Old Street is old news: Don’t shackle Europe’s tech start-ups

June 25, 2014

–Irfon Watkins is CEO of Coull. The opinions expressed are his own.–

London Tech Week created some interesting conversations and predictions. The stand out being a claim from Oxford Economics that in the next decade London’s tech scene will increase by over 11,000 businesses, creating 46,000 new jobs and generating £12 billion. There are signs that London is on the verge of becoming Europe’s tech hub and that it may even overtake Silicon Valley. The calls for Europe’s tech talent to migrate have gone out. However, while the figures suggest this will bolster the city’s economy, it could end up doing more harm than good when it comes to Europe’s technology sector overall.

For me, bringing all of the Europe’s talent together in one city and placing them around one roundabout goes entirely against the new working world that technology has created. Isn’t it meant to be about “anywhere working”? Technology has allowed us to do meetings from home and secure billion dollar contracts while lying on a beach. Yet to be a successful start-up we’re now making out that you have to be in London. Worse still, you have to be at Silicon Roundabout. It just doesn’t make sense.

Some of the most successful start-ups in the world were created in dorm rooms, basements and garages. They were created by people that were first focussed on getting their product, their team and the company’s culture right. Then, once they perfected that, they could look at location and office space. I know there are lots of opportunities to build teams in London, but I don’t believe we should be putting such an emphasis on telling the budding young tech entrepreneurs of tomorrow that they have to be there. We should be encouraging them to focus on getting their ideas right before we push them into having an expensive presence in London. The new-age bedroom entrepreneur can’t afford the high rents in East London.

To grow a business you need  to talk to customers. Learn what they’re looking for, what they think is working and what isn’t, then refine your product. You don’t have to be in one place to do this. You can do it far more effectively, and at a global level, using technology to connect you. Despite what you hear, don’t spend all your nights out in the right places self-congratulating yourself with peers. It’s just a distraction. I’ve been to too many start-up events in the last year and just found myself rubbing shoulders with peers, not customers.

Take a look across Europe and you’ll see all the amazing start-ups that we can be proud of. There’s Petcube in Kiev, Everythng in Zurich, Betegy in Warsaw, and in the UK Datasift, based in Reading. Europe has too much scattered talent for us to try to bring it all together. There’s so much diversity, not just of cultures, but of people and ideas, and that is what keeps Europe at the forefront of innovation.

Silicon Valley is an exceptional place that was formed during a unique time in tech’s history. Europe should not try to replicate it, at a completely different point in the evolution of the technology industry.

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