European Tech Bloggers Are Getting Angry And Why That's Awesome For Startups

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Back in 2006 (hell, back in 2002!), it was kinda lonely being a tech blogger in Europe.

Not that there weren’t plenty of tech sites and nascent blogs opining on ‘social media’.

Oh no, plenty of those.

But not many what I would call hard core sites, setting out to kick down the doors and make trouble.

It’s taken a long time to get to where we are.

In 2005/6, when I started blogging in earnest about tech on my personal site, I realised how hard the economics were likely to be. So when I met Mike Arrington in a London bar in 2006 (who took possibly the geekiest shot of me ever) and he offered me a job to create a TechCrunch blog in Europe, I jumped at the chance. (I won’t bore you with the abortive attempt that was “TechCrunch UK” in 2006). By the time the debacle that was BlogNation had launched, I was already beating the TechCrunch drum on the streets of London, Paris and Berlin). Blognation put the cart before the horse. In 2007 there was, quite literally, not much of a tech scene to cover in Europe so perhaps it was just as well that the talent that was locked inside it went on to do better things, among them my awesome colleague at at TechCrunch, Mr Robin Wauters.

But since its beginning, TC Europe has evolved as part stand-alone site, part “Correspondent’s blog” attached to a much larger entity. It’s a model. And in fact, TC Europe has consistently punched above its weight in Europe (a fragmented market) according to regular surveys from Wikio.

Now, in 2011, the scene and perhaps the economics, are starting to change. The tech scene itself is bigger, there is more potential money around. There’s just more heat. I daresay a few people are eyeing up the market.

But even in standalone media terms it’s not a ‘straight’ play. Most of the European tech blogs are either run by people who also consult on the side, or, as in the case of TheNextWeb, are attached, like a Pilot Fish to a their host shark, to a large annual conference.

However, recently, a couple of things have changed.

Other big guns have parked their tanks on the European lawn. GigaOm now has a European writer, Bobbie Johnson (based in Brighton), so does WSJ Europe (Ben Rooney, in London), VentureBeat has Ciara Byrne in Amsterdam and The Next Web (especially with Martin Bryant in Manchester) has done a pretty good job internationalising in English (although good luck trying to monetize that Dutch language blog guys). Wired UK‘s magazine’s site has become an important adjunct to the print title. Some might say it’s already the ‘Vanity Fair’ of tech. So, leaving aside the economics of online publishing, in editorial terms alone, pan-European coverage of tech and startups has never been better. Competition is no bad thing, and occasionally we even get to riff off, or even – heaven forfend! – disagree with each other, as I did with GigaOm recently.

Personally I welcome this. I have been attending TechCrunch 40/50 then TechCrunch Disrupt for the last few years in San Francisco and glancing back at the huge numbers of press in the room you can see the incredible power the US tech press has. Every nuance, nay, every angle of even the smallest story is picked over. It’s bizarre to watch a pack of bloggers try and out-do each other on headlines and angle, but it’s both amazing to watch and understandable. The US is one big homogenised market, there are a long of tech companies, and that equals a lot of tech press.

How else do you think the need for something like TechMeme, an incredible aggregator, was created?

But in Europe it’s different. Although the UK and Ireland together make a decent sized English language market, you’ll find most of the tech media outlets – blogs and newspapers – writing not about native tech companies but about the big stories of the industry. Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon, are no-brainer stories to be covered. That’s only right and proper. But “local” tech startups – some of which are as big as the likes of Spotify – get a rare look-in until they start hitting big numbers, or – let’s admit it – launch in he US.

And the same applies to the media in continental Europe. So where tech blogs write about their, now, ‘native’ startups the coverage tends to be far less international and far less, shall we say, internationalised. Let me explain.

There are all sorts of ‘mini-TechCrunch’ style blogs out there, some bigger than others. Do you ever read Antyweb in Poland or Webrazzi in Turkey? Maybe not – though I’ve made it a habit over the last few years to keep half an eye on these mavens. Some of them are even friends, people who ping me when they are covering a local startup that might be of interest to TechCrunch. Where I can I link out to these guys who break those local stories – assuming I don’t get contacted by the startup first.

But there has been a limitation in all of this. Whereas the US tech press can riff and jive off each other in one common language (English) and create heat and light around the industry, the European tech media are limited either to local skirmishes in their own languages, if at all. Though, in fairness, often the local scenes are so relatively small that any kind of internecine warfare would end up in a Mexican standoff, where, perhaps the two big local blogs just end up making themselves look at little silly. In any blog fight, it helps to have several players – or at least a couple who fight and few more who can watch, poke fun, and fan the flames.

But the European tech blog scene tends to be too small. Frustratingly, this is doing nothing for European tech startups.

Sure, I can do what I can to cover a market of 750 million people (the largest definition of ‘Europe’ btw) and thousands of startups, but inevitably things fall through the cracks. It’s not helped that there are so many blogs out there that just don’t write in English.

Well, there’s an argument that they should. Or at least have an English version. Why?

Well, the technology scene is a genuinely global one. If you have found a local startup that has done something amazing with the Twitter API, but only blog about it in, say Slovenian, that’s great. But it’s not going to get much further unless that startup does some leg-work trying to attract the attention of bigger blogs like us, or you do an English version of your post and try and get more attention to it somehow.

Which is where I come to the most recent, and most interesting developments in tech blogging in Europe and one which I hope is going to start having a positive effect on everyone else. I think we’re at the beginning of an evolution here and we need to recognise this.

The first was the recent emergence of a new trend in France around tech blogging. Recently, former Techcrunch France Editor Roxanne Varza, who now has a few projects of her own, has decided to launch, along with Paris-barsed American entrepreneur/blogger Liam Boogar, a blog called RudeBaguette

To quote:

“Did we mention that we think the France has a better startup scene than California? Well, we do. And it does. And we’re here to tell the world about all the best new tech-startup-entrepreneur stuff that France has to offer. In English. So, apologies to the Académie française for raining on its parade.”

If that isn’t a Johnny Rottenesque two fingers up to the establishment then I don’t know what is. Because the irony is that despite their often French market focus, many French entrepreneurs hanker after this international recognition. And they deserve it too, as much as any entrepreneur.

The second, and most significant is the break-out that is happening in Berlin. Over the past year two new blogs emerged there, TechBerlin and SiliconAllee.

I wouldn’t say they are quite as high a frequency as TechCrunch… However, they are having a good crack at shining an international light on startups coming out of that city. Again, neither are employing full-time people, but they are clearly enthusiastic.

The dynamics here are fascinating, not least because Berlin has already had two long-standing and full-time professional blogs in the shape of Grunderzene and Deutsche Startups. How the hell can they be full-time, professional and just focus on Germany I hear you ask?

Well, the German-speaking “DACH” market (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) is amongst the largest in Europe: 90 million people. That creates a ‘lock in’ of readership. Secondly they are subsided by two heavyweight Incubators in Berlin. Team Europe backs Grunderzene while Samwer incubator Rocket Internet backs Deutsche Startups.

Despite all this lovely coverage in German, it’s instructive that neither of those sites has really broken out into a global arena. The reason is so obvious it’s hardly worth saying but I’m just going to have to say it: They are not blogging in English.

But there is problem here: Tech media outlets across the world are descending on European cities to cover the booming scenes there. Today I’m in Bucharest, Romania for instance at HowToWeb, a conference totally in English. In fact, European tech conference have started to realise that if they do the event in English they can live broadcast the event online, get a bigger international profile, attract more sponsors and thus lift their local tech scenes. Gone are the days when I would turn up at an event only to find all the startup pitches were in the local language, thankfully.

And in particular the tech media is descending on Berlin, where the scene is really kicking off.

Suddenly realising that half the tech media world seems to be descending on Berlin to cover the flowering of an interesting scene there, Gruenderszene has decided to launch a new brand. The new VentureVillage is an English-language blog. Kerching!

The third example is what I would call, the next phase in the evolution of European tech blogging. It’s the war that broke out recently between Berlin startup Amen and Grunderzene. Oh. Yes.

The background is rather complex and a bit ‘inside baseball’, but I will do my best to summarise. Suffice it to say, that Grunderzene has started to feel the heat from the fact that it just can’t keep all these Berlin startups to itself any more. The ‘new wave’ of Berlin-based startups – Amen, Soundcloud, EyeEm and others – are now aiming not for a ‘German’ Market but for an international one. So they are courting the international, English language speaking press, not the local guys.

Evidence of this broke out at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco this year. I was privy to information that suggested Grunderzene – annoyed that as the local Berlin blog writing about local German startups it didn’t have ‘the scoop’ – planned to publish about Amen before it’s launch on the stage at Disrupt. This would have destroyed Amen’s chances of appearing in front of 2,500 of Silicon Valley’s most influential people, including Hollywood star (and their investor) Ashton Kutcher. This seemed to me like a ridiculous move on the part of a supposedly local champion of the German startup scene. Needless to say the Amen team were not happy. But incredibly the threat was never put to the test. Wheteher they reached an agreement with Amen or not, who knows. Amen launched on stage. But If ever you wanted a vision of a flaccid penis in blog form this was it.

But the animosity has cleared bubbled under, and most recently Amen published a post accusing Grunderzene of further underhand tactics and waring other startups off working with them.

Grunderzene posted about how it has been working the numbers on Amen and says it’s not getting the traction its claims. Amen denies this and says Grunderzene is cherry-picking data to make its case. Fighting. Awesome.

I’ve since contacted Grunderzene for their response. They deny there is a beef and that they are merely writing independently about Amen. To me it all sounds like what a British Prime Minister once called ‘a little local difficulty’.

But it’s instructive that Amen’s initial blog post was in English. Grunderzene’s criticism was is in German.

And there is the rub. Bluntly, we need more fights that everyone can understand. But, more seriously, we need more coverage that everyone can understand. Then we’ll know what we’re dealing with in terms of how tech operates in Europe.

Plus, we need an aggregator. I have spoken to TechMeme about creating a TechMeme for Europe. I have spoken to other players. Frankly, and understandably, it’s not worth their while right now. It’s partly because here in Europe we’re writing about US companies, and there are plenty of well-funded US outlets doing that already. But it’s also partly because we’re all writing in other languages. So frankly, given there is more incentive to simple jump on breaking news to make it onto TechMeme, I don’t blame the criticism of some.

The “teardowns”, case studies, successes, failures, learnings… will all make a lot more sense when you are fighting for traffic with the other guy and there is a chance that your post will end up on a leader-board somewhere, like Techmeme’s.

Ironically, in journalistic terms these piece are what some (or at least those of us have been doing this for a while) call ‘bread and butter’ journalism, something that was often considered, well, a chore. No heady exclusives here – only “Here’s how X did Y”, “How To’s” and “Top Ten Ways To…”. Effectively these are ‘paid’ for by the stuff a news blogger really brings to the party, which is breaking news.

But when an inside investigative journalism piece can make TechMeme’s front page rather than a breaking news item, then writers are incentivised to create in that way. (In many respects writers are not motivated by money, much like engineers).

And I don’t blame others for wanting to have a go. A London freelance journalist, Milo Yiannopoulos, seems riled about about the subject.

For my part, as someone who has observed the scene for a while, my view is this: bring it on. The more the merrier. Perhaps then we’ll all get the resources we need to reflect the booming European tech scene – in all it’s richness.