A few years ago, I started a creative industries network and was often amazed that people in the very same sector, doing practically the same thing, occasionally even with offices on the same street, were completely unaware of the others’ existence. I like to think that NOCCI had some very small bearing on the increased cohesiveness and activity within Cardiff’s creative industries (I know that just within the Cardiff group we created jobs, allowed people to secure contracts, and even introduced people who later went on to start companies together) but there’s no doubt that social media has been the huge factor in helping people spread the message about what they do, and a simple retweet or ‘like’ from a follower can open you up to a whole new load of people.
But what of Cardiff’s startup scene? Is there even a scene? Is something like that difficult to foster, considering you’re trying to engage startups and entrepreneurs from such diverse industries as taxi-fare calculating phone apps to ethical catering companies?
A quick chat with my business partner reveals that we both have slightly differing views on what a startup is. Although we both understand the dictionary definition, we both have a certain type of business in mind when we hear the word. I think of a small, possibly tech-based, company with a disruptive business model who are looking to do cool, different things, whereas he thinks of a small business with investors and a very clear exit strategy. Whether either of these visions would apply to the guy who runs the small cleaning company next door to us is perhaps another question.
Outside of the simple commercial and financial concerns my instinct is that many startups just wouldn’t have that much in common, but then I remember NOCCI meetups where acrobats had brilliant conversations with TV directors, learning huge amounts from each other, having the input of someone who looks at things from a different perspective. It’s a well documented psychological phenomenon that the more diverse a group, the better it is at solving problems, so why should the two apparently different Cardiff startups highlighted above not be able to learn from each other?
I suppose the question here is “What’s the best way to foster this startup culture in Cardiff?” and it’s one that I’ve been thinking about a lot. Here’s a few possibilities:
A physical hub
I’m an advocate of ‘hubs’ or ‘clusters,’ having long been on the verge of starting one for the creative and entrepreneurial scene in Cardiff. A place where there is flexible office space, an abundance of like-minded souls in the same place, and all in a building that actively encourages collaboration would be a wonderful thing and a focal point for our city. And a few years ago I almost put in an application for funding to start one in the name of NOCCI, hopefully bringing some of our hundreds of members all under one roof. As the WAG-funded @Wales building closes down it seems we need one more than ever – I’ve spent a lot of time in this hub and have no idea why it always seemed half empty, with no apparent collaboration between the residents. It seems to be exactly the right building to be throbbing with activity. I think Indycube is a great space and has exactly the right ethos and attitude but just think it might just be a bit too far out of the city to be useful for a lot of its target demographic.
An online group (Facebook / LinkedIn?)
It seems a ubiquitous action these days, and we’re all invited to new online groups every day. But from experience they’re often the best way to just get the conversation started, gather opinion, and consider it a platform to build on, using the community to drive the direction. Maybe a simple social network provided by a service like Ning?
Financial Support & Investment
It’s a big area, this. Very few public bodies have much money these days, so any financial support will probably have to come from the private sector, angel investors, venture capitalists and the like. Operations like Xenos and Finance Wales seem to be the obvious ports of call in this instance, but the reality is that investors willing to work with tiny, innovative startups in South Wales just aren’t as common as they are in Silicon Valley or Silicon Roundabout. And whether investment in a small number of startups necessarily improves an all-round culture for the other new businesses in the area is a debate in itself.
More press support for the micro-businesses would be a huge help. There’s definitely a sense that in the more mainstream press you won’t get column inches unless your turnover is over seven figures. Innovation and creativity don’t seem to be as newsworthy as cold, hard cash. Which is a shame, because most of the entrepreneurs I know aren’t in it for fabulous wealth and riches, but a certain quality of life. But that doesn’t mean they don’t contribute in a positive way to the economy and society. One thing I plan to do soon is start a series of podcasts, interviewing entrepreneurs in Cardiff and hearing about their startups, hopefully bringing them to a slightly wider audience.
There are government initiatives (like business rates relief) that help businesses in the early stages, government backed strategies such as the now defunct Entrepreneurship Action Plan, and there’s schemes such as Startup Britain which have offered lots of deals to startups. They may not make the difference between whether you start a business or not, but they definitely make life easier in the long run. But do they encourage an atmosphere of entrepreneurship? Or are they just one part of a much bigger jigsaw?
And that’s probably the answer – creating a more positive, thriving startup scene in Cardiff is a jigsaw of many, many parts. There’s no single answer. It probably includes all the items above, plus such things as mentoring, some community activities, easier access to investors, socialising, knowledge sharing, a good mix of people and many other projects such as this exciting new office in Silicon Valley that’s available as a base to innovative Welsh businesses.
And that’s where you come in. I really want to hear how you think we can create a bigger, better, healthier startup scene in Cardiff. Please leave your thoughts in the comments below or contact me via this page