Once gritty, London’s Tech City shines with new startups

If you’re in London, where your startup is located couldn’t be more important. And right now, everyone is competing for space in the super-hot neighborhood of Moorgate.

“We’re originally from Holland and where you’ve based there doesn’t really matter,” says Vincent Karremons, founder of the online recruitment network Magnet.me. “It’s not something people would really ask about. But here, everyone’s always keen to know. And it’s always good to be able to say that our office is in Moorgate. Although you’re a startup, you add some legitimacy.”

Moorgate is part of an area of London’s East End that has become known as Tech City. Seven or eight years ago, you wouldn’t have found more than a handful of tech companies in what was then a rundown part of the city. Today it’s home to an extraordinary 6,792 tech businesses, according to figures recently released by the commercial property firm Stirling Ackroyd.

That makes Tech City the third largest cluster of tech-oriented companies, after San Francisco and New York. And the presence of giants like Facebook and Amazon guarantees it will continue to grow.

A few months ago, Magnet.me moved into an office in WeWork Moorgate. The building’s location in Tech City and its proximity to the City of London, one of the world’s leading financial centers, is a boon for Magnet.me.

Karremons says that the huge number of companies in the area opens up lots of business opportunities. Magnet.me is currently a three-person operation, but the team benefits from rubbing shoulders with movers and shakers near the water cooler, at networking events at WeWork, or just being out and about in Tech City.

London’s center of start-up culture

The diversity of the community in this part of London is key to its success, says Taavet Hinrikus, co-founder of international money transfer service TransferWise, also based in Tech City. And it’s not just early stage companies that get the benefits, he says. Established firms like TransferWise, which now has more than 450 employees, are fired up by what Hinrikus calls the “entrepreneurial spirit” of start-up culture.

“There’s a theory on creativity that talks about how the collision of different people, cultures, and approaches fosters greater creativity,” he says. “It’s about the unexpected. A lot of the time people or businesses tend to congregate with others that are like them. Once you start mixing it up, different things start to happen. It’s exciting to see.”

Offices like WeWork are an important piece of the puzzle. Gerard Grech, CEO of Tech City UK, a non-profit group set up by the British government in to support businesses in the area, estimates that there are as many as 80 co-working spaces in London. Moorgate and Shoreditch, two neighborhoods in this area known locally as Silicon Roundabout, are among the most vibrant environments for startups.

“They’re a great place for any business to not only be able to know even more people who can help their business, but also share ideas, approaches, problems with others who may be at a similar stage in their development,” he says.

Grech says that businesses benefit from more than just proximity.

“A lot of co-working spaces are now curating events specifically to help digital businesses grow,” he says. “I think that’s a terrific way of bringing added value other than just space and access to Wi-Fi.”

Growth attracts big-money investors

It was affordable rents that first drew tech entrepreneurs to Moorgate, Shoreditch, and other parts of the area less than a decade ago, following in the wake of the artists who had begun to gentrify what was then an undeniably gritty neighborhood. The recession meant that the area had a lot of vacant office space.

Demand has pushed prices up since then, of course, but the environment is more favorable for young businesses today, argues Reshma Sohoni, co-founder of the Shoreditch-based first-round accelerator Seedcamp.

“Start-ups need the flexibility to be able to grow fast and not have to take 10-year leases, five-year leases,” she explains. “You can pay daily, weekly, all of that’s on offer. There’s an incredible amount of flexibility, it’s something we’ve never seen even when actually prices were much lower.”

Another reason Silicon Roundabout-based firms are able to grow so quickly is the ready supply of talent in and around the area.

“If you are sitting in Moorgate, you’re within 40 miles of six of the top 10 universities in the world, which obviously produces some high calibre people— graduates and PhDs that get snapped up into great companies,” says Grech.

Committed to widening the pool even further, Tech City UK last year launched the Digital Business Academy, an online learning platform available for free to all U.K. residents. It features courses from University College London and the Cambridge University Judge Business School.

“Half the people coming through the academy want to start their own business, half want to join a digital business, so this is how we make sure that a community is completely connected into the tech scene, and ensure that it certainly isn’t an ivory tower,” says Grech.

The area is easily accessible to talent within other U.K. tech clusters, too, an important factor in Skyscanner’s decision to open an office at WeWork Moorgate this fall.

“From a location perspective, it’s very attractive not only for people in metro London but also being able to extend out and be interesting for people in some of the adjacent technology hubs,” says Bryan Dove, senior vice president engineering at the global travel search website. “Commuters from Cambridge can make it to Kings Cross or Cambridge to Liverpool Street on the direct train.”

It’s a similar story when it comes to investment, says Sohoni, with money “moving eastward” from the center of the city in Mayfair. She mentions venture capital firms like Connect Ventures and Local Globe that now have offices in London closer to the tech startups of Silicon Roundabout.

“Capital, which used to be very Mayfair-centric—one of last things we would’ve expected to move east, because it tended to be comfortable out there—they’ve also felt the pressure that the talent is here and the draw is all here,” says Sohoni.

It’s still early days for Tech City, but all the signs point to a momentum that just continues to build.

“You’re seeing people who have built businesses, sold their businesses or listed them on the London Stock Exchange, who have now become seed investors in early stage companies, reinvesting that money back into the system,” says Grech. “Which is what strengthens an eco-system.”

Sohoni agrees.

“You see it with Silicon Valley over two decades, three, four decades,” she says. “It just feeds on itself. There isn’t a cap on it, it just continues to grow. You see four, five venture capital firms here, they attract another five, another ten, and you feel that you’ve got to be in this area otherwise you’re missing out.”

Illustration credit: Vincent Conti

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