Advocating London in San Francisco

This month, private sector business coalition Tech London Advocates hosted its first overseas event in San Francisco, as part of its effort to spread the word about London as a great place to do tech business – and understand any obstacles better. TLA founder Russ Shaw explains the thinking behind the Bay Area mission.

Shaw,Russheadshot260By definition, Tech London Advocates (TLA) has a focus on London. But one of our five objectives is to connect London to other tech hubs around the world, so in the back of my mind I have always wanted to do overseas events. And TLA now has 1100 advocates, of which 150 are overseas based.

San Francisco is where TLA has the largest contingent of overseas advocates, and there is clearly a huge amount of interest in what’s happening in London, so it was logical for us to have our first overseas event there.

Law firm Penningtons Manches hosted as they are opening up a San Francisco office.

We put on a set of panel debates and speeches providing insights into the latest developments from London’s tech sector, along with experiences from British entrepreneurs operating in California. Our focus was London but very much from a San Francisco perspective. Brits like David Richards from WANdisco, and Robin Murray, a partner at Adams Street venture fund who been in the Valley for 20 years, were there.

People we spoke to definitely feel that London is the digital capital of Europe – so that when startups look to expand into Europe it’s the natural setting-down point. As an advocacy group, we’re here to help make the transition to London very smooth and easy. We help startups understand what it’s like to set up a business in London and put a structure in place.

In the Bay Area from a tech point of view things are on a much larger scale than London. We acknowledge that and are not looking to replicate the Silicon Valley – and nor should we ever be. But we do want to listen to what people in the Bay Area are saying so we can learn from that experience.

We heard from John Battelle, who has driven OpenCo and has done two events in London, and Jeremy Wallingburg who runs, a very large association that supports the tech sector in San Francisco.

When we talked about lessons learned, part of the reason why the Bay Area and Silicon Valley took off the way it did was because it was isolated from the rest of the US and sat in a part of the world that people didn’t really engage with. Now it’s completely different: their role is about constructing and transforming the rest of the world.

We also heard about some of the issues in San Francisco today from a social impact point of view, with a bit of a backlash happening. There was a sense that the Bay Area has almost become a little too big for itself in terms of attitude.

So what were the obstacles and barriers to greater cooperation between London and California?

One of the key issues was, can Americans who work in the Bay Area get to London from an immigration point of view? Any country you go to these days is a challenge of course, and at TLA we are working to improve the situation.

There is a still a question about whether we have the funding here to support more startups and scaleups. The Bay Area has seen many more commercial exits and that’s a very palpable sign that the depth of funding in the Valley is much deeper.

tlaresizeThere are also questions about a lack of talent in London. Part of the due diligence that companies want to do before they come over here, is can they easily recruit talent? Is it good quality talent? Will it fit with the culture they have already established?

Over the past 10 years the Valley has been looking towards China and India, partially at the expense of the UK and Europe. There was a sense that was true to a degree, but also a sense that this is changing.

A lot of startups and scaleups in the Bay Area were finding China disappointing and were finding India difficult and therefore to coming to London where there were language and cultural similarities. The ease of doing business between the US and the UK makes London a natural stepping point into Europe and beyond.

We also heard from startups from San Francisco who are looking to expand abroad, and are thinking about London. Three we heard from were Inkling, Chui and Marketspace. A number of other startups came just to learn more about London, as they’re also assessing their options for international expansion.

Part of our intention behind doing an event like this was to get early sight of who is coming here and understand how we at TLA, as well as London & Partners, help companies get settled here. We expect that our partnership with London & Partners will continue.

We are all trying to build that bridge between London and San Francisco, getting people to feel comfortable that London is a natural destination. And the perspective we heard on London was that the things we’re doing and building are very smart.

The advice we heard overall was, stay humble, stay focused and this will start to happen. The other message was to do what Tech London Advocates is doing – which is to build the network, not just in London but globally.