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? 


  1. Loving your work as always.

    We generally think of ourselves based on the outcomes (wins) we achieve rather the time we're working on jobs; and as a result our business is oriented around the ideas and wider thinking that make that happen. Most of the interesting stuff that happens comes from conversations and thinking focussed on the win and the related fun stuff. As a result what we sell is the ideas that get outcomes.

    All that said, internally our cost model is still fundamentally time-based professional services because we usually also sell the execution of those ideas into bid documents.

    I'd say it's about focussing on what people get from the thing you do, rather than how you do it. IP/Innovation etc are all the thing you're doing, not what people are getting. The outcomes are the interesting thing. I don't have a pithy word or two for that yet, but I think your new term is in that space...

  2. Thanks Chris, there's no doubt that intellectual property-based businesses still require time to conceive and produce but what is crucial is ceasing to use time as the actual measurement of value.