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London tech

When Americans reach for a European city to illustrate their point I notice they almost never pick London. If, “What about European tech?”, is the question, “Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Lisbon,” is the answer. Is this because London is not seen as foreign enough to be a valid example, or maybe the worry of being outed as an Anglophile? Whatever the reason, I think it’s indisputable that London is the tech capital of Europe and after SF and NYC the most important global tech hub.

This year I am awakening to the realisation that I’ve been living and working in London for 10 years. Even before that I knew the city fairly well. I now live less than half a mile from what was my grandfather’s house. I love London, but I do find myself hankering for new places, languages and experiences. I miss the culture shock that comes from immersion in an unfamiliar city.

I mention this to make clear that in many respects, I would be perfectly happy if the world decided one day that Berlin was to be the place in Europe with all the best tech jobs. “Ah well,” I would say to my family, “pack up your things and add German to Duolingo, we’re off!” But, I’m sure that this won’t happen. No other city is ready to supplant London in tech, and I’m stuck here for the foreseeable future.

Where else might tech go? I mentioned Berlin, but I can’t see it happening. Germans are just too risk averse to take to startup culture. It is a place after all, where the word for ‘debt’ is the same as the word for ‘guilt’.

Maybe Paris? Now this seems like a contender. But then, when I look into the French regulations around hiring and firing, and the wider cultural attitude to work-life balance, I’m not so sure. I noticed that Tony Fadell’s schedule for shipping the iPod in less than a year didn’t include “the whole office taking August off to visit the Riviera.”

Is Brexit going to change things? I don’t think so. Tech workers are highly paid. They’ll have no problems getting visas. The companies who employ them usually don’t have assets on the ground – stock, stores or factories – and where they do, those assets aren’t colocated with the engineers. Given the EU’s attitude to tech innovation – stamp it out then regulate the embers – a better question might be, “will we see more startups move to Britain?”

There’s an old question – “why don’t we see a European Google?” I think the answer lies in a fundamental cultural difference. When a European founder is offered $10 million for their company, they take the money, buy a yacht, make for the Mediterranean and renovate a tasteful villa somewhere in Italy. Europeans know how to live like landed gentry. Americans, on the other hand, don’t know how to spend their money. No matter how rich they get, their lives don’t change. Think Warren Buffet living in a McMansion or Bill Gates shopping at Banana Republic. America’s where, to paraphrase Warhol, “the bum on the corner and the President drink the exact same Coca-Cola”. Not so in Europe, where the wealthy drink from their own vineyards.

To be clear, most American founders would take the money! But American culture occasionally produces a rare flower unheard of in Europe – the one who won’t sell, who’ll hang on to their company to the bitter end even if it’s likely they’ll lose everything. These people can’t imagine anything better in life than driving to the office every morning and clocking in. And it’s from these people we get the Apples, Googles, Facebooks and Amazons.

Britain, while not nearly as dynamic as America, is the European country that gets closest (maybe Israel deserves mention here, but unfortunately Tel Aviv can’t compete with London on size). In Britain, many dream of making enough money to quit their job and build a large shed in the garden, so they can devote themselves full time to their real passion: inventing the vacuum cleaner/nuclear reactor/model train of the future. Londoners are willing to put up with sordid living conditions, as long as they can work in the best firms. It can be shocking for other Europeans, forced to come to London to make the most of their expensive educations, when they see the conditions we suffer through. Corporate London is full of pubs which fill up at six PM and empty by ten, giving the workers just enough time to drown their sorrows before heading home in time to make tomorrow’s shift. In Britain we too, like Americans, know how to work and little else.

Of course, in America as in Britain, many of these startups are founded by immigrants. The culture becomes a beacon for like-minded people so that any European who wants to work hard and get ahead knows they should come to London to do it. Britain and London are fertile ground for startups and will continue to put forth new businesses and attract investment ahead of anywhere else in Europe.

Richmond, London, 27/01/2020

Tags: #startups #tech #london #europe