As the world's most connected cities—from Singapore to Sao Paolo to New York—make great efforts to keep pace with California's Silicon Valley, the United Kingdom isn't one to be left behind.
With nearly 8 million people and a diversity of industries ripe for disruption, many eager eyes are looking to London's burgeoning tech scene. Since the announcement of the UK government-backed “Tech City” community in late 2010, coupled with the enthusiastic support of Prime Minister David Cameron and 10 Downing, London's technology industry has made headlines, and today becoming a tech entrepreneur is a realistic—and yes, even profitable—profession.
London’s tech scene is global, diverse, and creative, with strong sectors like music, fashion, and mobile. Much like Foursquare is a seasoned start-up and, thus, an inspiration to younger start-ups in New York City, companies like Net-A-Porter, Moshi Monsters, Moo, and TweetDeck have marked trails for budding entrepreneurs in London. To this point, Last.fm’s £140 million exit to CBS Radio in 2007, along with European rockstars SoundCloud and Spotify, have set the tone for London’s vibrant music scene, which includes start-ups like MixCloud, Songkick, RjDj, Musicmetric, and Tastebuds.fm.
London’s host of hot fashion start-ups includes big-data company EDITD, digital fashion companies Not Just a Label, Osmoda, and and Lyst, and finally Lluster, which was recently acquired by the U.S. ecommerce design site Fab.com. In the mobile space, one of London's hottest mobile companies is the social-networking app Badoo, which threw an elaborate bash after the recent LeWeb Conference -- a Parisian tech conference that recently launched its satellite fair in London. Other notable mobile start-ups include ArtSpotter, WiFi community Fon, and personal-shopping app HipSnip.
Without a doubt, the tech start-up darling right now is mobile transportation app Hailo, which is swiftly disrupting the Black Cab industry with its easy-to-use, on-demand taxi service. For the same cost of a black cab and the convenience of charging with your credit card, I don't know why anyone would use his or her arm to hail a cab anymore. But Hailo can't simply rest on its proverbial laurels. San Francisco-based mobile transportation app Uber launched in London this June, luring customers with its fleet of Mercedes, BMWs, and Jaguars for luxury-on-demand transport.
To recognize just how important the mobile space is, local tech accelerator Springboard recently launched Springboard Mobile, what founder Jon Bradford is calling Europe’s first accelerator bootcamp for mobile-only start-ups. “Mobile represents a global opportunity that is massively underestimated,” said Bradford in an e-mail. “Its reach and impact will be felt across many industries and will reshape our day-to-day life."
Establishing a Community
Due to its trendy surroundings and relatively low cost of rent, East London has become a hub for hundreds of London start-ups. In what is often referred to as the twee “Silicon Roundabout,” you’ll find co-working spaces like The Trampery and the newly opened, seven-floor Google Campus, which is home to accelerators like Seedcamp and Springboard as well as community stronghold TechHub.
To help spread the word about available tech jobs and happening tech events, Londoners turn to campaigns like Startup Britain and the yet-to-launch TechBritain, newsletters like Escape the City and The Fetch, meet-ups like London’sSiliconRoundaboutMeetup, and sites like The Startup Digest and F6s. This year’s Digital Shoreditch Festival included over 50 events with more than 2,000 attendees over five days. The event has become one of the largest digital media events in the UK, and organizers hope it will one day rival massive conferences like SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas.
Many say the energy in London is like New York a few years ago, or San Francisco in the early 90s. "London reminds us of the way New York City was two years ago," says Adam Pritzker, an entrepreneur who chose to expand his digital education company, General Assembly, to London this past spring. "They're both cities populated with legacy industries like finance, media, advertising, and government that are now being disrupted by new technologies." This past year dozens of U.S. companies set up shop across the pond including wine ecommerce start-up Lot18, event-ticketing system Eventbrite, and social advertising start-up Adaptly.
Finance is an important legacy industry in London—and the current financiers’ exodus to start-up land is not to be overlooked. Start-ups such as Transferwise, a peer-to-peer currency exchange; MarketInvoice, an online marketplace for companies to raise capital by auctioning off their outstanding invoices; and GoCardless, an online payment platform that allows merchants to take payments online directly from consumers’ debit cards; were all founded by former financiers and consultants.
Will London ever produce the next Facebook, Amazon, or Twitter? While the venture-capital situation is slowly improving, investors are still very conservative in London due to a lack of big exits and return on capital in recent years. As the ecosystem develops, investments should get more fluid, but many people on the outside looking in will ask, “Is there something about the English attitude that’s holding it back?” Or, more precisely, are the British simply more risk-averse than the revolutionary cowboys of America?
While the get-rich-or-die-trying mentality of the States is ingrained in its people (along with an inclination towards self-celebration) London’s tech community is becoming more and more receptive to the entrepreneurial mindset. Whether London's tech scene is destined to experience explosive growth, or whether it will grow slowly and steadily, informed by its own cautious culture and creative strengths, is yet to be seen.
This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author's own.