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Cambridge – putting the pieces together by opening up

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Cambridge is an incredible city for science and technology. For the Americans reading this, imagine if you put Harvard and MIT together and you’ve got a good idea of what Cambridge is like. (With a short note to point out that both Harvard and MIT are in Cambridge, MA… named after THIS Cambridge!) It’s the Ivy League of the UK and Europe, with scientists and engineers that are on par with anything MIT, CalTech, Stanford or Michigan produces.

I’ve been talking with a lot of people about the Cambridge startup ecosystem recently, and it’s been both very frustrating and very invigorating. Invigorating because there are a TON of cool ideas and startups getting going. Frustrating because we still aren’t building links amongst all these companies in order to take full advantage of what’s being developed.

Opening up

One of the themes I keep hearing about the area is that so much of what is done in Cambridge is silo-ed. The University has not just one or two, but a half-dozen groups dedicated to entrepreneurship! (CfEL, Cambridge Enterprise, CUE, CUTEC, etc.) Cambridge Enterprise and St. John’s Innovation Centre provide office space and serve as hubs for startups. The criticism I hear is that even in the “hubs,” most people/companies just work in their own offices, and there’s not a lot of interaction between them… a huge missed opportunity. There are lots of high-tech hardware startups that come out of Cambridge labs, and there are a lot of scary-smart computer scientists building crazy software in their labs. Rarely do these people even talk to each other, but imagine if they did!

We need to start systematically work on opening up the Cambridge startup community. (OpenCoffee Cambridge is just the first step in doing this, though I think a valuable one. But why, as just one example, doesn’t St. John’s Innovation Centre host startup-only BBQ’s in the summer?)

Putting pieces together

Part of the solution to solving this is to get people talking. OpenCoffee helps to connect people and companies, but that’s just once a week. Working in the same space with others would be another great step. I know that Martin Kleppmann has been working on a Cambridge CoWorking space to do exactly this, and look forward to hearing more about that. Let’s face it… all we need is a covered room with power and a bathroom, and internet/wireless access. In today’s market I’m sure there are some offices going spare where the owner would appreciate any kind of income. (Again, this would be even more ideal if both hardware-focused and software-focused startups came together under the same roof!)

Phase 1 – Full Moon Madness Demo nights

The first phase I’m working on is Full Moon Madness Demo nights. These would revolve around themes, and involve demos from both hardware startups and software startups. Five to six companies would have 5 minutes (strictly limited, once decided) to demo their technology. After that ~30 minutes, the rest of the evening the demo companies would be available to do in-depth demos, and the audience could network.

Startups would NOT be pitching their business idea, they’ll be DEMOING their technology/product. Powerpoint will NOT be welcome. By seeing all the technology in person, I hope to build links between these hardware and software companies to build very powerful businesses.

The event would be open to everyone in the tech scene. I imagine that it will start out being Cambridge-focused, but I hope that it will grow to be an event that people come to from across the UK to see the future of technology early.

On a more practical note, as I mentioned in my last post I think it would be interesting to switch around the days of the week. A favourite pub of mine in the US held “Full Moon Madness” specials every Full Moon, year round. I suggest that we hold demo nights on the same schedule, though anything that fell on the weekend would move to the closest weekday night.

Based on that, here are the suggested dates in the coming months:

  • Thursday, April 9th
  • Thursday, May 7th
  • Monday, June 8th
  • Tuesday, July 7th
  • Thursday, August 6th
  • Thursday, September 3rd

I’m thinking of centering the first night around the theme of new media technology. Based on that, I have the following questions for you! –

  • Does anyone have any recommendations for companies that are ready and able to demo next month?
  • Or recommendations for other themes?
  • Does anyone know of good venues to hold a night like this? (I’ve got a few in mind, but would appreciate suggestions.)
  • Does a 7:30pm start sound reasonable?

Future plans

I’m interested in your thoughts of what Cambridge can and should do to invigorate the startup scene. I’ve got a number of things simmering in my mind, but want to hear what you’ve got to say first.

  • Peter Clark

    an awesome first of many steps. I'll be interested to see how many early stage startups there are around Cambridge.

  • Exactly!! We don't know, but we should. Like I wrote above, I really think there's a unique-to-Cambridge opportunity to connect hardware-based startups with software-based startups.

  • Paul Grayson

    Love the sentiment but perhaps you should pitch this at a lower level? Perhaps it's not startups you want!?

    Many startups have external investment and the stakes are too high for early demos rather than polished pitches; collaborations difficult where investment has been based on acheiving plans.

    Perhaps aim to put individuals with ideas / skills in touch instead.

    Good luck.
    Paul

  • Jeremy

    My first startup experience was in the Thames Valley, more years ago than I care to remember, and from my point of view pretty random as an opportunity: the entrepreneur had been to my school and came looking for someone to help. I had a year before starting at Oxford, and so I became employee number 1.

    From our offices in Wokigham, you could see one pub and six other startups. We networked a bit for moral support. But as a techy – which I was before becoming a marketing nut – I networked more on the Internet (as we call it today, I can't remember what we called it in 1983!).

    Now living in Cambridge, my comment on what's lacking here is that the 'corporate introversion' you're pointing out is a factor, and a larger factor is the lack of drivers – people ready to go [politically incorrect expression omitted] to make a business out of what's actually there or what could soon be, given focused ambition.

    My own recent conversations have persuaded me that the obsession with getting finance is more often than not a displacement activity. “If we had more money we could” – what? Usually, make our doohickey a bit better, then the market will come. Yes, for the 1/1000 of businesses that succeed that way. Useless for the 999 who'd be better off either putting up or pulling out.

    OK, maybe I'm exaggerating to make the point. Your idea has legs, and will add value. Then, how do we turn this place into somewhere that propositions and commercially-focused executers of propositions mix and match?

  • Love the idea and you have my support. I think that the idea of occasionally getting DEMO focus, i.e. “are you doing anything about your idea or just talking about it…?” is an important element.

  • Can we get the views of Fred Wilson and others i.e. the guys who run NY tech meetup and see if they think that early demo's kill or embolden companies. I would expect the latter

  • The final stage of the CUE £5k business plan competition involves doing a demo to the judges. Why don't we see if we can persuade Amir to make this a public demo? There are some really strong entries.

  • I think a one week marketing bootcamp for Cambridge startups would be a good idea. Lots of technically interesting stuff going on, but the general assumption is – and this even seems to be taught at the University – that if you make your product good enough then people will buy it. If people don't buy it, then make it better and that'll fix it. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

  • I think the quick demo idea is great, as Lawrence says “are you doing anything about your idea or just talking about it…?” is a noble sentiment.

    Pity I'm away for three months hoping to enjoy the full moon in The Galapagos 🙂

    The Barn at The Punter pub seems to me a good venue – Its free and would accommodate 30+

  • Looks neat, Jed

    We did something called Full Moon a few years back here in Cambridge for CEOs to network – held a big event at the Schlumberger offices about going for trade sale or flotation (poignant in today's economic climate, eh?) and followed thru with a bunch of coaching for local CEOs. One of them wound up getting coaching from a really neat guy who used to run marketing for ARM and exited his business very successfuly – he has another in Cambridge now.

    Look forward to chatting later this month at Neil's bash!

    Matt Schofield

  • Hi, Jeremy. Interesting thought. I agree there is a lack of drivers, but think that people need to be shown other people and companies *doing* it. While Cambridge is known for a lot of startups, I don't think other people have a lot of exposure to them, so a strong culture of startups hasn't been built. These Demo nights are meant to show off to everyone what people and companies are actually *creating*, and potentially connect people doing related things in order to build bigger and more comprehensive businesses. (Which would certainly be unique to Cambridge, with our expertise in both hardware and software technology.)

    As to your question about getting companies and executers to match, I think we need to discover who the “do-ers” are and encourage them to come out to OpenCoffee, Demo nights, etc. and see what happens. Like I wrote at the top, we need to open Cambridge up and get people talking to each other, and then work on putting all the unique pieces of businesses together.

  • Thanks, Laurence, I appreciate it. Not only do demos cut through the BS that some entrepreneurs/talkers spin, but they're interesting to see! I hope we build a strong audience beating down the door to get in.

  • I think that would be fantastic! I'm curious how some entrants that are really concerned about IP would respond. (Probably not as much of an issue in the software and social enterprise categories, but more so in the technology category.)

  • Thanks, Matt.

    That's a great story, and to me shows how virtually all the expertise that startups need can be found in Cambridge. We just need to figure out valuable ways of putting the right people in the same room(s) with each other. Definitely look forward to chatting soon!

  • I'm quite envious Geoff; have a great time! Thanks for the heads-up on The Barn. I'll put it on the list of venues I've been thinking about.

  • martinkl

    Excellent idea. I would love to come, and also would like to give a demo at some point. Demos are a lot more meaningful than talk or slides. Thanks for initiating this — as you say, I've tried to give start-ups an opportunity to get together in the CamCow coworking space, but it several different initiatives working together to really build a community.

  • Thanks, Martin. I really like what you're doing with CamCow, and would be keen to see if/how we can scale that up. And I agree wholeheartedly with the notion that it will take several inititives working together to build Cambridge.

  • Demo should be standard for s/w entries at the Grand Finale (prize giving) on 10 Jun. Can't really open up the s/w judging process since entrants need to be able to have frank discussion with judges which can get awkward if there's an audience. CUE learned this the hard way a few yrs ago.

    Tech & social entries usually don't have demos

  • My mistake; I forgot that tech & social entries don't do demos as part of the competition.

    Perhaps there could be a seperate demo night (outside the judging process) that would be for all finalists, or even all entrants depending on quality. Tech, social enterprise, and s/w startups could all have their 5 minutes of fame either showing off or pitching their ideas. The idea would be to have everyone get more practice and experience pitching, and show off some interesting potential businesses to the Cambridge community.

  • Hi, Jeremy. Interesting thought. I agree there is a lack of drivers, but think that people need to be shown other people and companies *doing* it. While Cambridge is known for a lot of startups, I don't think other people have a lot of exposure to them, so a strong culture of startups hasn't been built. These Demo nights are meant to show off to everyone what people and companies are actually *creating*, and potentially connect people doing related things in order to build bigger and more comprehensive businesses. (Which would certainly be unique to Cambridge, with our expertise in both hardware and software technology.)

    As to your question about getting companies and executers to match, I think we need to discover who the “do-ers” are and encourage them to come out to OpenCoffee, Demo nights, etc. and see what happens. Like I wrote at the top, we need to open Cambridge up and get people talking to each other, and then work on putting all the unique pieces of businesses together.

  • Thanks, Laurence, I appreciate it. Not only do demos cut through the BS that some entrepreneurs/talkers spin, but they're interesting to see! I hope we build a strong audience beating down the door to get in.

  • I think that would be fantastic! I'm curious how some entrants that are really concerned about IP would respond. (Probably not as much of an issue in the software and social enterprise categories, but more so in the technology category.)

  • Thanks, Matt.

    That's a great story, and to me shows how virtually all the expertise that startups need can be found in Cambridge. We just need to figure out valuable ways of putting the right people in the same room(s) with each other. Definitely look forward to chatting soon!

  • I'm quite envious Geoff; have a great time! Thanks for the heads-up on The Barn. I'll put it on the list of venues I've been thinking about.

  • martinkl

    Excellent idea. I would love to come, and also would like to give a demo at some point. Demos are a lot more meaningful than talk or slides. Thanks for initiating this — as you say, I've tried to give start-ups an opportunity to get together in the CamCow coworking space, but it several different initiatives working together to really build a community.

  • Thanks, Martin. I really like what you're doing with CamCow, and would be keen to see if/how we can scale that up. And I agree wholeheartedly with the notion that it will take several inititives working together to build Cambridge.

  • Demo should be standard for s/w entries at the Grand Finale (prize giving) on 10 Jun. Can't really open up the s/w judging process since entrants need to be able to have frank discussion with judges which can get awkward if there's an audience. CUE learned this the hard way a few yrs ago.

    Tech & social entries usually don't have demos

  • My mistake; I forgot that tech & social entries don't do demos as part of the competition.

    Perhaps there could be a seperate demo night (outside the judging process) that would be for all finalists, or even all entrants depending on quality. Tech, social enterprise, and s/w startups could all have their 5 minutes of fame either showing off or pitching their ideas. The idea would be to have everyone get more practice and experience pitching, and show off some interesting potential businesses to the Cambridge community.

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