northern lights have lost their direction as creatures wearing startling cosmic-patterned yoga pants and proudly bearing their rolled up mats briskly scuttle up and down the streets. An hour later they walk back much more slowly. 
 
Bicycle chain oil
This neighbourhood is the home of the fixed wheel bike brigade. They louche down the inside of buses, the other side of the road, and balance like a circus act at red lights (sometimes). Meanwhile Brompton bikers angrily show that just because their bikes fold in half and have small wheels it doesn’t mean their freakish gears won’t allow them to go just as fast. Rush hour is bedlam. Bicycle chain oil and burnt rubber give texture to the cursing and yelling, diesel and horn blasts.
 
Brick dust
Vast numbers of older buildings are being knocked down to make way for bigger, newer buildings. The dilapidated old warehouses and office buildings that used to sit in no-man’s land between the City and Islington were once so cheap that artists, designers and startups flocked to Old Street. Thus the scenius was born. Now these buildings are toppling like dominoes – though the low rents have disappeared faster. 
 
Steel and glass and cement dust
That tinny tang, that smell at the back of your throat, that’s from the brand new high-rises that are being built where the old brick buildings once stood. The Old Street gyratory itself is gradually being hemmed in by hugely expensive and vast office blocks. Who will occupy these? Bootstrapped startups? er…
 
Sulphur
Old Street is less than half a mile north of the City.
 
Cereals
Old Street is but a few flat whites away from Brick Lane which has many smells of its own to offer – not the least the  amazing curry shops. But today, readers, spare a sniff for the sugary smell of breakfast cereals. During the Autumn, protestors attacked a shop that sells all the varieties of cereals available in the entire Universe. With robots, artificial intelligence, multitudinous apps and revolutions being created in Old Street the protesters were alarmed by the wrong target. They couldn’t smell the wet paint.
This is my December 2015/ January 2016 column for BA Business Life…. which you should be sure to read every month because it was this column wot won columnist of the year. Did I mention that already?

 

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The no-nonsense podcast

Here’s a short and sweet podcast I recently recorded with the no-nonsense lifestyle podcaster Chris Robson. the main theme was The Little Book of Thinking Big. As he says in his show notes:

“Think big. Allow some idleness. W.A.I.T.

Best selling author and business columnist of the year, Richard Newton drops knowledge on how to mind your thoughts and navigate the Sargasso sea of the mind.

In a world where busyness is the norm and distractions are permanent, how many of you actually stop to take note of what you’re thinking?”

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Columnist of the Year

There’s no way to say this without being a show off. Other than not to say it, of course. But no, that’s not happening because… I just won columnist of the year at the British Society of Magazine Editors annual shindig.

This just goes to show there’s life after startups. It’s called writing about life after startups.

Tim Hulse (editor at Business Life and the team at Cedar) must take some of the blame for this since I had a chat with Tim just after I returned to London from a Texas startup (Clarify.io) and promised him, like Yosser did: “I can do that”.

Yosser, was a legendary character in the 1980s TV show, The Boys from the Blackstuff. Desperate for work he’d say  “Giss a job” he’d say to anyone that would listen. “I can do that”.

And you never know til you try.


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2015-11-16 22.09.30

“Giss a job. I can do that”

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