A Whole New Ball Game

Old Street’s spirited startup culture is proving more and more attractive to City high flyers, says Richard Newton

This is My February 2015 column about Silicon Roundabout for British Airways magazine, Business Life

When curious robot anthropologists of the 22nd Century dig through the sediment of London’s City Road they will remark that the clusters of human artefacts change dramatically in the space of a few hundred metres.

Jetpacking through what they deduce were once the financial institutions of meat world they will find huge steel and glass trading floors. They will see tailored jackets on the backs of chairs, silk ties, spare pairs of polished shoes and opposite the chairs will be banks of fixed screens.

Chortling over their bitcoins, the robots will observe that one of these buildings has the parochial name “Bank of England” etched onto the wall. A few hundred metres north they will squawk, backfire and shudder. The ugliest roundabout in the world will be as ugly as it ever was. “OMG, Really?”, one will exclaim. “And they couldn’t do anything about that?”

They’ll shrug their shoulders : “GeoBot, are you sure this is where the dreamers flocked…?”  The GPS drone will vibrate: “…Computer says yes” .

They will press on and near the roundabout they will uncover the remnants of a different tribe; here they find smaller working spaces jammed with laptops,ping pong bats, strewn pizza boxes, towers of paper coffee cups and barely a bathroom to be found. On the walls are posters urging “Fail Harder”, “Move Fast and Break Things” and “What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?”.

Slightly baffled, the bots will scratch their radar dishes. Their history database confirms that during the 2010s the locus of exciting work is startups. The direction of the brain flow is from the cash-rich, well-appointed offices of multi-nationals to the bootstrapped, high risk, cramped co-working spaces of startups.]

Such robo-befuddlement is understandable. Robots love logic yet startup culture is all about deeply human values: Dreams, mission, meaning and common cause. T-shirts are a big deal and worn proudly. You work on a startup, either as the founder or one of the first employees, because you are on a mission in which you personally make a difference. So the company’s success is a direct reflection of you and your input. That makes it pretty easy to be wholehearted. You wear the Tshirt.

Of course this ambition and passion doesn’t equate to knowing what you’re doing. You’re building the ever-newer-new-thing which, by definition, hasn’t been done before so you’re working it out as you go. That’s scary and thrilling.

Failure is the anvil of success in startup world; You expose your idea as fast as possible to the cruel real world. You want to expose the flaws in order to learn fast and iterate. The faster you find what’s broken the quicker you can fix it. Because failure is such a valuable learning tool it’s lost its stigma. Failure, after all is not the end but the learning that begins the next stage: Maybe you “pivot”  towards a revised direction or perhaps you kill this dream and point the team in another direction.

These small groups of failure-hunting t-shirt-clad coffee-shop-warriors are building a culture.  Supporting them and feeding off them is an eco-system of accelerators (bootcamps for founders), co-working spaces, coffee shops, mentors, investors, meet ups, magazines, online noticeboards, events, tshirt printers, freelance market places, 3D fabrication labs and specialist producers of “explainer videos”. And in a cluster like Old Street you find that all these people are wholehearted in their mutually-reinforcing missions. A few hundred metres away you could lose a few million dollars in an afternoon. Your gut tells you it must be hard to be wholehearted in such an environment.

Which is one of the reasons that refugees from the professions and big business are curious about startup life. One former colleague now coordinates a three month training program that helps people make the transition. What’s normal to her is a revelation to her students. And this is just one of several international companies that help people drag their mindset from one default setting to another, that of the startup. That tells you there are lot of people wanting to make the move.

As the robot anthropologists pick through the rubble they’ll find that startups formed their own culture with their own terminology (pivot, disrupt, failfast, accelerator, minimum viable product),  a codified methodology of failure (read The Lean Startup), flags of allegiance (stickers and Tshirts), global indices of progress on the road to growth (Angelist, Crunchbase), common leisure activities (werewolf, ping pong) and journals (techcrunch, venturebeat, the next web).

Rifling through old pizza boxes, and scribbled-upon napkins GeoBot, Marvin and Hal 9000 try to locate the catnip, the prize, the elusive thing that lured people to this part of town.  But meaning and mission are intangible; Gut feel and wholeheartedness get scrambled in their algorithms and there’s nothing to be found. They shake their baffled aerials and jet on.