Thursday, 11 February 2016

Smashing The Factory Whistle

It's official - Leicester has a tech sector!

My lobbying last year seems to have paid off as we have been featured on their 2016 Tech Nation report (page 30):

I appreciate there's always a certain amount of spin associated with such reports but they do serve to highlight a more ambitious mode of business which I think Leicester needs to latch on to. We have a 'factory whistle’ mindset where too many of those who do start their own businesses do not aspire beyond the freelance, consultant or professional services agency models.

This seems to be echoed by official business support agencies who seem to value job creation over all other aspects of business growth. No one can argue against creating jobs but what about the quality, sustainability and wealth-creation potential of those jobs?

Our business development agencies rightly focus on our strengths in particular industry sectors ( but we hear less about the nature of specific businesses that are supported. Are we shipping pies or pie recipe books?

I’ve spent 14 years working in the software and creative industry in Leicester and have increasing experience of the ‘Silicon Valley’ tech startup model. These are a world away from the traditional Leicester hosiery mills but it sometimes feels like the city’s aspirations haven’t moved on from there.

I would like to see people from all sectors move higher up the food chain and break out of the "selling time for money" business model that so many are stuck in (myself included to some extent).

Creative and innovative people are the key to this, there are loads of them in Leicester and they inhabit all industries and all walks of life but you can't really call them a 'sector'. If J.K. Rowling or Mark Zuckerberg turned up in Leicester there would be a huge media scrum but who is giving meaningful support to those who aspire to these sorts of intellectual property-based business models?

My own small efforts in this regard have been to establish a growing tech startup community in the city but I would like to see a much wider community of IP-based businesses. I think the secret is in the cross-disciplinary mixing and getting people to aspire beyond the factory whistle:-

Copywriters can become authors.

Coders can sell apps or SaaS applications.

Actors can become playwrights.

Art workers can become artists.

Designers can license their designs.

Scientists and engineers can license patents.

These sorts of ideas almost always start with individuals and very small teams and it all seems a world away from the 'big hitters' that our economic development people seem to favour. But these are where the world-changing ideas and businesses come from and I beleive Leicester has the all right raw materials for the sort of 'indie' scene that nurtures these.

I don't think the 'sector' approach is helpful here. Technology pervades all areas of life nowadays but try getting an app or a website off the ground without a graphic designer, marketeer or lawyer (not to mention the person who had the idea in the first place who could be from any industry.)

Local success stories like Jadu or CrowdLab (both technology-based but both born out Leicester's creative industry) are testament to this.

What do you call it?

Like Wiley, we kind-of have a naming issue. 'Intellectual Property' sounds like something that only a law firm would talk about, 'Tech' and 'Creative' are too skill-specific, 'Startups' can either mean Silicon Valley or just any new business. 'Innovation' is over-used by the public sector and has connotations of just tech/labs.

What's the right label for creative and innovative businesses that trade on their intellectual property or run scalable Silicon-Valley business models and who do not sell their time for money? Suggestions please...

What needs to be done?

1. Leicester City Council should prioritise getting a city centre co-working space over building Docks 2, 3, 4 and 5 or trying to build a cookie-cutter science park.

2. The LLEP need to come and meet the micro-businesses instead of hiding behind their dreadful Biz Gateway website - get out of City Hall guys!

3. Our universities need open their doors to the outside world and realise that they're not necessarily the best environment for getting businesses off the ground. Knowledge transfer is a two way street! 

4. Makers, Artists, Coders, Writers, Scientists, you need to plan your route to quitting the day job, build your own communities and lead our well-intentioned public sector supporters rather than expect them to build everything for you.

Charles Landry, author of The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators once described cities like Leicester as "places where good ideas come to die” - are we going to accept this label? 

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Leicester Needs a Community Co-working Space

The time is right for Leicester to have a large city-centre co-working space.

Co-working spaces are large, mostly open-plan offices which provide somewhere for freelancers and early-stage entrepreneurs to work cheaply and without commitment. They are a common sight in cities across the World. As well as somewhere for people to work, they also provide a ‘village hall’ for a wider constituency of event organisers (whether involved in business or not.) They are typically open to everyone throughout the day, with evening and weekends access to paying members.

Support for the first couple of rungs of the entrepreneurial ladder (conceiving ideas and finding other people to work with) is patchy in Leicester as I have touched upon before. Public sector support has historically only kicked-in once someone has a business plan and is ready to commit to renting a proper office.

A co-working space would help fill that gap, creating a fertile environment where a diverse bunch of people from different backgrounds can mix, share ideas and plan enterprises. The potential as a vehicle for graduate retention through getting recent De Montfort University and University of Leicester graduates to stay in Leicester rather than brain-drain to London or elsewhere is significant. It also creates a nursery for new business which compliments existing provision like LCB, Dock, Makers yard and Phoenix which are aimed at more established businesses.

DMU’s Innovation Centre co-working space has been a success in terms of the actual facility and helpful support staff and there is a lot that can be learnt from it. However, the 9-5 opening hours are unworkable for anyone involved in a serious startup and the on-campus location creates a perception of belonging to DMU rather than the wider community.

Other venues such as LCB Depot, Phoenix and local coffee shops can work on a casual basis but they tend to be noisy, have patchy opening hours and aren’t big enough to achieve that ‘critical mass’ that lends itself to frequent serendipitous meetings with interesting people.

There are potential locations at Pioneer Park or Friars Mill but these sites are too far off the radar of students who would be a key potential user group.

Having nurtured Leicester’s startup community and also been involved with other groups such as Creative Coffee, it’s my belief that such a space needs to be situated within or near the triangle formed by Cultural Quarter – DMU – University of Leicester. The proximity of the railway station is also relevant for connections to London and other local cities.

My understanding is that co-working spaces tend to be comparatively low-cost re-fits compared to new build spaces such as Dock. They don’t need to be glamorous Grade-A office space, indeed the Berlin-style ‘shabby-chic’ can often be an attractor to the sorts of people who typically use them.

I don't know what the finance numbers look like but this feels like something that might need public sector funds to get off the ground but should fund the on-going costs itself through membership fees. This seems to be what happens elsewhere.

Having an independent organisation responsible for the day-to-day may also be desirable to avoid any financial dependency or ownership perception issues. It may be worth exploring some of the established franchises out there such as Impact Hub, WeWork, TechHub or Innovation Warehouse. It might also be worth looking at Antenna in Nottingham as a comparison with a similar-sized city.

I note that Leicester Hackspace are currently looking for a new venue and there is an obvious attraction to having them under the same roof as more software or design-orientated users.

This is not a particularly radical idea. There are hundreds of examples of such spaces in cities of a similar size to Leicester and worldwide and there are any number of franchises, models and providers from which best practice can be gleaned.

My personal interest is as A) a space to run events for the Leicester tech startup community which I organise and B) as a place to meet people with great ideas for win-win joint ventures for my web and app development business.

I have already had positively-received discussions with a number of organisations and groups including the two universities, the city council and the LLEP as well as the grass-roots business communities that I am involved in. If you're interested in being involved in this discussion with potential stakeholders then please drop me a line at

If you think a co-working space might be somewhere you would want to work yourself then I would encourage you to joing the new meetup group created by Edward Woolley from our local startup community:

UPDATE 21/04/16: If you are interested in using a potential Leicester co-working space, please fill out this brief survey to help understand current demand:

UPDATE Autumn 2017: We now have a serious project underway to open a Leicester coworking space and are accepting sign-ups from prospective tenants:

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

20 Ways That Universities Can Encourage Enterprise

I’ve been working with universities for a number of years, watching how they wrestle with the increased pressure to ‘do business’. I’ve seen some first-rate ideas come from academics and go on to succeed as viable businesses and I’ve seen some dreadful ham-fisted attempts to ‘own’ business too.

Here’s my tech entrepreneur’s take on how universities can develop a more enterprising culture:-

  1. Adopt a default position of laissez-faire on all “incidental” staff intellectual property. “Incidental” defined as not directly related to core research or “not what you were paid to discover”. You could make this conditional on said IP being declared to your organisation.
  2. Distinguish between patentable and non-patentable ideas. Universities should certainly protect applicable ideas with patents and license them to the highest bidder but many highly viable business ideas are not protectable and trying to ‘own’ them is often likely to stifle them. Academics write books all the time and universities don’t make claims on their copyright so why should code or business plans be any different?
  3. Keeping non-patentable ideas secret in order to protect them is usually a mistake. The chance of someone stealing a business idea is much lower than you think and sharing ideas with a wider constituency of trusted people is the very best way of getting valuable feedback, advice and introductions.
  4. Clearly state IP and enterprise policy to staff rather than just tucking it away in employment contracts. Express it in a welcoming and supportive way (e.g. “if you’ve had an idea, we’ve got your back”) rather than treating it purely as the “possession” of the institution. An open hand can hold more than a clenched fist.
  5. Do not assume that academic staff and students are incapable of functioning in business. This approach will undermine the inexperienced people and alienate the capable ones, risking the creation of a black market or losing people altogether.
  6. Implement fast decision making on licensing. Some universities can take months to decide what should happen to a business idea — for many startups that’s enough time to build the product and start selling it! Be like Stanford and let experienced KTP staff make the call on it rather than having to run it by academic committees.
  7. Operate a consensual, negotiated approach to equity or royalty shares as opposed to arbitrary or default percentage expectations. Every contributor to a business (staff, students, departments, the university, investors, external business people) should be rewarded fairly according to their contribution over the lifetime of a business. “The idea” is only one component of a successful business and hoarding ideas will yield 100% of nothing.
  8. There are plenty of amazing outcomes for universities beyond just earning money from IP. These include economic and societal impact, learning opportunities for staff and students, closer relationships with host cities, wealth and job creation for the surrounding region, better graduate retention in the region plus the general reputational value to the university. Be like Stanford and seek the best outcome for ideas not just the institution’s pocket.
  9. Become an Easy Access IP partner to allows companies and individuals free access to technologies so new products and services can be developed that will benefit society and the economy.
  10. Publicise university IP and expertise in a searchable format to let the outside world know what you’ve got (hat tip to DMU deputy vice chancellor Professor Andy Collop.)
  11. Business people are not all sharks intent on robbing you blind (any more than academics are all public-spirited saints!) Build close trusting relationships, especially with businesses in your local area and you will generate good karma that will be paid back for years to come.
  12. Consider offering a special deal for businesses utilising university IP or expertise that locate near to your institution and/or employ university staff, students or graduates. Can you offer them free business accommodation, free legal advice or preferential consideration in IP rights deals? Establish a ‘special deal’ or a Bayh-Dole Act for your city.
  13. Allow staff and students sabbaticals to start a business with the right to return guaranteed. This should be no more difficult to administer than maternity/paternity leave or industry placements and is far better than losing them altogether. Returning staff and students will bring back new experiences (whether they succeed or fail) that will enrich the university.
  14. Host events like postgraduate research festivals or enterprise conferences off-campus and nearer the general public and business community to help expose what you can do.
  15. Treat knowledge transfer as a two way street. Universities may be great and inventing new things but most often the best people to execute those ideas are off-campus. Attempts at wholly in-house “spin-offs” do not have a great success rate. Great ideas do not care about the badge of the institutions involved — they just need the right set of people to conceive and execute them.
  16. Get local entrepreneurs involved in university life and build trust with the local business community. This is a far better way of nurturing ideas and businesses and can create the opportunity for the win-win for the whole regional economy.
  17. Don’t assume that big high-profile companies are necessarily the best businesses to have on campus. You could be just conditioning your graduates to work for The Man when many could gain a far broader range of experience by working in smaller businesses and startups (including their own.) Consider the value of nurturing a homegrown Blackboard, Udacity, Dropbox or even a ParticiPoll (shameless plug!)
  18. Successful business communities (especially innovative, creative and technology-orientated ones) tend to be loose networks whereas universities tend to be hierarchies. Don’t assume your rank in your organisation will be meaningful outside of it and don’t make outsiders have to wade through your bureaucracy to get things done.
  19. Encourage or invest in local, off-campus co-working spaces, incubators and accelerators that create the right environments for ideas and skills-sharing between academics, students, local businesses and the wider public.
  20. Recognise that enterprise is a culture not an academic subject. It is much more like research (especially methodology such as lean startup) than teaching and the only way to learn it is by doing it.