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Life as a London Tech Startup: on the Hunt for Brilliant Brains

Posted: 29/10/2011 00:00

It might seem from watching certain films that making your own tech startup is as simple as organising a drinking competition in your college dorms. You might also think that success comes overnight, or that its coming is due to little more than good timing.

But as anyone with any experience of building a software company will testify, it's hard work. What the media don't always report on when getting excited about building new 'investment hubs' is the fact that startup failure rates are, and always have been, extremely high. And although it's really common sense, what the recent 'sexing up' of entrepreneurship through TV and films somehow manages to ignore is this: What really makes early-stage tech businesses succeed is having talented, skilled people working together effectively to build things that people want.

And by talented, skilled people, I'm talking about the people who actually build things. Software engineers, designers and architects are what make great, world-changing internet startups, not bureaucrats organising broadband provision in Dudley or tech journalists getting excited about their friend's new Groupon clone.

For all the political puff and media salivation around 'Silicon Roundabout', our experience of the East London technology scene over the past year has been somewhat mixed. While the concept is certainly in the minds and on the lips of the full cast of well-meaning accountants, lawyers, journalists and other supporting characters buzzing around every startup event, the people who actually get things done - the aforementioned designers and engineers - are often conspicuously absent.

But where are they? Well, probably at their jobs. People with talent - the kind of talent you need to make something that the world wants to buy, completely from scratch - are always going to be in demand. London is a world-class centre for banking, consultancy, advertising and PR. People who work in those industries make real money from day one, and talented graduates know that working for a big corporation is still a pretty good bet for a safe and well-paid career. What many graduates might not realise, however, is that working for a startup can not only also be well-paid, but has the potential to fulfill you in a way that most corporate jobs cannot. And in the face of mass lay-offs, alleged serious misconduct and increasing public discontent with the banking industry, maybe it's high time that today's technical graduates did think about alternative options.

One of the most obvious and hard-to-fix differences between 'Silicon Roundabout' and Silicon Valley is the sheer momentum and track record of the startup movement. In Silicon Valley, joining a technology startup is a very real and likely path for engineering graduates. In London, the path is less well-worn and the visible successes are fewer and smaller: where's our Facebook (Google, Twitter, Apple...)? - This problem is a classic chicken/egg situation: if no-one joins startups in the face of attractive offers from 'safer' alternatives, no-one will succeed, and if no-one succeeds, fewer people will be encouraged to make the leap themselves.

The biggest problem facing many startups, then, is not a lack of customers, or a lack of government support, but that of attracting the very best talent. Our company, Yearbook Machine, has found the hiring process to be so time-consuming that until now, we have outsourced much of our software development to Poland. It's got us so far, but we've come to the realisation that outsourcing is not how world-leading companies are made. So the time has come to move things in-house, meaning we're going to have to throw ourselves head first into hiring - building the machine to make the product, rather than building the product itself.

Which is why Silicon Milkroundabout, a hiring event for startups to attract engineers this Sunday, is such a welcome addition to our calendar. Organised by Songkick with the support of the UK Government's Tech City initiative, it hopes to match people to technical positions at 100 of London's top startups. Banks, take note - the startups are coming.