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An oral history of “Silicon” Roundabout

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Comms & Content (interim)

@maxtb

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Perhaps no property in Old Street shows how the area has changed as much as the new White Collar Factory on the roundabout itself.

The building hosts companies like Adobe, Box.com and Capital One, with a rooftop running track, 300 cycle spaces, and a trendy co-working space with de facto cucumber water.

But ten years ago, it was the eight story Transworld House building -- derelict, with software engineers camping on the roof, and where the first phase of early startups and digital agencies would find themselves neighboured with highbrow peers including topless newscasters.

And yet, that one building hosted nearly every early promising company of the era at one time or another, from MOO.com to TweetDeck, Last.fm, Doppr, GroupSpaces and more.

A decade later, we wanted to go back and rebuild some of the memory of those early days of Old Street roundabout, before its “Silicon” descriptor, and before the Government filtered in with Tech City (now Tech Nation.)

Where did the success we now know really come from? What was it like being there as this was all happening? And what can we learn about what has changed since?

So, enjoy this long read, an oral history combining several interviews with the people who were really there. (We love your feedback, so if you enjoyed this or it prompts any thoughts, share them with us here.)

Our interviewees

Andy McLoughlin, Uncork Capital
Andy was Co-founder of Huddle.com, and helped launch DrinkTank.

Matt Biddulph, Apple
Matt was CTO and Co-founder at Dopplr, and is credited with coining the phrase “Silicon Roundabout”.

Russell Davies, Bulb
Russell Davies was a partner at RIG, creator of projects like Newspaper Club.

Glenn Shoosmith, BookingBug
Glenn Shoosmith was Co-founder of BookingBug and worked closely with the Government around the launch of Tech City

Denise Wilton, Bulb
Denise was Creative Director at MOO and BERG, and also co-founded the b3ta community

The name...

Russell Davies (RD): Matt was taking the piss. So it’s always had a slight layer of “it’s not a real thing, it’s just a joke”, but it became semi-official. Traditionally, there’s a certain set of UK tech stuff which is like that.

Denise Wilton (DW): We just thought it was a joke. It was quite nice that people you knew weren't very far away. Nobody really adopted it -- if people asked "where d'you work?", we'd say "Old Street".

There was no big formal structure for 'Silicon Roundabout'. You'd go to the pub, or you wouldn't go to the pub, that was it.

How did it feel?

Andy McLoughlin (AM): It was fun because it was small. Especially at the beginning it was a small, tight knit community genuinely invested in each others’ success. And there weren’t that many events, so if you went to something on a Thursday night, you’d see the same people you’d seen earlier in the week somewhere else. And before you knew it, these people were your friends.

Matt Biddulph (MB): It felt like community.

London is a physically big place. It’s relatively unusual to bump into someone in the street that you know, vs smaller cities like San Francisco. Historically, districts have developed where people cluster together. And that creates serendipity, which means seeing the same people, which fosters relationships. And that’s what I remember from that area at that time.

Every now and then an institution or a neighbourhood is required to bind people together and make those connections.

I think it also extends from an era that has cycled through a few times. Every now and then there has been something in tech that pulled a bunch of people together -- after the dot com crash, a whole load of people went into the BBC.

RD: I think part of the culture is because there’s no Stanford — there’s the BBC. Many of the people who have made interesting startups in the UK, not necessarily financially successful, but interesting, came out of the BBC. And there’s more of a public sector ethos to that than a VC ethos.

All roads lead to Shoreditch

Martin Stiksel, Last.fm
"At Last FM in the early days the first people we hired the deal was we pay you £300 a month you get to pitch a tent on our roof terrace for free so you don't have to pay rent and we cooked lunch every day. And that kind of worked, and that's how we survived."

DW: MOO moved there because a) it was very big and b) it was cheap as it was going to be knocked down.

We took a really big space – most of a floor – because Richard Moross knew we'd need the space at some point. In the intervening time, he rented it out to TweetDeck, Dopplr, to Russell and Ben [from RIG].

Guy Nicholson, councillor
"There you had a part of our city in central London that had fallen into dereliction, quite literally it was an area where no one really wanted to be. Those who were there had been left behind there"

AM: Our first offices were in Southwark, then Bermondsey Street. It was around 2009 that we were thinking about where we wanted to move.  We were 40 or so in the UK, and 5 in the US. And the natural choice was to move it to the Old St area.

I’d met Richard Moross from MOO at an event in mid-2007 and he said why don’t you come to our office on Friday afternoon and we’ll have a beer and talk. I went to his office in Transworld House.

Transworld House was a shithole. We moved our office in during mid 2010 because it was effectively free. The landlord said some time in the next year or two we will knock this building down. We figured we might get a year out of it, with us paying zero rent and just rates. But eventually they basically stopped charging us rates because they couldn’t be bothered to repair stuff in the building.

We’d been in there, Alex Hoye’s agency were next door. Skimlinks was upstairs. MOO had been there. TweetDeck had been there. GroupSpaces had been there. Last.fm had been in there. Dopplr too. A lot had gone on in this 1960s corner office building.

It’s probably the fact MOO and Dopplr had been there that it became Silicon Roundabout. Because of that one ugly old office space, that people got for next to nothing.

Glenn Shoosmith (GS): At that time, I was hugely naive, but I felt like I’d missed out on the first web revolution. I did computer science at Uni 1994-1997, we had an HTML research lab — so I could have been there. But I wasn’t ready.

I could feel there was a new Web 2.0 evolution coming along and knew I didn’t want to miss this time as well.

I got introduced to a few people from old school business networking groups. And from that, got introduced to the very small network of people like Paul Carr, Web 2.0 innovators, and you could fit them all in a house party in Soho. It was a small group.

Old Street was there but mostly creative agencies. Rent space was cheap, so we moved in there subletting a desk from SocialGo.

MB: Our first office was a cheap room on Hoxton Street above a pub. We got our 50p cups of tea from the cafe on the corner. And you’d walk to get lunch and bump into people from last.fm and MOO.

Partly because it was kind of cheap and partly because it had a legacy of tech from the first dot com -- the Guardian being in Farringdon, agencies like Poke and Somethin’ Else. And even arguably some of the hip print era agencies.

I knew people lived socially in Hackney. There were roof barbecues on Friday nights. It was people. It wasn’t a strategy.

DW: People's expectations of what it takes to make a startup have changed. When we started MOO, I think we found the cheapest, most usefully located office we could. We didn't have spectacular coffee or 'cucumber water'.

Because the co-working spaces have taken over, you get useful perks but it's expensive. And that's a huge chunk of money gone before you've even built anything.

We were on the same floor as a TV company that did something like topless news. I still remember standing in the bathroom next to a woman in a green lurex boob tube and a tiny mini skirt. And more makeup than I've ever seen on anyone in my life.

Community + Culture

AM: When you think about “what is it that has made London the startup hub in Europe, it’s the cash but also the people who were investing in building community here.

When we built Huddle, at first we did it in the dark but over the years we began to build up this network of people who were doing similar things. So if you needed to know what’s a great analytics product or a great accountant who gets startups, you had people you could talk to. This kind of led to the ICE List.

RD: RIG was almost a prototype co-working space. We paid for an office and tried to persuade people to work on things together. Really it was just people freelancing together. People we’d met through blogging, we’d have breakfast at the Shepherdess every Friday.

DW: I think at that time, everybody was trying to do new things, help each other out, advising each other and sharing what they'd learned.

I came from publishing originally, and I never saw the same kind of sharing of information or ideas in that environment. There were never big get-togethers of editors for example, but in the digital space, people are happy to share information, things they've learned.

Digital is made for easy communication in the way other industries aren't.

It didn't feel competitive. We weren't all doing the same things. You can't get MOO to compete with last.fm. Broadly speaking, everyone was supportive and trying to help each other out. Lots of drinks, lots of informal get-togethers.

Investment

GS: In terms of “how do I raise funding”, there were sort of Government startup programmes — but they were for if you wanted to open something like a corner shop. They knew nothing about startups. They were asking “what’s your year one revenue going to be”, and the answer is “nothing”.

It’s a brilliant service, but their idea of small businesses was all traditional.

In the early days, there were only business angel networks. They charged, it was pay to pitch. They were like “we charge 20% in fees, we take 20% equity”. Or they had watched too much Dragon’s Den. It has taken a while to weed out the exploitative investors and create a good angel network.

We started running events ourselves — we ran City Meets Tech as a sort of fight back against it. And would get people like UBS to give us a free event space and pay for beers. They would invite their networks of high network individuals and we’d vet the startups. All volunteer-based. And we had a bunch of people raise money from that, companies like Blaze.

MB: At that point, it wasn’t a venture-funded feel either. There were the more cutting edge investors in that area but Google wasn’t buying buildings. It felt very matey. There was an indie feel, not the major labels.

AM: I remember speaking at an event on the South Bank, near Vauxhall that Mike Butcher had arranged for Silicon Valley + London startups. Later that night, Mike climbed onto a table and shouted “I’m going to open a fucking coworking space!” and a year and a half or so later, we had TechHub." [co-founded with another crucial figure of the early scene, Elizabeth Varley.]

GS: At one of the first meet-ups, a Ruby on Rails meetup, Bebo had just sold and Paul Birch, the organiser, suddenly turned up with like 100 bottles of champagne. So then we felt maybe this was a cool space and everyone felt excited and like they could change the world again.

RD: We started a business called Newspaper Club, which was never going to be Facebook, but it was a nice little business — it gave 12 people nice jobs, it works. Most of our funding for that came from Channel 4.

There was a brief period where BBC people were trying to create a public service internet via Channel 4. They had money to invest in digital things. And we were one of them.

It was never going to make huge amounts of money, but it got funding because it was an interesting countercultural idea. No conventional VC would have funded it.

I think in some ways, there are bits of tech culture in London that rub up against the VC culture more than it does in other places. In somewhere like New York, they are much more separate. But here they rubbed against each other in places like the MOO party.

AM: For a long time US VCs would disregard the UK for building businesses that just focused on the UK. Much of this was in media or commerce, which was just not that interesting for them.

But once the UK started producing broader consumer or B2B companies, and when there were key investments -- from Greylock, Matrix Partners, A16Z, Sequoia, others thought: if these are investing there, we should be looking at that as well.

There were entrepreneurs in the UK who had gone over to YC, and brought back not just the idea of how to run a business-- but that what makes Silicon Valley work is being involved in other people’s successes.

Weirdly, from a tax perspective, Silicon Valley isn’t particularly friendly place to build a company. Whereas with London, the Government did some really smart things around EIS and SEIS to make it effective to invest in startups.

All of a sudden, individuals were making angel investments. So if you looked at the cap table of an early UK company, it wasn’t just big venture funds but a load of angels putting in their time *and* their money. That has been the really important things that allowed London to flourish.

MB: It does feel to me that that round of exits didn’t produce enough to create a financial effect. It produced enough to give a bit of confidence. Everyone I’ve spoken to ever in London always complains about the relative lack of people from Angels right up to Series C, D, E. So few names really get how startups develop.

Engineering talent + people

AM: People like Alex Hoye, Andrew Scott, Josh March, Kieran O’Neill, Michael Acton-Smith. These were people who were really active in the early days getting this community off the ground.

London has always produced great engineers but traditionally they might have gone into banking, consulting or stayed in Cambridge and the silicon industry up there.

As startups became trendy, people started to think about joining a startup where engineers are the rockstars. So I think this has never been a big problem.

The real struggle has been more on the product management side. So in 2008-2012, finding great product managers was the hardest piece. People who have seen the team going from being a small group of product-oriented founders, to a team of 20.

But every time someone leaves Google or Facebook, that feeds back in.

RD: So Dopplr was a proper serious interesting business that could have worked, really should have worked. Me and Ben at the next desk were basically just messing about. We stated a thing called Really Interesting Group (RIG) and that ended up appearing in Government proposal documents(!) of what Old St would look like years from then.

BBC people from the design interactions course. There’s a big advertising industry. Lots of self-taught developers. Old School web hippies who believe in HTML. Evangelists for open source and open web.

In those days, everyone worked at last.fm. Or had worked at last.fm.

Part of the reason this community got away with taking the piss is because they were so talented. BERG was 8 people most of the time — and two of them went to work for Apple with Jony Ive.

They were effective and disciplined and getting stuff done, and we were the messing around side. But we came from the same group.

There were agency digital people building adtech stuff. So there were imaginative, interesting great designers who slightly hated themselves for the work they were doing — so felt “maybe I could start a business like this” and get a more satisfying working experience.

This is what the promise of the web was about — not riches, but expression. This is a way you can have an interesting job, not become Zuckerberg.

It’s easy to forget now but loads of them were Nokia people. Nokia was a huge contributor to UK tech culture. They had loads of designers in London with interesting thoughts about the future of interaction.

EVENTS

Ian Hogarth, SongKick
“One of the best things about Y Combinator were the weekly dinners where all the start-ups would meet up and talk about what they’d been working on that week. It was a very developer focused group (around 95% of the founders were hackers) so it was an ideal environment to get feedback on your new code and ideas.”

“When we came back to London we missed the atmosphere at those dinners so decided to try to replicate it.”

GS: Christian Alhurt started to organise Mini Bar. And there would be pitch events. So people would be pitching their idea — but mostly agencies, who had a product idea and might pitch that.

It was always at the Truman brewery, in the bar. I’d go with my wife, and it was a standard recurring activity, part of our routine. And there we started to build a network of other events and people.

When they launched DrinkTank, that was the exclusive one. You had to be a CEO, a COO, a founder of a startup. No suppliers, no accountants, just founder to founder. Investors could come too.

Then that became really regular, because it was the start of a peer-to-peer environment to talk about the challenges and struggles. We’d all share our sob stories about how well or badly we were doing and the challenges we faced. It was a good sort of group therapy. Suddenly you don’t feel so alone.

AM: We hosted an event called DrinkTank every month. Probably the first founder-focused startup industry networking event. It happened because we had been at Le Web, and we were just talking about startups stuff with some other founders -- the challenges we were having -- and that night we said we should just do this in London.

And it would just be about hanging out. No set programme. No Speakers. Just chatting, drinking and getting to know other people.

We thought there might be 30 people there -- that night we had 70. The following month it was 100, and it oscillated around about 120 people every month.

It showed there was a huge appetite to build this network. The companies were in different spaces, but the one thing that brought them together was being technology companies. In other industries, there were events going on all the time, and all of a sudden there was something to foster it in tech.

We ran DrinkTank from 2007-2010, and then Silicon Drinkabout picked it up and ran with it.

MB: There was a cluster of people around the ClearLeft agency and the Deconstruct conference in Brighton. They would bring on speakers from both London and the US, and that’s a reflection of the extended family network.

I always think Mark Prigg and Tim Bradshaw were the two journalists responsible for getting the word out in the papers. But it’s because they were the most engaged journalists. Mark came once to do an interview about Dopplr, and then was like “that’s the boring stuff done”, and asked tell me the best way to add Ethernet to my Arduino.

Once friends in the wider network heard there was a cluster, you’d get more people passing through. So people from New York, Berlin, San Francisco would drop in because a lot visit for work and play.

RD: There was definitely an element of resisting the Silicon Valley/ VC narrative (while also not minding the idea of getting rich…) We would studiedly not read TechCrunch. We were connected to other similar communities but less connected to that.

Journalists were trying to find a story in some people and go “it’s like this”.

Tech City arrives...

GS: The first I heard about it, I was cycling down the street and I cycled past Christian wearing a suit. So I pulled up to see what was going on, and he explained he’d just been to Number 10. They were really interested in what’s going on with startups and want to come out and meet some. He asked if I’d be willing to meet them.

So they ended up coming in to see us, and I thought about the pitch that would really make a difference. My wife was working at a local library, organising events with an entertainer, and attendance was completely unpredictable. They’d end up with someone sitting there, paid by the government, having paid for marketing too, and have no idea what would or wouldn’t make it work better.

So we naturally said we could help with a booking system — but they said it couldn’t be done. Because they had a contract with SERCO, and we weren’t on the tender framework, not an approved government supplier. So you had this ridiculous inefficiency because innovation was literally prohibited.

Eventually at the launch of Tech City, I gave a talk about how technology companies could create a new wave of innovation and improvements in government. I apparently wagged my finger at Cameron and Boris Johnson in the front row about this, with other ministers and press behind.

The tender process felt like something they could actually fix. And that went down really well and eventually led to what became the G-cloud, a way for earlier companies to better bid for government deals. And they wouldn’t end up on something like 7-year tender frameworks.

The relationship with Tech City started by engaging with startups, and the money men got involved inevitably. Which is fine. Things like SEIS have been brilliant. And there were things like a scheme where you could get a £100k matched investment if you already had the first £100k raised. I managed to persuade them to swap that round, so they would secure the £100k first.

Mike Butcher, TechCrunch
Post election, in a pivotal moment, Silva went on a trip with Jeremy Hunt (then the brand new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport) to Silicon Valley, and to Google’s HQ, the Googleplex. The trip was designed to land some major investment deals that the PM could announce a few weeks later.

After a meeting with Eric Schmidt and Nikesh Arora, Google agreed to create the Google Campus in East London. A largely unsung hero of this moment was Anil Hansjee, then head of M&A at Google in London. It was Hansjee who kept pushing the idea internally until a 10 year lease on a building was finally secured (he later left to become an independent investor).

Of course, the Prime Minister turning up in “Silicon Roundabout” – as TechCrunch picked up on – had something of a positive and negative effect. On the one hand, it was going to blow the cover on what seemed – till then – like an exciting private party. But on the other, it sent the entire movement mainstream.

Rohan Silva (in TechCrunch)
“I felt that ‘Silicon Roundabout’ was a great nickname for the businesses around Old St, but that we needed an official name for the cluster as a whole that captured the global ambitions we had for the area (and which would also be easily understood overseas).”

“Also, I believed that the cluster would grow over time far beyond the Old St Roundabout epicentre, and so it was important that the cluster had a title that moved beyond a narrow geographic area. After kicking around other suggestions with various tech folk (eg Silicon City, Silicon Shoreditch), I settled on Tech City.”

AM: Tech City opened off the roundabout around 2012. And at that point, it felt like: OK, now we have mum and dad here. All of a sudden it felt like people were taking notice of what we were doing.

MB: Matt Webb was on a trip to India with the Government when he started to have conversations that shaped people's’ thinking. He had a different view about how Government might work in partnership with industry.

DW: Matt Webb ended up being a spokesperson for Tech City. He was asking "where's the money for British startups"? He has always been a strong advocate, for the UK startup scene.

Matt Webb, BERG
“I was asked to go to India with the new government at the end of July 2010.”

“I was going to turn down the offer to go, but I was still beating the drum about small businesses and Silicon Roundabout. I figured it was an ignition problem: if we could “ignite” the area, then there would be more people, more services, more good chats, more community, etc.“

“So I decided to accompany the delegation to India, and made it my sole task for the trip to ask the smartest people I could find for advice about how to ignite. I knew this was a rare chance to put the case for supporting the emerging cluster to people who could really help.”

“I remember someone saying that government had three levers for effecting change – legislation, taxation, and attention – and we agreed that attention was the best thing that could be brought to the area.”

RD: It’s paralleled in the story of things like GDS. The first iterations of Tech City were Government asking “how do we get something like Silicon Valley? Then seeing that there’s that thing that looks a bit like it (Old St), so if we just put money into it, that will grow.”

But that thing was just some people messing about. So they then had to dig in and find the people doing the businesses they actually wanted. And to be honest, I imagine there was more of that in Cambridge than here.

MB: You could also feel the real need for the Olympics to be successful and improve London. There was an invisible hand making the connection between Old St and Stratford, hoping to generate the idea of a corridor.

At some of those meetings, there was always someone saying “would you think you might like to move your office to Stratford? Just asking…”
 

Growth + change

Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing
“In 2010, the council started approving the demolition of these buildings and their replacement with high-rise, commercial student housing that targets wealthy overseas students. The first major development inaugurated a welcome new alleyway that connected a former dead-end with East Road, with an unironic official street sign that read "Silicon Way".

RD: When General Assembly arrived and you could learn HTML in 12 weeks, it became a thing you’d do as a career instead of something you might have taught yourself. Then there was a moment where being good at social media was enough.

A lot of the previous community came from people blogging about blogging to each other. And that felt like a small self-contained world. Looking back, it was also horrible elitist and exclusionary world of mostly white men. And a lot of people very pleased with themselves.

Social changed the dynamics a little bit.

MB: There was a surprisingly rapid institutionalisation, when Google came in, Facebook appeared. People recognised these signs and slammed on the accelerator pedal, skipping over where the organic generational progress might have been.

Simple things like the cost of office space just aren’t actually viable now.

Because almost everything in tech starts from 3-ish people in a garage, there’s always a genesis of creativity. That’s the most fundamental thing in any community. That’s what communities feed on. New collaborations and creativity.

RD: The bit that suddenly got noticed was the end of a previous phase, not the beginning of a new one. When I left in 1996, the UK media culture was in Soho, when I came back, it was here.

AM: As an anecdote, I have my second wedding party in London coming up and three of the six tables are either Huddle people, or startup people. I think that talks to how important this was in the early days for those of us who were doing it.

If you told me back in 2007 that your best mates are people you will meet at a networking event, I’d call you mental. But that’s just the way it shook out.

I’d hope every generation since then has had a similarly wonderful experience.

In conclusion

Having listened to these conversations, something started to become really clear. The story of the UK’s early tech scene around Old Street seems to naturally mirror the journey of technology across the same period.

At the start, it’s self-taught hackers, experimenting with their own people, forming little communities to compare notes with others who have done it before.

But then, just as the accessibility of technology moves from requiring HTML knowledge, to requiring a Twitter account, launching a startup moves within the reach of a much greater crowd.

Does it sanitise it somewhat? Is some of the excitement and uncertainty of those early days lost? It seems undoubtedly yes. Most of those we talked to agreed that what exists around Old Street today almost doesn’t bear resemblance to what came before it.

But at the same time, I think we can all agree, we probably wouldn’t be here without it.

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