This is the response I had from so many people when I explained I was moving back to London after living in New York for so long. But I believe that London, the U.K. and Europe will come through this tough post-depression, post-brexit phase stronger for the challenges the region has had to deal with. And that the tech industry will be very much at the centre of this ‘new’ Europe.
I moved to New York in 2002 to lead the US expansion for MessageLabs, a cloud-based anti-virus/anti-spam provider I co-founded in the UK with my brother in 2000. I thought I’d be in New York for a couple of years and move back. But it turned into 14 years and I had an amazing time there on both a business and personal level. I wrote about why I think New York is such a special place in a post here.
But at the same time, I’m really excited to be moving back to London. I’m looking forward to being a more an integrated part of the Notion team and getting more immersed in the European tech ecosystem. I’m also interested to compare the culture and the tech scene here in Europe with everything I became used to in New York and the wider US.
Europe is still the single biggest trading bloc in the world. It has so much talent and creativity that is starting to coalesce more and more around established and emerging tech hubs. It also has no choice but to reinvent itself with most of the region’s traditional economic drivers in decline. And it has London at its centre as one of the world’s biggest and most dynamic cities.
Here are some of the things I’m looking forward to on the business/tech level:
London will continue to rock
London is one of the world’s greatest cities. It is also one of the most interesting and fastest growing hubs for technology startups. Almost everything that drives a successful tech hub can be found in London. There are also some unique competitive advantages such as a supportive government, a progressive approach to regulations, its position between US and Asia, an English speaking beachhead into Europe, a strong legal structure and its sheer size and diversity. The argument for London was made very eloquently by Robin Klein in his excellent post here. And much of this applies to the wider UK as well. Of course there is going to be uncertainty and change post Brexit. But I don’t believe it will materially weaken London’s position as a tech-hub in the long term and things won’t change as dramatically as we first feared.
Europe's rich culture and history is very special. This might seem like a non-business related point but I’m not so sure. In this time of increased mobility, remote working and lower startup costs, entrepreneurs are starting to choose their location based more on lifestyle considerations. Where would we really like to live and work if we could? This would seem to greatly favor so many of the European cities that have much going for them but are not traditionally seen as places to base your startup. We are already starting to see this with activity in cities such as Lisbon, Barcelona, Dublin, Malmö, Tallinn and Amsterdam.
New market DNA
The culture, history and diversity of Europe has another important benefit. It really forces you to appreciate and understand cultural differences. No European country in itself is large enough to drive major value creation for a venture backed company. And you have got so many small to medium size countries all so close to each other. All this means that European startups are good at working with, understanding and entering many different countries.
I have a strong conviction that the best designers are in Europe. In all my 14 years in the US I never felt that the design talent could measure up to Europe. This is especially true in Scandinavia where their minimalist design style has been very influential and is now used to describe an entire design genre. Design has never been more important than it is today as the world moves more and more towards mobile devices with smaller screens that respond to our every touch. We expect things to be simple and intuitive.
Change brings opportunity
Europe's economy is going through challenging times. There is slow growth and high unemployment in most counties. Many of the traditional industries are in decline. Governments can’t afford to pay for the promises they have made. Brexit has obviously made this even worse and put a dent in some of the competitive advantages that Europe currently enjoys like free movement of talent and working together as the single biggest trading bloc in the world.
But let’s not forget Europe is still the single largest market in the world and out of this change comes opportunity. Hard and changing times times always provide fertile ground for entrepreneurs to tap into. And the tech market is one of the clear bright spots in Europe’s economy.
I believe that the region is reinventing itself and tech will be at the forefront of this transformation. More and more of the best talent will come into tech and congregate in the established hubs such as London and Berlin or in one of the many challenger hubs that are emerging.
There is so much talent in the region looking for both a new outlet and a new home. Take Lisbon as an example. A few years ago Lisbon was much like many other European cities – a beautiful but declining old city with its best years very much behind it. Now the city is a legitimate tech hub, home to many interesting startups and is about to host one of the world’s largest tech event with the Web Summit in November. This is an amazing transformation and you can see many other European cities looking on enviously and set to follow a similar path.
Europe is full of creativity and original ideas. I’ve no doubt this will continue and be increasingly focused on the tech market. America sees Europe, and especially the UK, as a rich source of original ideas. You see the US time and time again take an idea and repackage it with great success (and usually without much knowledge that the idea was conceived in Europe!) Examples of this include American Idol, Spotify and even the World Wide Web! I believe that the combination of original ideas with the power of technology will bring tremendous gains to Europe.What Europe is less good at is taking these ideas and really exploiting their full commercial potential. Having the ambition, the management and leadership skills, the processes and the work-rate to turn these ideas into big global companies. This is still something that Europe really needs to work on but there are definitely signs of progress.
AI ‘made in England’
AI/Machine learning represents the next big platform shift in the technology world. The idea that machines can now learn something that they haven’t been explicitly programmed to do is increasingly important and will be at the heart of the industry for many years to come. Deep Mind, led by Demis Hassabis, was one of the pre-eminent AI teams in the world before their acquisition by Google in 2014 and went on to make headlines when its AlphaGo computer defeated Lee Sedol at Go. But Deep Mind was only the beginning of the AI ‘made in England’ story. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a number of high profile acquisitions including Swiftkey (acquired by Microsoft), Evi (acquired by Amazon), VocalIQ (acquired by Apple), PredictionIO (acquired by Salesforce) and Magic Pony (acquired by Twitter). We are excited to see that the UK’s top academic institutions and nurturing startup ecosystem have let us punch well above our weight in this field and this looks set to continue.
A strong tech ecosystem is built fibre by fibre. It takes time. It takes many people, relationships and organizations coming together to make something happen. This leads to an ever growing level of success that gets recycled in the form of experience, confidence and cash flowing back into the ecosystem. Over the last ten years or so this recycling has really started to take hold in Europe and it’s great to see. I know many of the people and organizations that have contributed to this and I look forward to spending more time with them as well as meeting many more stakeholders in the European ecosystem. Together we can keep moving forwards and keep building our ecosystem to the benefit of everyone involved.
See you all out there!