This is a difficult letter for me to write, since I consider Eric van der Kleij, chief executive of the Tech City Investment Organisation, one of the most talented government employees I’ve ever met. He’s a good and decent man who understands – more than most public sector employees, at any rate – the proper limits of government.
The time has come for us to be honest with one another about what, exactly, the government is doing when it spends taxpayers’ money on a website as risible as your efforts for Tech City UK, a site which, had I not known better, I might have presumed the noxious offspring of a drunk emo kid let loose with Microsoft Publisher ’97.
The time has come for us to ask how British businesses are really benefiting from our money being spent on staff to encourage investors to, in your words, “JOIN THE BUZZ”? I ask you: can you seriously imagine a partner at Balderton, Index, Accel or Sequoia being seduced by such hilariously badly pitched copy? It reads like a first-week intern wrote it… some time in the late seventies.
But it is also time for startup founders to be honest, too, about what the government can offer them. In short, if you need to seek investment from a publicly funded body, chances are there’s something wrong with you, your product or your business plan. Go back and fix it. Don’t pander to your own imaginations in thinking that an afternoon with some bureaucrat is going to make a difference to your bottom line.
I sometimes think that if Rohan Silva told you to go dance naked around Old Street in exchange for a breakfast meeting in Whitehall, you wouldn’t give it a second thought.
Where the government steps in, vacuous self-promoters are ready to drape themselves over tables for spreads in WIRED magazine. But what do office managers tweeting about swanky breakfasts at 10 Downing Street have to do with cultivating innovation or driving high-growth business?
The truth is that government has no role to play in Tech City. We all know how the RDAs worked out: a shameless, worthless, scandalous waste of public money that failed to achieve the most trivial of their objectives, and which were plagued by accusations of corruption.
Don’t do it to east London too. The return on investment funds backed by public money, as we’ve seen time and again, is so deplorable it’s almost incomprehensible that even more money is being squandered.
Because – and I’m sorry to be so rude about this, but there’s really no other way to put it – I’ve seen first-hand just how mediocre your employees are.
I was there, remember, on the last UKTI-sponsored Web Mission to San Francisco. I felt pity for the organisers – the ones who’d actually done the hard work of putting the trip together – as they absorbed the flak for my temerity in calling the UKTI contingent “anxious-looking”.
Well, you were – and with good reason! How we cringed, and how we laughed, when Jaclyn Mason, your grandly-titled “Consul” in San Francisco – a woman who fails even to spell her own first name properly – sauntered imperiously up to a startup founder, ignorant of his pedigree, to issue a withering but hilariously ignorant and wrong-headed put-down about a pitch he had just delivered.
What she didn’t know was he is a phenomenally successful serial entrepreneur, angel investor and a former principal at a prominent international venture capital firm. And she clearly didn’t understand the first thing about his business. So she left us all wondering: what on earth can we expect this woman to do on behalf of British technology companies? (This, after all, is a woman whose idea of “private sector experience” is working in human resources.)
So, please, for the sake of the next generation of startup founders, who are spreading their wings in an environment of government support that cannot be relied upon to exist past the whims of the current administration, stop.
Yes, yes, I know you have all these terribly important, high-level meetings all over the world, and yes I know you’ll say (in fact, you’ve told me) that when you talk to American investors they’re delighted by the progress being made, and… oh, I’m sick of hearing it, to be honest.
If there’s someone who has the common sense – and who realises the truth of some of what I have written, whether he is able to say so or not publicly – it is Mr van der Kleij. So he’s perhaps the best man for a bad job, and I look forward to sitting down with him tonight to chew over some of this stuff. But one good pip doesn’t save a rotten apple.
UKTI, you have demonstrated, through your inability to select credible advisors; through your willingness to be associated in the press with the most mediocre people it is possible to find in this industry – and even your deference to those people; through your wasteful expenditure and, finally and most crucially, through the pathetic quality of your staff, that you simply aren’t equipped to assist tomorrow’s high-growth, scalable platform businesses.
What businesses – especially startups – want are lower taxes, fewer regulations and absolutely nothing else. Let them hire and fire as they see fit, from where they see fit, and do what they want with their revenue until they’re large enough to justify a knock on the door from the tax man. That’s where you can help, UKTI: policy change, not silly websites.
So take a long hard look in the mirror. What are you for when co-founders of UK startups struggle for weeks to get visas for themselves and their senior staff to set up offices in the US – and often get denied? Why aren’t you liaising with foreign governments to fix things like that?
Why aren’t you more actively – and visibly – advocating for entrepreneur-friendly policies like R&D tax credits? The entrepreneur visa was a good start, but there’s still such an incredibly long way to go, and progress seems to come from ministers, not from the satellites of government – you – who ought to be their eyes and ears on the ground.
There are two issues at stake here: what UKTI is doing in east London, and whether UKTI as currently constituted should exist at all. But before we climb the latter mountain, let’s deal with the former molehill. It’s time for you to shut down the Tech City initiative.
I am but a lowly columnist – business owners, the guys out there actually doing it, will no doubt enjoy adding their own opinions in the comment section below – but I live and work with the businesses whose chief executives you are distracting with your nonsense, UKTI, and I beg you. Please. Just stop.
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