FinTech City

Square Mile Magazine, November 2015. Original article p76-79.

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The hottest thing in the tech startup scene right now is finance. Because no one is better at fintech than London – not even Silicon Valley.

Is the London tech startup scene becoming a true competitor to Silicon Valley? The fact that we once called it Silicon Roundabout is a nod to how far-fetched that idea used to be. But it’s been a very, very busy decade around Old Street, and no one says roundabout anymore – this is Tech City. The Valley is still unsurpassed in terms of breadth and whitehot ambition, but London is catching up fast. Add that to the fact that London is a world class financial centre, and what do you have? The start of a British fintech boom that could make London one of the biggest innovation centres in the world.

“I don’t think that’s an exaggeration at all. It’s absolutely true!” Eileen Burbidge knows better than most just how good London is at fintech – she was the undisputed queen of Tech City long before becoming the new chair of Tech City UK, the public body promoting the London scene. Silicon Valley may have software expertise, says Burbidge, but it doesn’t have the financial expertise. In London, we have both: “What we have in London, is if you took Silicon Valley and put it in the same city as Wall Street. Then, add Washington DC for policymakers and regulatory departments. In London, we have that all in one city. And there’s no way any other tech hub can beat that.”

As a partner in early-stage venture capital group Passion Capital, Burbidge has backed fintech darlings such as GoCardless, DueDil, and Digital Shadows, and will speak in rapid fire about why her companies – and others beyond – have excellent prospects. Take the challenger banks Starling, Atom and Mondo, offering app-only current accounts. Passion has invested in Mondo, but as Burbidge is also the UK Government’s special envoy for fintech, she’s enthusiastic about them all: “There’s something to be said about the level of disruption this will introduce. … This is probably one of the biggest bets we’ve made at Passion.”

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 13.05.57Enter big money
Venture capitalists made another big bet on London fintech this April, when peer-to-peer business lender Funding Circle raised $150 million in what’s one of the biggest VC deals in the UK to date. But this isn’t an isolated case: British VC tech investments reached a new high in the first half of the year, with almost $1.5 billion raised, according to numbers compiled by London & Partners. Funding Circle, and fintech peers such as Azimo, WorldRemit and Currency Cloud, lead the charge: fintech attracted $472 million in the first half of 2015, representing 40% of all the money raised in London.

This represents a possible gamechanger for the London tech scene: to be able to attract big money without having to go to Silicon Valley. One defining factor of London startups has typically been how they’re making money almost immediately, in part because “practical” UK startups like fintech attracts more paying customers than social media. But this steely focus on earnings is also a symptom of how the UK funding climate won’t tolerate the kind of high-risk ventures more commonplace in the Valley. Access to bigger funding deals is arguably vital if London is to grow bigger companies, as it will enable startups to focus more on strategy and expansion.

“A lot of what happens in start-up industries is based around the attitude of the risk capital industry. In a hard-driven financial services world, getting profitable in a short period of time is extremely important,” says David Slater, head of international business development at London & Partners, the Mayor-backed organisation working to promote the capital to business. Looking back to the funding environment five-ten years ago, Slater remembers how the London hub was known for having good companies, but investors just couldn’t trust their payday would come. With the recent surge in high-value deals, this is now starting to change: “Once you get into a cycle of not only risk capital coming in, but also there’s a way to get it out – that’s a big step change in the way our technology industries will grow.”

Slater is optimistic about the prospects of UK tech, even though he’s reluctant to draw direct comparisons to the Valley. Still, he acknowledges there’s plenty there to admire: “We’re trying to emulate the Valley in terms of their appetite for risk, creativity, quick execution, developing the right talent, and entrepreneurial spirit. But London is different,” says Slater, pointing to how UK technology innovation is less about social and more about things like education, retail, video games, and finance.

Right now, London is brimming with corporate-sponsored startup accelerators (several just for fintech), as corporations are increasingly embracing the disruptors. Instead of looking at newcomers as threats, incumbents are supporting them with cash and mentoring, keen to tap into fresh ideas. This is one of the reasons why Slater thinks London is the perfect test bed for tech innovation: “We have all sorts of well-established industry there. It’s ready, and even accepting of the fact they’re going to be disrupted.”

The deep finance bench
The fact that the government values fresh thinking in the financial sector is a vital factor behind the fintech boom. Gemma Godfrey, who’s currently setting up fintech venture after previously heading up investment strategy at Brooks Macdonald, highlights how recent regulatory advances have driven change. “We have a very supportive regulator. We have new pension freedoms, and the Retail Distribution Review has provided transparency over the way people pay fees,” says Godfrey. She points to how the rise of the “DIY investor” has paved the way for online-only companies like Nutmeg to offer wealth management and pensions.

Still, there can be significant barriers to overcome for startups moving into a traditionally-minded area like finance. “If you’re trying to do something new it’s only natural you’re going come across hurdles. If it hasn’t been done before, you need to create it,” says Godfrey, adding how new financing models are currently co-existing with the old ones, but they need to be better integrated. The first steps in that direction came last year, when Santander partnered with Funding Circle to become the first bank to establish a referral system to an alternative lender. Along with the rise of new technologies, these kinds of collaborations makes Godfrey optimistic about London’s prospects for becoming the global leader in fintech. She’s less sure if we can expect to compete with the Valley in a more general sense: “But for fintech, and certain subsets of technology? Absolutely we can! It’s really exciting.”

Increasing support from the established financial sector has been key to the rise of London fintech startups. But there’s only so much you can do to force a tech hub to happen, says Eileen Burbidge – the change has to be broad and cultural. “Silicon Valley became the strength that it is, not because it had envoys and investment programmes. It produced companies like Google, Facebook, eBay, Yahoo and Apple because the overall environment supported it.”

Burbidge points to how London has over 300 of the world’s largest banks, and the UK has over 100,000 financial services knowledge workers. While there’s no shortage of 20-something CEOs in the fintech crowd, there’s just as many graying hairs – plenty of fintech founders come from traditional finance backgrounds. Burbidge attributes this in part to the effects of the financial crisis: “After 2008, a lot of people decided they wanted to set up for themselves, because they no longer had the safety net. They could take the risk to be more entrepreneurial.” The rise of corporate-backed tech incubators is also a reflection of how the world of finance changed after the recession: “Institutions that got crippled by the crisis realised they had to innovate, and become more agile and efficient in how they operate.”

Taking a global mindset
This is the natural time for the London startup community to step up to the next level, says Mark Pearson, co-founder of Fuel Ventures: “We’ve had everything evolve: funding, early-stage investors, mind-set.” Pearson launched Fuel Ventures following a crowdfunding campaign earlier this year, after selling his previous company, MyVoucherCodes, in a deal worth up to £55 million. One of Pearson’s goals with Fuel Ventures, an early-stage technology investment fund and incubator, is to nurture companies to compete on a global scale:

“You see a lot of companies coming out of the US with big ideas, with lots of funding on day one, before they’ve even proved anything. In the UK, we’re a lot more conservative. It’s much more about the numbers, and you have to be revenue-generative from day one. This can restrict people with the big visions,” says Pearson. The British model may result in fewer failures, but Pearson thinks we need to crank up our ambitions: “I’m all for revenue and profits, but if you wait too long and [spend too long] scaling, you lose the race globally.”

Thanks to technology and the internet it’s never been easier to take a global view, but Pearson is quick to point out how London has a few challenges to overcome if we are to catch up with the Valley. One is the sheer size of the US market: 300 million people with the same language, currency and culture. The UK only has a fraction of that. “Then to scale in Europe, we need to have multiple languages, currencies, regulations – that’s a challenge.” Having said that, Pearson sees no reason London tech companies can’t take on this task, as people are starting to think bigger: “Historically, UK entrepreneurs have been criticised for selling out to early. … It pains me that we don’t have a Google, Apple, Microsoft or Amazon from the UK. But let’s add some zeroes and some scale, and we’ll get there.”

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Staycations in the London summer

The Billfold, June 2015. Original article

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 12.18.33Staycations in the London summer
I woke up by myself today in my little flat in Hackney. My husband is away for work, so I slept past 10 o’clock which I never do unless I’m alone. As much as I like company, I’m very good at being by myself, especially in London. Last weekend I meant to go to a neighbourhood book festival but ended up roaming around all day until it was dark, even though this is June, the lightest month.

Something like that might have happened again today, but my best friend K text me, wanting to meet for coffee. I said yes despite having to rush, because there’s never too much time to spend with K. I took the Overground to Whitechapel, which all of a sudden has plenty of good coffee, the calling card of an “up and coming” neighbourhood. K and I talked for an hour and I decide to walk home, taking the meandering route through the backstreets.

London is full of concrete, but I’ve never seen a major city that’s this green. There are trees and flowers everywhere, drooping over the brick walls and onto the pavements. This city is a very pretty boy right now. It’s been muggy lately but it’s warm, and before long you’re sweating under grey cloud. London is tough in the winter, but for six months over the summer, there’s nothing you can do to get me to leave the city. Right now, London is better than anything I can imagine.


“I’m an unrepentant Londoner, and the places that have chosen me – because I think it’s that way round: places choose you, rather than vice versa – have already done so. I think you only have room for two or three serious affairs of place in a lifetime, just as you only have emotional space for two or three serious love affairs,” said the writer Will Self.

I first read this a few years ago and I keep coming back to it. Familiarity isn’t enough to love a place, as I was familiar with the village I grew up in but it never felt anything like this. I’ve lived in London for 12 years now – it wasn’t love at first sight because this city is hard on newcomers, but if you stick it out, this place will reward you. I always say it takes two years to get on good terms with London, and it took me even longer to love it, maybe six years. That’s nothing like my experience of ever falling in love with a person, but make no mistake: London is it for me.

Most of the time it’s nice but nothing unusual, and then suddenly it’ll come over me: I’ll be walking along and I’ll look up and I realise that damn, I love this city. If I’m on a bus crossing the Thames, it’s bound to happen. Often though, it happens during the moments when London’s not so shiny, when I’m distracted or thrown off course. London has a knack for keeping you in that in-between space: a little hot, a little cold, leaving you guessing what’s coming.

Like the other night when I was out with my friend G. We just wanted to leave the house for beers, but suddenly we were wrists deep in barbecue sauce because that’s what Hackney is like now: cocktails and ribs. It was too cool to be wearing shorts down by the canal but we walked along anyway, shivering in the early London summer. Because isn’t this the best part? It’s so light, so much summer still to come.


I have a list in my head of things I want to do this summer, during the annual London staycation when I won’t leave the city. I want to go see Agnes Martin at the Tate Modern, and the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art. I want go out to the Thames Barrier Park – this is the city’s flood barrier and a work of art. I haven’t been there in years as it’s a bit out of the way, but I want to go with my husband and a bottle of prosecco. I want to try this cocktail bar in Soho with my new friend R, and talk about work the whole time because sometimes that’s the best.

I saw a picture on Instagram from the Nunhead Reservoir recently, which apparently has amazing views of the city, a rare find in a shallow dish like London. I’ve never been to Nunhead. A few years ago, I went cycling up past the Hackney Marshes with the then-boyfriend who got me to finally buy a bicycle, and I’ve been wanting to go again ever since. There’s a grotty pub up the River Lea where you can get lunch, and even though the food won’t be great it won’t matter.

Sometimes though, the best way to go see the sights is having guests from out of town. When my mother visited recently we went to the London Transport Museum, which is brilliant: it chronicles the history of the Tube so it’s part trainset playground, but it’s also partially an archive of functional graphic design. Away from the rush hour, the Underground is a treat to explore, even after all these years – each line a different pattern of colours, each station a different style. I passed through Baker Street station the other day, on the platform that was part of the very first Tube line. The light wells are still streaming daylight down onto the platform.

I got out at Paddington, just onto the canal, which in West London is the same water that runs past my house in East London. It’s funny – I always tell people the key to London is to find your neighbourhood, that’s how the city will start making sense to you. I once spent three months not leaving Hackney, which would be easy to do again – like when I get Vietnamese on Kingsland Road with my friend C and we order the same things every time. There’s so much more to London than the patch where I live, but there’s a reason why I live here.


Last weekend I met up with K again, we walked along the canal up past London Fields, taking the long back around to my house. It’s quiet on the roads around here, away from the main stretch where the buses run. Heavy with green and flowers, and all the beautiful yellow-brick victorian terrace houses we can’t afford to live in. Then we came across this odd building made from corrugated iron plates, sticking out like a sore thumb in the row of pretty houses. It’s the Sight of Eternal Life church, said the internet, thought to be the oldest surviving “Tin Tabernacle” in the world. I took a photo and we walked on, but that’s the best part, I think: finding a piece of curiosity in a place I’ve lived for years, but somehow it’s something I’ve never noticed.

I took my mother on a long walk along the canal too when she was here, spending a whole day away from the London she knows from the pictures. Down past the canal locks and up through the market, into the park and down through the quiet back roads – I’ve walked this route so many times, and looked up to think, so many times, how much I love this city. Almost everything big that’s ever happened to me has happened in London. I know I keep saying things are the best, but there’s always something else about London that’s the best. Now how’s that for a love affair.

The weird, the wonderful and the WickED

Source Magazine, spring 2015. Original article.

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The weird, the wonderful, the Hackney WickED
The Hackney WickED festival is a three-day explosion of the creativity of London’s most brilliant arts hub. But the community that’s the beating heart of Hackney Wick keeps the spirit alive all year round.

Hackney Wick doesn’t feel like the rest of London – actually it doesn’t even feel like the rest of Hackney. Coming off the Overground you immediately see the larger-than-life red letters on the wall: ‘HW’ they read, setting it in stone. And further along a more modest scrawl: ‘Welcome to the Wick’. This is a place by artists and for artists, but you’re welcome to come stay a while: linger in the galleries, study the artful graffiti, have a drink at The Hackney Pearl.

The biggest influx of visitors happens during the Hackney WickED festival. Last summer 35,000 people came for a peek behind the industrial facades as artists opened their studio doors. Not to mention all the gallery exhibitions, tours and workshops hosted during the festival, along with music, food and drink. “It’s amazing we’ve been able to run this festival for seven years with so little money,” says Anna Maloney, festival director at Hackney WickED. “We’re a volunteer-run arts organisation, so it’s based mostly on goodwill.”

The first studios opened in 2001 as artists came to the Wick in search of affordable spaces to work and live. The Hackney WickED festival came along in 2008 to celebrate and promote the art and community. “A main aim of Hackney WickED is to bring the artists together, to work together more closely and celebrate what we have here,” says Maloney, who estimates the Wick has near a thousand studios.

The feeling of community is the reason artists come and stay in the Wick: “I was looking for a large space where I could make noise and dust and be messy,” says Lee Borthwick, an artist at TM Studios. “I wanted to be in a more professional environment, and around people a bit further ahead in their practice so I could learn from them. The community in Hackney Wick has been far beyond my expectations.”

TM Studios is one of many who welcome visitors during the Hackney WickED festival. “You get people who’re interested in seeing the work and have a conversation with you,” says Borthwick. “People were buying work, which was lovely. That happened more the second year I opened, as people have to see you a few times to know you’re a professional, to get to know what you’re doing.”

Hackney WickED is currently working on become more of a sustainable, year-round presence in the Wick. “There’s so much change in the area” says Maloney, pointing to the concerns weighing heavy on the heart of every artist working in the Wick right now: several studios have been given notice to vacate, as the popularity of the area has led to increasing outside pressure. Hackney WickED was in part established to protect the artist community in the face of change, which has escalated since the Olympics. “First of all we’re an art organisation with an annual art festival, but we’re also a network of artists and a community working together. The festival wouldn’t happen without the participation of the people in the community,” says Maloney. “It’s a fine balance.”

Joanna Hughes, director at Mother Studios, believes Hackney WickED has been crucial to the success of the area: “The lasting legacy of Hackney WickED is how it’s pooled the community and made it stronger. […] Being an artist can be a solitary life, so you need your peers in the art world to help you on your way.” Hughes was among the first artists to come to the Wick, and feels strongly that the arts hub needs protection in order to continue thriving: “When I opened Mother Studios I had a waiting list immediately, and I’ve never lost it. There are twice as many artists as artist studios in London.”

Daisy Bentley, part of the Tunnel Studios artist collective, recently lost her studio space in the Wick. “I’m hoping I’ll find a new one in time for this summer’s Hackney WickED. If not, I’ll definitely be getting involved in events.” Working in the Wick for three years has done more for her art practice than a decade of arts education, says Bentley: “People tend to shut themselves away in their studios, so Hackney WickED is an invaluable opportunity for everyone to share and open up to potential collaborations.”

While she prefers to keep a closed door to get work done, Nina Fowler appreciates the opportunity to get to know her neighbours during Hackney WickED. “I usually decide near the time if I’ll open my door during the festival, as it depends on what I’m working on and how accommodating my studio is to guests,” says Fowler, who works at Wallis Studios. Last year, festivalgoers could take part in her ‘Polaroid Portrait’ photo booth. “The festival reminds us there’s a large and thriving creative community in the area, and this is something to be celebrated.”

It’s a long time since Hackney Wick was “a mudpatch in the middle of nowhere”, as Doctor Who said in 1976. Even so, during the first Hackney WickED festival in 2008 there were no bars or restaurants in the area, and the organisers would sell drinks out of a caravan. Today, people come to the Wick to shop and eat all year round, indulging in the smoked salmon at Forman’s or a microbrew at whatever pop-up bar is attracting crowds that week. Even though it’s still geographically isolated between a major road and the canal, the Overground has made the area much more accessible. All the while, artists are busy at work in the warehouses lining every street, building the creative energy that’s unique to the Wick and thoroughly infectious.

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Fast Forward London: The Shoreditch tech startup hub

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Source Magazine, autumn 2014. 

Original article. 


Fast Forward London: The Shoreditch tech startup hub

Don’t call it Silicon Roundabout – Britain’s technology startup scene has long since outgrown the Old Street roundabout, where it all started. Tech City is an East London phenomenon, and the best thing is this: under the hype is the real deal. “We’ve only just seen the cusp of what is going to happen in the next ten years,” says Jon Bradford, Managing Director of TechStars London, the startup accelerator. “We’re only standing in the foothills of the potential of what can be achieved.”

Bradford’s enthusiasm comes across despite his nature of being “hugely cynical”, and as one of the most experienced professionals in the scene, his opinion should be one to trust. Before heading up the internationally renowned TechStars, Bradford co-founded Springboard in 2009. “I think underneath everything there is a huge amount of value being created, and it could profoundly change all of East London.”

Because this is a Shoreditch thing: a whopping 15,720 new businesses were set up in the EC1V postcode last year, according to research from the UHY Hacker Young accountancy, with no other area coming even close. Eleven of these companies took to the stage at TechStars’ DemoDay, concealing their exhaustion as they presented their ideas in tune to the music; they’re fresh from the accelerator’s 90-day bootcamp programme, which aims to whip them into shape with a mixture of mentoring from industry experts, a bit of startup cash, and an inspiring environment. First on stage was Bradford, seemingly unencumbered by his crutches as he proudly presented his latest crop. The broken leg is a terribly boring story, he tells me later, involving no punishment such as sports or alcohol: “No, I just fell over!”

Going through an accelerator programme isn’t the only way to make it in East London, but getting good advice is vital: “For startups, time is the most critical thing. Doing a startup is really hard! So how do you create an unfair advantage to yourself?” Access to funding is one factor, says Bradford, but really, it’s all about the network. But is there a formula to building a startup?

“There are frameworks, but … “ Bradford stops himself. “The honest answer is that I don’t know. To do a successful startup is the exception to the rule. You’re constantly in the stage which I call, ‘How do you turn a zombie into a real live person?’” Of course, there are plenty of ways to support a company to increase its chances: “But there’s this latent potential you need to be entrepreneurial. … At such an early stage you’re really placing a bet on the team more than anything else.”

Technically you can start a tech company in any location, says Bradford, but London would probably be better: “I strongly believe you need critical mass in a single location to make a successful [startup] ecosystem. You need the institutional knowledge of people who’ve been and done it before. You need a system that is open enough and transparent enough.”

These factors have traditionally been what gave Silicon Valley such an edge, but as the London tech scene is growing up, this is starting to change: “A startup will ordinarily take seven years to go from start to end,” says Bradford, excitedly pointing out that London’s first seven-year cycle is coming around right now. “This is when life becomes really interesting, because you can encourage those [first founders] to come back and do it again.” Or, those first founders may choose to become investment angels: “There are more entrepreneurs now out there writing angel cheques,” says Bradford, often writing smaller cheques to more people, and sticking around to mentor.

Of course, Bradford refuses name favourites from the 11 teams who have just dazzled the DemoDay audience. He will however give an example of a company that ticks the boxes that indicate success: ShortCut, whose app enables people to buy food and drinks at sports and music venues without needing to queue. Bradford lists the factors: the founders have a track record in related industries, and there’s the right combination of sales and engineering skills. “Not to mention that when you speak to them they are just genuinely awesome. They are smart enough that if their first idea doesn’t work they can pivot – as much as I hate using that word – into other things inside that market.”

Spatch is another startup that tickled the imagination at DemoDay, as the company that wants to revolutionise email by making it an contextualised and intuitive tool for the future. “Spatch is gutsy! Is it a bit insane? Totally!” Bradford laughs. “But Mick [Hagen, co-founder] has any bit as much capacity to do this as anyone I’ve seen.” With such a lofty idea, it helps that they’re not 22 and have been around the block. “A less experienced team needs to do something else to prove they have the capacity to deliver,” says Bradford, pointing to Pubble, which is developing software to build customer inquiry databases: “They’re slightly less experienced, but they already have revenues.”

It’s clear Bradford gets a kick out of what he does, something he readily admits: “My favourite thing about my job is that I get to work with people who are smarter than me!” He laughs. “Having to deal with so many entrepreneurs can be a bit insane on occasion, but it’s massively rewarding.” And what’s the least fun part? “My least favourite thing is dealing with entrepreneurs.” He delivers it deadpan, and then cracks up. “They’re a lot like five year old children! You spend your time telling them what they should be doing, and then they bugger off and do something completely different! Then they come back when it didn’t work, beg forgiveness, and you pat them on the head and send them off again.”

Bradford pauses for a moment. “My motivation in everything I do is to help the wider ecosystem. I do TechStars which supports ten teams every nine months, and I have a bunch of people who come and support me supporting the teams. Even though during the programme, I shake my fist and swear at them a lot!” Because of course, part of the point of a startup is to find unpredictable ways of doing things: “You need people who don’t follow the normal cycle, who go and break the rules.”


tech3Sinead Mac Manus, co-founder and CEO of Fluency
Not only is Fluency an interesting idea – a crowd-work marketplace teaching digital skills to people and pairing them with companies – but it’s also a force for social good. Which of these motivators came first is hard to say for co-founder Sinead Mac Manus.

“What motivates me is giving people of all ages, not just young people, access to decent work opportunities. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning,” says Mac Manus. “We want to be a global business that gives work opportunities to people regardless of whether they’re from Scotland or Bangladesh.”

The other side to Fluency is providing services to the companies that end up hiring these newly trained people: “About three years ago I was working as a freelance coach to small businesses, helping them with digital elements,” says Mac Manus. This included things like how to put together a website, digital marketing and social media. “While lots of clients saw the need for this, they often didn’t have the time to execute the work, so I was constantly asked if I could recommend someone.”

The mark of a good social business, says Mac Manus, is one that fills an actual market gap, “rather than trying to shoehorn a social impact into a market that doesn’t really work”. Living in East London, Mac Manus feels a need to make sure the opportunities brought by Tech City also benefit the communities who were in the area before all the excitement: “I wanted to see how we could connect these two elements.”

Fluency is Mac Manus’s first business as a co-founder, alongside Ian Anderson: “It’s terrifying and exciting! … There’s something about being in East London right now. It’s hard to describe the energy here, it’s just amazing. There’s so much opportunity.”

There’s also the irony in the fact that Mac Manus, whose 2012 TEDxSquareMile talk is all about being a digital nomad, is now excitedly talking about moving into a new Shoreditch office: “If you’d asked me three years ago if I’d become a startup CEO with an office, I would have said you were insane,” she laughs; Mac Manus was living in Spain back then, working from her laptop. “I see this, in the medium term, as the role for me. But I have so many ideas about startups that I think can change the world.”


tech4Roberta Lucca, co-founder and CEO of WonderLuk
3D printing has a futuristic ring to it, sounding a bit like something you’d find on the Starship Enterprise. But that was before Roberta Lucca, co-founder of WonderLuk, came along: “3D printing is the innovation fuel we use to re-invent how fashion and accessories are made. Some WonderLuk designs could never be manufactured through any other method.”

WonderLuk wants to become a destination for 3D-printed jewellery, using this new manufacturing method to bring out bold, fun accessories. “Our vision is to make fashion personal again, to democratise customisation and make it accessible to a wider audience,” says Lucca. “The timing is just right. Personalisation, co-creation and sustainability are becoming extremely valuable to consumers.”

Jewellery is only the first step for WonderLuk, which launched in April, as there are plans to expand into homeware, eyewear and footwear ranges within the next year or so. 3D printing means WonderLuk can create products on demand, so the group can promote independent, non-mainstream designers at minimum risk. “We have big ambitions,” says Lucca, who founded the company with Andre Schober. “We want WonderLuk to be the Net-a-Porter for the modern fashion consumer; the place where they know there is something unique for them, but more, a place where they can truly co-create with fashion and jewellery designers.”

Originally from Brazil, Lucca considers herself a Londoner after seven years in the capital. “The experimental culture is everywhere in East London, from the bars and cafés to the startup hubs and events. It’s even in the way people express themselves,” says Lucca, whose offices off Hoxton Square include a creative lab. The space is now being transformed into a showroom, so customers can come and try out the pieces.

As WonderLuk collaborates with designers, developers and creatives across Europe to build not only the business but also a designer collaborative, it helps that this is Lucca’s second time around the startup merry-go-round: “Building my second startup has made me feel even more in-tune with what really fulfils me: to create something of value to the world. I’ve learned two big lessons: hire carefully, and pivot with no fear if what you set out to do isn’t working.” And above all, asserts Lucca, if you’re thinking of setting up your own company, remember what designer Charles Eames said: “Take your pleasure seriously.”


tech5Michelle Songy, co-founder and CEO of Spleat
Running a startup means you have terrible work-life balance, says Michelle Songy – but this is no bad thing. The co-founder of Spleat, the mobile payment app that provides a simple way to split a restaurant bill, is having a great time, especially now as she lives within walking distance of her Old Street office.

“It’s so nice to be around in the scene! It really feels like you’re part of a community. Before I moved here [from West London], work and social were separate, but now it all converges. … You meet more people than ever you would just through work. Or you meet someone for work and then go for a drink, and end up going out. It’s fun!”

Scouting out the Shoreditch leisure scene is part of the job for Songy, as her company sits at the intersection of leisure and finance. “The tech industry here is booming, and so is the restaurant industry. London is huge and has such a diverse community, so it’s a great place to test a project,” says Songy, who started the company in February. “We have plans for expansion to other cities in the UK, and then Europe and the US.”

The idea for Spleat came over a year ago, when Songy and her co-founder, Charlotte Kohlmann, were working in large corporations in London. Even though they’re both Americans, Shoreditch was the obvious place: “We thought long and hard about that. The payment sector in the UK and Europe is less crowded than in the US, but also, the London tech community is great. All the startups are looking to help each other. When we first started talking to people, everybody was brilliant at giving us contacts.”

Right now, Spleat operates from a co-working space: “Most of the other companies here are also early tech, so it’s like having a big focus group around! For where we’re at right now, this is perfect,” says Songy, whose motivations include a desire to create a working environment different to what’s common in large corporations. “We don’t want to have that stress on Sunday about going work on Monday, like so many people I know. We want to create a really good environment, where people enjoy the work and the work atmosphere.”


tech6Damian Kimmelman, founder and CEO of DueDil
It’s a hectic week for for Damian Kimmelman, who’s trying to catch up after an even more hectic week just gone. “I have a crazy day today. Last week was the Founders Forum, so I haven’t been in the office as much as I would have liked, running on three hours of sleep a night.”

But that doesn’t mean the founder of DueDil, the public database of private company information, isn’t on point. “There’s a fundamental need for basic information to be provided on every company,” says Kimmelman, emphasising that this is a legal obligation across Europe, where DueDil operates. This is a fact Kimmelman often had to stress in the early days, when some people assumed what the company did was illegal.

DueDil fits into the trend of improving transparency in the financial sector, but Kimmelman is quick to explain that the company had a hand in making this development happen. He tells the story of how ActionAid got in touch shortly after DueDil’s 2011 launch, asking for information that ultimately led to Google and Starbucks facing accusations of tax avoidance; “That really fuelled the fire under the Occupy movement.”

Unusually, Kimmelman is a solo founder, although DueDil is not his first startup. “I think the London startup environment is getting a lot better. If I were a first-time founder now, the opportunities would be better than when I started out. I think I had a much more belligerent attitude then,” he laughs. “But it’s still tough!”

Shoreditch lacks some of the “serendipity” created by the sheer size of the Silicon Valley support network, but London has a number of other advantages. “There’s a huge groupthink in the Valley, and they can be a bit ignorant about the rest of the world,” says Kimmelman. “There’s a huge amount of staff poaching over there, whereas one of the greatest things about being in London is all this incredible talent from across the UK and Europe.”

DueDil is in expansion mode, having just moved from a small office to a new 10,500 sq ft space, “where Shoreditch meets the City”. And as DueDil grow from a scrappy startup to a company with a three-digit employee number, Kimmelman is discovering new challenges: “We have to think about things like career progression, as there are a lot of ambitious people in the company and we need to do right by them.” He laughs: “As we’re scaling up, I seem to have a new job: HR!”


tech7Sarah Wood, co-founder and COO of Unruly
There is an infectious enthusiasm to Sarah Wood, co-founder of social video marketing platform Unruly. “This time five years ago there were five of us in a leaky office. In five years’ time we’d like to be recognised internationally as the global leader for video marketing technology.”

This may be well on its way to happening, as Unruly seems to have nailed something most marketers are desperate to do: making content go viral. “We’ve tracked 430 billion video views, and our data set helps brands crack the code on social video sharing,” says Wood. The company has been building its database since 2006, taking into account things like emotional responses and social motivations. The result: Unruly can now predict how shareable a video will be with 80% accuracy.

As she talks about how Unruly wants to #DeliverWow for global brands and agencies and #ShareTheLove, Wood speaks in actual hastags about having a positive impact on employees, partners, and the local economy in East London. “London is at the forefront of innovation and creativity. It’s a city which absorbs newcomers and takes its digital economy seriously,” says Wood, pointing to a report by Oxford Economics suggesting there are 34,000 tech outfits in London right now.

While entrepreneurs in London have a good support network of coworking spaces and inspirational startup events, plus backing from the City, Wood thinks the opportunity also represents a challenge: “We don’t want a Silicon Bubble to emerge in London, with only a small proportion of the population enjoying the fruits of success. Digital inclusion is key to the sustainable growth.”

At Unruly, the temptation may be to watch viral videos all day in the name of research, but Wood, with co-founders Matt Cooke and Scott Button, have clearly been busy building their empire. Unruly now has 12 offices across the world, employing 150 people. “It’s been an incredible experience: intense, insane and enormously rewarding. … Starting up a company is not dissimilar to setting up home and starting a family, and trust is the cornerstone of a strong co-founder relationship.”

Wood lives close the company’s offices, which are just off Brick Lane in a former toy factory. “We still spend a lot of time playing,” says Wood, adding how maintaining a strong culture is very important as the company grows. This means making time for things like #PingPongFightClub with their tecchie neighbours, as all the Unrulies still play: “Ping Pong is the skinny jeans of sport!”


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Artists of vision: The Hackney and Haringey arts hub

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Source Magazine, autumn 2014.

 Original article.

art2Artists of vision: The Hackney and Haringey arts hub 

She’s not quite what you’d expect, Lauren Baker. Her art is intense, bright and hard-hitting, so you’d think the person dreaming it all up would be loud and brash. Of course, Baker is plenty intense once you’ve spent some time with her, but the surface remains deceptively subtle: a small girl with lots of big brown hair, riding a pink mini-bike with a chihuahua zipped inside her coat. In a sense, Baker’s a bit like her art: the surface is only half the story. Look closer and something happens, light and dark collide and it’s sharp and fearless, and ultimately, fascinating.

Take Baker’s favourite piece right now, a large, three-dimensional starburst covered in mirrors: “It’s symbolic of the portal to other dimensions.” Next to the portal sits a coffin, lined with light: “Like the light you see when you have a near-death experience.” And everywhere are the skulls: gold and metallic ones, jewelled eyes, bright neons, colourful crystals, painted in jagged or sweeping patterns, energetic and bold.

Baker’s Hackney Downs studio is halfway between Hackney Wick, which has the highest concentration of creative practitioners in Europe, and Haringey, home to a thriving artist community including the Chocolate Factory, London’s biggest studio complex. While conscious of the nurturing effect of the East London arts scene, self-admitted workaholic Baker is really just doing her thing, no biggie. Her studio is inside a railway arch next to Hackney Downs; perfect, she says, so close to her house. Today she’s in a loose, long-sleeved playsuit and tights, chunky jewellery in silver and bone offsetting the discrete outfit. She serves tea in mismatched crockery before sitting down, launching into the story of how she got to where she is today. Now 32, Baker’s only been an artist for three years: “I didn’t find my passion until I was 29. It’s moving really fast. Now that I’m finally on the right path, it’s just flowing.”

Baker credits her former life of working in events and marketing as part of the reason she’s managed to become a successful artist in such a short time; she knows how to attract attention to her work, and this is how the Tate Modern picked her up after her very first show. But it was necessary to make a change: “I quit my old job and went to South America. I was looking for an adventure, a spiritual path.” What she found was a mosaics artist in Brazil, who inspired Baker to go to Venice and learn the craft. But not before having an experience, deep in the Peruvian jungle, where she met a shaman and had a vision that she should become an artist. Having moved on from mosaics since, Baker now considers herself a multimedia artist: “I see my art practice as one big fun experiment. I don’t want to restrict myself.”

It’s sunny outside the cool railway arch, and Baker’s chihuahua, Dude, is keen to go outside. Baker releases the dog once we round the corner into Hackney Downs, and the tiny dog disappears immediately in the tall grass. Baker is unconcerned; Dude makes friends easily. “I love it here,” she says, as she waves to a woman passing on a bicycle; “That’s my neighbour. She’s a blacksmith.” I ask if Baker, who’s not a native Londoner, would ever leave the capital, but she looks at me like I’m mad: “Oh no! East London is my home. I could never leave!”

Even when she’s talking about her work, Baker is soft-spoken to the point where you still can’t quite believe all that powerful art comes from her. Then she talks about how, early in her career, she decided she wanted to decorate display windows, picked three places she fancied, and ended up with Harrods. She makes it sound easy, like it was nothing. The Harrods window led to a Selfridges window, and there were shows in New York, California, Ibiza. “I try to trust my instincts,” she says, in an effort to explain how she does it. “I think, in order to succeed, you need the ability to just go for it. Not letting yourself be led astray by what other people want you to do. Stay true to your heart.”

And, Baker is quick to add, you need to be a top-notch networker: “You really need to get yourself out there, go to exhibitions, art fairs, talk to lots of people and tell them what you’re doing.” Being part of Hackney Downs Studios makes this possible without going far; Baker’s complex is home to over 100 artists, designers, record labels, bookbinders and other creatives, even a brewery. Regular events and open studio days, plus a café, shop and gallery, ensure a nurturing community.

Baker doesn’t linger on the details when she talks, skimming over the studio that’s freezing in winter and the fingers that bleed after hours and days of placing crystals. Instead she talks about how much she loved it when the Tate Britain invited her to reinterpret one of their works; she chose ‘Ophelia’ by Millais, “the most beautiful death”. Baker created a forest inside the gallery, recreating Ophelia’s final moments surrounded by trees and flowers, and of course, skulls and bones. “I’m really driven to try and understand death, in a positive way. We’re not here forever.”

We’ve sat down on a bench on the Downs, and Dude has reappeared and wants attention. Baker has been talking about her work for Save Wild Tigers, and spending two and a half months placing 35,000 Swarovski crystals on a life-sized tiger’s head. This year she’s doing it again, only it’s bigger and will take four months. She readily admits the work can be maddening: each sequin is individually placed, and it has to be perfect. “But then I get into a meditative state doing it, and it’s really lovely.”

Baker’s in demand for commissions, but will still spend all her money on materials and push on with her passion projects. She’s just come back from her first vacation in three years. “The plan now is to have a work-life balance!” If that’s possible, that is: “I get into extremes with work. I got to bed at 3am last night. I basically have to leave London to stop working.” She seems to be having a lot of fun though. Is she? Baker looks up from Dude in her lap, and for a moment it’s like she’s surprised. Then she lets out a big, red-lipsticked laugh: “Yes! I’m having a really good time!” And you know it’s true.


art3Adam Doughty, illustrator in Hackney Wick
Adam Doughty draws what he sees: a pint, King’s Cross station, some cheese, what the weekend feels like. Of course, it’s all re-imagined, bringing a sense of magical, yet simple, realism to his work. “I liked the phrase ‘magical realism’, I felt it was a fitting term to describe my work.” says Doughty. “I focus on the everyday, but I like to play with aspects of the illustration, like manipulating scale, adding historical references, and using a varied colour palette.”

The result is day-to-day elements captured with a whimsical feel. Doughty likes to research the history of an area before drawing it: “It’s inspiring to discover the old use of a building, the people who worked there and what it stood for.” Like his workplace, the Bridget Riley Studios in the part of Hackney Wick known as Fish Island; the building used to be part of a peanut factory. “The Bridget Riley Studios has such an array of talent. At the last Hackney WickED open studios I talked with painters, glass cutters, sculptors, illustrators, web designers, architects, fashion designers – all in the same building.”

Doughty shares his studio with two women, one is a children’s illustrator and the other a freelance architect. “Our studio is quite spacious and we all get on really well. I love the fact that the space is hidden away, nestled in the corner of an artistic hub. If I leave my window open I’ll often get a cat visitor, who sits on my rocking chair until I’m done for the day,” says Doughty. “I’m proud to show visitors around the area. The graffiti, the quirky sculptures, canal boats, the giant stadium, and the creation of the neighbouring Queen Elizabeth Park. It all make for an interesting experience.”

Doughty lives ten minutes’ walk from his Fish Island workspace, in Bow. “I loved the feel of the place straight away, especially the vibrant arts scene in Hackney Wick. If you need support, it’s there for you.” Recently, Doughty has been experimenting with larger scale illustrations, but he always has a couple of Moleskine notebooks on the go: “I sketch and draw in these when I’m out and about. I draw on the bus, train, the doctor’s surgery, the beach, the Sikh Temple in Bow – anywhere that allows it.” He laughs. “The only place I’ve been told off for drawing was in the Tate Modern!”


art4Matt Small, painter in Haringey
“North London is one big village,” says Matt Small. He’s sitting on the fire escape of his flat in Camden right now, but his workspace, at Euroart Studios in Haringey, is just a skip, hop and jump away on the Overground. There are new studios opening up all the time, Small observes, with lots of open days and initiatives for support: “There’s a DIY mentality growing. I think us artists have realised it’s important to take control, and not wait on established organisations to provide support.”

As a full-time artist, Small knows that locking yourself away in your studio to focus on your craft probably won’t cut it: “You have to be savvy about promoting yourself. That’s a part of the job as well, and not something us artists have traditionally been so great at. So it’s good to have a network of individuals who are in the same boat as you.”

art5Primarily a painter, Small has a strong, compelling style, often choosing discarded objects like car bonnets or old signs instead of canvas for his work. “The theme of my work is young, dispossessed people: individuals who feel undervalued, who don’t have a voice, who get looked over.” Small explains how the urban debris he paints on becomes symbolic of the feeling of being without value: “I thought it’d be interesting to connect the two – that oven door, that shelving unit, that piece of trash to someone – I don’t see it like that, I see that it can be something beautiful and worthwhile. That’s how I see our young people too. Let’s look at their potential, at the hope that’s in all of them.”

Small has hosted workshops for socially marginalised people, driven in part by a desire to give them a voice, but also wanting to make art more approachable in general. “I think the art world is un-inclusive by design, but for me, making it understandable and connected to us mere mortals is what art is about. It’s about finding your own way of communicating what goes on in your mind. That’s the most powerful thing you can do as an individual: creatively express yourself, visually or through music or dance.” And of course, there’s the thrill of the challenge: “I’d feel as if I was cheating myself if I wasn’t pushing the boundaries of my own potential. Keep discovering, keeping finding, keep playing.” He laughs. “Having fun with it all. Yes, yes!”


art6Natalie Ryde, painter/printmaker in Hackney Wick
Delicate nets and intricate webs are in Natalie Ryde’s blood, it seems, as she was drawing these patterns for years before discovering her family’s 300-year history as framework knitters. “It’s so curious to me. I’d been drawing these nets and ferns almost intuitively,” says Ryde. The realisation came five years ago, when her family was invited to visit the factory where their ancestors had worked for generations. “My family knew, but they never mentioned it. They just took it for granted. So it’s definitely not from nurture!”

Studying nature, and close-up details, are key elements in Ryde’s work. Her nets create a “sub-lingual pattern” that tries to convey something: “It hints at things that are familiar but not quite discernible, like you can relate to them but you’re not quite sure what they are.” She laughs a bit, nervously, it’s hard to explain what she means. “I’m compelled to drawing things and making things in response to the world around me. I can remember being little and wanting to be really good at drawing. It’s so much a part of my life now, I can’t imagine it not being the thing I do every day.”

Originally from Scotland, Ryde works at Wallis Studios in Hackney Wick. “Why did I come here? Because this is where everyone is!” Previously living in London Fields, Ryde has since moved to Haringey. “I was thinking of getting a studio closer to home, but I quite like the commute. I cycle down, along the canal.” Not to mention the community in the Wick: “It’s exciting, there’s always lots of exhibitions and galleries. There’s always so much fun going on. People work hard here, it’s nice.” Ryde is part of a mentoring programme for artists in the area, and also works in arts education, in part for local children in nearby Queen Elizabeth Park.

And of course, there’s the net drawings. “I have worked in lots of different mediums but I’m focusing on the nets, as I feel that’s my visual language now,” says Ryde. “l get my ideas from being outside, but I’m not necessarily interested in the view. I’m more interested in the ground, or in things that are washed up on the beach. That’s how you’ll find those strange, alien-looking things, detached from their context, so it doesn’t quite make sense when you first see it.”


art7Richard Peacock, printmaker in Haringey
“The Chocolate Factory is really not bad,” says Richard Peacock, who’s been in his Haringey studio for 14 years now. “When I first qualified I had a studio in Dalston, where you had to scrape the ice off the windows. But here, we have heating!” He laughs. Peacock lives close to his studios too, although this is a happy accident; he originally came to Haringey because his sister lived there. “I didn’t do my art degree until my 30s. As a teenager in Essex I wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t get back into it until I started going to evening classes. Then slowly and surely it became the most important thing in my life.”

Peacock talks about the “rhythmic abstract” process of screen printing, the “changes in the weight of the inks” and the “variation in the edges of the shapes”. This is a physical experience, requiring 24 different processes for each print. It can be planned or intuitive, but regardless: “You have to respond to what’s happening. That should let you make something that’s better than what you can plan.”

The result is part abstract, part pop art, playfully exploring shapes and colours. “Every time a cardboard box comes into the house I take it apart and look at it,” says Peacock, who often ends up using the shape in his work. “I like things with holes and gaps in it, so you can see through it as you print layers. Someone once sent me this lovely waxed paper with lots of tiny holes, it had been used in a circuit factory.” Peacock used the paper to print strips, which began to resemble trees in the forest. The resulting piece, “Step from the path”, is his favourite. Sometimes he’ll includes words too, usually simple phrases, or maybe texts from spam emails or horoscopes; it’s cliche language that ultimately says something about how we live.

Haringey has seen a lot of new artist spaces pop up in the past few years, says Peacock. While still a very diverse borough, things are becoming more buzzy, especially around Tottenham with its open studios, and around Alexandra Park with its arts trails. “Then there’s the Chocolate Factory, which has its own community associated with it. There are lots of people here who are making things happen.”


art8Esther Ainsworth, mixed-media artist in Hackney Wick
It starts out subtle, Esther Ainsworth’s work, always with a place or sound that’s caught her attention. Like today, when she’s in Balfron Tower, East London’s Brutalist masterpiece: ”It’s an incredible building. I’m using it as a kind of residency, trying to conjure up ideas based on the environment here.”

Ainsworth’s main medium is sound, but through this comes an exploration of space. “I like looking at what makes an interesting place, and then finding the sonic information that gives it a sense of identity.” The result is an experience that teases you in and opens you up, be it a recorded soundscape or a site-specific installation. Ainsworth has been at Mother Studios in Hackney Wick since 2006, which has provided its own experience as the area has changed. “Hackney Wick is such an interesting place to be. It was completely different when I got there,” says Ainsworth; especially the previously “stark and industrial” Olympic area has undergone a complete transformation.

One of Ainsworth’s current collaborations is with a light artist also working at Mother Studios. “The activity on each floor at the studio is very sociable, very vibrant. People often work with their doors open, and you can get feedback on your practice. We share a mailing list where everybody can promote their work,” says Ainsworth. “All the studio blocks and the galleries tend to know about each other. The Wick is essentially an artists’ village, because there’s not really anything else happening there!”

Having said that, Ainsworth often works outside of East London. Her favourite project is called Drive-In Sound; she’s done it three times so far, most recently on her way to a residency in Slovakia. “I love the idea of combining the freedom of a road trip with something that’s deeply enmeshed in the communities you visit. You can create new networks as you move around from place to place.”

This also goes to the core of why Ainsworth does her work: “It comes from trying to understand the world a little bit better. By finding interesting places, by hopefully connecting people between those places.” She thinks about it. “The idea of uniting and building bridges between communities and cultures is very exciting for me. I don’t think there’s an arrival point, but there’s a sense of journey. It drips through everything.”


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A London Particular

This Recording, June 2014. Original article.

Screen Shot 2014-06-12 at 14.56.45A London Particular
I know what it’s like to live in a place where nothing ever happens, and West London is nothing like that. I know what it’s like to live in a place where you can’t choose your friends because there are only 300 souls in the village and no public transport, and this is certainly nothing like that. There’s a Tube station ten minutes up the road from my flat, and the world is just there. But it’s not East London.

The window in my old bedroom in Hackney, out East, would open onto the tiny, overgrown garden nestled in between the two rows of terrace houses. There were birds and chattering neighbours and the faraway hum of traffic; I’d lie on my bed, which was exactly the same height as the windowsill, with my head out the open window. The feeling was one of a secret patch of quiet. My current living room in Isleworth, out West, has a window wall with a door that opens out to a terrace, which would be nice if only there wasn’t so much traffic.

It takes me an hour to get to Soho now from the Isleworth flat, straight on the Piccadilly Line, crammed in with the crowds from the airport. The quickest way to get into Soho from my Hackney house was to walk down to Dalston Kingsland and get the Overground, and the city was there in half hour flat, via Highbury & Islington. My favourite route though, was to walk to the bus stop on Newington Green, which was about the same distance from the house but took you into a completely different part of the city. The leafy backroads were quiet, surrounded by houses made from that yellow brick you see all over East London. Always so much green, so many flowers.

I moved to West London for a good reason, for the only reason I’d ever have even considered it. The man I married has always lived this end of town, first for being a child here and second for working here. Before we really knew each other I expected the hour-and-a-half trek between our houses, between our London villages, to eventually become too big of an obstacle, but as it turned out, not his time. Marriage is different. Actually, let me rephrase that: marriage means that the relationship is different. It wouldn’t work with just anyone.

Because everything else about getting married has been great, but this West London thing … I thought I’d get over it, but I’m not. I’m really not, I know it’s bratty but I can’t help it. I remind myself that this really isn’t that bad, that none of the issues are actually problems, but still, I can’t shift the feeling that this is all wrong. West London is too slick; I miss the grit. This nostalgia is unusual for me, as I’ve lived in ten houses in London before this one and I’ve never felt homesick for any one of them. I even left a whole country once and never looked back: once I’ve left, that’s it. But as it turned out, not his time.

This is England, and nowhere else is this humid. It’s never more noticeable than when I get off an airplane, having spent time somewhere invariably drier; the humidity descends like a second skin the moment you step onto the jetway. The constant mugginess makes the city feel raw in the winter and sticky in the summer, exaggerating the natural direction of the temperatures. The icy fog seeps into your bones in the winter; it’s a London particular, rough and punishing. In the summer the damp heat does the same, but it’s mellow, reminding is why we love the city the way that we do.

East London is not that far away. And West London is really not that different. But home is a feeling.

Ten houses in ten years in London: A story of hope over experience

The Billfold, 2013. Original article.

Ten houses in ten years in London: A story of hope over experience

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1. Acton (1) – 6 months
The year is 2003, and two fresh graduates from Southampton roll into London to take it all on. Unfortunately they have no idea what they’re doing, which is why they’ve ended up in Acton, West London. Ten years later, this is still the worst location I’ve lived at in the capital, plus the rent there was more than what I pay now. The flat itself was very nice, but the area was thoroughly charmless and it was just ridiculous to pay £550 per month each. I cringe slightly at admitting that now, but we were new to London, a city that treats its newcomers in a way that makes you understand why it’s nicknamed ‘The Big Smoke’. My friend and I broke the contract early and have never really spoken about it since.

2. Acton (2) – 2 months
As a temporary arrangement, I moved in with my boyfriend and our other friend in their cream-carpeted semi-detached Victorian facing a very loud road. The rent here was the same as the first Acton flat, but as we split it threeways it was a very manageable £360. The bus stop outside meant you couldn’t watch TV with the windows open though, and everything was beyond walking distance. I was unemployed during these two months and thoroughly miserable; I don’t want to talk about it.

3. Chiswick – 15 months?
The Acton Three moved up in the world, to a nice flat just next to Turnham Green tube. It’s pretty pleasant there: there was a lovely chocolate shop that sold lavender truffles, and a coffee shop on the other side of the park. The rent was the same as the previous place, as I’d learned something vital about the London market by this point: living in a crappy area doesn’t necessarily mean you save on rent. London started to agree with me while I lived in this flat. The porter looking after the block, however, did not; he regularly left notes about drying laundry being visible through the window from the road. I still don’t know what that was about.

4. Dulwich – 1 month
Temporary dwellings after breaking up with my boyfriend of nearly five years. This marked the move to South London, with its other-side-of-the-river feeling and tricky transport links. I don’t remember much about this place, other than there being a ghost in the master bedroom. We all agreed on this when discussing it in retrospect, but were too fearful to acknowledge its presence while still living in the house.

5. Camberwell – 10 months?
A spider-infested but otherwise nice basement flat on what was allegedly one of the most burglarised streets in London. Top tip: if anyone you know move to such a location, please do leave them to their ignorance; we have the Daily Mail if we want to live in paranoia. I think the rent was around £450, which was a bit expensive but okay. Positives to this flat included oak floors and the neighbours’ cat, but the endless bus journeys to get to the tube is the overarching memory, not to mention a general reason never to move back south of the river ever again. Prejudiced, yes, but that’s my opinion.

6. Spitalfields – 10 months
This little flat marked the wise, wise move to East London. I could see Spitalfields Market from the living room window, a fantastic feature which was strongly reflected in the price, meaning my boyfriend and I were financially unable to take advantage of our new and fancy location. Having said that, paying £600 for this flat would be a steal today; the gentrification is complete and Urban Outfitters has since moved in across the road. I spent a lot of time wandering around buzzy Brick Lane late at night. Every few days I’d get a bag of fresh bagels, which at 15p a pop from Beigel Bake was budget food. It wasn’t bad at all.

7. Shoreditch – 18 months?
I found this flatshare in a grimy Shoreditch council estate on the internet while in a daze, brought on by looking for a new job and a new house while also contract-bound to co-exist with my ex in the tiniest flat ever. The fact the ensuing dark-side-of-Shoreditch life worked out as well as it did was a stroke of luck; at £550 the rent even included most bills. The estate kids threw water balloons, sure, but they never managed to hit me, and Shoreditch was the perfect place to live when I was single and needed a crowd on my street to walk through when coming home late at night.

8. Mile End – 10 months
Really nice flat, this, and the high-speed trains from Essex which brushed up against the wall every 15 minutes provided this interesting suction effect in the air. The rent was discounted because the recession had just hit, and at £450 it was a steal for such a spacious flat, close to both the tube and the park. I lived with a friend who was a cleaning nut, and he deemed my domestic efforts so insufficient that he preferred to do it all himself. It seemed like a good arrangement at first, until his control-freakery leaked into other aspects of our lives and it became absolutely necessary for me to leave. I’d go into detail, but I seem to have blocked out most of it. Safe to say, this is a cautionary tale.

9. Limehouse – 22 months
My longest stay at a London address to date. By this point I’d started to notice how a good flat would invariably reveal an issue to do with plumbing or the other humans and lead to short stays, while the shitty flats tended to result in long stays. This was no exception: the company was good, but the Poplar border-location was terrible and every single household appliance broke while we lived there – some more than once. A constant feature was how the shower would swing rapidly between hot and cold, meaning I can now wash like I’m Roadrunner. It was really cheap though, at just £420 a month, so we put up with it until the rent went up by 20% overnight and we left in shock. It was probably for the best.

10. Stoke Newington – 16 months and counting
My favourite house so far: it’s big, it’s full of nice people and touch wood, no major issues have yet to be identified. I mean, the mice moved on almost right away once we got the sonic repellers. If anyone’s curious, I’ve identified the key to houseshare happiness: a mixed group of three to five people, a cleaning rota and a working boiler. I moved to the Stokey-Dalston borderlands after a two-week stay at a friend’s to tide me over the search, which I actually conducted with some care this time. (In hindsight, this may have been the core problem leading to many of the previous duds.) The house is massive but the room is a shoebox; the rent reflects this and consequently I have money left to spend on airfare. I am very happy about this choice. This is also my first North London postcode, meaning I’ve done the circle. To my surprise, I absolutely love it up here. “I may never move again,” she said.

[Update: 13 houses in 15 years in London]

London hits me, it feels like a kiss

Litro Magazine, March 2014. Original article.

litroLondon hits me, it feels like a kiss
With swift, rehearsed motions I prop my bicycle onto my hip, swaying my body as a counterweight as I start the climb up the stairs. Music still blares in my left ear, too loud now there’s no traffic to drown it out, as I swing my wheels around corners, careful not to scrape the walls. At home I keep my bike in my hallway, as city dwellers do. The rustle of the traffic is still audible through thin walls and vibrating panes of glass, reminding us of the city that holds us. We love and hate the city, the London planet that’s our home.

I live out East, and while I can travel for hours I rarely make it out West. It’s a different life out there, one of steady living and picnic-dense parkland, not at all like the flowering decay of the East. Here, change happens so rapidly it’s almost tangible. You don’t discover the personalities of the city until you’ve been here a while, and by then you shrug at the irony of having moved to London to explore the multitude, only to find yourself ensconced in a small pocket of this giant metropolis. We sought variety but once we arrived, we discovered what we really wanted was to find our people and to make a home. We build walls around the East London village and scowl at strangers.

When visitors come from out of town we take them to the core of London, to the centre that all the London tribes share because no one actually live there. At least no real people do, only the Queen and her knights, but us mortals are allowed to walk in the streets and admire the tall, pale buildings. Old trees stretch up along the walls, making a good effort but it’s not the green that dominates the city. It’s not the stone and glass either, it’s about something else. The charm of the Big Smoke starts somewhere in the cracked pavements, continuing up the grimy streets and random alleyways, into the little squares with their cemented benches and unexpected moments of calm. We potter around the city, feeling like we’re a part of something. It’s vast, this city, enough so that it sometimes feels like this is the whole world. Pass the city limits and you will drop off the known universe.

It’s a demanding love, London, draining its people with long, dusty streets and cramped buses. This isn’t a place for flowers, it’s a place that tests the human spirit. If you want it badly you can have it, but you will wince slightly with the push of each step. Out East there are no grandiose monuments and our towers are run down council estates, carrying their concrete smell and graffiti-covered corners like badges of honour. The canal weaves through the neighbourhoods, with walkways on either side and flowers living among broken bottles under the benches. Keep going and the canal becomes a river, the parkland becomes a marsh and still you haven’t left London.

When it rains, London gets wetter than any other place in the world. Tourists are startled at the fervour with which the water splashes down, how it pummels the ground. On a good day it goes on for ten minutes and it’s gone, on a bad day it doesn’t stop and it keeps going for several more. My hallway is lined with damp shoes, one added per day of rain until I run out of dry footwear and have to circle back to the least wet pair. I scrunch up newspaper and stuff it into the shoes to soak up some of the water, looking over at my sandals and wonder when the weather was ever good enough for them to get worn down like that. When London rains, it’s hard to remember a time when the damp didn’t creep into your bones.

Then it stops raining, the pavements dry and the dust kicks up again like nothing ever happened. I walk across Waterloo Bridge and realise for the hundredth, for the thousandth time, how much I love this city. Late Sunday afternoons in Victoria Park and all you can hear is the rustling of the leaves and the nattering of the Eastenders, in their loafers and wayfarers next to their knocked-over fixie bikes. A year passes and I don’t move, but the city moves around me and change is constant. The universe circles around London and when I go away I can feel the pull of its gravity. As much as I love to travel, on the plane back to London there’s always a feeling of things righting themselves. Knowing a slow journey in a grimy train is ahead of me, I drag my bags across the carpeted arrivals halls of Gatwick airport, happy to be home. I’m grateful for London, she makes me what I am.

Generation Tech

Cover story for Square Mile Magazine, December 2013. Original article here (p75-79).

SMGeneration Tech:
Interview with James Gill, co-founder and CEO of GoSquared

Prufrock Coffee is buzzing even though the lunch rush has come and gone, as James Gill isn’t the only startup CEO who likes hauling up in the airy Clerkenwell cafe to talk shop. While we wait for our caffeine, new business ideas are being doodled on napkins all around us, and Gill declares proudly that GoSquared has just had its best month yet. In jeans and boating shoes, his graphic print t-shirt seem fitting for a 22-year-old CEO, but Gill has actually had plenty of time to get his bearings – GoSquared, the real-time web analytics company, was founded by Gill and two friends when they were just 15 years old.

“I have definitely had my 10,000 hours doing design,” says Gill, peering up on the wall to the sign that reads ‘10,000 hours’, a reference to the idea that mastery only comes after having spent that long practicing. “That’s what started us on the route to GoSquared. If you go back to the beginning I would spend ages drawing things, and that evolved into drawing interfaces and designing websites.” When he was 14, Gill inherited an old Mac from his father’s office, and started playing around with Photoshop. “I picked up this magazine which was a basic intro to Photoshop, Flash and all the tools you needed to build a website at the time. I would spend all my time outside of school learning how to design things. When I met Geoff [Wagstaff] and JT [James Taylor] they were much in the same way, but on the programming side.” As the trio started making websites they learned as they went along, first designing features and then working out how to get them to do what they wanted. “Before we started GoSquared we knew almost nothing, so it was all about spending hours and hours working things out. It’s definitely taken more than 10,000 hours.”

GoSquared originally started out selling advertising squares (hence the name), with analytics being a sideline that quickly became the main offering. Unlike the main competitors, GoSquared delivers web analytics in real time, enabling companies to respond immediately to problems or opportunities. While CEO Gill’s job has long-since developed past the original remit, good design remains at the heart of the GoSquared philosophy: “Designing the product isn’t just about making it look pretty. It’s about which features really matter, getting rid of the things that don’t, and making sure we design something that not just looks great but also works great.”

Competing with the “hellishly complex” Google Analytics, and Adobe Omniture, Gill credits better design as a key reason GoSquared has been able to gain a foothold in the analytics space. Being young and nimble helps too: “By having a relatively tiny team who know what they want to do, we can be much more unified in everything we make. … Maybe a time will come when we have to expand, but right now we love it because we don’t need to have too much structure or too much process. People get to stay more autonomous.”

A lot has changed for Gill and GoSquared over the past two years, though. While they started the company while still in school, the trio was well on their way to university when Passion Capital co-founder Eileen Burbidge came after them with an offer of funding. Gill dropped out of university after five weeks to give the company a proper go.

“It was very much about the three of them as a co-founding team, says Burbidge when asked why she pursued GoSquared. “Given their age, and the fact that their business had already been trading for five years at that point, it was obvious they were ambitious, proactive and able to secure clients and generate revenue.” Their instinct for design and user experience was “extremely impressive”, says Burbidge, and integral to how they approach software development.

GoSquared has since raised more money from Passion Capital and Atlas Ventures, but Gill admits it’s been a challenge: “Everyone dreams of having their investment in the bank, but once you do, you have the pressure to grow much faster than you were previously. Not just with the users you sign up and the revenues you make, but also in terms of building the right team. We were really caught off guard as to how difficult it would be to build a team: to find the right people, to bring them up to speed, to get them working to your vision and to keep them happy and excited every day. We are still learning how to do that.” This CEO gig is, after all, Gill’s first job, unless you count some work experience at Oxfam: “Yes, I’ve never even had a boss!”

“It still amazes me that we have thousands of people using these tools we have been building. That is an amazing feeling.” Gill pauses. “I used to think, do I want to be an artist or do I want to be a designer? With art, people look at what you create and admire it, but with design they rely on it to get their jobs done. … I still love coming home and saying that we have created something.”

While analytics has traditionally been a somewhat dry topic for back-office staff, Gill believes this is the sort of information that will be driving businesses in the future. “We are approaching analytics from the point of view that everyone should have this data, and we want to deliver it in the easiest way possible to understand.” Eventually, this will mean providing not just raw data, but fully drawn conclusions for action: “This is a massive challenge and a heck of an opportunity for us. The analytics market is still in its infancy.”

A Londoner at heart, Gill is proud to be building GoSquared in the capital: “The London startup scene is getting more and more exciting, with so much having changed just over the past few years.” Born in Blackheath before his family moved to Kent, he now lives in the city with his girlfriend. While not blind to the allure of Silicon Valley, he has no plans of moving: “Maybe I’m naive, but I still like the idea of building a company in London that can compete with companies over there. We have so many talented people in our team and we have great investors, so I don’t see why we can’t keep growing as a company from London. And to show those Valley guys us Londoners can compete!” While Gill admits the London scene has its share of people who “spend all their time at startup events and don’t really do much else”, there’s also a lot of talent: “There’s a heck of a lot of smart engineers and developers on the scene. The main challenge is probably bringing them together and forming teams that can achieve something.”

With over 30,000 websites now using GoSquared analytics, is Gill scared of failing? He hesitates, but only for a second: “I don’t really think about it. For me there isn’t really an option but to make this work. I’ve sunk seven years of my life into this!“ To be fair, the worst case scenario for GoSquared at this point is probably a buyout, offers for which are frequent, confirms Gill: “But we really don’t want to get bought out!”

While Gill is doing “everything I physically can” to push GoSquared, there’s time for other things too, just about. For most things there’s an app: “I have my Nike+ running app. The YPlan app is great, they’re a London startup that help you find events.” He pulls out his iPhone and shows it to me, along with another couple of apps whose design he admires. Gill is a regular at the rugby to support the Harlequins, and frequently goes back to Kent to see his “amazingly supportive” parents. Before I’ve even asked he tells me about his girlfriend Emma, who has just started working for another London startup. He loves the London food scene, especially places like ‘Dirty Burger’ where they do just the one burger but what a burger it is – a well-designed concept.

But as most people who truly love their job, Gill never really stops working: “I don’t really have that switch between work and home. On the average day I get up, have a shower, get the Tube and then I spend some time alone in a coffee shop before I go into the office. I’m often there until 8pm, but even after that there’s always someone to reply to, something to sort out for tomorrow. There’s always so much going around in your head.” He seems happy though, excited to be in the hotseat, even though as he says, the startup life swings wildly between highs and lows. Is he saving the sports cars and parachute jumps for his mid-life crisis? “Mid-life? Do I have to wait that long?” Gill laughs. “Maybe someday. But for now I get plenty of adrenaline just going to the office.”






Roundabout Royalty

Jude Ower, Playmob
Gaming, business and charity comes together at Playmob, the company founded by CEO Jude Ower in 2007. The company, whose technology enables charity elements to be added to existing gaming features, lets charities get a cut from in-game purchases. The games developers benefit too, as the charity link makes players spend more. Working closely with product director Caroline Howes, Ower comes from a background in consultancy and marketing. Now based in Fitzrovia, Playmob has raised more than $1 million to date, from the likes of Nesta, Midven, individual angels and startup accelerator Springboard.

Joshua March, Conversocial
Conversocial helps businesses keep track of customer services issues raised on social media, so they can respond right away to snarky Facebook posts and bitchy Tweets. By efficiently keeping up with the social web in real time, companies can provide great service and better manage their reputations. CEO Joshua March co-founded Conversocial alongside COO Dan Lester in 2009. A year earlier the duo had founded app-development agency iPlatform, which was acquired by Betapond in 2012. Shoreditch-based Conversocial has raised $7 million in funding, and last year opened a New York office.

Julia Fowler, Editd
Frustrated with the lack of provable information to predict trends in the world of fashion, designer Julia Fowler came up with the idea for Editd. The company mines and examines data to help the fashion industry measure trends and the market. Co-founder and CEO Geoff Watts brought the data processing expertise to Editd, and now aims to make the company the definite real-time resource for the industry. Established in 2009, Editd has the support of startup incubator Seedcamp, and later raised $1.6 million in a funding round led by Index Ventures.

Damian Kimmelman, DueDil
DueDil is making waves with its database of information on private companies in the UK and across Europe, letting subscribers access 20 years of financial and corporate information on private companies. CEO Damian Kimmelman founded the company in 2010, having previously founded two companies: a London-based digital agency in 2007, and a Chinese peer-to-peer online gaming platform in 2005. DueDil wants its services to lower the barrier to entry for entrepreneurs and developers, enabling them to integrate data directly into their applications as well as building new services.

Hannah Wong, Foodity
Foodity turns recipes into shopping lists, transferring ingredients for new dishes to online supermarket shopping baskets. Working with major brands and retailers to streamline cooking and shopping, Foodity also makes suggestions to users based on what’s most popular, affordable or best quality. Having raised £450,000 to date, the Waterloo-based company is currently in the process of raising an expected £2.5 million in new funds. Operations lead Hannah Wong is the impetus behind the company, having co-founded Foodity in 2009 in the hope of helping people make better eating decisions. She previously set up meal-planning website ‘The Resourceful Cook’.

Is London the hottest place in the world to be a start-up?

Megabuyte, February 2013. Original article here (£).

london hottestThe Early View
Is London the hottest place in the world to be a start-up?
There is a distinct buzz of optimism surrounding the London start-up scene. Yes, we could do with more money to create more opportunities, but everyone we’ve spoken to agree that London has come a really long way in being a nurturing hub for innovation. As the Valley is arguably approaching maturation, the London location is the hot newcomer that’s just now becoming established enough to be a real force to be reckoned with. We met with Julie Meyer, founder and CEO of Ariadne Capital, to talk about why London may well be the most exciting place in the world to be a start-up.

The network king
“You can say what you want about the Empire, but the United Kingdom understands networking, says Julie Meyer, who grew up in Silicon Valley but opted for London as the base for her entrepreneur financing group. “London is absolutely conducive to start-ups and venture capitalists, and to the people who want to build the future. Absolutely. That is why I choose to be here. This is London! As far as I am concerned, this is the center of the universe.” Meyer laughs, but she’s also being serious. We’re chatting across the conference table in her offices near Trafalgar Square, from which Meyer runs the Ariadne Capital Entrepreneurs Fund. BeatThatQuote, Espotting, Monitise, SpinVox and Zopa are among the finds of the woman who founded the First Tuesday entrepreneur network and sold it, in 2000, for $50m.

While home to plenty of companies with international success, the UK technology industry tends to quietly get on with it while leaving it to its US cousins to brag about changing the world. But Meyer believes there are distinct advantages to the British way of doing things: “I have seen it be a tremendous advantage, for instance in terms of culture and team. It’s less about the one superstar player and more about the team going over the wall together. […] Another advantage is the network: I think the United Kingdom should focus on trading through the Anglosphere network, which it created. The Eurozone is just one of the spheres of influence for the UK, the others being the Commonwealth and North America. What other country has three spheres of influence like the United Kingdom?”

The British way
“What I like about British entrepreneurs is they are more about the talent, less the ego,” says Meyer, who doesn’t thinks the British are becoming more ‘American’ in their approach to business. “The British way has its disadvantages, but let’s face it: it’s a lot less off-putting! When people go around talking about themselves it gets rather annoying, doesn’t it? But that’s the way the Americans are raised.” On the subject of companies succeeding internationally with a British approach, Meyer is a big fan of Monitise, the mobile banking group which has been advised by Ariadne Capital since 2004. “[CEO and co-founder] Alistair Lukies is an amazing entrepreneur. He has just acquired his biggest American rival [Clairmail], and this is the way we should be doing it. Why just sell to them, why not buy them?”

UK software groups have the potential be as big as US ones, is Meyer’s message, which is a refreshing point of view so shortly after UK software leader Autonomy went American, to HP. However, last year’s in-depth industry study from Startup Genome found that Silicon Valley has 30% more founders that want to change the world than London or New York, while London has twice as many founders wanting to make a quick sale compared to the other two. Having said that, our interviews with London startups found that most founders wanted to build instead of sell, seeing no reason why they couldn’t carve out a niche in the new internet-augmented world alongside their Valley peers.

“I want to build the company and be in charge of what we’re doing. The idea of selling to a big company or work for Google doesn’t really do it for me,” said James Gill, CEO and co-founder of London start-up GoSquared, when we met in the autumn. “I love the idea of us being a big UK tech company, and I’m seeing more and more London companies having that attitude. […] We has more than ever going for us; sure, we don’t quite have the capital going into London companies, but it’s never been a better time for us to start aiming to build a company that could one day go public.”

The David and Goliath dance
While the young entrepreneurs may be less interested in working for Google, the trend suggests they are likely to find themselves in some sort of collaboration with the mature players. Today’s startups, the so-called Davids, should no longer hope to slay the Goliaths of their industries, says Meyer, but instead the pair must dance: “Today’s entrepreneurs know venture capitalists will not give them $50m to go build a Tesco,” she says, after pointing out how Ocado made life a lot harder than it needed be, by opting to create its own distribution network instead of hooking into an existing one. “You can tell Ocado is of a previous era because the venture capitalists gave them a lot of money to build distribution. Today what you would do is say, ‘Hey Julie, I have an insight into consumer behavior online. Can I have £250,000 to demonstrate this?’ Then we could do a deal with a Goliath with a distribution base, and build the company having raised maybe around £2m.”

This collaborative approach is not just for the benefit of the startups, but also for the established players grappling to stay innovative. The solution for the incumbents isn’t necessarily to buy younger companies, says Meyer, who runs workshops putting old and new companies together in an informal setting where a fresh conversation and experimentation can take place. “Where we see the opportunity is around business model, not tech. We are not investing in disruptive technologies, we are investing in disruptive economics,” says Meyer, pointing to Monitise as a good example of a David and Goliath collaboration: the group reached out to big banks offering them a cut of mobile commerce revenues instead of struggling to create a system from scratch. “A lot of corporates will say, ‘show us some disruptive technology’. But it shouldn’t be too disruptive, it should be pretty basic.”