Where are all the UK start-ups?

07/25/2005

I find myself thinking of my country and my industry – and what I see confuses and confounds me. This is a tiny little country that remains a world power, one of the few trillion dollar economies in the world. It has 50% take-up of broadband, some huge telecommunications companies and thousands of people working on and around the internet. But still our industry seems dominated by a few moribund and clumsy giants leading a culture that’s inarticulate, unadventurous and profoundly constrained. There’s something very wrong here.

My main question is this: Where are all the bloody start-ups? Where are the small passionate groups of creative technologists (people with clue) getting together to build web applications and public-facing products that push things forward? Where is the Blogger or Flickr or Odeo or Six Apart of the UK? What aspect of this country is it that confounds these aspirations? And I know that Audioscrobbler is wonderful. I really love it. But eventually you have to ask – is that really all we can do?

So is it a lack of money or a poverty of ambition? The UK has some of the world’s best and most creative film directors – but they don’t make films in the UK, they make adverts. Some of the world’s best (and most expensive) advertisements are made in this country, arranged around home-made TV programming that costs a fraction of the price. But when film directors get bored of selling sugar water they move on to make their proper movies. And for the most part, they go to the States.

The same seems true online. The web industry over here is dominated by advertising and marketing because London is dominated by advertising and marketing. People think that the States is the home of this stuff, but it’s not true – American advertising is clumsy and blatant compared to the calculating work done over here. Everything is put to the end of selling something else and I’m routinely surprised by what is for sale. Every event is sponsored by one multi-national or another, from the BAFTAs to the equivalent of the Grammys. On the web, some of the work is absolutely stunning – but it’s all bloody agency stuff – support sites, brochureware, Flash. There’s money all around the place to make things, but still such boring stuff gets made. It’s all just another shiny thing on a conveyer belt already groaning under the weight of shiny things – an environment where the only way to innovate is to get shinier and more illusory, rather than more useful.

All this work is churned out by the ton by great people (and not so great people) hired by marketeers – because apparently there is no one else out there who will harness them to make neat new things that the world could use. The major internet companies have presences in the UK of course, but they’re mostly localisation departments / sales departments / advertising departments. They have technical and creative people working for them, but on the whole they’re not making new products. They’re just selling and supporting the existing ones. The whole bloody place seems to be about selling things made elsewhere, working for the unambitious.

There are exceptions of course – but even then the tiny fragments of things that we do create seem resolutely parochial – little products aimed at exploiting the tiny idiosyncratic spaces in British culture that huge initiatives from the major net powers have missed – albeit momentarily.

So what is it that stops us making great things, starting start-ups and building for money? I contend that in part it’s shame. Certainly the business people of Britain seem to be – at a certain level – highly uncomfortable with the existence of technical people. They’re not a resource to be exploited, or people to collaborate with. The nerdy people who make and create seem to be shuffled to the side, kept in the background, so as not to curdle the canapés at the business meet and greets that are the real motivators of British business. The businessman and the creative technologist seem to be forced into two camps so repulsed by one another (betrayed by dot.com?) that they just circle at a distance, each almost refusing to admit the other exists. So the business people look towards the stable money and wait for the innovations to come in from abroad, or leap clumsily onto bandwagons with the help of the visionless, while the technologists dogmatically avoid anything that looks like it might have been sullied with the hint of a business model.

I look at many of my peers and I’m delighted by the projects that they get involved in – they’ve connected people with politics, connected people with their representatives, found ways for people to work together to make the world better, opened up the writings of incredible diarists, created incredible local information services and worked on open calendaring projects. But would it really be so bad for them to spend some of their time building products that were aimed at changing the world by changing how people do everyday things all over the world, or opened up new spaces for creativity or sharing or self-expression or shopping or whatever? There’s a wonderful creative culture here that cannot commercialise itself. But we all use Flickr and del.icio.us so we can’t have that much trouble with people trying to make a business out of being great, surely? Or is it just when the British do it that we’re all expected to rend and tear?

What is it about this place that there is so little energy in these directions – are we so hamstrung by geography or history or culture that we cannot innovate, build and then commercialise? I look around and I see some of the brightest and best people I know in the world creating world-class ideas that get exploited elsewhere, or are simply thrown away. It’s not right and we should do something about it – I’m just unclear about whether that’s stand up and be counted, or burn it all down and never look back.