UPDATE – one of the main products of me starting to pursue this is Cardiff Start.
Anyone who’s had coffee with me in the second half of 2011 will have heard me bang on about the poor scalable web startup scene in Cardiff. (The discussion about what actually constitutes a web startup has taken up a million blog column inches over the last few years, and I don’t think I can add anything to that. Let’s just say that for the purposes of this blog, I’m referring specifically to scalable businesses that are reliant on web technology to operate and grow).
I’ve always been a keen advocate of small, creative businesses, and indeed I’ve been paid by governments and other organisations to help them engage with the large networks of creatives that I’ve worked with and run events for. But it’s only since starting to seek investment for my own startup that I’ve realised how few “peers” we have locally, when it comes to similar scalable web-based companies. I have hundreds of friends who I can discuss the basics of business with, and the challenges of running a small enterprise. But who was out there that could teach me about acquiring tens of thousands of users? Who could I turn to when I needed some advice on getting investment for growth? Where was my peer network to chew over our business model for ideas?
And then I spoke to a friend in Boulder, Colorado, about the startup scene there. Most Europeans would struggle to pick it out on a map, and yet it was named by Business Week as America’s top city for startups. Heck, I’ve been to the States about 6 times (including Colorado) and I’d struggle to pick it out on a map. And no wonder, as it has a population of just 97,000. To put that in context, GILLINGHAM is bigger than Boulder. Yet this small town in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains had, for example, 11 startups that raised $57 million in the first quarter of 2010.
So, given that our city is 3.5 times bigger than Boulder, why did I struggle to find 6 founders of scalable web startups when I organised a startup dinner earlier this year? Either they don’t exist, or nobody knows they exist. But both of those scenarios are a problem. There’s lots of comparables between Boulder and Cardiff; they have mountains and lakes, we have big hills and the sea; they are only a few hours’ flight from their country’s biggest concentration of startups, and we’re only a few hours drive from London; the average temperature and rainfall in Boulder is, erm, well, let’s just gloss over that little fact….
I won’t go into what is perhaps a lengthy comparison, and the success of Boulder has already been much analysed by more qualified people than me. And none more so than Brad Feld, a tech investor in Boulder who writes extensively about startup culture. He is currently writing “Startup Communities: Creating A Great Entrepreneurial Ecosystem In Your City”, which sounds like the kind of book I want to read. On his new dedicated blog for the project (Startup-communities.com), he links to an open letter from Bala Kamallakharan who wants to do his bit to improve the Icelandic startup community. It’s an inspiring read, and gave me the nudge I needed to get all these ideas I’ve been having down on paper.
EDIT: Brad’s since kindly written about this blog post on his blog.
So, I’m happy for this to be a collaborative document of sorts. I’d like anyone involved in the Cardiff startup scene, or the ecosystem surrounding it, to be involved in helping drive whatever happens next.
Here’s what I’ve done so far. It’s not much, but it’s a start.
- An open Facebook group for more generic startups, and a private LinkedIn group very specifically for scalable web startups.
- I’ve hosted a private dinner for founders of web startups. I want to do more of these. Maybe inviting investors and other relevant parties along.
- I’ve had meetings with the Welsh Government’s Minister For Business Edwina Hart, and key staff members of Finance Wales (thanks to Walter May), pushing the agenda for web startups and passing on the message that government backing is usually too outdated and inflexible for our types of companies.
- I’ve asked questions.
Here’s what I think could be done next. You’re invited.
- A “Startup Council”. Or a board of sorts. Basically a group of likeminded individuals who meet quarterly (?) to discuss the issues affecting our companies, and maybe communicate this to government and other relevant parties. Maybe this board could help with the organisation of some of the following.
- Startup Accelerators for Cardiff & Wales – These are intensive programs, typically a few months, in which entrepreneurs and their startups are put through a business bootcamp of sorts, at the end of which they are hopefully investment-ready.
- More startup dinners.
- Invite speakers / experts from outside Cardiff.
- We also need relevant mentors.
- Want to be involved? Just let me know in the comments below.
What Cardiff has going for it.
- Great quality of life. Mountains and sea within a short drive.
- Two hours from London.
- You can cycle from one side of the city to the other in 15 minutes.
- A world renowned university, and several other fantastic higher education establishments.
- A brilliant, talented, young, vibrant and creative population of over 300,000 people.
- Low cost of living (compared to London or Bristol).
What are the barriers?
- Too few of us? No excuse. If we always think like that then everyone will always leave for Bristol or London. There may only be a handful of relevant startups in Cardiff right now, but we can build a culture here that attracts more.
- Tech naivety of investors here. Cardiff has a strong creative & SME culture, but there are few investors I’ve met who have the knowledge or desire to get into new, disruptive business models.
- Welsh government support isn’t flexible or innovative enough to support these business models. I wrote about one such example just a few weeks ago.
- Is there a brain drain – is the entrepreneurial & coding talent leaving Cardiff?
- What can we do to retain it?
- What can we do to attract it?
- LinkedIn, Apple, Paypal, Twitter and others are setting up offices in Ireland. Why isn’t this happening 75 miles east in Wales? This is a serious question – I honestly don’t know. Is this a tax break thing?
- If so, what can the Welsh government do to encourage such companies to come here. How can they help?
- How can the universities etc be involved?
- Are there physical/geographical/infrastructural things about Cardiff that help/hinder things?
The fact is, even if everything goes perfectly and we get support from every angle, this isn’t going to happen over night. We have to do it ourselves, and can’t rely on support from the public sector. It will probably take years, if not decades, to make Cardiff a great city to create a startup. But we have to start somewhere, right?
I’m currently seeking investment for my company, and working ridiculously long hours already, so like everyone else I don’t have huge amounts of time. But I think a few hours a month from a few willing people and we can really start to make a difference.
Let me know below (or tweet me) if you’ve got ideas, or want to be involved. Whether you consider this a rallying cry, a discussion piece, a call to arms, or a scream in the wilderness, I firmly believe in doing something.
Some more reading. Articles/blogs I’ve collected recently:
Edit: a few more links
How to be Silicon Valley (“nerds and rich guys”)