This is a guest-post from Ben Colclough, founder of travel start-up Tourdust.com. Tourdust is an online travel agent specialising in adventure travel and local tours for independent travellers.
The London start-up scene is seemingly a great success, it buzzes with events and most are packed with entrepreneurs and assorted hangers-on. Beer and investment advice usually flow in generous quantities. But is this hive of activity actually helping London’s budding startups succeed?
Like many others, I threw myself into start-up events in the early days. I went to DrinkTank, MiniBar, InnovateEurope, Sun Startup Essentials and OpenCoffee – In fact, it was all too easy to spend half my working week at these events. Then one day I stopped going, and to be honest, I realised I wasn’t missing out on anything. My startup didn’t suffer, on the contrary it benefited from increased attention. I’ll be the first to accept that I’m not the most gregarious individual in the world, but I have to question if the scene is really as good as it is cracked up to be?
Here is how I summed up the situation whilst sullenly cradling my pint in the corner:
- Cynical investors (I know, I know, they have every right to be cynical)
- Over-loud venues (Wasn’t loud music in bars designed for dancing and courting, not networking?)
- A glut of people trying to serve the start-up community. (I’m not Warren Buffet, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t what you’d call a particularly lucrative market?)
- Irrelevant pitches from other start-ups (unfair perhaps, but do we really want to hear other startup’s pitches?)
- Supposedly helpful advice on getting investment, which ultimately always boils down to using your contacts
To be fair, I’ve met some lovely people on the scene who would have gone out of their way to help me, I’ve had my fair share of free beers and even had the good fortune to be introduced to our blindingly good Ruby on Rails coder at one otherwise uneventful meetup. There are also, of course, the exceptions to the rule; Sun Essentials, Bootlaw and SeedCamp all practice everything I argue for and TechCrunch put on some superb pitch training.
But, the root problem with the scene as I see it, is that the topic du jour and social currency (and trust me there is one – this ain’t no egalitarian community) is investment. It seems getting funding has become the end rather than the means of a start-up.
Surely, only a teeny proportion of the startups attending will ever get funding and most would have a far greater chance of success if they focused on bootstrapping and execution rather than wasting their time flirting with investors? The reality is, building a successful web startup is all about sales and marketing. It’s about the daily grind of getting links and writing reams of content. It’s about slogging around mid-sized companies in suburban Britain trying to make some sales and of course it’s about the eternal quest to raise your shockingly low conversion rates.
So why do I never hear these topics talked about at an event? When I speak to developer and UX friends they rave about the collaborative spirit in their meetups. They tell how, if you rock-up to a meetup with one of those brain-fuzzing barriers that you just can’t surmount, some Joe will roll up their sleeves and help you through it – give you the benefit of their experience. It all sounds wonderfully appealing. And come to think of it, the same is true of professional sports, the best in a field take the time to pass their experience on to the newcomers and it simply raises the bar of performance for everyone in the community.
My belief is that we need to see more advice on marketing and sales execution, more collaboration and less insanely loud events and investment talk. Until we do, there will be more startups with woefully naive marketing plans that amount to little more than the eternally hopeful “word of mouth marketing”. I appreciate that if you want something to happen you should just go and make it happen (and not just whinge on the sidelines), but hey-ho, I’m a cynical Brit and have my hands full grinding away at the nuts and bolts of a startup. This is my reality.
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