Attention, please, for UK startups
How does a brand-new web business in the UK get noticed? I get asked that all the time by entrepreneurs and PR people who are convinced that they are involved in a venture that will change the world - if it only gets a bit of airtime. Well, I have a simple answer - first provide something that journalists like and find useful, and then move to Silicon Valley where the most prominent technology writers live.
I woke on Wednesday morning to find that the leading lights of the techie blogosphere, from Robert Scoble to Techcrunch to Gigaom, were all raving about a new thing that would rock my world. It was called Flipboard, and was billed as a revolutionary social news reader.
It is in fact a very clever app for Apple's iPad, which as well as displaying your newsfeeds in an attractive fashion, turns your Twitter and Facebook activity into an instant magazine. You set up your feeds, then find your friends' Facebook photos laid out as if in the pages of Vogue, or the links your Twitter mates have posted turned into an edition of the Economist.
So, a clever idea - but one that has a limited audience in the four million or so people who have bought an iPad. So would it have got the depth of coverage and created such an instant buzz if it had not been based in California, and invited the likes of Robert Scoble round for a preview? When I tweeted to this effect, Scoble himself immediately came back:
"not true. I hyped up Saludo and it is from Israel and for Windows that I rarely use anymore."
(Update 1719: Robert Scoble has been in touch to point out that the Israeli company is in fact called Saluto.)
And the founder of Tweetmeme, a UK-based start-up also told me that his firm got positive coverage from Robert Scoble, though it appears the firm has made a real effort to get itself noticed in the US.
But I still think it's much harder for anyone outside Silicon Valley to make an instant impact. I have been discussing this with Mike Butcher, who has been covering the European tech start-up scene for the last decade.
He says a big problem is that coverage of technology in the UK media tends to be largely negative, focussing on threats to privacy or child safety posed by new web businesses. As we were speaking, he spotted an example: "Look at the story in today's Guardian about [location-based social network] Four Square, which is all about the dangers of being stalked. Imagine if it were a UK start-up - it would get hammered." Even the specialist writers are cynical - Mike points out that The Register, an online technology news site, has the strapline "Biting the hand that feeds IT."
I'm not sure that anything can or should be done to change the way British journalists look at technology - we just tend to be more sceptical than our American counterparts.
But Mike is hoping that a venture he has co-founded called TechHub may make a difference. It's a space for start-ups in London, designed to give them a place where they can work on their own businesses while exchanging ideas with others. Mike's co-founder Elizabeth Varley puts it like this: "That supportive, upbeat atmosphere that Silicon Valley has and which helps startups thrive is something we want to create in and around TechHub."
So will a UK equivalent of Flipboard now have a chance of making a huge noise in the blogosphere and becoming a Twitter trending topic within hours of launch? It seems unlikely. But then again, that may be for the best.
Flipboard got so much attention that its servers could not cope, and it is still struggling to deliver its service to the millions who downloaded it after reading Robert Scoble et al. The danger is that disgruntled customers will not bother to come back and try again. It looks as though too much attention can be as harmful for a brand new business as too little.