Lessons from a failed entrepreneur: How to build a tech cluster

by Eddie Copeland

The following text is taken from my speech to the Policy Forum for London on 2 April 2015.

Hi, my name’s Eddie and I’m a failed entrepreneur.

If your business fails in the USA I’m told it’s a badge of honour; it’s that mark of credibility that may even help get you funding for your next amazing start-up idea.

But when it happens here in the UK, you end up working in a think tank. (At least I assume my career progression is typical of the wider sector.)

Like many people, I left the safety and security of a good job with a good salary because I had an idea.

It was an idea that caused me to lay awake at night thinking about it, refining it, reshaping it until I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer.

So I handed in my notice and I started building.

I asked for help and I sought finance.

I tried to persuade potential customers that my product could improve their lives.

I worked and I worked and then: it failed.

Looking back, I realise that starting a company is a lot like having a wedding: you’re left with some great memories and a lot less money in your savings account.

For the record, I don’t regret a moment of it. It was the best professional learning experience I’ve ever had.

Why do I mention this?

Because if we care about developing London’s digital economy – if we care about developing London as a successful tech cluster – we need to make sure that as many people as possible have the chance to try their idea.

Because amongst all those, like me, who missed one or more of the crucial success factors of right idea, right business, right team, right time, there are those critical few who have the right combination to make it. They are the ones on whom Britain’s economic future depends.

To my mind, government has just one simple role to play: removing every artificial obstacle that stands in the way of someone trying their idea, and of industry supporting them in doing so.

How should it go about it?

Well here’s my advice: government clearly wants to support tech and digital entrepreneurs.

It must learn from them, too.

Thousands of academics would probably say this is a gross oversimplification, but I believe nurturing a thriving tech cluster is not a whole lot different from developing a successful tech business.

Like a start-up, there’s no magic formula for success.

Like a start-up, there’s no guarantee the wider world will want what it offers.

Like a start-up, a tech cluster’s fortunes depend on internal factors and external factors over which it has no control.

So perhaps a tech cluster should respond to these challenges using the same approach as a start-up.

Perhaps we should start by developing Minimum Viable Tech Clusters and constantly iterate them until they find their specific niche.

So humour me a while and let’s explore what it would look like:

Like a start-up, it starts with a vision – a vision for what the cluster could be.

It’s the vision that enables thousands of different people from business, government, academia and industry to work together towards a common goal. It’s the vision that enables them to collaborate and compete to develop the collective consciousness that makes them more than the sum of their parts.

The fact that we’re sitting here today, discussing how London’s digital economy can be successful is part of that process.

But I firmly believe that the vision has to be set by the founders: in this case the entrepreneurs, the business community.

Why? Because the vision must be based on a USP.

When regions around the world are all competing to be the next Silicon Valley (whether or not that is the right model to aim towards), any tech cluster hoping to make its mark needs to give a clear and compelling reason why entrepreneurs, businesses and investors should come to them rather than go anywhere else.

Like a start-up, that USP can be about specialism, about a new niche, about the breadth of expertise, or the convenience of operating there.

The business community are the only ones who truly understand where they have the competitive advantage.

Like a start-up, a cluster needs the right people with the right skills.

What is a city – what is a cluster – if not its people?

The UK has made an enormously positive step by introducing computing into the curriculum. Politicians must resist the urge to tinker and change it: instead they need to support and fund it for at least the next 20 years.

Of course, it will take time for the benefits to filter through to the workforce.

When countries like Canada, Australia and the USA are fighting to attract the best and the brightest talent from around world, the UK has to find a way to respond.

Like a start-up, a cluster needs finance.

I was once asked to name a brilliant business with a brilliant idea and brilliant team that had not managed to secure finance. I struggled.

But when countries from Israel to Finland are working to address the funding gaps that do exist from early R&D to start-up to scale-up to IPO, government surely has a role to play in making sure that good ideas do not die for lack of money.

Sometimes that can be as simple as pointing out where the existing funds are already available.

Like a start-up, a cluster needs a place to set up shop; a place to call home.

Silicon Roundabout was successful because it had cheap rents and a critical mass of people could come together. Innovation happens when – to paraphrase Matt Ridley – ‘ideas can have sex’.

Small businesses outgrow their offices. In the same way, London needs to make sure it does not become a victim of its own success as growing numbers place greater demands on office space.

It’s in both government and industry’s interest to make sure there is room not just for start-ups, but the scale-ups which create the most jobs.

And once it has something to offer, a tech cluster, like a start-up, needs good PR.

Government is well placed to be London’s PR agency, shouting ‘Hello World! We have what you need right here!’

This is something governments have done incredibly well over the past few years and must continue to do.

But I also believe that the future success of London’s digital economy will depend on harnessing and encouraging the strengths of tech clusters around the rest of Britain.

Cities like Cambridge, Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle, Sunderland, Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh all have capabilities that can augment what the UK can offer the rest of the world.

London should be shouting about its connection to those other centres of tech innovation.

Finally, like a new business, a tech cluster needs clear roles and responsibilities.

It needs founders (in this case the tech community) to provide the ideas.

It needs investors (government and industry) to provide the funding.

It needs the non-exec directors (that past community of entrepreneurs) to provide mentorship and lower barriers to accessing the right contacts and expert knowledge.

London has clearly grown far beyond being a Minimum Viable Tech Cluster.

It is already blessed with many of the qualities needed to thrive as a digital economy.

But let us be clear: like a business, achieving success is about not reaching some future steady state.

Like running a business – especially a technology business – steady means decline.

The needs will change, the model will change, London’s business plan will always need to be ready to adapt.

So the secret to developing London’s digital economy is not rocket science – it’s much, much harder than that.

It’s as hard as it is to start, grow and sustainably scale a brilliant business.

I may be a failed entrepreneur, but that much is clear even to me.

Follow Eddie Copeland on Twitter @EddieACopeland

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