Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Help Me Build a Tech Startup Community in Leicester

Last year I blogged about the City Mayor's Knowledge Economy Summit which aimed to kick-start discussions on how Leicester can drive prosperity though technology and innovation.

Stakeholder (noun): person or organisation with a vested interest who has to be consulted for political purposes but generally gets in the way of progress.

Cynicism aside, I did leave this meeting wondering what such an event really offered for me as the owner of a small business with entrepreneurial ambitions. Back then it was hard to put my finger on what was missing and my original post could only express a few hunches.

Then I read Startup Communities by Brad Feld and had a bit of an epiphany. Feld's book details precisely how he helped make Boulder, Colorado one of the best locations in the world for start-ups.

Put simply, Brad Feld's 'Boulder Thesis' is that it is entrepreneurs who must lead a knowledge economy and that everyone else (local government, universities, chambers of commerce, investors) can only feed it.

Suddenly the pervasive 'top-down' mentality that I had seen amongst politicians, local government, Quangos and indeed some businesses became blindingly obvious. It's not that these people are a 'problem' - far from it - most are extremely supportive but they are not entrepreneurs and their agenda and the time they take to do things is just different. Entrepreneurs are people who want to start things yesterday whereas local government tends to move at glacial pace and is stuck in a 5-year re-election calendar.

But entrepreneurs do not need to wait for innovation centres to be built or for matched-funding for their projects. Not that these things aren't welcome but they tend to follow enterprise rather than stimulate it.

What Leicester does have in great abundance is diverse, clever people from our businesses though to our universities. Indeed Leicester puts Brad Feld's hometown of Boulder, Colorado (population 100k, one university, low diversity) in the shade when it comes to raw materials.

Following Feld's 'Boulder Thesis', what I want to create is a business community which encourages collaboration, joint ventures, start-up companies and generally helping each other out.

Leicester's existing creative business community is also a source of inspiration although collaboration there tends to be based more on traditional client-supplier relationships than a true start-up community.

Here are some ideas for the sorts of activities I am in the process of organising for 2013:-
  • Regular networking sessions for entrepreneurs (e.g. Open Coffee format)
  • Seminars and lectures from entrepreneurs and mentors
  • Civic hackathons and competitions
  • Mentoring sessions from business experts

This will require a change of mindset from some people. It requires the courage to share potentially marketable ideas with other people, openness to creating joint ventures or spin-off companies, the ability to embrace rather than stigmatise failure and a general willingness to help each other out. It's not about traditional touting of one's business for a fee.

If this sounds if interest to you or you think you could contribute to getting things started then I'd love to hear from you. Email me at ben@ultimateweb.co.uk

Update 17/12/2012: I'm running a Christmas Meetup on Wednesday 19th December to get this underway: http://leicesterstartups2012.eventbrite.co.uk/ - if you're a startup or involved with startups then please join us.

Update 20/12/2012: Here are my presentation slides from last night's inaugural Leicester Startups event: http://www.ultimateweb.co.uk/leicestertechstartups.pdf

Update 16/01/2013: Next event is an Open Coffee networking session at Phoenix Cafe Bar on Wednesday 23rd Jan at 10am which will then happen fortnightly. Sign up here: http://opencoffeeclub040113.eventbrite.co.uk/

FINAL UPDATE: Leicester Tech Startups is now a thriving group - full details of events and activities at www.leicesterstartups.com

Monday, 3 December 2012

Leicester on the Map, Literally.

Leicester South MP Jonathan Ashworth took David Cameron to task in parliament last week when he apparently got Leicester and Birmingham muddled up. Mr Ashworth's response was to send Mr Cameron a map with Leicester and Birmingham clearly marked on it.

Whether this was a case of genuine geographical ignorance or just an attempt to duck a question remains to be seen but it did remind me just how much Leicester gets overlooked in so many situations.

I believe there is a perennial failing with much of Leicester's public relations efforts, namely that despite our many USPs, the vast majority of British people do not have the foggiest idea where the city is.

Terry Wogan famously nailed this when he described Leicester as The Lost City. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that people think Leicester is much further North, perhaps because of our reknowned Indian-origin population. How are we going to attract investment from London-based companies, for example, if they think we are just up the road from Bradford?

Jonathan Ashworth is right to get a map out but we need to do this on a much grander scale. before we can harp on about how great we are we need to first make sure that people know where we are located.

I would like to see our promotional agencies commission a survey of people in key British cities (and maybe even some foreign ones?) to see what proportion of people know where Leicester is located. I'm literally talking about getting people to stick a pin in a map. I believe this would not only highlight the challenge we face but also give a useful benchmark for future public relations work.

I think this would bring into focus just how invisible Leicester is, despite being Britain's tenth largest city. Campaigns to put Leicester 'on the map' should worry about the literal meaning of this as much as the metaphorical one.

For a start, we should tackle the absence of promotional signage on the road gateways to our city which epitomises Terry Wogan's characterisation of a city "constantly mentioned in traffic reports but 'otherwise unknown to mankind'". In addition, our companies and organisations should be encouraged to stick a location map on all their promotional literature like the one we put on the back of our company brochure:-

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Broadband Connectivity in Leicester - Feedback from Businesses Sought

I’ve been invited to attend a City Council hosted workshop called “Leicester’s Digital Future” on Wednesday 10th October and would like to have input from Leicester's business community about broadband and other Internet connectivity in the city.

Text of the invite:-

"This issue is clearly vital to the prosperity of the City and of all our citizens. New technologies and capacities have the power to radically impact on how our public services are organised and delivered and on private sector competitiveness. Whilst our city has benefited in the past from quality infrastructure, we need now to be thinking collectively about our futures. The session will cover how current government policy to encourage superfast broadband etc may impact on the city and the county. It will review current broadband provision within the city, note the pipeline investment anticipated, take the temperature from the business community on this issue and start to discuss how the city might benefit from advances in new technologies. It is hoped that a specific outcome will be some ideas for how we need to organise ourselves across both across the public, private and voluntary sectors."

My initial thoughts, based partly on my experience with running web development agency Ultimateweb, are as follows:-
  1. In terms of standard broadband the city centre isn't too bad - agree?
  2. Some outlying suburbs struggle to get good broadband speeds.
  3. Rural areas often have very poor coverage which could affect the ability for city-based firms to sell services that rely on fast connections.
  4. Is poor broadband putting off inward investment (cf. residential broadband being a consideration for home buyers)?
  5. Will wire/cable delivered broadband will become obsolete in the near future? Would it be better to concentrate on getting the next generation of wireless/4G/SuperWiFi connectivity?
  6. Is city-wide free WiFi like Swindon attempted anything more than a gimmick?
  7. Is the city too reliant on a small number of incoming backbone pipes? Are we resilient or are we too reliant on pipes to London, etc?
  8. What are the likely digital services that businesses and their customers will use in the future and what sorts of capacities will they require?
  9. Why did Leicester miss out on the Everything Everywhere 4G rollout when smaller cities such as Derby & Hull are getting it? Are we lobbying effectively for early access to new Internet connectivity services?
If good Internet connectivity is essential to your business and you have any strong feelings about this issue then please get in touch or leave comments below.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Connecting Leicester

Fantastic to read about Connecting Leicester, which appears to be a joined-up, heritage-led approach to regenerating much of Leicester City Centre.

I do hope this marks the end of the piecemeal or blank slate approaches to development which viewed each plot of land in isolation and viewed any development as good development.

I do worry about how much of this will actually happen - we've had more than our fair share of grand schemes that have come to nothing - but it's got a lot going for it.

Do go and visit the website or one of the roadshows some of which are in some fantastic buildings such as Wyggeston's House on Applegate (which I'm embarrassed to say I had not set foot in until yesterday):-

Friday, 17 February 2012

Building a Time Machine

Most people (and that includes most residents) see Leicester primarily as a red brick and concrete city and their sense of its history is anchored to that. Much of the earlier historic built environment has been lost or is fragmented and it’s understandably difficult to visualise how the fabric of the city looked in the past.

As well as the fact that Leicester’s hidden history is fascinating, we miss out on a huge opportunity to foster civic pride and a better sense of civic identity.

DMU academic, Dr Douglas Cawthorne’s new AHRC funded Digital Building Heritage project offers a fantastic chance to visualise the past both through digital modelling like the Virtual Roman Leicester project and also digital locative tools to explore archived media.

We know there are terabytes of photos, videos, sketches, audio and texts squirrelled away in academic departments, heritage groups’ archives and in the homes of residents.

My dream would be to collate and present this data in exciting, interactive formats that will allow citizens to peel back and browse the layers of the city’s history. I’m particularly excited about the idea of being able to do this within a real-life building (call it a “museum” if you like) as well as on devices and web browsers.

Technology to harness and reveal this data in exciting ways (Virtual Reality, 3D Modelling, Augmented Reality, Locative Media, etc.) is already mature and straightforward to harness. What is more difficult is opening the silos of data and getting people to share what they have.

My colleagues at Leicester Civic Society are stoked about this project and we would encourage anyone with an interest in Leicester’s history (particularly those with data to contribute) to step forward and contact Douglas.

Finally, I think Digital Building Heritage Project isn’t a very engaging name so any suggestions for a catchy project name would be welcomed. My suggestion is “Leicester Time Machine” which I think lends itself to a tardis-like physical venue that could have the feeling of being bigger on the inside than out.