The big UK startup news of the last 24 hours was the launch of StartupBritain, a work-in-progress portal offering limited promotional discounts on various services (typically 10% or 1 month), a fairly sub-par startup link farm and (at some unspecified point in the future) some kind of unspecified startup mentoring facility. As conceptual (as opposed to financial) backers, its organizers amassed a whole raft of corporates and government Ministers, including one of the Prime variety. Cue lots of inspiring talk about inspiring young people to become inspired entrepreneurs (and to lose their inspired shirts in inspiring new ways).
Ummm… you may have guessed that I’m not sold on the whole thing.
For a start, by far the best skill startups can have is to avoid buying products and (especially!) services entirely, instead getting by on a briskly Spartan diet of thin air and ingenuity where possible. For example, if you don’t happen to be running a high-bandwidth Internet startup, why not pay a neighbour a few pounds for wireless access to their broadband?
And even so, if you really have to spend money, then I would have thought that you would (without trying too hard) be able to find ~£1400 of the alleged £1500 on offer here purely in the kind of sales promotions companies typically make to acquire new customers. For logo design, I’d point entrepreneurs not at 99designs but instead at ultra-cheap online logo specialists such as gotlogos.com
So… there may possibly be some genuine residual value here for startups, but not that much; and you’d be pretty hard pressed to winkle what there is out of the far corners of StartupBritain’s shell. Bless the organizers for trying, their hearts are plainly in the right place, but personally I would have preferred they had focused on executing one genuinely supportive thing extraordinarily well rather then stuff lots of half-initiatives together into a single grab-bag.
From where I’m sitting, the big question going forward is: how best to salvage StartupBritain? Given that its organizers have created an interesting platform (even if it is, for the moment, fairly content-free), I suspect they really need to “pivot”, i.e. to change emphasis or direction more in line with what it turns out their ‘customers’ (UK startups) actually need, rather than what they thought they needed.
I think it’s already abundantly clear that their customers don’t need the whole “£1500” value angle: the presumption that it was a thing that needed corporate backing at all was also a mistake. Really, was anyone going to be fooled for even a minute by this? I don’t think so.
But I have a suggestion. Back in 2000, Canadian academic Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote an excellent book called The Ingenuity Gap (which I highly recommend to you all). This is essentially a sustained riff on what its back cover succinctly describes as “the critical gap between our need for practical and innovative ideas to solve complex problems and our actual supply of those ideas“.
Kickstarting the UK startup industry is in many ways the kind of complex social problem Homer-Dixon was describing. Yet I would say that StartupBritain is as yet simply not engaging with this key social problem, because we have no obvious shortage of startups, ingenuity, or ambition. It’s other stuff that’s missing.
In fact, arguably the #1 UK startup “ingenuity gap” is the lack of any obvious spirit of collaboration between angels and entrepreneurs. There are literally thousands of ‘latent’ (i.e. non-investing) angels out there, but angel groups have – thanks to such foolish aberrations as “pay-to-prepare“, “pay-to-pitch“, and “pay-to-invest“ – placed such significant and (I think) antagonistic barriers between startups and angels that practically nobody is writing cheques. Where, then, do angels fit into StartupBritain’s view of the world? (I somehow suspect Peter Jones may well form an unrepresentative sample).
Perhaps if StartupBritain thought instead about supporting and shaping practical initiatives concerned with the collaborational area between angels and startups – e.g. open pitching, open scouting, peer startup evaluation, etc – then it would stand some chance of making a real difference here.
In context, all of this comes in a Budget week when EIS has been extended (which is simply fantastic): but it remains to be seen whether UK angels’ ongoing cheque-writing paralysis will ease as a result. The government hopes it will: so perhaps StartupBritain’s organizers might ponder about how their initiative can help make a useful contribution there. No corporate sponsors / wobbly discounts needed!