Cardiff’s Startup Culture – What can we do about it?

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 (, 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.
  • Meetups.
  • 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:

Guardian article about London’s Silicon Roundabout

Irish government spends 10m euros to encourage tech startups

Is Austin or Boulder better to start a startup in?

Has Tech City in London wasted £1m?

Why Berlin is poised to be Europe’s tech startup hub

Cambridge’s “Silicon Fen” shows off its wares

“Silicon Gorge” – the west country’s tech scene

NESTA – Who will promote Accelerators in the UK?

Why an investor abandoned a startup fund in Chile

What makes accelerators work

Edit: a few more links

The history of Canada’s Technology Triangle (thanks @Keeran)

Estonia’s flourishing startup scene

How Israel built its tech startup scene (thanks @GregBednarski)

How to be Silicon Valley (“nerds and rich guys”)

Build the ecosystem and they will come. Ireland’s success.

What can we learn from London’s Tech City project?

Why has New York become a paradise for tech startups?

The pros and cons of Boulder’s startup community

How grassroots tech communities can influence government policy

Why birds of a tech feather flock together

47 responses to “Cardiff’s Startup Culture – What can we do about it?”

  1. Neil –

    There is something more about Incubating/ mentoring/ taking minority stakes/ having “foster parent” companies etc. etc. etc. that needs looking into here I think – if this makes sense? Happy to expand/ expound further if that helps.



    • Yes, I think you’re right, Huw. And I think Accelerators are probably the best model for this. The incubator model seems to have failed in Wales (for web/tech startups, at least). It was just a form of cheap rent in most cases. No sense of internal cohesion/direction. The explicit intention of accelerators seems to get round that.

  2. I’m definitely very interested in helping out in any way I can.

    I co-founded for similar reasons and my end goal is to do VC/Mentoring. I already do a decent bit of mentoring.

    Cardiff never interested me until I moved here for a job and now I’m sticking for a very long while. I’d love to help push the tech scene in this city.

  3. Love your enthusiasm, Neil. Yes, the Irish attraction is a tax break thing – and jobs in Wales have already ended here and gone over there.

    At least Terry Matthews and Simon Gibson have got their tech incubator programme running now for talented graduates – maybe worth talking with them?

    • Yeah, have been looking at the Matthews Incubator thing. Has potential, and def have plans to drop them a line. Slightly different model to normal accelerator, but if it develops more tech entrepreneurs locally I’m all for it!

  4. Neil, another very insightful look at creativity in Cardiff.

    Having recently moved back to Cardiff from London to concentrate on my film making and video production company full time, I am more than happy to help out in any way.

    One thing, that you have highlighted in your piece, is the fact that people move on to more ‘industry-core’ areas such as Bristol and London despite the money to train them being spent in Cardiff.

    Obviously I’m guilty of that with my previous employment move but I believe the mind set needs changing, both in and outside of Cardiff, for exactly the reasons you’ve set out above.

    There are many, many talented people working in the creative industries in South Wales, not just Cardiff, and I get very angry when I hear of local companies that look to these ‘creative hubs’ of Bristol and London when looking for companies to build them an app, shoot a film, design a website. This certainly doesn’t help the way the local creatives think about the area as a place to start up, or even sustain, a business.

    • Yeah, one thing I was particularly aware of in local creative industries was lack of local awareness, and therefore supply chain leaving Cardiff or South Wales. One of the reasons for setting up NOCCI. I know WG had plans for a digital network to improve local collaboration, but it died on the vine (I think). I helped them with it a bit, but it was built wrong from the ground up, and was fatally flawed from day one, I’m afraid.

  5. Hey Neil! Not being a startup myself, I’m merely watching and applauding your endeavours. Thought I’d chip in an offer of services for the Startup Accelerators – in my world, any decent entrepreneurship/business bootcamp would have a creativity/personal awareness aspect to it – kind of play/unblock/reveal/engage themes – and I would be delighted to provide! Just a thought which I shall leave hanging there for now… 🙂
    Noreen x

  6. Great post Neil. Would be interested in getting involved in the conversation. This year I’m planning to bite-the-bullet on a web app idea I’ve had for a couple years now.

    Just beginning to map it out so it would be great to chat to people about moving from prototype / beta to fully running. So now is a good time to be having conversations about how to get things started by learning for other peoples experiences!

  7. As requested by Neil, I’m copying my comments from LinkedIn to this post:

    I think your blog post hits lots of nails squarely on the head. I’m going to repeat quite a few of your observations in my thoughts below, I suspect. Hopefully you don’t mind a Cardiff expat giving their opinion! This topic is pretty close to my heart (when I have the means, I hope to help with a Cardiff incubator of some sort.)

    It’s interesting to look at the history of Silicon Valley and how it became the centre of startup culture. Two key factors appear to have been access to local technical talent/education (Stanford, Berkeley, San Jose, etc) and, equally importantly, it was/is easier to set up companies in SV than elsewhere. In the early (hardware) days, this came about through sharing the expensive machinery and tools necessary to create hi-tech equipment; more recently (software), it’s thanks to the huge amount of knowledge and investment available in the area.

    While other cities have tried to emulate SV, many fail. Although there are a few up and coming (Boulder, New York, London, Berlin, Santiago, Boston, Austin, etc), few seem to capture the sheer quantity and quality of SV output. I’ve only been here 6 months, but I can say without question that it’s a totally different culture/environment to London, let alone Cardiff, Vancouver, or anywhere else I’ve lived.

    My observations on how it is different and what makes the ‘scene’ possible:

    1. The feedback-loop of success, which is tricky to emulate in another location. Historically this area has created tech millionaires, who in turn become angels or VCs and invest in young companies. These succeed, create more millionaires, and the cycle continues. New York is quickly catching up with the VC/angel community, but other cities seems to fail at emulating this. For example, the Start-Up Chile program in Santiago tries to replace VC cash with a government loan of $40k. This is a nice wodge of cash, but people in the program seem to have the same complaints: the government doesn’t have the same ‘investment’ in the companies as a VC/angel would (nor the mentoring capabilities), and there is a lack of VC/angels in the area once they’ve burned through their initial investment, so they then have to move elsewhere. Without a strong VC/angel scene who have knowledge of their industry, the risky startup culture is difficult to get going. SV has Y Combinator, 500 startups, and other successful programs that support a huge number of young startups; dozens every quarter.

    2. The trick-down effect. Companies here pay ridiculously high wages; an engineer can expect to earn a minimum of $100-$150k if they’re half-decent, plus stocks and other major benefits. Once they’ve worked a couple of years, they can afford to take time off and risk their own startup. Thanks to the demand for talent, they can jump back into a full-time job at any time.

    3. The culture. I don’t know whether it’s an American thing or a SV thing, but people here have a different approach to business and risk. It’s almost like it’s part of the national psyche to be entrepreneurial, confident and motivated to get what you want. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a better outlook than the more laid-back British work attitude, but it does seem to make a difference. For example, in Cardiff I would rarely talk to someone else (e.g. at an event) about business, as it seemed a little ‘dirty’ somehow. Here it’s much more open and expected. You touch on this in a number of points in your post. There’s a huge need for mentoring and learning, and SV has it in spades. I’m lucky to have a wonderful contact (who has created four successful startups) who meets with me every couple of months and kicks me into shape with brashness and confidence, and he does it with no expectations. I’m not an old friend, I don’t pay him anything, and he’s not invested in anything I do. But it’s part of the culture here.

    Anyway, to get on to what I think Cardiff needs (and this is all opinion of course, take with a pinch of salt!) –

    1. Proven mentors. People who have succeeded in the web industry who can guide others. Most notably, this isn’t about talking CSS or programming – it’s about how to raise cash, get users, reduce churn, focus your feature set, etc. Perhaps more importantly, it’s about someone telling you to stop doing the things you’re doing wrong and to set you on the right path. And if you’re building something crap, they need to give it to you straight.

    2. At least one or two angels/VCs who have knowledge of the industry. These don’t have to be Cardiff-based, but need to be active in the Cardiff scene. Cardiff doesn’t really have the wage levels to allow startups to easily start organically, even relatively cheap web startups (where a small team may need a few months wages to get going, and another 3-6 months to become profitable).

    3. Education/culture-shift. This comes back to some of the things you’re trying to do, which feel hugely important. People need to get together and talk to each other about business. This is partly about learning from one another, partly about support (starting a business is hard!), and partly about changing attitudes. In this regard, I think it’s important that these events, while business-focused, are not government-sponsored or stuffy. They need to be entrepreneurial and confident.

  8. I didn’t even know that anyone in Cardiff was trying any more. At we often cover lame news about various well intentioned and well funded programmes that are never going to work.

    Mentoring is vital. If I have a code problem I have to sort it out myself – I just don’t know any one I can pick up the phone to in Cardiff. It is not just about the money, though that would help. Every time I’ve tried to even bring up the subject I get some w**ker who thinks they can play Dragon’s Den and offer a pitiful amount for six years work, over 30,000 pages and over 7 million hits a month. If you ever fancy a coffee give me a shout.

    I’m so fed up I’m thinking of leaving Wales.

  9. Hi Neil, great blog.

    Firstly, I’d like to commend you on your quest to creative a vibrant startup scene in Cardiff. It clearly takes a lot of time and energy, so well done!

    I agree with your comments around business support. I believe that WG and business support services aren’t able to help certain scalable IT startups as their philosophy and systems do not allow them to help. Therefore, the solution and cultural shift has to come from within.

    I think a starting point could be championing successful organistions and people that originate from Cardiff/South Wales and building on those networks in the UK and further afield – as I am a firm believer in success breeds success and mentoring from people who understand your specific industry is absolutely critical!

    Only the other day did some mention The founders originate from Cardiff and established their business in Chepstow, prior to winning seedcamp in 2008. They now have offices in a number of countries around the world and recently secured $11m funding from Google! Amazing.

    I think a startup council is a great idea. Driving change this way will be much more impactful and might actually get the Welsh business support community to recognise the opportunity that lies in this sector.

    Accelerator programmes, dinners & meetups – again, all good stuff. In addition to hosting events with potential investors/business people/sponsors etc, perhaps merging some of these events with creative departments at Universities might also be beneficial?

    What about a Cardiff Startup event in London – perhaps the Hub, Westminster Hub, Tech City? How about doing this collaboratively with a University, Welsh Government, Cardiff & Co etc? It could be linked into an existing event taking place in London and might mean that we can attract people of international significance.

    Alternatively (and slightly more expensive!), what about going to Silicon Valley itself? If that’s what it takes to make our vision happen, why don’t we do it? Could try to source a corporate sponsor for a ‘cardiff startup mission’?

    There’s no reason why Cardiff cannot become a recognised hotspot for startups but when comparing Europe (business model led) to the USA (idea led); the investment models and risk adverse nature of EU investors will always hold back startsups in the UK regardless of what we do. However, lobbying for improve corporate taxes and terms associated with EIS may help.

    In addition, many successful entrepreneurs are on our side and are calling for the identification and support for home grown scalable startups. Unlike multinationals that base themselves in S. Wales then later leave for countries with improved terms, growing org’s from within Cardiff will create strong links with the community and more sustainable long term growth for Wales, whilst boosting Wales’ export value.

    Finally, as someone who entered the scene without much prior knowledge of the creative digital industries I think a centre for excellence (similar to @CreativeCardiff) to identify different agencies and their skill sets, portfolios, references etc would be a huge help. Originally, I received help from Design Wales (which was invaluable) but their resources have since been reduced and I’m yet to identify any other independent source that can help people find creatives AND, somewhat importantly, the right ones!

    Like I said, great blog and please let me know if I can help in anyway 😉


    • If anyone was interested in arranging a “cardiff startup mission” to SV, I’d be happy to help arrange some meet-ups/drinks with people from Facebook, Google, Mozilla etc, and maybe some of the smaller high-growth startups in the area too.

    • Hi Luke,

      Thanks for all this. All really useful insight, and I think you’re definitely one of the few great-looking startups we’ve got here, and should be celebrated. I’d never even heard of Basekit!

      Yes to the idea of getting out to SV (I know the Global Academy have got a programme running to this effect):

      I’ve pointed them to Dan’s comments below. I think we should take advantage of having an “inside man”.

      I think things have moved on quite a bit for both of us since we last met. Coffee soon?

      • yes, coffee would be great. It’d be good to hear how things are progressing! Let’s get something in the diary – ping me some dates

        Global Academy looks interesting. I’d be interested to know how to create opportunities from that?

        Dan, thank you for your offer – quite amazing. I think we should investigate this further, but agree that maybe a cardiff-to-london trip would be a good easy start – something to build on.

    • p.s. One last thing (like Columbo) – I like the idea of a centre of excellence, or hub. But it needs to be done well. We had @Wales, but it just didn’t work for a number of reasons. A bunch of digital comapnies that don’t care about each other, in an expensive building that isn’t managed to encourage collaboration and communication, isn’t a recipe for success.

  10. Great piece Neil and keep up the great work…

    It’s inspiring to read about other community’s efforts as we’re working to build similar models here within the Midwest aka Silicon Prairie of Omaha, Des Moines and Kansas City.

    Talk soon and let us know if there’s anything we can do…

      • hello Neil, getting this issue talked about is great news, so thank you…and I’d definitely like to be involved!
        Part of the reason I’m so keen on bringing Central Working to Cardiff is their support for entrepreneurs, especially the Business Accelerator course. Hopefully will have more to report on this soon…in the meantime please may I link to your original post in my next instalment?

        See you at Capital Cardiff if not before, Michelle

  11. Hi Neil,

    You hit the nail on the head with this article. I’m from NY and live in South Wales now, opened 3 businesses here, so I know there is opportunity. There’s a (slow) culture change that is happening, but then again everything is slow compared to NYC. I would love to get involved and help any way I can. We started a programme called Ohm Small Business (twitter @ohmbusiness) offering free workshops to startups, so I would like to see how I can incorporate that into your initiative.

    Marketing & Design studio

    • Hi Jessie,

      Thanks for the feedback and input. Sounds like you’re doing some good stuff, so would be happy to chat. You should definitely try to get to some of the events in Cardiff and say hello! 🙂

  12. Hi Neil, you have some very good questions here – many of which I’ve asked myself.

    One point of view regarding why SV was so successful that I don’t think has been expressed yet is that the laws were just as important as the tech (see here for an informative article / podcast

    Also, you seem to be limiting yourself to web based startups, not tech in general – is there any reason for this? I can think of two very interesting non-web based areas that appear to be ripe for startup innovation – RepRap and – the latter of which are openly asking for biz-types to try and take their ideas and build a working business from it.

    My personal opinion (probably heavily skewed by Steven Levy’s excellent book ‘Hackers’), is that a startup culture needs a thriving ‘nerd culture’ from which to grow. That, and it has to be easy to try a new idea out, and if it fails, be able to quickly try another again – a certain critical mass of new, good ideas is needed for this.


    (Nerd, currently working in the remnants of a South Wales tech incubator site, for a foreign-based tech startup company – wondering where all the local startups are).

    • Hey Mark,

      Thanks for the comments! Hadn’t read about the legal angle on SV. Will check out that link this afternoon, thanks.

      No intention to limit the network at all. Probably just used the phrase “web”, rather than keep repeating “digital, tech, creative” etc.

      And you’re right about the “nerds”. Read the penultimate link at the bottom of the post. Basically suggests that startup cultures need nerds and rich guys as an absolute minimum.

  13. Hi,

    Please email me, I have just taken a new role within cardiff. I am looking to promote new startups provide advice and support and guidence.

    I work quite closely to business in focus where we look to offer solutions to sme’s wearer it’s finance, marketing or risk and Health and safety planning.

    I do attend regular networking meeting to look at strategys on how we can support driving sme growth within cardiff.

    Ian Burch

  14. There are very few credible or proven mentors in Cardiff. Also a lack of talent in the supporting service industries: employee force generally (eg legal, accounting). Combine that with a local lack of vision and ambition. They are your three main problems. WG support is spirited but too rigid/risk averse. Cardiff council support is even worse in its rigidity.

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