The British Are Coming

I had the good fortune to participate recently in a conference in London on entrepreneurship in the United States and United Kingdom. The confab, the brainstorm of our own ambassador to the United Kingdom, Philip Lader, and sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and Britain’s trade ministry, focused on how to further fan the flame of entrepreneurship in the U.K.

Some 120 Americans, including analysts, captains of industry, successful entrepreneurs, bankers, and VCs, joined England’s top scientists, university presidents, cabinet ministers, and members of Parliament and the investment community in an intense one-day discussion on how to best seize the numerous but fleeting opportunities presented by the new economy.

Certainly, one heads overseas on such a trip with preconceived notions. I generally keep up on Europe’s progress and did a bit of research before heading over, but my general sense was that the U.K., as well as the rest of Europe, was lagging at least two years behind us and were playing catch up. Even one of England’s own senior cabinet ministers acknowledged to a packed room of attendees and journalists that there is more than an ocean that divides our countries that the U.K. lacks the culture of entrepreneurship that is the hallmark of the U.S.A.

Where else would you have an entire country celebrating the misadventures of “Olympian” ski jumper Eddie the Eagle, made famous for his inevitable and frequent last-place finishes. This is a society that celebrates the plucky loser and admonishes, if not avoids, those who do well. Add to that the pariah status earned by anyone who fails at business (a badge of honor and courage here in America), and there doesn’t seem to be the makings of the next Silicon Valley.

What a difference a day makes. My first epiphany was, “Hey, get over it.” The British are coming. So are the French, Germans, Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese. We may have a head start but the competition is closing fast.

For you entrepreneurs banking on world domination the world has other ideas. While American entrepreneurship is studied and envied, the U.K. is quickly developing its own take on the start-up economy. A unique blend of government support, university ingenuity, and a rapidly growing base of people willing to take risks all add up to Britain’s own unique brand of entrepreneurship. For example:

Intellectual property migration from universities to start-up businesses is aggressively underway and already proving successful. Cambridge University has seven, (yes, seven), incubators spinning out technology companies at a blistering pace. The University of Edinburgh has a staff dedicated to patenting intellectual property and spinning it out to existing and new companies. And this is the tip of the iceberg. Britain’s university system is mobilizing to do much more.

Venture funds are mushrooming. Traditional venture-capital funds (American and European) are aggressively pursuing British and European opportunities with large amounts of cash. This has been a vital trigger in the morphing of formerly cautious career types to take the leap into start-up land.

Witness Nettgain, a group of technology-company veterans with 15-plus years of experience from companies like Sun Microsystems (Europe) who have ventured out to create a web services company based in Manchester. Admonished by their friends and families, even called crazy, they set out two years ago and haven’t looked back. Now, with a blue-chip client list, they are already profitable and will gross the equivalent of last year’s revenues in just the first quarter of their new fiscal year. Ready cash and a willing spirit are a potent mix.

Public and private partnerships are blossoming to create the infrastructure for entrepreneurship. In Manchester, you have the Manchester Science Park. Located in what was once one of Manchester’s poorest areas, you’d think you just walked into a Palo Alto office complex. Sleek buildings with high-speed fiber optics and broadband access house numerous technology companies. Northern California start-ups would drool with envy.

Another development just like it is being built nearby, and all 75,000 square feet are spoken for. Add to that nearby Manchester University, which has Europe’s largest student population (90K plus), and you have a recipe for success. And all of this brought to you through the initiative of the local government and the entrepreneurship of local businesses.

Wireless is here now and growing. While wireless is in its early development phase here in America, it is second nature in the United Kingdom. Wireless is everywhere, and wireless devices rule the street. Every block hosts a chain store of one kind or another offering the latest in wireless communication devices so simple even a kid could use them. And they do 12-year-olds cruise the city streets with multicolored phones, pagers, and assorted other communication appliances. And there are services springing up left and right to make those handhelds useful.

The U.K. has standards. For broadband and wireless, that is. In the U.S., we have too many competing interests for the core infrastructure, and a standard for broadband doesn’t seem imminent. Not so in Europe, which allows start-ups to create products now that are truly for the masses.

Second-mover advantage ain’t bad. The road to success is littered with first-movers, and most of them are in the U.S. The British are good students, and while they still have their share of dot-bombs, they have much less of them than we do and are starting off further along the curve, passing e-tailing for B2B and enabling architecture-type companies (not to mention maintaining and increasing their wireless leadership). Sometimes being number two has its advantages.

So the entrepreneurial spirit is burning bright on the other side of the pond. Yes, they have their challenges, cultural and otherwise, but they are attacking them in a way that is peculiarly British. They admire us. They want similar success. But they want it on their terms.

Think what you may, but this is the country that single-handedly saved Europe in World War II. It’s got more than what it takes to make a go of it with a style all its own. As one conference attendee said, we shouldn’t copy America let’s let the British be British. Brilliant.

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