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Attention, please, for UK startups

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:42 UK time, Friday, 23 July 2010

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.

The British IslesI 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.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I absolutely echo what you're saying, Rory, about tech coverage in the UK. The technology stories on this site do tend to cover the negative and the obscure more than the opportunity.

    Earlier this year we launched StartVI in Belfast, a incubator for startup companies which has recently housed Northern Ireland startups like Newsrupt, Onotate, Referalot, R8yourPolitician and others. We want to make sure that our young startups get as many chances as possible because, with the death of traditional manufacturing industries and with the rise of the knowledge economy, we have to get noticed earlier and earlier.

    That said - I'd reckon that having Evan Doll (of the Stanford CS193P iPhone Development Course fame) on staff probably did more for Flipboard than anything Robert Scoble did. It has a raft of superstars and big money behind it. We don't have the same infrastructure here - though I have some ideas if the BBC want to send Professor Brian Cox round to talk to us.

  • Comment number 2.

    I also agree.
    As a games developer working in a creative-industry incubator in Liverpool, I can certainly see the benefit of what Mike is trying to do - he should have some success too - he's already got coverage on the BBC, and being the editor of TechCrunch Europe gives the startups in TechHub a high profile direct channel to the media.

  • Comment number 3.

    All very well, but internet incubators are basically a failed proposition. (Refer to Joel on Software and, perhaps more convincingly considering what he now does, Paul Graham.)

    It's no coincidence that most successful Net startups in the UK are self-funded by somebody out of McKinsey (et al) or Goldman Sachs (et al). This is the way we do things here. It's about networking, not Net working.

    What's required is a culture change, not some soulless cubicle farm in a dungeon somewhere underneath Paddington.

  • Comment number 4.

    Having worked in marketing and communications in both the UK and US, it is much easier to get brand awareness (press coverage, in particular) in the latter. I believe the reason is the American attitude of championing entrepreneurs and the risks they take when setting up a business. In the UK, for the most part, journalists prefer to favour established technology companies (more so the big US ones) especially those with consumer-oriented products (cynically, ad budgets play a role here). As a result of this situation, British B2B marketers often need to secure press coverage in the US, bringing this momentum and awareness back into the UK as a proof point that the company is a success. Not ideal, but a reality of the game. I'd like to see more mainstream newspapers dedicate regular coverage to British innovation and start-ups. I think the public would be surprised by the number of success stories, and editors would be shocked by the number of new readers they’d sign-up.

  • Comment number 5.

    "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."

    Yes....but what if those writers only write about Apple products or occasionally facebook and twitter? I guess the only way to get those people talking would be if you write an app for the iPhone or iPad, otherwise they're just not interested.

    "It is in fact a very clever app for Apple's iPad"

    Mmmmm.

  • Comment number 6.

    It's not journalists' job to big up commercial interests.

  • Comment number 7.

    The man with the better mousetrap is never praised in his own land.

    No change there then. You are however right that the British in the Britain are not seen to be 'hot' this has been the case for generations. Just look at the films of the inter-war period or the fifties - British films with foreign names in the technical, music and design etc. If you want to get on in the UK change your name to something er... Hungarian?

    This problem is as true today as it was then. I know the UK computer industry and the enormous difficulty it has been for any indigenous company to raise funds (since the 1970s to date). British banks would far rather back an American, Eastern European or German start-up than a British one. However there in sense in this. The UK are an isolationist monolingual small offshore nation whereas the continental Europeans are multilingual with a huge Euro home market over 9 times ours and the Americans are 6 times as large as the UK. UK software needs the UK to be in the Euro if we are ever get back onto a level playing field and British software developers MUST learn to sell in the major languages of the World - it was never and increasing will never be a good strategy to sell just in English! (Partly because the Americans pretend to do the same thing!)

    The added burden we suffer from is that Americans think that we use the same language. We have none of the advantages of being American and we are in competition in our home market with US direct imports (and of course all the far eastern countries that have learned to speak US English too.)

    The only hope of salvation if to clasp the Euro to our bosoms and learn to passionately love it and to learn as many European languages (and Chinese) as we can and above all reject US hegemony..

  • Comment number 8.

    "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."

    Rory, the BBC is arguably the UK's most influential news organisation and you are one of the most influential tech journalists in the BBC. If you want to make a change then do it.

    Asking whether is should be done - well tech start-ups are a creative industry and nothing kills an idea faster than criticism. So yes, perhaps UK journalists need to take responsibility for the fact their their negative stance may be chocking off a vital industry and lighten up a bit. I'm not talking about 'gagging the press', there are 2 sides to every story and I think a bit more of the 'optimist' would be good. As we have seen with Facebook and Google, a few inspired tech start-ups can change the world (and very quickly too) which could help the UK out of recession far faster than any other solution I can think of.

    PS - @5 Aidy - You left out Spotify...

  • Comment number 9.

    Being a "social media" start-up helps, as technology journalists don't seem to pay any attention to other kinds of technology than Twitter, Facebook, social media, search engines, Apple etc etc.

  • Comment number 10.

    Rory Cellan-Jones.

    I think that both MJ (#1) and DrLoser (#3) touch upon a very important aspect of creating a new, successful business in any industry -- connections.

    no matter how good your idea or business model is, unless you have someone on board who has close connections to the 'old money', chances are you'll fail to make it 'big'.

    John_from_Hendon's point on language (#7) obviously plays a role too.

  • Comment number 11.

    Rory,

    Great article. It would be great if you and other tech/business journalists especially in the BBC nationally and in regional newsrooms focused more on UK businesses and local startups.

    The next time you, and colleagues, go to publish and article on this website or present an item on the TV regarding Apple, Facebook or Twitter just stop and think. Could this slot be used to highlight the achievements of a UK startup or established business?

    You guys generally only get 30-60 seconds of airtime so use it wisely to support those here in the UK who pay the licence fee rather than Silicon Valley companies.

    I would echo what MJ at #1 says about the great work being done in Belfast at the moment by incubators such as StartVI and young entrepreneurs like Lyra McKee at Newsrupt.

    Maybe you should take a leaf out of US tech journalist/blogger Robert X. Cringely's book and go on your very own tech startup tour of the UK and report back.

  • Comment number 12.

    It's all relative. A lot of US start-ups get way too much hype, especially those built on top of other start-ups' ecosystems. Even the ones that aren't hyped, which end up being purchased by the likes of Google, don't seem like businesses that could survive on their own merits - it's like they are being used as pseudo R&D departments.

    The press should continue its cynical tone, and let the good start-ups rise from the crowd naturally. Avoid hype from their PR people and social media.

  • Comment number 13.

    A lot of the start ups don't make it to the public market, e.g. an inventory system for submitting items to ebay gets used internally in a company for stock management. It's always contacts even in the USA, I've decided to spend one month building an online address book system ( blogging at onemonthstartup.com ) to synchronise devices, laptops, computers.
    If I were based in Silicon Valley, I'd be going to evening meetings, discussing the program, agents would be phoning up companies to find out it's potential for marketing. Within a month it would be built and sold.
    Erm, I'm in Pinner, I suppose I could hang around the bus stop chatting.

  • Comment number 14.

    Echoing themagpie78, I'd like to invite Rory over to Belfast to see the work we're doing there - do a BBC tech tour of our isles. We're aware of the lack of startup money but we're not letting it stop us. We're tooling up and sending folk across the Atlantic to the US markets in an attempt to compete.

    And try to avoid massive US companies or those which are local studios of massive US companies. It's currently all Microsoft this, Apple that, Google the other, Facebook whatever, EA did this, Activision did that, Twitter blah blah.

    Do it and we can report back to the Trust about how we're happy with the coverage of the regions - how's that for an incentive?

  • Comment number 15.

    It's a national trait - to see the "glass half empty"!

    Robert Scoble and other US bloggers see opportunity not threat in new technology and are excited to communicate that to their friends and followers. Mind you the BBC has an honourable tradition of evangelising about innovation that stretches from Tomorrow's World down to Click and the BBC New Technology pages.

    I wonder if a long hot summer will do anything to change the national temprament and allow us to see the "glass half full".

  • Comment number 16.

    'Well, I have a simple answer - first provide something that journalists like and find useful'

    This is why many wonderful products dont get the coverage they deserve. Is the job of the journalist only to let the public know that they (journalists) find useful? How about actually reporting on products the the masses will find useful. Why dont you just tell me about a great piece of tech that plays with my dog when i'm away? The fact that mr journalist doesn't have a dog doesn't mean that they should only focus about talking about cat tech. BBC Click does a great job at telling us whats out there and DotMaggie isn't bad either.

    Rory i think you err with that statement.

  • Comment number 17.

    Hi Rory,

    you mention about the gap between Silicon Valley and London, we in the North West of UK see the similar gap with London. Wouldn't it be great if you could take time to visit the key regions and experience the effort entrepreneurs themselves are putting to make a difference?

    I am more than happy to fill you with my own efforts during the last 3 yrs in Manchester. Jon Bradford has even managed to convince the public sector to do something about this gap in the North East. There are similar efforts underway in Midlands. However, most these efforts have public sector support and therefore has certain inflexibilities built into them.

    @phasiclabs,

    we held our first event in Liverpool this past Thursday and plan to hold events at least every quarter. Would be great if you could could get in touch with me.

    @DrLoser,

    we are all about trying to change the culture. I must admit though, the results have not been that great. But the efforts continue. I have already submitted my suggestions to the new government, let's hope they will take some action.

    @lmercereau,

    what a great idea. Happy to tell the press northern success stories as well as failures (I failed first time, burning significant amount of cash)

    [Personal details removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 18.

    Maybe you could write about UK tech startups instead of blathering on about iPads, iPhones, Facebook, and Twitter?

    Just a thought...

  • Comment number 19.

    "BBC Click does a great job at telling us whats out there"

    Really? I thought Click was just a bunch of journalists (started to write "idiots", but realised journalists covers that too) who don't know anything about technology at all... beyond what someone put in the script. And I'm not even sure the scriptwriter knows much either!

  • Comment number 20.

    TechHub is not a new concept. Universities have been doing this for years. My former university had a business incubator program where entrepreneurs would go and develop ideas and get some help with the business.

  • Comment number 21.

    We in the UK have always had good inventors. The trouble is that those that were not blessed with such creativity and ideas make up the majority and are really cynical
    "Will never work here mate"

  • Comment number 22.

    A lot of good points made and a very worthwhile debate. There's another issue which is touched on by some contributors and relates to the non-sensical regional support system the last government set up - as a result of this there is the equivalent of the post code lottery for support, we increasingly experience with health and education for example; Regional development agencies, do this which means that whenever there is a groundswell of opinion that certain sectors need to be supported for economic development, most of nine english regions reinvent the wheel on their own little patch. Potentially high growth disruptive start ups need help in UKs conservative VC environment, and if there isn't a Stanford culture available, then some incentives are in order. But the incentives for successful investors who we do have in the UK, and these enterprise supports are not joined up - instead what help is available is divided up among the regions and farmed out to bureaucrats most of whom don't know the landscape nor have run businesses and the investors are not incentivised to give something back. We don't need buggins turn we need to focus the resources available and we need people who've done it before to be at the core of the operation.

  • Comment number 23.

    7. At 5:56pm on 23 Jul 2010, John_from_Hendon wrote:
    "The UK are an isolationist monolingual small offshore nation whereas the continental Europeans are multilingual with a huge Euro home market over 9 times ours and the Americans are 6 times as large as the UK. UK software needs the UK to be in the Euro if we are ever get back onto a level playing field and British software developers MUST learn to sell in the major languages of the World - it was never and increasing will never be a good strategy to sell just in English! (Partly because the Americans pretend to do the same thing!)

    Consider that Africa, the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent, most of South East Asia, (i.e. most of the world) have taken to using English as the language of business and technology. Any bank that does not support a start up because of "English" would need its head read.

    The issue is more that banks in the UK do not understand this type of business. They "get" a shop or a restaurant or interior designers because they see them on TV. Engineering and technology is like a black art peopled by shadowy "oilies" who live in the dark.

  • Comment number 24.

    Where is the evidence, that the fact Scoble likes something, it will be a success (or even any good)? For a man that was once hired by Microsoft to evangelize their products, he almost sounds proud to point out that he hardly ever uses Windows these days. Dig backwards through the web, and you can find Scoble going on about how the iPhone will flop, or how great Vista will be. The one thing you can say about him, is that he changes his opinions, so frequently, and so dramatically, that there's a chance he will have spent at least some portion of his life, being right about absolutely everything, at some point.

    Scoble is an Electric Monk: he exists, in order to believe in all the things that the rest of us no longer have to believe in.

  • Comment number 25.

    #23. kichwa2004 wrote:

    "The issue is more that banks in the UK do not understand this [it] type of business."

    Banks understand a cash flow and rate of return computations and to the first approximation they are agnostic about the type of business.

    My references to 'English' are about selling the product. If you sell something you need to speak the language of your customer. Our misfortune is that there is another country many times more economically powerful than ours that uses English - this makes it; first, difficult for us to defend our home market; and second, difficult for us to sell to the rest of the World against American competition.

    International sales are vital for success and yet another problem has been that UK company costs are in sterling and this has quite violently moved up and down against the US dollar and because of the small margins this tends to destroy small UK businesses. (Consider also, for example, under Thatcher the US dollar rose to 2.40 dollars to the pound making UK manufactured goods dramatically more expensive, before crashing down again. As an aside this is why we need to join the Euro so we have a stable cost and price regime for 70% of our exports - this would provide UK companies the same scale of home market cost and price stability possessed by the USA, and indeed China.)

  • Comment number 26.

    BBC tech journalism has a great example in Peter Day ("In Business"). The rest is an extremely talented team of journalists that suffer from the need to write to a world class standard, in a tech culture which requires an insider's knowledge. However, this is nothing new. "Tomorrow's World Syndrome" is an unfortunate and well understood term. By contrast, a nuanced and subtle investigation of, say, the workday culture at Google, can be both beneficial to other entrepreneurs, and do no harm to Google, whose algorithms and engineering are covered in patents, GPL code, or just kept secret.

    A focussed purposeful analysis is clearly missing in stories like "Neurons to Inspire Future Computers", the title & content of which suggest a journalist unfamiliar with the rich history of architectures which have already been explored, and that Alan Turing had already proposed such systems over fifty years ago. To explain such naivety, one can only say that all concerned in such stories are well-meaning, but the journalist has no clue about the tech, and the researchers have no way to bridge the gap, except by rough analogy, and this leads to a story which fails to be informative, although (hopefully) publicity may help the project.

    There are some brave souls, I would count RCJ among them, who know their limitations, and treat each story with reasonable suspicion, analysing motives, and only reporting when something of real benefit to the reader can be obtained (I particularly like the question about some new Android-based phone: "But what is the difference" - absolutely hilarious, because the poor CEO could not think of anything besides some tedious tech specs). However, this approach can only get you so far.

    If the BBC wants to play a role in supporting and reporting innovation, you're going to have to find writers who also know how it works. People who write code, probably, and preferably, experienced entrepreneurs, who have done the whole deal, from prototyping, coding, building, funding, selling.

    Perhaps this perspective would improve technical cultural literacy in the mass media, and thereby enable investors to work in a more enlightened, informed and enthusiastic atmosphere, with the countless brilliant innovators here in the UK, or anywhere.

    Silicon Valley has a surplus of inviduals who fit the bill. London and the UK does not, and in Cambridge, Oxford, Southampton and elsewhere, they're just getting on with the work, and phoning their friends in other countries, once they have something ready to be commercially applied.

    The BBC closely reflects the culture of the UK as a whole, so, this is not really a criticism of the BBC. However, I do recall how culture was profoundly changed when the BBC intelligently lead the UK into programming, and thereby changed not only this country, but, to a degree, the history of computing. Which, ironically, it can no longer articulate, because in high tech, the only way to understand, is to do.

  • Comment number 27.

    Rory I was flabbergasted to read this, as I contacted you about our own UK startup and never got a reply! I note most articles here are general in nature, there isn't much that focuses on specific UK start-ups until they hit the mainstream, eg Ocado. Maybe it's just the editorial style.

  • Comment number 28.

    The point is that, in an effort to keep a general viewpoint, the editorial style for BBC Tech news is really slow-paced and reactive. In the current format, this blog would not catch the latest start-up craze until it had been reported on by others. There's never any 'new' news here, which is tragi-comic really. So it's stunning to read a glib piece on how UK start-ups might as well relocate to the US. 'scuse me, but isn't that what the BBC Tech team is for?

  • Comment number 29.

    Some of BBC's material may be good. Some of BBC's service may be good. But that does not mean it's the majority. But rather, on the contrary. Each time I see something clearly below par, exemplified in this article, it reminds me of a conversation I had among a group of international expatriates in Eastern Europe some 10+ years ago, when someone said "BBC" stood for "Blah Blah Corporation".

    Perhaps it's time to revisit what is good and what could be gutted out, change your practices, before you end up in irrelevancy!

  • Comment number 30.

    I have long complained to the BBC about this. Even the so called 'flagship' news and current affairs programs on Radio 4 can't drag themselves away from coverage of 'arts' long enough to cover anything else. I really believe that many of the ills of Britain can be laid at the door of the arts and celebrity obsessed BBC. Its not just 'tech' startups that get nowhere in the UK it is ANY startup that doesn't involve making a profit in week 2. No engineering, no manufacturing, no development, either low or high tech stands any chance of getting coverage or funding in the UK (look at Sheffield forgemasters - a bank can get billions they can't get a couple of million to put them in the forefront of world production - not from a bank, nor an 'investor' nor a bank).
    We as a country need to celebrate our manufacturing, engineering (software, hardware, ships, trains whatever) brilliance. We still have it but its hidden by hero worship of mindless bimbos with boobs, talentless footballers with hairstyles or weirdo artists.
    The coverage this weekend for a BOY who managed to net 150k (I mean whats that 8 years wages for most men?) for a few pictures while nothing about any engineering achievement from the UK has been covered for the last 10 years?

  • Comment number 31.

    I think the point Mr. Cellan-Jones makes about British journalists not being as "positive" as their US counterparts likely gets to one of the fundamental economic differences between the US versus the UK (and many other) markets and economies. Americans' credulous enthusiasm, excitement and eagerness to identify with a product or company tends to support lots of these new tech startups and fundamentally to inspire new cultural use trends which drive "products" like Facebook, YouTube etc. into mass use and cultural acceptance. The assumption that something new is something good and valuable - and something necessary - is a driver of American culture. Any society with a bit more social focus on value and/or analysis necessarily won't be as eager to run with whatever random product a company puts in the social mix to try to make money with. As a case in point we have Google Books: "So exciting! Even if Google has been openly breaking the law for years in their campaign unilaterally to seize and own the cumulative intellectual and cultural achievements of all civilization, it's just so interesting that we have to change the law to figure out a way to let them do it - 'cause then there will be a Cool New Website; a library that's actually useable!" I'm an American and I see how potentially destructive for the whole world this is, so I wish that more journalists in the UK or anywhere else in the world wouldn't shy from asking what's so difficult about still using the real library and/or why Americans apparently haven't noticed that Google Books won't be a library because, 1. a library lets you read for free and, 2. a library doesn't own the rights to the book, just owns the copy they let you read - for free. (If my local library claimed they own the worldwide rights to The Brothers Karamazov, Tacitus's Histories, or the next hip novel by Haruki Murakami, just because they bought and own a copy of the text, I think they would likely fail in their bid to force everybody else who had also purchased a copy to pay them royalties. Nevertheless, Google Books is on the Net so it's totally cool and right.) This is one example of Silicon Valley fever, and others include reasons why we don't have cocktail parties any longer, just sit in front of a computer screen all evening.
    & RE: #8 ("nothing kills an idea faster than criticism") -- no, that's just a _bad_ idea - i.e., ones that _deserve_ to be 'killed'. Perhaps synonymous with a Silicon Valley one. But criticism won't kill an idea that's actually worth doing, or one that's not harmful to society.

  • Comment number 32.

    Silicon Valley has what we can only dream of. An amazing startup culture, a huge talent pool,venture capital and influential writers that can help launch your company.
    However for one reason or another its not practical to simply move over there.
    Also office space and top talent are very very expensive, and unless you have funding will be out of reach anyway.
    Starting a company is difficult enough as it is, but competing with the valley is a formidable task, but it can be done.
    My advice is prove your product in your local market. Get some users, some revenue,whatever you need as traction.
    In the meantime start talking to people over there, we have found it very open and they love to talk about startups.
    Just don't ask anyone for anything much to begin with, get yourself some contacts first.
    If your intention is to build a game changing big company you will probably need a presence at some point over there , so get networking.
    Good luck and keep at it.

 

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