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This article was published on April 17, 2012

Why it’s easy to love London’s tech scene and startups

Why it’s easy to love London’s tech scene and startups
Jamillah Knowles
Story by

Jamillah Knowles

Jamillah is the UK Editor for The Next Web. She's based in London. You can hear her on BBC Radio 5Live's Outriders. Follow on Twitter @jemi Jamillah is the UK Editor for The Next Web. She's based in London. You can hear her on BBC Radio 5Live's Outriders. Follow on Twitter @jemimah_knight or drop a line to [email protected]

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Walk into almost any cafe in London these days and you’re bound to find someone working on a bestickered laptop, attached to the wifi and lost in their headphones. You might think they are passing the time, but stay a while and you’ll see that they are working on their day job.

London will always be a fast, cosmopolitan city and the new generation of tech companies and workers is becoming more apparent, anywhere you can find free wifi. I love this. I love the integration of innovation I can find almost anywhere in this city.

The tech industry was seen to be an East London animal, converting old buildings into fresh new spaces for business and innovation. Indeed, a lot of the east side of the city has become gentrified and arty when it had been a pattern of streets closed after 6pm where factories and warehouses manufactured clothing or spare parts.

The culture of the startup and self-reliant worker is spreading across the city with workspaces and coffee houses occupied by innovators nurturing new business ideas.

The activities for a Londoner interested or working in tech are endless. There’s hack events and Meet Ups and Bar Camps and dinners, launches and parties and pretty much something every day of the week where you can get your fill of tech exploration and meet digital mavericks.

Cosmopolitan mix

To quote a cliche, London is a melting pot. As you walk through the streets in this city, you’re likely to hear at least six different languages as people from around the world come to work and live here. It’s an attractive prospect for businesses and a useful environment for startups.

Eileen Burbidge is Partner at Passion Capital, Co-founder at White Bear Yard and an Advisor at Ambient Sound Investments. She moved over to London from America in 2004 and loves the access to a multitude of options.

“What is so remarkable and fantastic about London is how many cultures and nationalities are represented in this city,” says Burbidge. “That’s a huge advantage that gives more perspective and depth to any business and tech founders can use this to their advantage. They can benefit from this whether it is as a hiring pool or to ensure a broad user perspective. In the States there are pockets of communities and you don’t really have a mass market appeal that you might get based out of a place like London.

“In comparison to where things were five or two years ago, there’s so much more happening with the community. There’s something happening almost every evening to support and rally around the startups and entrepreneurs. The ecosystem is so good now and it makes it so exciting.”

Tech can do

The current economic climate throughout Europe is causing disruption in all forms of business. Around London this is seen as a blessing as would-be entrepreneurs have a reason to take the plunge and others choose a digital environment to work in for its optimism and flexibility.

Burbidge says, “Given the general pan-European depression, there is less risk. There is not so much of a choice now between a long corporate career as people realise there is nothing safe anymore about a corporate job and this is helping people realise that they can pursue a fulfilling and creative career.

“People who choose to do startups in tech here come from an environment where there is a lot more to offer. When they choose to go into tech they are deciding not to go into finance, legal, the arts, there’s so much to choose from in London. They are really choosing it over so many career options in London and it makes people much more interesting and multi dimensional.”

Oliver Lloyd, founder and CEO of Great British Chefs works in East London and believes that the successes that established the area as a tech centre are inspiring new businesses, “There’s a vibrancy, even through the economic challenges happening in the UK. People are taking risks and doing things that are very different from the prevailing mood you hear about in the press. In London there is a sense that we can do something different.”

Though London is seeing a flourishing tech trade, Lloyd also notes that there are British habits that are not so helpful and that businesses should be proud of the great work they do, “One of the things that is a challenge for British-based startups is that there are many big digital brands that come over from the States and they are good at marketing and dominating the tech scene. There are many great successes in the UK too, like Moo and Moshi Monsters. We need to talk up our success because there is a lot going on.”

Nick Neo and Asa De Alwis founded brand new startup Stazoo, a network for music, film and politics reviews, based on tweets. Both are London born and raised and appreciate the London tech scene and the way it is growing. Neo says, “The government is nurturing startups and we feel greatly supported by what is being done to help us. The entrepreneurial spirit is on the rise.” De Alwis agrees, “There’s a great pool of talent here that we would love to draw upon and bring into our company.”

Location and destination

In the last few months London has attracted big names in tech over the ocean from America. Mozilla has recently set up a new space in the heart of London’s West End. The choice of location reflects the movement of technology across town. Chris Lord is a mobile platform engineer who works in the new offices.

“We chose this part of London to move into as a way to make it easier for visitors from out of town. I’ve worked in the London tech industry for three or four years. There’s a lot of innovation happening in London and the buzz has really grown. There are so many events now and a great community. If you turn up to a tech event and you don’t know anyone, you’ll know plenty of people by the time you leave. There’s almost a sense of family.”

Mozilla has a ton of events already lined up for its new space and works predominantly with open Web projects and businesses that have similar interests.

Google too has opened up a Campus in the city. Eze Vidra is the head of Campus in London, “There’s a really exciting emerging cluster in East London with ‘Silicon Roundabout‘ and Tech City. But real estate here still is very expensive if you are starting up a company. We want to offer an alternative to having to move to Silicon Valley. There’s also a really positive trend for community in tech in the UK. With Campus I want to consolidate that community as it is still a bit fragmented.”

The campus has a lot on offer by the way of co-working space and facilities run by TechHub, a cafe for casual meetings run by Central Working and of course lots of activities and hack events on evenings and weekends for people to meet up and work on fun things in their spare time.

Oliver Lloyd says that East London still has the edge for startups in the city, “East London is fabulous. There are so many pubs and it’s a bit gritty but it’s like the lower east side in New York. But I don’t think startups would work as well in West London. Let the venture capitalists and the private equity firms be based there. I’d say the coffee shops are significantly better in East London.

Good to be a girl

While working in tech is generally seen to be difficult for many women, London has a superb network for support and some of the finest coders and developers in the business. Judith Lewis is Head of Search at Beyond and the co-ordinator of London Girl Geek Dinners, “The movement really started in London because of Sarah Lamb‘s drive and determination. There’s an awful lot of really intelligent women in tech. There are a number of groups for women who are technically inclined, She Says, London Geek Girl Dinners, Women in Technology, Geek Chicks, and they are not just for programmers, they are for women who work in design, development or anything else.

London has a fantastic network for women who are starting out as well as those who are established. “Working in technology in London exposes you to a lot more cutting edge technologies,” says Lewis. “Google and Microsoft are here, there’s any number of startups working on critical functions we could not do without. London is one of the first places outside of a home location that most big tech businesses in the states come to.”

“At Geek Girl Dinner events there are often women there who are recruiting, so there are so many opportunities because it is easy to make the right connections. If you were thinking of London as a possible work destination it is currently a fantastic place to be. London has great networks for startups too. There’s access to so many great minds so it would be wise for a startup to consider London as a base.”

London to the world

London seems bountiful when it comes to innovation, but if you are not convinced, take a look at the breadth of technology startups that have been making headlines.

WireWax the motion-tracking, taggable video tool that allows users to create hotspots on video.  Social and interactive TV is hotter than an old school vacuum tube at the moment and the possibilities offered by WireWax are astonishing. Working in clever ways on the evolution of video, this is one of the company names you will hear dropped into conversations about the future of broadcasting.

It might be the nature of a multicultural city, or the ambition of an optimistic sector, but many London startups seem to be uncontainable when it comes to expansion. Sports social network TribeSports started in the capital and then opened up in Singapore and well-known success story Moo, the, creators of custom business cards has spread its business globally.

Josh Russell is the Founder of Bonfire, an application that allows real-time chat over Twitter. He is moving his business into London from Brighton and has global aspirations, “It feels a bit isolated outside of London and you have to work a bit harder to get noticed. Hiring and finding office space with like-minded people, proximity to the things you need and people to work with is important, even if the technical infrastructure is something you can find anywhere.

Russell feels that the business atmosphere in London’s startup circles is more ambitious, “The startup scene in London is more enthusiastic. In Brighton there is a lot of skepticism about the validity and reality of an idea working as a startup. There’s lots of talented people there but they may not have the will or the confidence to make a startup happen. There’s a lot more faith in ideas in London and people are not so risk averse.”

London for Londoners

Services in the city are greatly improved by many startups who recognise a problem and solve it with something excellent. As with any metropolis, citizens tend to need a cab, and Hailo‘s Taxi app is doing so well that it raised a whopping $17m Series A funding round, one of the largest European first-rounds in recent times.

As well as getting citizens from A to B, there are also companies here that innovate to cover the most basic of needs. Hungry in town? Try the Best Sandwiches in London app for finding your lunch and powering up for the day. It’s a quick and easy to use application that knows where you are, knows that you’re hungry and has a rating system for well, finding the best sandwiches of course.

With London set to host the forthcoming 2012 Olympics and a huge celebration for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, tech businesses are rallying around the events to make life easier for residents and welcoming for visitors. Already Olympic planning includes a huge social aspect for getting around town with easy to use apps, tracking events, trying to work while the event takes place or just watching from home.

I’ve had brief romances with many cities around the world, the West Coast sunshine where everyone has an app idea and everyone knows each other, Bangalore showed me meaningful technologies that change lives with a simple application and a lot of drive. But London brings a lot of people, ideas and excellence from all over the globe – and this is what makes it a fantastic scene to be a part of for someone who loves technology and startups.