Sustainable Electro-Motive

I’m attending the Eden Project Communities Camp this May and that’s where I hope to talk about Sustainable Electro-Motive.

This project ties several interests into one whole. One part is working with my friend Stuart and his extracurricular work with GreenPower NI. One part is my interest in maintaining our way of life without necessarily increasing our impact on the environment (and ideally, reducing our impact massively). My other interests are social enterprise, the democracy of community energy resources, the digitisation of energy and transport (which is more about the change in the economies than any real addition of technology).

I hope SEM to be a great example of a social enterprise, of “altrupreneurship.

100% electric transportation and 100% solar by 2030

I don’t find just Tony Seba believable, I find his conclusions inevitable. While I am sceptical on driverless cars, it’s because of human nature not because of doubts about the technology.

When you add the variables of the efficiency of electric motors, the possibilities of software for improving how we drive and the virtually endless resources of renewable energies, the result is plain.

This is why I’m starting a new thing. This.

The CTO CoFo and other quasi-mythical beasts

Jase Bell is mostly, pardon the pun, on the money:

Put bluntly it’s a big stand off. The startup founder (“Hey, I’m the ideas guy/gal!”) goes tail wagging desperately looking for a tech co founder, someone who can look at the holistic view of the startup, the long term, code the iOS app, the Android app and the back end, the reporting…. those unicorns don’t come cheap, circa £75,000 p/a if you want a quality tech co-founder, someone who will be “all in”. Your short runaway will become a lot shorter, that £300k seed you need to get going is basically mandatory.

Of course there is another side to this. A finder needs to identify a good CTO.. It’s not like there is a large supply.

I’ve been on the fringes of the local software industry for the last 20 years I can count on my fingers the people I’d approach for such a vital role.

Part of this is their ability: they have to command respect, have a good reputation, be pro-active and have a can-do attitude and probably have done more than just worked for a wage in a local company.

The other part is my ability. Will I have to manage them? Am I a good judge of ability or character? Can I raise the cash to get them paid? And if I can, have I judged correctly; is this just another job or are they part of the team?

Over the years I have, with friends, built a heap of stuff you’ve never heard of. The 23rd Letter, SpaceNinjaCyberCrisis, ZOMBI, Syncbridge, Rickshaw, Infurious Comics, Eagle Lake; stuff that was always ahead of the market and if I had been smarter, better connected, more business-savvy, more predatory then I might be talking to you from a private island.

My opinion is this.

CTOs are incredibly rare in Northern Ireland. And when you find them, chances are they will be working for a high five-figure salary with benefits within a secure FDI company doing work well beneath their ability. Their lifestyle will have grown to demand that salary and only inspiring friendship or a mid-life crisis will urge them to move. That will be a lot of risk for the aspiring CEO – because you’re banking someone’s life on the strength of your idea and using your relationship as collateral. And the money had better follow.

As you get older it will be more about the money and less about the relationship: so start young.

The Importance of Clustering and How To Do It

Earlier this year I got an invite to a reception at Buckingham Palace as part of the UK Tech Clusters. The discussions around clustering tend to range from the aspirational (let’s working together to teach everyone in the country how to code) to very practical (if we have shared workspaces as part of our remit, why not provide passes to each other). But there needs to be more than this.

I am never a fan of intervention where it is unneeded but I am a fan of creating contrivances which lead to repeated behaviours. Digital Circle has never had the resource to create these contrivances but I think that economic development responsibilities (which lie primarily with DETI, InvestNI and the new SuperCouncils but also, in line with the programme for government, with every government department, agency and ALB), are something that needs intervention in order to be habit-forming.

Interventions do not need to be large but they need to be repeated.

But why are these things important?

The first thing that I would say is that it starts to create economies of scale. The more people sign up to your focused programmes, the more benefits they will bring. No-one likes to present to an almost empty room. Your indigenous SMEs will need people to talk to.

You also start to create networks of scale. This means the companies in the area start to lean on each other for work, for shared projects, for new bids for work. You have to build your indigenous companies until they are something to talk about.

Lastly you start to build reputation of scale. It’s easy to say that the Game of Thrones television series has brought attention to Northern Ireland but equally The Shore, Good Vibrations and The Fall have, perhaps to a lesser extent, created buzz. And this is why foreign direct investment companies are then attracted – they come for the work but through hiring and acqui-hiring, they gain a foothold and an investment in the region.

I was at DETI today and the topic of NORTEL came up. When NORTEL failed, it was at the height (or, depending on your perspective, the lows) of the Internet bubble bursting. But it had been a shrewd investment in retrospect as it ushered in a new software industry in Northern Ireland which led to new start-ups in cyber security, in mobile apps, in fin-tech and in health technology. It was a genuinely excellent investment as these start-ups are all indigenous and sometimes (like Wombat and NYSE Euronext) they lead to something bigger. (Thanks to Eoin McFadden in the Innovation Policy unit for the intelligence and foresight as well as the coffee!)

We’re busy using the power of our clusters to educate kids in coding and design, in 3D modelling and creating interactive experiences because we see that as being the future for a small-population knowledge economy. The difficulty in standing and competing on a global stage can be defeated with smart working, with market trend analysis and with working together to create something bigger.

That’s what clusters are for.


A few weeks ago I was involved in a “culture” discussion at the Northern Ireland Science Park as part of one of the CONNECT initiatives. I raised the point that it is unfortunate that the word “opportunist” has such a negative connotation.

op·por·tun·ist [??p??tju?n?st]
One who takes advantage of any opportunity to achieve an end, often with no regard for principles or consequences.

and the word itself has become synonymous with self-seeker, back-scratcher, bottom-feeder, carpet bagger, hustler, operator and timeserver. None of which are particularly complimentary and none of which you would, as a careers advisor, encourage your wards to pursue.

Of course, we have to consider that the definition of Entrepreneur is eerily similar.

en·tre·pre·neur (ntr-pr-nûr, -nr)
A person who organizes, operates, and assumes the risk for a business venture.

You only have to look at The Apprentice to see the qualities of hustler, carpet bagger and bottom feeder displayed for the world. Notably, many of these self-seekers are lauded as selfless saints once they return to normal life.

The difference being the interpretation of “no regard for principle or consequence” as compared to “assumes the risk”. Both will attempt new things, or old things in new combinations. Both will possibly risk reputation, personal credit, and the goodwill of others in order to succeed. An both will shrug off failure easily because in their minds they haven’t “failed” per se, just found one more way not to become a billionaire.

So if we stopped talking about “entrepreneurs” (a word, which, much like “innovation” has become utterly meaningless) and started talking about opportunists, we might understand them better.

I say “we”, I mean “they”.

SBRI Briefing in the Assembly today

That this Assembly calls upon the Executive to actively promote and raise awareness and understanding of the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) across the public sector; and further calls upon the Executive to put in place appropriate measures to increase uptake of the SBRI by Departments and the wider public sector to help stimulate and drive innovation, especially in local micro-businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises.

SBRI is, in my opinion, possibly the most important tool for government to support small businesses in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is 98% small to medium enterprises, and 95% micro-businesses. Yet, the very people who provide the bulk of the private sector get the least assistance.

You see, it’s not funding, it’s procurement. It’s not a grant, it’s a purchase order. And it also neatly solves the problem of government not getting what they want out of the current procurement jungle (though they get what they ask for, to all our detriment).

The Biggest Lies Start With: Startups need…

I’ve been ruminating this blog post over the weekend and then an article on Techcrunch just spurred me to put the thoughts into electrons.

I’ve been guilty of using the words “startups need” many times. There’s always something they need whether it is access to better talent, better markets, better funding alternatives. A startup is like a newborn baby; it needs access to certain resources, it wants access to other resources and, despite our feelings on the matter, it can get by perfectly well missing out on others.

90% Failure Rate And Why This Is Still Great

The article states that 90% of incubators and accelerators will fail to provide the massive high-growth companies they aim to. And that is okay. Because the important thing with this market is not the guarantee of success, but the taking of chances. And the important thing to realise is not what startups need, but what “we” need.

In a Northern Ireland context, startups who intend to grow fast will either have a rapid expansion programme based on sales or they’ll leave. Because the sort of cash that enables pre-revenue growth simply isn’t available here. We, speaking as the Northern Ireland private sector collective, need these companies to start here, to develop here, to be funded here and, most importantly, to stay here.

By turning this conversation around, it helps our leaders understand the stakes. This is not about small companies trying to get as much out of the government as possible in a market where local private investment is risk-averse, property-focused and afraid of technology. This is about the government putting in steps to avert their own doom. Governments thrive on taxes and without the taxes gained from “adding value”, from those productivity benefits from expert workers, governments can find themselves unstuck.

There’s a limited window now for the government to do what it needs to do for its own sake. Not for the sake of the startups, not for the sake of a few entrepreneurs or their investors, but for the sake of every civilian in the province.

We need to make smarter finance more accessible, we need to make markets more accessible, we need to ensure that the best people to hire for the knowledge economy are found here. By doing this, and only by doing this, can we ensure that startups will be created here in the volume necessary for our continued affluence.

There’s Digital Hubs and digital hubs.

There is an inevitability of a concentration on the digital knowledge economy for Northern Ireland. We have a thriving group of developers and designers in Belfast, a huge amount of ambition in the North West and a heap of activity building in the Southern and Western counties of the province.

Last week I went to the Digital Hub along with Momentum, Belfast City Council, InvestNI and representatives from DCAL and OFMDFM.

We heard the spiel about how it brought some regeneration to the area, that they still have a considerable subvention from the government after 10 years (less than €2m a year, but overall investment has been around €30m since inception and may not include transferred assets).

I also spoke to some of the guys in some of the businesses. They said they wish the Hub was one mile closer to the city centre, that the reason they use bikes and public transport is because they don’t want to bring their cars to that area of town and even the big lads feel a little concerned leaving the Hub with a laptop.

It re-iterates my belief that a city centre location for a Belfast Hub is essential. Not least because Davy Sims put together a map of Digital Media companies in Northern Ireland back in February of 2010 and discovered most were within a square mile in the city centre.

View Belfast Media Square Mile in a larger map

I don’t think we want a straight property play like the Hub in Dublin. We’re a small region with a big ambition so we have to think much more strategically about what goes where. We also need to be 100% joined up. I think I have the support of the Digital Circle steering group in my opinions and in my vision for a digital hub-type infrastructure in Northern Ireland. It’s a big plan, an ambitious plan, even an audacious plan and if it delivers, it will bring the concept to the province as a whole rather than just to a small region.

Anyone fancy going to the Southampton Boat Show in September?

The show is on from the 16-25 September in Southampton, no less. Advance tickets are very reasonable. See here.

Just interested in seeing if other travellers would like to attend as I’d love to make the trip down maybe for one of the weekend days.

Bringing this back into the realm of the day job: I went to the London Boat Show earlier this year and I was struck by one thing: how few of the traders and chandleries in the exhibition stands were prepared for taking payments other than cash. I’d see this sort of market ripe for companies like AirPOS to provide mobile points of sale turning netbooks, tablets and even phones into a point of sale for small businesses.

The first business show that I exhibited at really drilled home the concept:

Don’t give me your business card, give me your credit card.

For smaller items, you just want to buy, for larger items you want it to be shipping to your house just after you get home (or waiting in your office). Having a connected Point of Sale with an online store can make all of the difference. It pains me that so few companies take this on board.

Startup Capital: Sean Blanchfield nails it.

Sean Blanchfield writes about Startup Capital in Ireland:

I believe that online technology companies are the way forward for Ireland. It is now clear that online technology companies can be as financially successful as more traditional businesses. However, unlike other sectors, it takes very little money to start an online tech company. Neither does your geography limit your market. All you technically need are brains, and enough money to pay other brainy people to work for you. No need for factories, or 20 years of lab research, or anything like that.

Unfortunately, there are problems providing capital in the relatively small amounts these companies need to initially launch themselves (say €20K to €200,000). There aren’t enough sufficiently cashed-out former technology entrepreneurs to fund at this level as angels. Instead, we rely on small investment firms doling out government money, and a couple of loose angel networks that can make small aggregate investments. At this scale, it’s not viable for investors to have excellent in-house domain expertise to help understand and vet opportunities. Because of this, the dynamics are not what you might expect. You may encounter:

  • Folks on the investment side getting confused and thinking they are on Dragon’s Den
  • Rife suspicion that entrepreneurs exist to con money out of investors so they can run away with it to paradise island

He goes into a lot more detail so it’s a recommended read.