Getting to "yes" in a world of "no"…

Archive for November, 2011

Manufacturer Hackspaces, the answer to everything…

The Technology Strategy Board has a hard job. Because just about every other source of grant and fund in the UK has been systematically dismantled over the last 3-4 years, nearly every practical aspect of supporting the UK’s technologically innovative SMEs has passed into its hands. I’ve chatted with the TSB’s David Bott during this year, and – really – carrying the weight of the country’s collective startup hopefulness on your shoulders can’t be an easy gig.

Also, the way that the TSB has typically structured its grant “competitions” gets in the way, and I’m not just talking about the way startups have had to be pre-funded in order to qualify (though this was, of course, famously not the case for the Tech City Launchpad1 competition this summer). The impression I get is that in order for these competitions to be politically useful, each one has to be seen to be supporting key aspects of government policy or business-minded aspiration (most notably Tech City, of course).

However… for me, there’s something just plain wrong with this whole picture. The biggest government aspiration of all by a country mile is that startups will (somehow) pluckily drive ‘UK plc’ out of its recessionary doldrums through high-value manufacturing and the alchemical miracle of export growth. Having tried for some years now to do that myself, I can honestly say to the TSB and BIS: nope, sorry, you have basically no hope of achieving that through this kind of approach.

Might the UK’s massed cadre of angel investors be able to help with this? To be brutally honest, they currently are simply not minded to finance any aspect of manufacturing: they can see it’s something worth doing, but they’d rather not do it themselves. Almost all of them – even the ones that are clearly smart enough to know better – have bought lock, stock and barrel into the whole VC make-believe world of “scalable software apps”. That is, too many believe that investment success is merely a matter of connecting jobbing Romanian programmers with some pie-eyed social media need specified by a noodle-eating 22-year-old Shoreditch hotdesker. £65K down for silly equity and the world’s your oyster, bish bash bosh: 10x “home runs” here we come… mine’s a Bollinger, cheers. If only the world of app marketing and customer discovery were merely a viral coefficient away, all software engineers would be billionaires, right?

(Dismal, eh?)

So… if manufacturing is the question, right now the answer is neither UK angels nor that wafer-thin sliver of government funding in the TSB’s hands punted out as competitions. But do I have a better answer?

Actually, I think I do. The TSB may not like to hear it, but my opinion is that the majority of its competitions are a waste both of their time and of government money. If the Coalition had any kind of genuine interest in seeding manufacturing in the UK, what they should do is sponsor some manufacturer hackspaces, like London Hackspace but kitted out with killer stuff for building physical things. Out goes the toy stuff like the MakerBot, but in come the 5-axis mills, the Solidworks, Rhino3d, Moldflow and OneCNC licences, the EOS direct metal laser-sintering box, the 70-ton vertical plastic injection moulding machines, the computer controlled lathes, etc. Essentially, the rapid, dynamic, capital-intensive, properly modern stuff that would let startups design and build stuff in no time at all. For what it’s worth, my bet is that full-on access to modern capital-heavy making equipment would empower people to start making stuff, and would kickstart a whole generation of world-changing physical hackers, not just the kind of effetely lightweight social tweakers angels seem to want to back.

What you’d want to do is find an integrated way of giving low-end industrial training to people who are looking to gain skills using these devices, perhaps in return for helping startups out: and to set up some kind of reasonable access scheme whereby startups can use the equipment to do prototyping and test runs but not production runs.

Also, you’d probably want to place these (two? three? four?) manufacturer hackspaces near universities, though not actually inside them. (Is there space in one of Hermann Hauser’s buildings in Cambridge? Could London Hackspace double in size?) I think it would be important to make sure that these stayed independent of the whole dismal university spin-out culture: this should be a world-changing toolkit for dangerous, practical people, not for academics per se. What the government desperately wants to bet on is that the UK still has such edgy, driven makers who will find a way of doing stuff. Well, speaking as someone who fits that category pretty damn well, I can tell you that such people now find themselves standing on air – there is nothing to support them. Nothing at all. And a manufacturing hackspace or two would be an unbelievably large, positive step in absolutely the right direction.

So, how about it, TSB? I suspect that you’re just as dissatisfied with your funding competitions as the poor saps currently reading and re-reading the applicant notes to rejig their pitches to finesse an extra 1% from the independent judging panel. Does such a process genuinely validate real development talent and ability to service customer need, or merely the ability to fill out the forms for a bureaucratically minded pitch?

From my perspective, the TSB has wearily followed this competition path more than long enough to know that it’s time for a change: it now needs to back interesting stuff that challenges the status quo and empowers new, crazy, unexpected, export-centred physical businesses. Stuff that changes the world, one good idea at a time.

So, off you go, then, TSB people. Talk with the ministerial, the great, and the good – James Dyson? Phil O’Donovan? – and find a way of setting up properly ambitious manufacturing hackspaces. Take some first steps along that road (however tentative), and I’ll be with you every inch of the way. Find a way of being brave… really, you know you ought to, and – if you just asked for it in the right way – you very probably can.

Angry post on startups and delusion…

Now, I’ll freely admit I’ve made some angry posts in the past… but this one is a bit special, even by my standards, Right now, this is how angry I feel:-

As an entrepreneur, there’s one thing people ask me again and again as nicely as they bl**dy can – “is your startup going to work, or is it all just a delusion?” Or (without the tact) could it be that you have just wasted years of time and piles of money upon some kind of narcissistic fantasy business non-venture you would have avoided had you bothered to think it through beforehand for even a microsecond? And now, having made such a high personal investment in it, are you so committed to this faulty course of action that you are inevitably going to drag your formerly shining life down with you as you tumble past mere poverty and late middle age into ignominy, paranoia and situational dementia?

Naturally, the reply I would like to make is: people, people, I thank you for your implicit concern for my well-being, even if it is expressed in a form which fails to engage both with what I’m actually doing (something hard but worthwhile, at a near-martyrly level of delayed gratification few can properly grasp) and with what I actually need (support on many levels). Please be reassured that, however falteringly and annoyingly you managed to express your concern, I do honestly appreciate it: and that it’s not you who is making me so angry.

Rather, that particular anti-accolade falls to the massed ranks of idiots who all claim to be “helping entrepreneurs” and “promoting entrepreneurship“: the advisors, the startup service providers, the mentors, the “friendly VCs”, the angels, the superangels, the “dragons”, the investment networks, the gatekeepers, the teachers, the lecturers, the economists, the journalists, the bloggers, the so-called “experts”… yes, the whole damnably useless lot of them.

You see, what has annoyed me most today is simply the awful realisation that pretty much all of the worst decisions I’ve made along the way as an entrepreneur have been based firmly on some plausible-sounding delusion passed my way by a well-meaning ‘expert’. That is, I think the thing that entrepreneurs are mainly guilty of is placing trust in the delusions of so-called experts. So it is not that we ourselves are deluded, but that we are immersed in a sea of delusionary data – advice on how to startup, how to pitch, how to present, how to plan, how to develop products, how to develop customers, how to grow, how to raise money, how to exit. Pathetic, toxic, literally useless nonsense, the lot of it.

Think back: what was the last bit of advice you received about funding or finance that was remotely correct or even partially helpful? And you’re now basing your future funding plans on… what, exactly?

I would go so far as to say that the vast majority of entrepreneurs I’ve met are clever, determined, tech-biased people, but who – when it comes to external finance – are all basically twirled around by the nose for months before being dumped in a field (welcome to our little patch of green, did you bring a tent?).

What makes me angriest of all is the “Evan Davis Gambit”, blaming failure on entrepreneurs’ delusion: the biggest delusions in that set room are the primped-up egos of the Dragons, convinced that they can use truisms and business machismo to speed-date their way into industries and situations they know next to nothing about, and for a song. Viewers laugh (mainly in embarrassment, I think) at the goings-on “in the Den”, but the tragedy there is less in the stand-up side than the sit-down side of the room.

So, what is ultimately the more delusional? The optimistic business plans of entrepreneurs, or the toxic advice people like to cast gaily in their paths, even though it is almost always likely to result in that entrepreneur wasting even more of his/her time and money had he/she simply got on with doing what they were doing? Really, who’s deluding whom in this stupid fiasco?

Finally: what powerfully insightful (yet resolutely truth-telling) normative advice can I offer you today to counterbalance all this anger-making abusiveness and toxicity? Errrm… absolutely nothing. The subtext beneath this pathetic dynamic is that the more the UK has lost touch of exports and global markets (in every sense apart from financial services, pah!), the more it has reverted to a depressingly parochial island mindset: and this is increasingly true on many levels.

Really, to compete effectively against the massed cohorts of fast, lean, rapidly-pivoting global players in the Far East and elsewhere, startups increasingly need investors with global vision and the proverbial “balls of steel”: yet there are, correct me if I’m wrong (but I’m not) basically none of these in the UK. In practice, the investors you’ll actually meet have local vision (multiple counties if you’re lucky) and a jittery 12-month cashflow-horizon-of-doom to satisfy. If you’re lucky.

And you wonder why I get so damned angry? A pox on the lot of them!