A few years ago I shared my views on attributes I found across emerging tech ecosystems that helped them flourish. Originally, I wrote the post as an answer to a question I was posed. As such, in this post, I’ve reviewed what’s happened in Europe over the past 4 years, and have added to that original post in hopes of helping anyone trying to answer the same question I was asked.
Aside from helping economies move forward through the creation of jobs and wealth, a thriving ecosystem allows startup founders to connect with other founders and share stories about how to overcome technical and commercial problems they may be facing.
Building anything new is hard, never mind alone and in a vacuum, thus sharing experiences with others should not be under-appreciated. Additionally, a growing ecosystem unlocked pools of capital be they private or public that are already existing in the local community and put them to work on improving and developing the community further.
Using London as an example, I’ve seen the local ecosystem evolve from its nascent stages, to where it is today, rivaling New York (according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg) at the global scale (this stat was from when I originally wrote this, but still feels true today).
This growth has been due to many factors, and I don’t want to seem to oversimplify what is arguable a very complex set of interplaying variables, but I do want to highlight some of the ones that stand out the most for me as drivers of a maturing ecosystem.
Local concentration of founders and other ecosystem players
In Steve Johnson’s book ”Where Good Ideas Come From,” he talks about the power of a network and how proximity of nodes aids the network’s speed of development.
London has exploded since 2014 when I wrote this article originally where I mentioned the emergence of TechHub and later on Campus and Tech City to bring together many would-be founders and growing companies. Now, players like WeWork make co-working spaces a freely available option, and new spaces like RocketSpace, Runway East, and Second Home create alternative communities to boot.
In addition to co-working spaces, if you visit local buzzing digs such as Ozone Coffee, it is quite common to see investors and well-known founders intermingling. It is through this intermingling, across cafes, pubs, bars, and restaurants, that creates the serendipity that is required to have more ideas and decisions ”just happen.”
The local culture’s support tone towards founders and local entrepreneurial heroes
Whilst it’s never easy to start a company, the process can easily be made twice as hard if you don’t have the support of your friends, family, and community. If your family thinks you are insane for not taking that corporate job and your friends think so as well, there is social friction in the ecosystem which prevents the unlocking of innovation.
Tolerance for failure is another aspect that is important for a culture of entrepreneurial innovation to occur. Failure both in terms of the personal failure, but also the legal failure. In a culture where failure brands and stays with you for life financially and socially, risk taking will naturally be discouraged.
While these aspects of a community are hard to change quickly, this is something that local governments and schools can help change through targeted campaigns (as can be seen, for example, in other forms of government intervention programs and their success rates in changing popular perceptions such national health issues).
Groups in the UK such as the ICE group also do an amazing job of bringing together founds to learn from each other, share war stories, and help overcome some of the personal challenges founders go through in their journey.
Quality of local education and engineering training
In London, we have some amazing universities, and thus, every year, a new crop of recently graduated engineers and other majors interested in starting a business enter the workforce.
For the most part, most large cities has distinguished academic bodies, so rarely is it about capability, but sometimes about offering students a place to experiment new ideas and providing them with applied internships. Universities are increasingly developing internal incubators to allow students to exercise a more applied version of their education, which either leads to new developments, or more experienced founders. In the UK (and increasingly abroad), organisations like Entrepreneur First do an amazing job of helping graduates with meeting other talented individuals, creating amazing ideas and forming companies.
Additionally, programs that help teach entrepreneurship to students, such the NEF, or to the public at large, such as Startup Weekend can greatly lead to an increase in the quality of the workforce and entrepreneurial mindset of a community. Programs such as CodeFirstGirls and Spear can also be huge enablers for many members of the community who wish to enter the tech ecosystem.
Availability of HR talent and immigration reform
Aside from students, other individuals with experience are needed in a growing ecosystem. One quick way of bridging a shortage in staff in an area is to create immigration policies that allow for talented and capable individuals to enter the county and its labor force without major hurdles.
This is an area that many countries struggle with, particularly when the local population starts taking a protectionist slant towards employment opportunities. Nothing helps accelerate an ecosystem’s growth as the importing of highly skilled migrant talent.
The UK has, in many ways, led innovation in this area, originally with the creation of the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme (no longer available unfortunately) and the Startup Visa for founders in startups that have received £50K in investment. Innovations likes these have made some great strides in solving this problem for the UK, and I’m surprised how few other countries have attempted to solve this (Naturally Brexit will bring some challenges with this, but hopefully they will be solved).
Access to successful mentors or serial entrepreneurs
It goes without saying that there are plenty of smart and accomplished in Europe. Companies such as Soundcloud Skype, Transferwise and more were born out Europe and there are plenty of new companies that are creating technologies in hardware, fin-tech, and other areas.
The challenge for any emerging ecosystem is identifying these individuals and finding an efficient way for these potential mentors to meet promising new companies and founders.
A strong and growing media presence
As the old adage goes, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Likewise, a successful startup story without an amplifier doesn’t help inspire others to do the same.
Of course, the media isn’t only about highlighting success stories, but also helps keep the ecosystem honest by bringing to light causes, political initiatives, key players, and even the occasional startup post-mortem to help founders navigate the emerging local tech industry.
Since 2014, there has been an explosion of media covering tech in Europe, ranging from publications such Techcrunch and Tech.eu to video channels and podcasts (have you checked out our podcast here? — http://podcast.seedcamp.com/)
Access to infrastructure
Building a tech startup is near to impossible if you don’t have access to a reliable and fast internet connection and access to key services such as hosting companies, social networks, and search engines (some countries block these services for various reasons). A lot of the prior is no longer the case in the UK, but continues to be a problem in other geographies… and sometimes it isn’t access infrastructure, but rather things like access to data, hosting/processing infrastructure, and search engines, and key internet platforms.
This does mean some countries really struggle, but these problems tend to be ones that local governments are almost always keen on resolving quickly — not just for the tech community, but also for other communities. If censoring is an issue in your local ecosystem, that can still make things more challenging.
Access to experienced capital
Capital comes in many forms, but experienced capital can really make a difference to new companies. Experienced capital is not just about having made money before, but rather understanding what early stage startups are like and that they don’t fit the return profile, regularity, forecast-ability, or structure of real estate or private equity investments.
Experienced capital also knows how to coach and help founders along their journey rather than just auditing founders the way a public company analyst may.
Investors that understand how the global fundraising process works and know how to scale a company are hard to come by, so for sure any local ecosystem that has a few of these are very lucky, and the ecosystem as a whole can grow greatly by increasing the knowledge share between these individuals and the rest of the investment community.
Tax relief for investors investing in risky companies
Investing in startup companies can be lucrative if you do well and manage to back the minority of companies that do well. However, you will likely lose on most investments you make in the asset class because of its inherent risk.
This has always been the fundamentally difficult thing for new investors to digest when choosing to invest in startups versus, say, a well-structured financial product from a brokerage firm.
However, tax incentive schemes for investors led by the government, such as the SEIS program in the UK which allows investors to offset income tax and capital gains tax on positive returns on an investment, can greatly increase the attractiveness of high risk investments to investors.
Ecosystems who have government support to help investors invest more, generally manage to unlock stored pools of capital that can be repurposed to help stimulate the economy.
Tax relief for successful founders
In the same spirit as the above, ecosystems that offer founders some sort of tax relief on gains when exiting a company can effectively reduce the tax impact on them. This allows founders to have more available capital to invest in new startups. In the UK, this program is called Entrepreneur’s Relief.
Although not every exit will leave founders with a disposable net worth to invest in new startups, by creating the structure that encourages this, it merely becomes a numbers game of how many founders who are successful contribute back into the economy.
Couple with investor tax incentive schemas, you effectively create a virtuous circle of wealth creation that can be repurposed for further wealth creation.
Sure, not every founder will do this, but you just need a few to take this up, for it to be greatly effective.
Access to experienced legal counsel
Experienced lawyers can save a company a lot of time and money. I’ve seen deals go sour because someone’s counsel was not well-versed in standard terms or venture dynamics.
Lawyers are there to help you make things easier and protect you from things going wrong in the future, and not the other way around, but not all ecosystems have legal counsel that is well versed in venture law.
Initiatives such as the seedsummit termsheets, the series seed termsheets, and the BVCA documents — all available online — are good starting points for startups in emerging ecosystems to learn about what is normal and what is not. Then, if in the process of evaluating counsel for your company there is a mismatch between what you’ve seen and what they are familiar with, that is potentially a red flag.
Simplified local legal systems
Part of the legal challenge is not only just finding the right kind of lawyers to hire, but also in having the ecosystem have laws that help support Entrepreneurs. For example, laws that make it difficult to hire and fire employees make it hard for a startup to control cash burn as early founders will inevitably have to expand and contract as their companies go through natural peaks and troughs.
Simplification of the legal bureaucratic burden on the founder can make a huge difference: little things like allowing e-signatures can greatly speed up how quickly deals are completed vs having to have a notary sign or other more complicated structures which can slow things down.
And lastly, and considering how many successful startups come from after a founder has had at least one failure, a government’s treatment of company bankruptcy as either a black flag for the founder for ever more or as a state that does not tarnish one’s reputation from being able to try again.
To wrap it up…
In conclusion, whilst there are many variables to consider in how to help develop a local ecosystem, the above list are some that I see as almost very crucial to kick it off.
For example, note that I didn’t include things like interest rates or a thriving local M&A market… if an M&A market is present, for example, its great, but frankly, most foreign M&A markets pale in comparison with the global M&A market led by the top international corporations.
As such, a better place to start to try and influence change is to address the variables that are easier to adapt in the short term. In the longer term, as the ecosystem blossoms, the local corporates will take notice and will want to get involved.
If you like this post, please feel free to share with your local government officials to initiate a dialog about how to spur growth of your local community’s ecosystem.