Getting to "yes" in a world of "no"…


Few people have heard of the Tech City Investment Organization, and even fewer realize that one of the main reasons it was set up was to encourage overseas companies to park themselves in Shoreditch, to “create more employment more quickly”. Hence the eyecatching entrance of Google and Cisco into the whole Tech City parade: of course, what we’ll do once all the web programmers in town suddenly disappear into their corporate maws is another matter… so yes, that was a great idea, Dave. ‘Great‘, as in… ‘utterly awful‘.

Of course, it’s true that TCIO would also like to encourage angel investors to invest in Tech City startups, but… have you seen any doing this yet? [No, neither have I]. And much as I enjoy chatting with Silicon Valley Bank’s smart & engaging Oscar Jazdowski, trying to apply SVB’s heavyweight expansion capital funding model to Tech City’s frothily lightweight, early stage social media startups is not unlike trying to crack a nut with a pneumatic Hammer-O-Tronic 9000. Well, you could… but, frankly, you’d probably lose your nuts in the process.

As normal, you don’t have to scratch very far beneath the surface hype to see the real problem. For even if you don’t remotely believe TCIO’s apples-for-mangos statistics for the allegedly dramatic expansion of tech startups in Tech City (and I for one don’t), it’s surely terrifically unfair that those [quite literally] poor darling hotdeskers have such an extraordinary burden of government rhetoric dumped on their collective shoulders. Much as I love them as individuals, how exactly are these self-funded software engineers supposed to change the fortune of UK plc? Or is it rather more likely that 95% of their startups will pivot, pivot, stutter and fall, leaving their principals to drop their principles & grab jobs with the webbed-up corporates now conveniently situated next door?

It’s a little bit galling that almost all the attention goes to Tech City, when there has (according to other recent [and probably more reliable] statistics) been a huge surge in startup activity right across the London area. I’m not blaming TCIO’s Tech City tsar Eric van der Kleij for this, but I can’t help but notice that as soon as Tech City gets mentioned in the media, it’s as if everyone’s suddenly trying to behave like an idiot venture capitalist circa 1995, but crossed with all the idiot parts of the Lean Startup circa 2011: people trying to fund VC wetly disintermediated dreams with pin money. Does that notion make any sense to you? Nope, I didn’t think so. 😦

If we can somehow manage to resist the temptation to inhale too deeply from the Tech City bong, the big question is this: what would actually make a difference? What positive thing could the Government actually do? Well…

What about a ‘Small Manufacturing Tsar’?

Being realistic, to make a macroeconomic difference you’d need at least a hundred startups to go totally platinum – to become billion dollar export-heavy industries all in themselves. And that’s a big ask, seeing as barely any UK companies have managed this trick of late.

Yet I think one sector that stands a finite chance of achieving this is modern lean manufacturing, and – not for the first time in the last few years, it has to be said – the world viewed from my seat appears to be radically different from what Whitehall seems to be seeing.

For me, modern manufacturing is totally rock & roll, and offers a real chance of making a macroeconomic difference to exports, tax revenues, and to UK plc in general. Electronics development (and even mechatronics development) has gone garage, while hardware startups are just starting to go properly guerilla too.

Yet many people – even otherwise well-informed and erudite commentators – still struggle to see the differences between, say, British Leyland circa 1975 and a miniaturized mechatronic startup circa 2011, when (apart from the “both making things” bit) you’d have a lot of trouble finding any similarities. I hate to say it, but a lot of this is just academic snobbery, self-appointed faux-elitist nonsense from people who excel at engaging with theoretical knowledge, but disdain getting involved with anything remotely practical. Score one (own goal) for academe, sadly.

The central communication problem here is that small manufacturing has no obvious champion, no clear focus, no accepted role models – the closest Vince Cable gets is when he talks up Brompton Bikes (what about Grahame Herbert and his Airframe folding bike, then? 😉 ).

Hence what I think the UK needs right now is a ‘Small Manufacturing Tsar‘ – someone who can champion, focus and promote small UK manufacturing, to help the country’s small manufacturers get the mindshare and attention they need. They’re not British Steel and British Aerospace, they’re small (yet hugely scalable) companies who don’t happen to fit the kind of startup pigeonholes and templates that funding bodies like the Technology Strategy Board would like them to conform to. They are, as per the title of a recent survey, “Born Global” – because proper manufacturing may now start small and ‘Lean’ (in the correct sense of the word), but it starts with a foot in every country. And that’s… quite a lot of feet.

And so here’s my open question to the Business Secretary: Mr Cable, do you have any current plans to champion, focus and promote the small manufacturing sector? Might I suggest that a Small Manufacturing Tsar might help to do this?

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