London’s startup scene is best known for one thing: Tech City in Shoreditch. But that’s not the only place in the capital that tech companies have laid down roots, there are pockets of activity around Paddington Basin, right in the center, and even right on the outskirts, thanks in part to the Croydon Tech City (CTC) organization – Greater London’s other ‘tech city’.
Since the rather unsightly roundabout in London’s Old Street was coined ‘Silicon Roundabout’ back in 2008, more and more technology companies have flocked to the area. Now, new mixed-use buildings sit on newly-created walkways called things like ‘Silicon Way’, just off the roundabout. The visibility that having a unified tech hub brings for the businesses involved, and the impact on the area itself, shouldn’t be underestimated. Hell, there’s even a ‘Silicon Roundabout Walking Tour’, which presumably doesn’t just go around the roundabout.
Helped along by a few early successes, a plenitude of founders’ boundless energy and downright determination, the area began to make a name for itself, and then the government got involved. A cynic might say that the government got involved to jump on a bandwagon and bask in the limelight of a sector that hadn’t taken quite the same economic beating as many others. Nonetheless, with government support came the introduction of things like the Entrepreneurs Visa and tax breaks like the Enterprise Investment Scheme, to help these fledgling companies flourish.
The area itself lies at an interesting intersection of where creative industries and tech companies meet ‘the city’, big business and banking, geographically allowing for convenient access and a merging of cultures for businesses that ultimately have intertwined interests. But is Tech City all London has to offer?
We caught up with a few London startups to see what they thought about being based outside of London’s much-vaunted east-London location, most notably, those based in Croydon – an area set for massive regeneration and home to CTC. A £1 billion regeneration project shows some faith and potential in the local area.
Life outside of Tech City?
Ash Rishi, CEO of Couch, a startup focused on marketing for the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry, launched his company last year based in Shoreditch, and while he said the office space was affordable, he also said the talent wasn’t up to scratch.
“There seems to be a glamour to being in Tech City, so sometimes the talent is not up to scratch – on top of their exorbitant prices, ” Rishi told TNW.
Tired of searching for the right team at the right price, Rishi started considering alternatives to his base in Tech City and speaking to companies and freelancers based in CTC. He then decided to take the plunge and relocate. Eight months down the line and he has four additional full-time staff on the books. “Croydon has a big role to play in this growth,” he said, noting that a lot of these people are actually currently working for other startups based in central London, and paying the price in rail fares and fewer opportunities to stand out from the masses.
One of the things that has benefited Tech City are numerous and dedicated co-working spaces with low rents, like Google Campus, incubators , accelerators, and a busy social calendar packed with events. Combined, this allows small businesses to work as a team, and in close proximity to other similar teams, for a relatively low cost in an ever-expanding pool of thriving young companies. At least in theory.
Rishi said that while CTC’s ecosystem wasn’t quite mature yet, it is “beginning to provide value for startups” with things like Matthew’s Yard co-working space, and the recently introduced Free For a Year scheme which cuts business rates for an entire year. He also said that there’s a huge amount of talent locally too, which helps.
His company makes up just one of the 300 or so digital and creative service companies based in Croydon, along with 50 or so others creating tech products, like FeastExpress, Smart Dresser, DotMailer and Bunchy.
That last one on the list is the brainchild of Andrew Brackin, who despite being born and raised in Croydon, is now based in San Fransico – but he’s got a good excuse for fleeing, he won a $100,000 Thiel technology fellowship to continue developing his startup.
Shoreditch 15 years ago was vastly different but the cultural shift in recent years allowed for tech to flourish. Now rents are rising, there are daily events, free co-working spaces and lots of tech startups. Space is key in my opinion, Croydon still really needs a landmark space for collaboration. I think Matthew’s Yard, where CTC is hosted monthly, is a good start but a free co-working space like Google Campus will likely happen one day.
I’m based in San Francisco these days [but] I was around for the start of the Croydon tech scene and for the infant stages of the recent tech boom in London. ‘Tech City’ went from a few landmark companies and a couple of events to a huge ecosystem full of companies, events and bigger players opening local offices.
The Croydon tech ecosystem is still in its infant stages. The monthly event and landmark companies have put some strong roots in the ground, but now it’s up to the attendees and the on-going regeneration of Croydon to create the ecosystem.
A different approach
We also caught up with Charlotte Golunski, founder of the social augmented reality app Taggar, who is based in Picadilly Circus – about as busy a place as you could pick in London, and far away from the hipster cool of Shoreditch or the growing Croydon scene. With Mike Lynch’s Invoke Capital already having put cash into the company at the end of the year, Taggar is actually just about to relocate into its parent office across the street and has no plans to move to Shoreditch or Croydon.
“There’s a lot of criticism [about Tech City] – that it’s not really doing something fundamental, that there’s a lot of creative companies there, but how much is the technology doing to necessarily keep growing and growing,” she told me.
Perhaps it would be better to stop considering Tech City, CTC and all the other pockets of tech companies dotted around London as rivals, and rather as complementary, encouraging more engagement between communities for the benefit of the city (and these businesses) as a whole. Bunchy’s Brackin agrees:
Croydon should embrace Tech City even more because you can’t scale a company just for residents of Croydon [...] but as the area re-generates it’ll be obvious why companies should embrace the area – top transport links, the culture shift and cheap rent.
Golunski argues that not having this one central identity in the way Silicon Valley does means that businesses with potential are missing out on the benefits that go along with that.
We miss out on having the Silicon Valley atmosphere, the idea of having this big ecosystem where all the money gets brought into and you have all the companies alongside each other and it encourages this R&D atmosphere. We’re seeing it a little bit with Tech City, but it’s still very much in its infancy.
She also points out that the UK as a whole is missing out on the close relationship between universities and the tech scene.
What you see in Silicon Valley is that it’s really closely associated with Stanford and we haven’t really had that same kind of tech transfer. If you look at our universities, all the brilliant tech that comes out of our universities, the conversion rate from that raw technology into a product or a company is really lacking, particularly when you compare it to something like America.
That system is just so slick, this operation of drawing out this tech from inside universities and either buying it or turning it into a company – the path is so well trodden. That’s what we’re really lacking in th e UK, some kind of repeatable transfer process – a blueprint.
The words infancy, infant and beginning, cropped up a lot in my conversations on this subject. At first just about the Croydon tech scene, but then later about London and the UK as a whole. Golunski’s point about the tech transfer between universities and businesses is just one more example of the potential still waiting to be unlocked. London’s Old Street area might have started on its path to becoming the hub of Tech City UK back in 2008, but it’s clear that the area and London as a whole is still only getting started. Whether this is best served by a fragmented ecosystem (that largely excludes other hubs like Manchester and Cambridge) is another question, and how to join these up and create that blueprint to success is a puzzle that still needs solving.
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