And so it was that eighteen startups bearing £100K TSB promissory match-funding notes came to London to stand before a roomful of people (a good few of whom were genuinely angels) and have their eight-minute pitches evaluated for investability. On the same bill was the comic relief, the twenty nearly-but-not-quite-funded startups - myself included – whose two-minute pitches were abutted together to form a kind of weirdly psychedelic blur, intended to be some kind of mashed-up Powerpoint speed-dating session.
I love catching up with old faces, putting faces to email addresses, meeting new people and watching new pitches, and I thoroughly enjoy the inevitable rush of pitching (getting a big message across in two minutes is a great writing and performance challenge), so I had a thoroughly great time: and as far as the Technology Strategy Board goes, “I love it when a plan comes together“, regardless of whether David Bott and his crew did or didn’t shave a few corners to push through to the 128-day end line.
But putting all the adrenaline aside, though, the real issue is what to make of the whole event: and as I sat on the train coming back, I have to say that I felt a little bit of sadness. Even though a £100K TSB promissory note could well have been a wonderfully positive thing for my particular company, I do wonder whether it will genuinely help even half of the 18 grantees. For a start, the grim reality is that £100K doesn’t buy you much in Old Street: there’s a kind of implicit £20K “Tech City tax” (in terms of living, commuting, overheads etc) imposed on you just for the, ummm, privilege of working there, rather than (say) Croydon.
For another, because the TSB is only technically allowed to help companies back free-standing loss-making projects (to the point that if you make short-term money from the grant money, they probably won’t cover the payment), all you’re really allowed to do with the grant-plus-match-funding is learn stuff. Yes, in its own curious way the TSB forces grantees to run projects as learning-based “lean startups”, where the important outputs are all intangible, and the most important thing is failing fast, and then pivoting / iterating as a result.
Ultimately, this makes each TSB Tech City funding tranche contingent on finding one or more angels who would be happy to
lose invest £100K in something entirely intangible as long as the TSB also loses invests £100K. And I have to say that I have met very few active UK angels who have pockets deep enough to make such truly conceptual calls: as a rule, they don’t yet get Eric Ries’ whole “lean startup” movement. For all the talk of digital media, most social media pitches are just short-term hacks: truly intangible angel investment has fallen drastically out of fashion over here (if it ever was in fashion, for some would loudly argue not).
However, arguably the biggest structural problem of all is that UK angel investors are, by and large, attuned to investing in tangible profit-making companies rather than free-standing intangible loss-making projects: and I suspect most of the angels who eagerly attended yesterday will have felt rather caught in the middle. This was perhaps best exemplified by the Somethin’ Else people, who essentially said: Option A is to invest in our high concept £200K 3d audio game project, while Option B is to invest in our £6.5m turnover (I don’t remember the precise figure) international audio production company from which Option A came. It’s no big secret that most angels are looking for something between the two, that somehow manages to extract the best of both worlds: I can see how presenting such a sharply polarized smorgasboard may end up getting neither (for all the individual merits of both Options A & B).
I don’t know: I suspect the TSB may (wrongly) believe that giving money to startups can only be a good thing for them, when everything comes at a cost. It all reminds me of a short story that popped fully-formed into my mind a few days ago:-
Once upon a time, a boy inherited a box of ancient Arabian junk. While polishing an eerily familiar lamp, out popped a genie. “Thank you immensely for releasing me from the magical prison in which I have languished these long millennia“, pronounced the genie, with more than a hint of Brian Blessed. “I therefore grant you two contingent wishes.“
The boy was puzzled. “What on earth are ‘contingent wishes’?“, he asked.
“My goodness – don’t schools teach you anything these days?” boomed the genie genially.
“No, not really“, sighed the boy.
“Well“, the genie heaved, “they give you what you want, but at a matching cost. For example, receiving great wealth would plunge all your friends and family into abject poverty and debt.“
The boy sat and thought for a while. “My first contingent wish“, he said eventually, “is to be just a little luckier in everything I do for my whole life.”
“Ah, a good choice!“, said the genie. “I grant you your wish, but with the contingent cost that if you tell anybody that you are the recipient of magical aid, you will instead be just a little less lucky in everything you do.“
“Then my second contingent wish is easy“, said the boy. “I wish to forget that I ever met you.“
“No!”, exclaimed the genie, “that means…“
But it was too late. With a loud squelch and a flash of green light, the genie was yanked sharply back into his lamp prison for another millennium. The boy stood there blinking blankly, with just a tarnished old lamp in his hand. What had he just been thinking about? He couldn’t remember. All the same, he did feel like it was going to be a good day…
Basically, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, or indeed a free grant. Just because you cannot immediately see the cost doesn’t mean that there isn’t one.