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:-