February 13, 2013

Digital? Creative? Startup?

I don't think I get particularly hung up over labels. I've worked with people for whom their job title was more important than their pay packet, and as long as the company could conjure up new levels of importance (senior, principal...) they were happy. I've never really cared what was written on my business cards, and I don't think my MCQN Ltd cards list any job title (and I can't be bothered to go and check now).

It has tended to be the same with the company itself. MCQN Ltd has elements of consultancy or digital agency/studio work alongside the longer-term product/startup efforts, and so my description of it matches whatever situation requires the description. If I had to pin it down to one or other though, it would be the product company or a tech startup.

I know, that's not pinning it down to one description, but it's close enough for now.

When I was in Cambridge, it really didn't matter - there you were either building a tech company or you were a contractor (or freelancer) who worked at a tech company. There were some lifestyle businesses which were groups of people providing contractors to other tech companies, but overwhelming if you were talking about tech companies they'd be the sort of Silicon Valley style startups looking to build a website, service or product that would scale massively without requiring the company itself to scale at the same rate. Many were funded by venture capitalists or angel investors, but that wasn't a requirement - there had been enough exits (companies being bought, or floating on the stock market) for some people to self-fund, at least initially.

Moving to Liverpool I encountered a completely new (to me) phenomenon - the digital and creative sector. It seems to be a North-West thing, rather than a Liverpool one in particular, where anything involving computers gets labelled as such. I'm coming to realise that it stems from the advertising agency/media world, which isn't surprising given the strength of those industries in the NW - particularly in television. There are echoes of it in London too, although it seemed to be referred to as new media down there.

I didn't think much to it at first, but I'm beginning to think that it's detrimental to the development of the sort of company I want to build, and the sort of company I think we should be encouraging in Liverpool.

As I see it (and as usual, this is me thinking-by-writing, so more than happy to discuss it), the problem is that it takes the media agency organisational structure as its model. That's great for building web and mobile agencies, who can pull together a website or a phone app for a client, and I suspect Liverpool and Manchester each have more web agencies than Cambridge does. That doesn't mean that either are in the same league when it comes to developing innovative technology or companies like Facebook, or Google, or Microsoft.

I'm not saying we should stop encouraging more of those sorts of companies, but that we should stop lumping the more scalable companies in with them. Scraperwiki already try to do this by calling themselves "a Silicon Valley style startup", but that feels a bit of a mouthful to me. Startup would be the usual term in technology circles, but is often used for any new business these days, so I wonder if tech startup would work?

Identifying tech startups separately will raise the profile of that sort of business, and encourage more people to push in that direction. If we combine that with Liverpool's creative streak, maybe we'll manage what has so far eluded the rest of the UK and build some tech firms to rival the US giants.

Posted by Adrian at February 13, 2013 12:41 AM | TrackBack

This blog post is on the personal blog of Adrian McEwen. If you want to explore the site a bit further, it might be worth having a look at the most recent entries or look through the archives or categories over on the left.

You can receive updates whenever a new post is written by subscribing to the recent posts RSS feed or


Interesting - and slightly disheartening - outlook about Liverpool's lack of "tech startups". Do you think it's down to the lack of "startup" type people, or is it just a momentum thing? Or maybe venture capitalism, and lack of? As I understand it Liverpool has a rich history of entrepreneurialism, but I suppose in more traditional industries.

I agree about the labelling of anything to do with computers - when all techie stuff gets lumped together, it automatically reduces them to the same level of excitement as your local IT support desk - not great for generating excitement and inspiration!

So what is it that silicon valley so do so well?

Posted by: Paul Furley at February 13, 2013 11:00 AM

"Creative & Digital" is a virus not simply restricted to the NW… it's certainly a British thing.

I forbid people around me from using the term as it conflates high-growth invention with service agencies. Generally, when people start droning on about 'digital' in the UK, they're really talking about marketing.

The UKTI's ambassador to Silicon Valley met with a bunch of Leeds officials recently and I was asked to join the discussion. She rolled her eyes at the mention of the "CDI" sector, we chuckled and I suggested we talk about startups instead, the companies she really wanted to know about :)

Posted by: Imran Ali at February 18, 2013 08:42 PM

Paul, I think a lot of it is not realising there's a difference. The media industry has expanded into the area and there haven't been enough tech startups to offer the alternative. However, I think that's starting to change, and will do more when people like yourself get more established :-)

Imran, I'm not sure if it being a British thing is good or bad :-) It's probably not helped by London having a strong media sector who have shaped the debate. Maybe it's another instance of the US benefiting because it's too big for one city to dominate. However, Cambridge shows that it is possible to get past that in the UK, so there's hope for us yet ;-)

Posted by: Adrian at February 20, 2013 09:42 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Note: I'm running the MT-Keystrokes plugin to filter out spam comments, which unfortunately means you have to have Javascript turned on to be able to comment.