Just returned from annual hols to the mother country, insulated from the savage East Coast wind by an extra layer of lard from too many pints, pies and ultra-fat cream. As usual, England impresses as a country teeming with would-be entrepreneurs. Half the people you meet have got some idea for a short-cut, a scam or a start-up; or know someone who’s already doing what you’ve been thinking about on the plane over. It’s like going to Ireland and asking the cabbie for a bookshop recommendation (you’ll wind up feeling like you’ve been hanging out with James Joyce’s brother-in-law), except in England the driver turns out to be an expert on new media and digital business. In San Francisco the limo drivers have got the skinny on investments out of Menlo Park (no doubt the deals get discussed on the ride to the airport). Like, look no further for tech stock tips. But in UK, they are all about doing it for themselves.
There are many reasons suggested for this. No doubt it has a lot to do with England’s long history as a nation of traders, the relatively benign business environment (aka lower taxes than Germany and France), the close-knit fabric of the well-informed, media-friendly business community and the get-rich-quick mentality of everyone living in a country which outside of London is mainly like a compacted New Jersey minus the summer, where you can but dream of escaping to Spain. The irony is that although it’s a terrific place for getting a business idea off the ground, it’s hard to take it to the next level. Typically, there will be plenty of enthusiasm for a new idea from people with low rent to pay in trendy cottage industry units, who will do great work for low cost and generally be galvanized by the prospect of disrupting the incumbents, like a commercial exercise in punk rock. But when your business hits a wall that is hard to scale, you can get a recurring sense of entering a room that is already full and where you’re not exactly welcome. In the States it’s the opposite: it takes a lot of hard graft to make any kind of impact, but then if you do, there will be plenty of people reaching out to take a stress-tested scheme and help you grow it for the masses.
What England is and probably always will be good at is taking a great American invention and turning it into an English one and selling it back across the Pond. (The aforementioned punk rock springs to mind). When it comes to mobile and branding, hanging out in a pub in central London chatting with savvy media people is like going to another, more highly-evolved place, like stepping into the latest James Cameron movie where the Avatars aren’t blue-skinned with pointy ears, they’re just pale and dressed in Diesel and smoke more cigarettes than Americans do. The Brits already have an understanding relationship with the iPhone which puts its native country to shame. For example, a mobile web application TVCatchup will stream live TV from top notch channels like BBC and Channel 4, and you don’t even have to dl from the App store. Free of course, and even on the old 3G it’s fast and it looks… great! On the music tip, Spotify is practically a household name in UK, but still suffering Failure to Launch here, leaving everyone to rave about Pandora and Last FM which are just sooooo last decade honey. And while the news of Twitter absorbing Mixer Labs and integrating its geo technology must chill the bones of the likes of Loopt and Whrrl (if they’re still in business, that is), one has to appreciate the resourcefulness of my Cornish cab driver, who recounted the time last year when he got a call from an Oasis fan who had woken up at midnight in a hedge after an Oasis gig at the Eden Project, in a very far flung area of the British Southwest countryside. Poor chap had no idea where he was and could not see any roads, much less street signs, but had the presence of mind to read the geo co-ords off his phone to the cabbie, who punched them into his satnav and drove out to meet him. Once within 100 yards, headlights and a bit of shouting did the rest. Bloody marvelous, as some enterprising bloke might say.