I remember reading, about three years ago, a couple of blog posts by my friend and (stalwart proponent of Liverpudlian tech) Leon Rossiter. One was titled something akin to “The Green Shoots of a Tech Revolution in Liverpool” and the other made a nod towards the possibility that one day, there would be a homegrown Unicorn here. With these, he published a list of 50 predominantly young companies who were mostly at the early stages of their journey towards achieving product market fit.
A fair number of those companies are not here now. For some, the product never quite found traction with its intended customer base. Others ran out of money or attracted a rogue investor. One or two might have succumbed to disputes between the founders. A couple moved away to benefit from the network effects of other locations.
Brace yourself for what I am about to say in consideration of this.
This is, in my humble and oft a-little-too-contrarian viewpoint, what a healthy, growing tech ecosystem looks like as its businesses embark upon the peregrination of enterprise in a location outside capital cities and other ‘hubs’. Of course being part of a business that folds is painful. One of my main criticisms of the prevailing fail fast paradigm is that it neglects to properly convey how financially, socially and psychologically damaging the death of a business can be to its staff. I have been there and lived through such an event not long after leaving University; and I would be quite content to never experience it again. That said, at a more macro level this is merely the market reallocating capital, people and opportunity – and indicating to policymakers, investors and other founders where the dead ends and cliff edges in the labyrinth are.
We recently published our TechClimbers report, which profiled a selection of companies who have demonstrated scalability (and seven more who are well on the way to demonstrating it). Chatting to Ben (Managing Director, Praetura Ventures) after the launch party for the report, he remarked how if he thinks back to how things were when he was building Ripple Effect some years ago, it was difficult to imagine filling a room with the diversity, quality and quantity of companies like we did that night at the launch party. I don’t think that is in any way a form of derision or negative sentiment – rather, a reflection that we’re more of a young tree now, than a sapling or collection of ‘green shoots’. We have grown.
Whilst many of the faces are the same, they are a little more weathered and battle-scarred now than they were in the early years of this decade. There are a lot of new faces and names too. The video games industry here is still the envy of many a bigger city and is globally renowned (how many companies in the UK can boast of investment from Tencent? Milky Tea can!) – but we are now home to startups producing software for the education and financial sectors which nobody was talking about even as recently as when we started Activate back in summer 2017. Immersive technology has seemingly hit escape velocity, now permeating everything from entertainment to manufacturing production lines. New freelancers and micro-agencies contact my colleagues almost every week, inspired by the success of now veteran companies like Red Ninja, Mashbo, Citrus Suite, Angel Solutions, Draw and Code and vTime. Are all of these new, young players going to be here in 3, 5 or 10 years? Of course not – but their volume and individual lifecycle is both an indicator and essential component part of a bigger, much slower and wider-reaching transition that Liverpool is in.
It is very difficult to decouple the growth of tech startups with the quality of the infrastructure, talent pipeline and funding options accessible to them. In respect of these factors, it is an exciting time to be a founder here. There is a greater emphasis than ever in local colleges and Universities on providing new entrants to the job market who are legitimately ‘ready’ for industry, supplemented by fantastic initiatives such as Agent Academy, InnovateHer and some more yet to be unveiled. Interest in the region from angel investors and corporate financiers is on the up, as they eye an increasing amount of potential deal flow coming out of not just the Baltic and Daresbury but small, previously overlooked sites in between. The range of financial options available here at home, and availability of warm introductions to backers in London and abroad, are improving each passing month. The trains and buses coming to routes connected to Liverpool over the next few years will have many people feeling like they have walked out of the Flintstones set and into the Jetsons.
We found our feet in Activate by realising that the challenges we were helping to address in our client companies who were older, could actually have been solved much earlier on with less pain. Not dissimilar to ‘Thiel’s Law’ from the book ‘Zero to One’ which observes that a startup messed up at its foundation cannot be fixed. What we have increasingly put a lot of resource into lately is creating a culture and infrastructure of mentor-to-peer and peer-to-peer learning. Whilst my team and I can point out arithmetic errors in your finances, code that doesn’t work or things not to say during a pitch, nothing is a substitute for somebody who has done the whole thing before holding your hand through it – either out of good will or through an investment in your business. What is noticeable above all, however, is that although we are fielding more requests for support from businesses than ever, we are actually also finding it easier than ever to provide the right support and facilitate the right introductions. This, more than anything else, indicates to me that we are moving in the right direction as a community.
I often ponder what tech in Liverpool will look like at some point in the future where we maybe revisit the people consulted as part of this piece in The Echo from 2015. Founders can become overly obsessed with this entirely immaterial ‘Unicorn’ concept, sometimes inducing just a little cringe in the presence of financiers and more seasoned entrepreneurs around them. However, anybody who tries to pretend to be avant garde by saying they’re not interested in witnessing such a level of value creation up close is probably just virtue signalling in reflection of their own repressed desire. Such a day might still be some way away, but perhaps there is, here, another parallel to be drawn from the micro level to the macro. Just as is so often the reply when founders who have recently exited for hundreds of millions of dollars are asked about how they feel ‘now that it’s over’, perhaps the greatest reward to be found in Liverpool’s tech community is in being a participating actor in the theatre of its adolescence.
LCR Activate is a support and funding programme which helps digital and creative business in the LCR to grow.
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