Your space or mine?

“In his first report from the frontline of London’s startup scene, Rich Newton finds a place on the bench”

This is My December 2014 column for British Airways magazine, Business Life

The man on my right accidentally-on-purpose elbows me. And it’s perfectly acceptable. I’m encroaching on his space and in this coffee shop, especially on this particular bench, space is precious. He looks familiar. No doubt he’s another Old Street startup founder, as I am. He’s tall and blond. Estonian? Swedish? Maybe American? No – he would have said something. I guess I must have seen him at one of a dozen startup ‘meet-ups’ I’ve been to over the last few weeks since I moved back from Texas.

Our laptops comprise just two ships in an armada of Apple products lined up on this coffee shop bench. This particular bench is by the window. It’s prime workspace. Hence the cold war conducted with elbows, drummed fingers and an arms race of wires, tablets, phablets, phones and chargers.

He was here first but he left a gap (schoolboy error) and I’ve wedged myself in between him and another contender. Without doubt she also works in a tech startup. Observe the stickers plastered all over her Macbook: tech conventions, hackathons, demo days and myriad unknown-yet-familiar-sounding startups. These are campaign medals,creds.

Fake-casually, I turn my iPad over. She can’t help but notice the back cover stickers: SXSW 2014, Techstars, BBC Labs, plus a bunch of startups she’s never heard of in Austin, Texas. Back atcha. Austin, the fastest growing city in the US for the last four years, is twinned with Hackney, the London borough that adjoins ‘Silicon Roundabout’. Not a lot of people know that. My last startup is based in Austin but it was born here.

The ugliest roundabout in the world sits above Old Street Tube station. It’s an appropriate landmark for what used to be an East London no man’s land between the City and residential Islington. After the dot-com crash in 2000 the low rents attracted a bunch of bootstrapping internet startups that still ‘believed’ and when they noticed that they’d clustered, they self-mockingly dubbed the scene ‘Silicon Roundabout’. This attracted yet more startups. And eventually the moneymen glided over, sniffing the air. Consequently, that particular form of low rent magic dissipated. Office and residential rents climbed as investors, accelerators, property men, quangos, and corporate giants such as Google planted flags.

And following the capricious law of unintended consequences, now that the money is circling the startups, the bootstrapped startups themselves are in danger of being squeezed out. But that’s for another column. For now the entrepreneurs still pour in from around the world. And this, as my neighbour’s elbow reminds me, brings up the matter of supply and demand for physical space.

Bootstrapping is truly an art form of the internet age. Almost your entire company can be summoned up from your keyboard – accounting, legal work, project management, storage, distribution, design and even stickers. All but one thing. You. You still occupy physical space and you, in your dogged non-virtualness, insist on some space in which to, you know, be.

And maybe a few inches of bench space is all you need. Which is when you notice that every year you say the same thing: “The invasion of coffee shops must have peaked. Must have!” But no. Right now I’m sitting in a coffee shop that is both next to a coffee shop and opposite a coffee shop. Each is stuffed like a troop carrier with a brigade of caffeinated, mission-oriented, earbud-isolated, sharp-elbowed pros like me.

When I set up my first company I was told that as a rule of thumb the minimum amount of office space you needed per person was a square metre. Those were the days, grasshopper. I dream of a square metre. So does Jens. Or Bastian. Or whoever this demon is.

The swarm of coffee shops has mirrored the rise of Silicon Roundabout and its entrepreneurial army. Or even facilitated it. Coffee, WiFi and a flat surface for your laptop: such are the table stakes for bootstrapping your business. It’s symbiosis. We depend on the coffee shops. They depend on us.

Who doesn’t know that JK Rowling nursed a cup of tea all day long in her local café while she wrote Harry Potter’s early adventures? When it comes to paying office rent by the cup, she was an innovator. We have crossed the chasm. Now the early majority are all at it.

My neighbour packs up his weapons and turns to leave. “All yours, mate!” he grins. He’s a Brit. Blimey. In Old Street.