London’s startup scene is buzzing. The “Silicon Roundabout” phenomenon, centred around the city’s Shoreditch district, has seen new tech companies take on a role of vital importance as the UK’s economy struggles to pull itself out of the mire. The government is desperate to ally itself with East London’s startups, seen as vital players in the only area where the British economy is showing any signs of growth. Its East London Tech City initiative, launched in November 2011 with the aim of supporting tech businesses in this trendy part of the city, is proof of just how seriously startups are being taken.
But more than government chatter about their importance, the biggest thing to happen to startups in London in the past two years has been TechHub. Set up by entrepreneur Elizabeth Varley and journalist and tech commentator Mike Butcher, TechHub’s mission was to bring together startups in a place where they could connect and collaborate. And most importantly, in an environment more conducive to productivity than a networking session in a local pub.
“Essentially it grew out of need,” says Varley, when we catch up with her the morning after TechHub announces plans to open a new space in Manchester this November. “At the beginning, Mike and I both talked about the idea of community and bringing people together. Mike had been writing quite a bit about how there wasn’t a real focal point for the community in London and I’d been working on plans for a coworking-type, membership-based organisation for startups. We wanted to cater to those people who need support right at the beginning. It seems strange to focus a business on a segment of the market that doesn’t have any money, but the need is really there.”
Getting Google on board and creating a community
TechHub opened its doors in July 2010, just over a year after Varley and Butcher began working on the initial concept. Offering a range of affordable membership packages, starting out at just £375 a year plus 20 per cent VAT, the simple aim was to create a collaborative environment for the city’s most vibrant new businesses. Costs were kept down by getting corporate partners, including Google and publisher Pearson, on board. This was vital for Varley: “It’s easy to think of only startups and those who are directly working with those companies in the ecosystem, but for us it’s very much about bringing together different elements.
“What we’re really providing is a place where they can access a lot of things they need,” she says. “Obviously workspace is one of those things, but we consider that a tool, it’s not the be all and end all. It’s really about the community of other people. It’s an opportunity to get support from others, learn from others, get help from other people, to collaborate where needed, and for people to feel like they’re not alone in this.”
A focal point for the startup community
This very much played into what Butcher had been writing about with London lacking a focal point for its startup community. With TechHub in place, startup staff were able to come together and share ideas or simply hang out. And with this added focus, businesses have been able to grow and develop.
Varley points to Cyclr, an online cycling forum and marketplace based at TechHub, as a good example: “Gerry [Newton, Cyclr founder] came into the office on a Saturday morning after our two-year birthday party in July this year. As you can imagine there were not many other people working in the office. There was one other guy sitting there working away on the opposite side of the big room. Gerry wandered over, said hi and they compared hangovers. They got talking, and this guy eventually became Cyclr’s CTO, because it turned out that they had a lot of opportunities to create things together and were of a very like mind. It’s great to hear stories like that, where people really can make material differences to each others’ business.”
”Embracing the crazy”
The idea of people communicating and collaborating is what clearly enthuses Varley the most about TechHub. She talks breathlessly about how bringing people together is what makes working the long hours to ensure TechHub’s growth and success worthwhile. She cites the idea of startups “embracing the crazy,” of people coming together to share their tales of risk and reward.
“I was talking to a guy last night at the launch of TechHub Manchester,” she says. “He’s worked on his product for the last three years from home, and he was saying that you start going a bit nuts doing that. He’s been in at TechHub for two weeks and was saying to me how much he’s enjoying being able to focus, connect to other people, and really look at taking his business to the next level. He’s doing a really interesting product around digital advertising on top of taxis that is location specific. It’s quite an interesting one.”
It’s this obvious passion that makes Tech Hub such a compelling idea. As well as Cyclr and companies developing digital advertising tools, there are startups working on money transfer apps for developing countries and those such as Ad Zero, which is building mobile software and hardware. There are no boundaries as to who can get involved, as long as they have a good idea and are willing to create something out of nothing.
“It feels like alchemy,” says Varley. “You’re creating something that wasn’t there before. For me it’s the essence of what entrepreneurialism is all about. It’s having nothing, nothing at all – no money, no capital, no staff or others to support you, and just making something. It’s incredibly exciting.”
This passion, allied with some seriously good contacts across the UK tech industry, means that TechHub, and the London startup scene, would seem to have a bright future. There are plans for more offices to go alongside the two in London, one in Riga and one in Manchester, with the aim of eventually creating a global startup network. London’s biggest tech success could be setting its sights on Europe next.