Why British geeks just can't bear to look a TSB gift horse in the mouth

Last week the UK’s Technology Strategy Board, run by the government as a booster of the tech business world, unveiled a new £1m fund to support “digital businesses” in the small area around Old Street and Shoreditch in East London (known as ‘Silicon Roundabout’). The announcement was badly handled as it lacked detail. But instead of asking for more detail (and getting it), the tech community has let loose with both barrels. Why, asks Daniel Tenner, the founder of GrantTree and Woobius (a collaboration hub for architects), is this? He also blogs on swombat.com. You can follow him on Twitter here.

The questioner, looking nonchalant but determined, was in his thirties, held a small black dog in his lap and wore thin spectacles.

“I have a question. What’s in it for the taxpayers? Who’s going to be assessing entries and how are they qualified to do that?”

There was a chuckle from the audience, at the obviously antagonistic question. I muttered to the person next to me, “Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth!”

And that’s what it is, really. Much like the almost pathological backlash against StartupBritain (which, without even being an actual government entity, still manages to keeps on earning the government negative feedback), some people have reacted to the TSB (the UK Government’s “Technology Strategy Board”) announcement on Monday with scorn and anger, actively looking for flaws to criticise, and of course finding a lot of things not to their personal liking.

Case in point: one of the biggest controversies about the StartupBritain initiative was that they pointed people to 99designs, a disruptive Australian startup which provides cost-effective, crowd-sourced design work for logos, web pages, and so on. British designers were quick to outrage, claiming that this was stealing the bread from their very mouths, and they got their way. The useful link to 99designs was replaced by a much less useful link to the Design Business Association.

This was a clear step backwards for users of StartupBritain, since they now are pointed to sources that will quote them thousands of pounds for (maybe) quality design work, instead of being able to get something “ok” out of the door for a fraction of the cost and time, and spend their very scarce money on something more useful. But the naysayers got their way.

The same thing happened on Monday, albeit to a smaller scale (for now). While some questions were extremely useful, pointing to some very real issues with the structure of the Tech City Launchpad grant, some people had clearly turned up with the sole agenda of making their displeasure known, regardless of what was being offered.

In both this and the StartupBritain reaction, there was a common thread: British geeks seem to take government initiatives very personally, and when they find flaws, they seem to believe in the great tech tradition of voicing their criticism loudly, clearly and, if need be, aggressively. In the pub, after Monday’s event, I bumped into that same negativity – “the government isn’t doing enough”, “how dare they spend our tax money this way?” “they should do this, this and this, not the stupid stuff they’re doing!”

As a fellow startup founder and geek myself, I understand where this attitude is coming from, but I find it really disappointing, embarrassing even. Here’s why.

A fundamental misunderstanding

In the geek world – especially the British version – the standard response to almost anything is negative (sometimes constructive) criticism. We like to point out flaws and suggest improvements that seem obvious to us. We value criticism and even look for it. There can be endless arguments about whether this is a good thing for geek communities or not, but it’s a fact.

However, in the political world in which TSB and other political bodies live, this approach is a failure, because it attacks people who aren’t stuck on the same message board with you. They have a choice – to not listen to you and to deal with a different segment of the population, one that doesn’t respond negatively almost all the time.

On a Ruby on Rails forum, telling someone, in so many words, that they just don’t get it and should do things a different way, works some of the time. In the tech world, this very direct approach tends to work, if the other person expects it. In person, with politicians, it just discredits your entire message. Even if you’re right, people will not listen to you if you start by antagonising them. As a bonus, this applies to most non-geeks – not just politicians.

Moreover, the criticism is often misguided. Most of the issues about Monday’s grant announcement were around the requirement of “collaboration” between startups and other enterprises. This requirement was clearly not thought through properly and so it was rightly criticised – but did anyone realise that the day before, TSB had announced another R&D grant, one that is for single companies, and doesn’t suffer from this issue? In addition, since the announcement and the subsequent feedback, the TSB has actually dropped two-company requirement form its Launchpad scheme.

Another incredibly ironic criticism was that this new grant was meant to help startups who have not yet raised funding, and so it was not ideal for those who have already raised money. Indeed, that is absolutely true – the new grant is for those who have not raised funding yet, because all the other TSB grants are for those who have funding already.

Do people really want a single grant scheme that will do everything for everyone?

Another criticism often levelled at the TSB folks is that people don’t know about the grants. That is a very fair criticism too, but hardly one that will be resolved by telling off a high-level TSB official at a meetup which he organised specifically to tell people about a TSB grant.

A better approach

So, my advice to fellow founders is this. First of all, before you criticise, make yourself aware of what the government body in question is doing. You can do so online, or in person (I’ve found in-person meetings to be the most useful). The key is to make an effort to find out more, and to listen (or read) what you get in return. Instead of “this grant is inadequate!”, how about “are there other TSB grants that would be adequate?” The first effect of this approach is that the person you’re talking to will appreciate that you’ve taken the time to understand things, and so they’ll listen to your criticism more openly. And you might find what you’re looking for: there are a fair number of ways that the government is trying to help small businesses, both tech and traditional, if you take the time to look for them.

Then, when you’re presenting your criticism, don’t jump straight to conclusions. Try the following battle-tested approach: “So what you’re saying is _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ . That’s good for _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ , but have you thought of how it would help with _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ ?” Politicians and government officials are people too. Treat them as such. Lead them to understand you step by step – don’t just present your solution.

Finally, don’t expect things to change overnight. This is the government we’re talking about. Even if you utterly convince the person in front of you that you’re right, and they’re in the right position to influence things, it will take them months or years to steer the giant oil tanker that is government in a different direction. So, to get your message across, much like with any other part of doing business, you will need to build long-term relationships. Meet with people more than once, and help them understand your views, and you may get into a position where you can influence things for the better.

Of course, you don’t have to spend the time doing all this yourself – and there are plenty of other people, myself included, who are doing their best to build those relationships and get these messages across. But if you don’t want to invest the time in steering this ship, it’s unfair to complain that it’s not going exactly where you want it to go.