I’m currently receiving a lot of traffic to this blog that I think is more about my startup, RampTshirts.com, than about my personal thoughts. If you’re interested in the business, then check out what I’m posting on the Ramp blog.
I’ll soon be posting there, and on my Medium feed, more about our decision to relocate Ramp to Sofia, and the effect it’s had on us!
I’ve bought a one-way ticket, and I’m moving to Bulgaria.
(For a few months, at least. I’ll be back. I just don’t know exactly when).
There are multiple factors that have led me to head to Sofia, but hopefully this blog will answer a few of them, should you be interested.
1 – Work.
Towards the end of last year we had an investment deal go sour at the very last minute, and it was a huge blow to us. We’re still financially paying the penalty for what happened. However, it resulted (in a roundabout way) in us taking part in the Ignite accelerator programme, which totally changed (improved) the way we look at what we do, and how we operate. We’re really excited about the future again after a pretty dark period.
I won’t bore you with the complete rationale of our decision for Bulgaria but the mix of low cost of living, and one of my business partners being Bulgarian, made it a compelling one. We feel we can really grow the company very quickly from Sofia.
2 – Personal.
Partly because of the sheer intensity of work (see above) and, as many of you will know, I’ve been through the mill personally this year. I feel a bit of time out of the country, away from everything and everyone, will do me good. I’ve had a very tough 5 years, but nothing prepared me for this year. I’ve had 7 regular beds, lived in London for about 6 months, sold/donated 70% of everything I own, not really known what town to call home, or whether I’ll have a business this time next year.
2016 has been a crucible. Let’s hope that what they say about crucibles is true. It’s been a year of astonishing highs and lows. I’ve had both some of the most painful and magical moments of my life this year, and it’s been utterly exhausting. The bags under my eyes can be seen from the International Space Station.
A change is as good as a rest. I hope.
- A sense of adventure. I’m free to do something like this, so I’m doing it.
- A “f**k you” to the Brexit vote. I’m doing it while I can, maybe. Who knows how all this stuff will pan out. But I know that I’m just getting on a plane to freely live and work in another country. And there is zero impediment.
- It’s a part of Europe I don’t really know. It’s a 90 min drive to Macedonia. A 3.5hr drive to the Greek coast. I’ll definitely be exploring.
- The weather – the tail end of the summer in south east Europe should be pretty nice!
When are you going?
- 8th/9th September. So, in a few weeks.
Will I learn Bulgarian?
- I’ve already started a podcast course on my phone. If all else fails, Daf tells me he knows the Bulgarian for “mustard”. It’ll be fine.
What are you doing with all your stuff?
- To be honest, I don’t have much “stuff” left. It’s going in storage.
Where will you live?
- In a flat about 30 mins walk east of the city centre.
Where will you work?
- There are a few options. I’ll be checking out a handful of co-working spaces when I first get there.
Can I visit?
- Yes. Please! Flights are very cheap. Come for a weekend and we’ll go exploring.
That’s it for now. Hopefully I’ll see many of you before I go, but I’ll be back soon!
I’m currently spending Monday to Friday in London, making a regular dawn commute on Monday mornings, and returning late on Fridays. It means that I’m spending a lot of time on the M4, and seeing a huge amount of stationary traffic.
However, for various reasons this week it made sense for me to get public transport, and at relatively late notice I was making the futile gesture of looking for affordable train tickets that would get me into London before 10am. Much bitter experience has taught me that unless you book well in advance there is no chance of getting much change out of £150. In fact, at the time of writing, if I wanted to go to London on Monday morning, and return at about 4pm on Friday, it would cost well over £200. Searching for exactly the same times for this coming Monday to get a return from Birmingham to London? £48. About 20% of the cost of going from the Welsh capital, to a city basically the same distance away*.
For me, the cost of the train is a major factor in how often I’ve previously been to London to have meetings etc. I’ve just not been able to justify last minute, speculative meetings. Every visit has had to be able to yield a demonstrable return on that relatively considerable investment.
In fact, it’s previously resulted in me looking into hiring luxury coaches (with tables) for Cardiff Start once every few weeks that could be shared between a group who could use it to regularly work, travel and network at an affordable price. In fact, it appears someone is doing something similar. More news on this soon when I can share.
Anyway, when telling my new London chums about the costs of getting from Cardiff to London on the train at a time that is suitable for business, they were shocked. For them, being inside the M25 meant that they just weren’t aware of this pain that I, at least, was feeling. So I decided to put the word out, and see if others were feeling this way.
Welsh businesses/entrepreneurs: would you go to London more frequently to do business if train prices were lower?
— Neil Cocker (@NeilCocker) January 28, 2016
As you can see, despite this no doubt being a rather unscientific way of measuring the feeling within the small business community, the response from nearly 100 people was fairly overwhelming. Indeed, I got some fairly clear responses. Here’s a sample….
@NeilCocker I’m self-employed, a freelance writer, and for about 2 yrs I couldn’t visit London unless it was expenses paid.
— David Llewellyn (@TheDaiLlew) January 29, 2016
@NeilCocker I end up travelling at inconvenient times. Doesn’t seem v professional to say, ‘can we make it midday so i can afford to come’!
— Jess Day (@day_jess) January 29, 2016
@neilcocker abso-bloody-lutely. Booked tickets yesterday that are more expensive than flights to Spain.
— Huw David (@huwdavid) January 29, 2016
@NeilCocker Definitely means I don’t go to South Wales as often as I’d like to – so I guess that works both ways – train fares astronomical
— Mary McKenna (@MMaryMcKenna) January 28, 2016
It’s worth noting that that final tweet came from an investor in a Welsh business. That makes me wonder if the effect is not only hurting “outgoing” businesses, but “incoming”, too. We loudly trumpet that we’re the closest capital city to London, and a mere two hours away. But if it costs you an arm and a leg, we may as well be 5 hours away.
EDIT: it’s at this point that I realise I haven’t clarified why I think this is an issue, although I hope it would be clear from the previous tweets: simply put, it reduces opportunity for Welsh businesses. There are more opportunities in London than Cardiff for most businesses, and the potential to be introduced to (or accidentally meet) someone of potential importance to you is greatly improved when you’re there. The cost of getting to London is simply too great for many, and therefore they miss out on these opportunities.
In my opinion, the cost of rail services from Cardiff to London are damaging to the ability of startups to do business in the financial capital of Europe, despite it being only a few hours away.
So, what can be done?
- Are supply and demand issues at play here? Or availability?
- Are any public or private sector organisations able to apply any pressure?
- Whose responsibility is it to sort out?
- Is there data out there that suggests that Cardiff (or any other city) unfairly bears the brunt of over-the-top pricing? If so, why?
- Is this price gouging by the train companies – they clearly don’t price their service in a transparent way, so it’s difficult to know? Sidenote: apparently train tickets used to be calculated in a simple per-mile way. The whole article is worth a read if you want to see just how illogical the pricing of UK rail services is.
To be clear, I don’t have any answers, and I’m not proposing any. Maybe it’s a completely intractable problem. I just felt that this was too big an issue to leave un-questioned, although I’m very sure I’m far from the first to consider it.
Would love to hear your thoughts, proposals and solutions in the comments.
*Google maps puts Birmingham at 126 miles from London in a car, Cardiff as 151 miles.
I’ve just read an article on WalesOnline about the need for a culture of “entrepreneurship and ICT”. I fundamentally agree with it, and I must say up front that this isn’t a criticism of the article’s author, who is the director of recruitment firm Acorn. I know next to nothing about the terminology used within recruitment, and what is appropriate and up to date.
However, it did remind me of the repeated use of the phrase “ICT” I’ve seen in much of the public sector (as well as the national press and some corporate and learning institutions) over recent years. For example, Welsh Government’s steering group for this area is called the ICT Sector Panel, and until recently Wales’ largest digital event was tagged as one concerned with ICT (although in fairness, I know that the team behind that are working hard to make it more relevant to Wales’ digital companies).
I honestly can’t remember the last time I heard that phrase used by someone who actually works in this sector. If you were to ask someone what industry they worked in, or what their role was, you would hear words like “digital”, “tech”, “developer”, “coding”, “web”, etc etc. But I’d be amazed if you ever heard anyone say “Oh, I work in ICT”. It very much feels like a phrase that is conferred upon it by the public sector, rather than one that is used by the industry itself.
The thing is, impressions matter. And no matter how trivial or hair-splitting this point feels, when people are looking at Wales from outside, they will form opinions on the simplest of things. We are already seen as a rural, post-industrial country, so we need to go to extra lengths to ensure we’re seen as a more progressive nation.
I tweeted about this a few minutes ago, and almost instantly two local entrepreneurs who work in this sector tweeted back. I think Tom Lloyd’s point is particularly relevant:
Wales is a small, agile, smart, devolved nation. We have a genuinely brilliant opportunity to position ourselves as a world leader in the areas of innovation and digital. A few clever, cheap ideas could really throw the spotlight on us as a progressive nation, and put us at the forefront of a global knowledge economy. But it’s also the little things that could also be our undoing. So let’s have a moratorium on “ICT”, and start talking in terms more befitting of 2015.
UPDATE: A few further tweets from this morning, just to prove (to myself, as much as anyone else!) that I’m not alone in this thought…
If you love someone (or something), set it free. Or so said it’s been said. Possibly.
The website, venue, production values, attendee numbers (and pretty much any other qualitative or quantative measure you choose to use) are much higher and better than they were a few years ago, and that’s testament to the hard work and vision of the “new” team of Ed Barnett, Steve Dimmick, and the great crew they’ve built around them.
Claire Scantlebury and I started Ignite Cardiff back in 2009 (I think?) and at the time it was the very first Ignite event in the UK. We started in a bar on Mill Lane and our first event attracted a decent crowd of creatives, digital types, and entrepreneurs (Ignite was our vehicle for bringing these groups together to network more). Over the next 9 events we had talks on everything from the philosophy of wine, to a Zombie defense plan for Cardiff (we all should congregate in the castle, of course!).
But as we grew the event, and experimented with different venues, we realised that it was taking more and more of our time. And as a 2-man team that was busy taking on new projects such as TEDxCardiff we realised we weren’t paying it as much attention as we should have done. Most people only have space in their lives for one big volunteer project, and it was clear that we had to make a decision.
It was a painful one to make, as we loved the event, and were regularly told that everyone that attended loved it, too. We even had tales of business relationships, and romantic relationships, that were formed at Ignite events. But we knew in Ed and Steve, who we’d been spending increasing time with, we had a pairing that could be trusted to take it forward. And so it’s been proved. Their passion, commitment, vision and talent has made it much more than we could possibly have done with it at that point in our lives. Ignite was so important to both of us, and led to so many great things, but it needed new “bosses”.
We could have kept doing it, and inevitably lost energy and time, resulting in it becoming less than it deserved to be. It would have dwindled in importance to us, and we may even have come to resent the amount of time we spent on it for dimishing returns. But by handing over the reins we allowed fresh eyes to take it forward to become a much bigger and better thing and become an ever more important part of Cardiff’s creative and entrepreneurial landscape.
It’s always painful letting someone run what you perceive as your baby. But if you love something, and you’re not able to give it your all, maybe it’s time to take the tough decision of letting someone else take it to new heights.
Last week TechCity UK, the organisation set up by UK government to promote the tech and digital economy, released TechNation, a report about how the tech clusters around the country are performing and how they relate to each other. This detailed analysis, produced in conjunction with the company data startup DueDil, was intended to inspire our next generation of tech entrepreneurs and demonstrate how the UK is not just about London alone. I must admit to being surprised at the figure that we employed over 28,000 in the digital industries in our beautiful, brilliant part of the world.
I’d encourage you to download the report, and check out the South Wales pages. It makes for fascinating reading. The key stats about the South Wales cluster (inc. Cardiff and Swansea) have some very positive things to say, so I’ve highlighted them below.
FACT: Firstly, from 2010 to 2013 the growth of digital companies in South Wales was 87%. This high growth, albeit from a low base, puts us in the top five fastest growing clusters in the UK.
WHAT’S NEXT: While much of this growth can probably be linked to the strong population growth of the region, and the country-wide movement towards digital, we have no doubt seen benefits from a much-improved community supported by several organisations and hubs (of which more shortly).
FACT: The three areas highlighted as strengths of our area are health tech, data management, and eCommerce.
WHAT’S NEXT: While data management and and eCommerce offer great opportunities for our region (and no doubt the presence of the DVLA and their open working practices, and Companies House etc have had an impact on us being a “data hub”), there is a great opportunity in health tech, and associated sports tech. How many other UK cities can you mention that have a Premiership standard football ground, World Cup rugby stadium, Ashes cricket ground, a Ryder Cup golf course 10 minutes out of the city, and very easy access to seas and mountains. Surely there can’t be many better places in the world to build the next Hawkeye or RunKeeper. The PR benefits of positioning Cardiff as the sports and health tech capital of the UK would be incredible, and with Sport Wales trying to create a “sportopia” in our country, and Cardiff being the second biggest spender on health and fitness apps. On top of that, we have the multi-million pound Life Sciences Hub, and the brilliant startup Nudjed.
FACT: Access to private finance is an issue. South Wales performs relatively poorly in the Tech Nation report on this front.
WHAT’S NEXT: Depending on who you speak to, you’ll get a different answer about how much of an issue it is, and what type of level or amount of funding is the problem. The message that I seem to hear most is that getting angel or seed funding isn’t that much of an issue. If you’re good enough, you’ll find ways to find the cash, or the cash will find you. It’s the very early stage, but not risk-averse, that seems to be the real problem. How do we get young or first-time entrepreneurs onto “the ladder” so they can validate their idea and learn the ropes? The Digital Development Fund is a great initiative from Welsh Government, and there are a few other small funds. But broadly speaking they require a disproportionate amount of time and effort if we’re talking about validating ideas. The point of startups is that sometimes we don’t know what the business model is yet. We identify a means of solving a problem, and then identify revenue streams as we go along. Neither Google or Facebook, as two huge examples, had a “business” when they started. They had an idea, and they built their parachute on the way down. We need to find ways of funding our brightest and best with small amounts (under £50,000?) without them having to jump through huge hoops of red tape, and proving things they can’t possibly know just yet. It needs to be administrated by people who have a deep understanding of the needs of tech startups, and what makes them most likely to succeed or fail.
FACT: South Wales is good for social networks. Not Twitter and Facebook, but actual physical networks of real-life human beings.
WHAT’S NEXT: We should be proud that South Wales is a friendly place, where people know each other and don’t feel excluded. I think the works of Swansea Start, Welsh ICE, Tech Hub Swansea, FoundersHub, Indycube and Cardiff Start all deserve a pat on the back for the work they’ve done in bringing these communities together. We should throw our support behind them, whether that’s attending their events, or recommending them to friends. Swansea, Newport and Cardiff shouldn’t be thinking about how they can outstrip each other, but how we can compete with the likes of Glasgow, Frankfurt and Boulder.
It’s clear we have a lot to be proud of, but also a lot of work to do. It seems like a long time ago that I wrote this post about what we could do to improve the Cardiff startup scene. It seems to have grown and matured significantly in the three years since I wrote it. Some of the growth has been organic, because the sector is growing anyway. And some of it is because Cardiff is growing phenomenally rapidly. But a lot of it is because of these great communities that are driving a sense of pride and community in the startups we’re building.
Long may this fantastic growth continue.
– – – – –
Thanks to Gareth Jones for proof-reading this and his useful thoughts before I clicked “Publish”.
Anyone who’s spent any time in Cardiff Bay over the last decade or so will be well aware of the ongoing saga of the Coal Exchange. My history in the city is inextricably entangled with it, from working in there, playing in there, and trying to avoid parking wardens around there. Recently the owners of the building have gone into administration, leaving its beautiful, slumping, scaffolding-clad features to rot even further. However, MP Stephen Doughty has expressed an interest in putting together a group of people to consider ways in which it can be saved.
In light of this, after volunteering my services to Stephen, I canvassed my friends on Twitter and Facebook to see what they would do with the building if there were no financial constraints.
You can read their brilliant, insightful, and often funny, responses here. Do any of these sound like something you’d be interested in?
I run the Facebook group for Cardiff Start. We now have 900+ group members, which means we attract quite a few spammers looking to use our, erm, “social reach” for their own dirty needs.
I’ve got pretty good at spotting the spam accounts now, and quickly dispatch them into the Ignore pile. Although, in fairness, it’s usually not that difficult. They are almost always automatically created accounts that tend to follow a few basic rules, so it doesn’t take a huge brain to weed them out. But here’s my handy guide anyway:
- First of all, they’re most likely to have assigned themselves a different gender to the one that their profile pic may suggest. This isn’t a case of them being a legitimate member of the transgender community. This is a case of them uploading a picture of a (usually hot) girl, but not actually changing the default male gender on a new FB account.
- On that note – are they devastatingly attractive, with an apparent ability to take studio quality photos of themselves? Yeah, in which case they’re a bot.
- Do they have an astonishingly small amount of friends (less than 100, usually) for someone that young and attractive? I assume they’re trying not to accrue too many friends too quickly, so as not to trigger Facebook’s spam police. Or maybe they just have a small circle of other co-operative bots that they mutual friend up. Either way – OUT.
- The have a vaguely ridiculous name. “Parkington Fortitude”? Do one.
- Do they like a lot of stuff. Like a LOT. Are they in hundreds of groups? Especially ones that start with “Buy and Sell”. Yep, they’re a spammer.
- Are the groups oddly alphabetical? (e.g. Cardiff Start, Carlisle Buy and Sell, Cartons of Milk…). Surefire spambot.
- They have only been on Facebook a few months – then they’re either your auntie Irene, or they’re a spammer.
- They look like someone has just uploaded a stock photo of the most generic businessman/woman they could find. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know anyone with hair quite that glossy.
Each of these eight points on their own isn’t enough to be 100% sure that you’re dealing with some spam farm somewhere.