James Governor's Monkchips

No wonder The UK doesn’t make Web 2.0 startups: On Whine Culture

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I was at the Carson Summit recently, which was full of European developers interested in the future of web apps.
Two stories stick with me, which told me something about a culture that damns too many Englishmen to constant whining rather than getting things done. Not all Englishmen are tied to their armchairs, watching the footie on TV- Tom Coates and Cal Henderson, who spoke at the conference, are both English. But let’s face it, Cal had to leave the country before he could start building a visual language future.
Here’s the deal: the reason other people were onstage giving a speech that day is that got off their backside and did something. They started something. They were clueless enough to think they could create something useful.
So what about my anecdotes? 
First I overheard two guys whining about why Joshua Schachter’s advice was worthless because he had already sold del.icio.us to Yahoo.
“What does he know about boot-strapping when he is a multimillionaire? It’s easy for him to say.”
Easy? How clueless can you be? Josh built del.icio.us in his spare time over 2 years while working at an investment bank. In his spare time…  I was fairly shocked to hear these plonkers complaining Josh had not been explicit enough about how to build a Web app startup. His advice was MIGHTY. Here an MP3 of the material.
Later in the day I overheard another young guy talking to a couple of others, saying they couldn’t implement their idea because they didn’t have the right hardware. So I gave him my business card. I said “Look – don’t let hardware be a limiting factor. If you really do have a cool idea I bet I can get you a free server from Sun. I am an industry analyst and I am pretty well connected. I am sure John Fowler will give you a box if I ask him.”
He never contacted me. A word of advice to would-be infrapreneurs: whether or not you’re ready to take aim and fire, when someone you never met before offers to get you what you need in order to do something exciting, then at least ping him, or comment on his blog, or do something to find out if he’s legit and then.. contact him.
If only English developers and designers showed the kind of spirit and gumption we’re seeing from the British music scene at the moment. Kaiser Chiefs, Arctic Monkeys, Hard-Fi, even the Ordinary Boys, whose lead singer went on that crappy Celebrity Big Brother show to try and increase the band’s profile, which could have, and still might, kill any indie credibility stone dead. I keep hearing the record on Radio 1 though.
At the beginning of the day I thought it was a bit condescending that a US firm was running the conference. By the end of the day though I realised why. Nobody English tried.
I don’t actually know what the underlying problem is, but it feels a bit like an entitlement culture – what have you done for me lately? If you want to succeed though you’re going to have make a contribution.
In the spirit of getting things done, I should say if you’re a European developer why not sign up for a euromashup conference. It will be free, and you can help decide where it is by using a map…
Or take on the Eclipse 20k euro challenge. I am willing to bet the award is not won by an Englishman.
The only people that can make a living from whining are standup comedians. There are many great English standups. I just wish there more great English startups. Maybe I just should just stop whining about it.
Disclaimer: I am half-American half-English, which either does, or does not, entitle me to these opinions. 


  1. Having been on both sides of the fence – large companies and entrepreneurial – James, there are risks and challenges on both sides. Does not matter if you are in UK, US whatever.

    As I age I am actually surprised we don’t go back and forth between large companies and small. Large companies seem to be suspicious of entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs contemptous of bigger companies…frankly, certain backgrounds are better for certain roles and ideally you do that work yourself out of a job, go do something else. While labor is becoming more fluid across borders the move between large and small seems stuck in 50s thinking…you may enjoy what I wrote earlier this week


  2. Wow James this post really hits home with me. I remember during the dot com boom thinking of all the reasons why something was a bad idea only to see somebody else do it. You’ve gotta try.

    There is a really good chance that the stuff I work on won’t net me a dime, but I would much rather fail trying than from not trying at all.

    We have a lot of problems in the US, but, at least on the West Coast, there is a culture where trying and failing is ok. And I think underneath all the politics that’s one of the things that still makes our country great.

    BTW, the story about hardware is pretty funny. I wish I was in a position where hardware was a limiting factor. Hardware is easy to come by, my time isn’t.

  3. Oh gawd.. you sound like SWC now !! half Brit /half American !!

    Well, you bring about a good point. In the land across the big pond, I am seeing germany, france, Switzland and denmark take the stride in S/w development and some Web 2.0 apps.

    However, with IBM labs in England (edinburgh?), I should think that there should be a couple of nerds doing something on their own free time correct ?? The only UK blogger you and Tom Raffety(?).. Somewho I notice that I dont have any feeds from other folks in the UK.. this kinda surprises me.. !!

  4. Nice post, and thanks for the Joshua Schachter links. In my opinion it’s not just an English attitude, it is pretty much all European too. I’d like to say that I have some knowledge on entrepreneurship (my brother works in Idealab, LA), and the concept of VCs, angel investors and seed money for startups is mostly unheard of around Europe, or extremely difficult to obtain; it’s no wonder people don’t even bother giving it a try (with probably ends up in the cenario of : what came first, chicken or the egg…).

  5. PD: “However, with IBM labs in England (edinburgh?), I should think that there should be a couple of nerds doing something on their own free time correct ?? ”

    Peter… IBM has a big software development lab (Hursley) near Winchester in the South of England. There are quite a few of us blogging (me: http://gendal.blogspot.com, Andy Piper: http://thelostoutpost.blogspot.com, various emerging technology specialists: http://eightbar.co.uk/, …). There are a lot of open source contributors in Hursley but I don’t know how many are building businesses outside of work. I’d love to know 🙂

    I agree that James has made a good point about entrepreneurship… it’s definitely a mindset thing… fear of failure… institutionalised bias against business in large swathes of the British media (people who work for the government are “selfless public servants”… people who work in business are “fat cats”, etc, etc, etc.) In my case, I’ve told myself I’ll wait until I have a good idea… I’m still waiting 🙂

  6. Hi James,

    The lack of world-class technology start-ups was one of the central issues that was explored at the Beers & Innovation night we at NMK started up on 9th February inspired by the debate kicked off on Plasticbag last July.

    The disucssion triggered by guest speakers Tom Coates, Skype’s Saul Klein (a serial entrepreneur himself) and Matt Ogle from Last.fm did touch on British embarrassment at failure, lack of VC understanding of technology, the expense of London as a base for start-ups and the general cultural context. Matt even explained how Audiosrcobbler’s Richard Jones had to sleep on a tent on a roof for a few months when he fist arrived in the capital.

    However, Cary Marsh from webstreaming outfit Mydeo noted that on the government-support front, she thought the UK was pretty well resourced, and explained how her company had been given a substantial grant through a government-backed scheme. Her perspective seemed to be that UK tech or S/W start-ups are generally not business savvy enough to even secure funding from plentiful sources. I don’t know if that isn’t overstating it a little, but it’s certainly more fuel to the entitlement culture argument!


    PS. I’m half-Irish half-Canadian and 100% London – so what do I get?

  7. “make a contribution …” – a phrase I heard a long time ago and fell in love with, which has the same intent: “you have to participate in your own redemption…”

    And I don’t think you Brits have a stranglehold on the entitlement culture either – plenty of it Down Under as well!

  8. The last time I looked, Carson Workshops was a UK company…

  9. Brits definitely don’t have a stanglehold on it. We can replace brits with “canadians” for the most part. I guess we’ve adopted some of that like our cousins down under. It’s always easy to be the guy on the sidelines poking holes in ideas, I’m really good at it, but it’s a lot f#$in’ harder to get off your rump take a chance and go get something done! Thanks for the post James! kind of a kick you in the arse type of motivation;-)

    One thing I will say about the Vancouver tech start up scene is we have an abundance of tech/r&d talent but we lack tech marketing and biz dev people!

  10. Generalisation time: American whines about Brits being whiners! We Brits are great independent creative thinkers but we have a historic, class-based distrust of people who openly say ‘I want to make money’. So we’re crap at commercialising our ideas. That’s changing, but what we also do well is display a dry sense of humour which undercuts those entrepreneurial types who take themselves too seriously. Ian Fenn wields this to perfection with a one-liner that deftly pulls the rug out from under this whole complaint.

  11. andre – you make a great extra point there. stone throwers. on that note there is another community that gets paid for “whining”… my community – industry analysts tend to be very very good at knocking things down but not so great at building them up. that is consulting analysts. We do of course have our share of cheerleaders and bunker heads. but analysts, in my opinion the better ones, are usually more about a debunker mentality than a bunker mentality. brits, as it happens, are often good debunkers and piss-takers, but they aren’t so good at building things.

    Maybe Britain is post capitalist. The British started it, so they ran out of steam first.

    Ian – is Carson a UK company? My mistake. that is very interesting. As i said on my blog at the time Ryan really won me round, he did a great job and i have a great deal of respect for his open and transparent approach. He is of course American- which makes his UK contribution all the more valuable. Cheers Ryan. And thanks to Ian for pointing it out. Big Up Ryan and Gillian!

    Dierdre – you get a You Got The Funk Award.

    ric – nice one! its a post-Commonwealth hangover?

    cheers christoper. i send you a long private email in response but it bounced?

    Back to all the Canadians in the house. Like i say great standup comedians tend to be debunker people. Canada generates a lot of great standups per capita. Hollywood loves Canadians.

    California is still the global starmaker. That is true in a lot of industries and i suppose starting a company up is no different, in some ways, than becoming a movie star. you have to go where the money is. That is California. There is more money splashing around there than anywhere. hollywood and high tech – but Star and production systems defining the world’s mores and economy. Not bad for one state, eh? Imagine how well it could do it it left the union? Just kidding folks. Sorry- i am trying to keep politics of the blog.

  12. My email bounced? Wow. I have some pretty stringent spam filtering. Try [email protected].



  13. James,

    It’s really interesting you make some of these points. I think to some extent it is valid, but I am not sure I agree the reasons. In my experience the American booms start in the energy charged, innovate or die enivronments surrounding such places as Silicon valley. British IT tends to be more financial institutions and stiff upper lips.

    I was also at that summit and I really believe that someone needs to give the English some gusto to get them going. All the best stuff selling out the states doesn’t help. Cal is obviously (utterly utterly unmistakalby) British, and he’s not the only bright spark I know that is stateside. If all our inspirational talent needs to leave as you suggested to succeed, then the other 90% will never get pulled up by their bootlaces.

    That said, I applied for a job in the valley no less than a week ago. I guess I’m a traitor too.

  14. Ah James, wish I had da funk like Mike Myers and Dan Akroyd…

    We’ve posted some info about the next Beers & Innovation on 30th March. Being only a lowly editor I’m struggling to see the link format for your comments (tried bog standard html coding which works in other blogs but no joy!) so Google it in the meantime and i’ll mail ya.

    We’ve an open call for speakers too (2 speakers max to give the assembled plenty of time for input, as is best) so let me know soon if you’ve any suggestions as it’ll all be sorted before I go off to SXSW!

    Hope some of you guys – yes I was at Future Of Web Apps too so I know – (and quiet gal readers!) will come along, have few drinks and chew the fat…


    ps. Damn those Irish names, so hard to spell.. 😉

  15. cheers slabman:

    Ian raised an important point, of course… its called a fact. but its not one that undercuts the entire argument. part of the problem i am talking about is confusing the ability to come up with a smart putdown with the ability to build something. Brits often seem to prefer the former to the latter.

    and yes of course you’re right – but its not just Yanks that call out our whining is it? Don’t Aussies and Kiwis love to call us whingeing poms?

    being labelled “Whining” though is a major insult in america, unlike here, for all reasons above. Its used to kill debate – “whining democrats”, say.

  16. I had to read this more than once – I started disagreeing, then I realised I did agree – you’re spot on that we seem unable to turn theory into cash.

    Despite the absence of cash-earning – I think we sort of expect companies to form in the US, so we leave them to it – there’s plenty of innovation in the European software industry. I pointed you to Exoftware, an Irish company – there’s a great page of links on their Web site, and they are leading the “Agile Alliance” in Europe, worth a browse. Similarly I used to participate in an OO conference (OT) that was totally freeform, great stuff. Much was theorising, which was a downside, but on the positive, some of software’s best thinkers are European (Jacobsen, Fowler). You should also take a closer look at the patterns community – very active, very communicative, very SOA and very European!

    Fascinatingly to me, and I’m trying to work out why, this very active community is not too heavily into blogging. I think it might be that the communities formed before blogging, and therefore they’re sticking to older mechanisms for a variety of reasons. Blogging favours individuals, perhaps nobody’s in favour of sticking their heads above the parapets (apart from Grady Booch of course, but that’s an IBM thing!) There’s country differences as well – I did a presentation in Germany yesterday, and when I asked the audience, they all said they read blogs. In the UK financial industry version today in London, nobody did. Very interesting. Perhaps, also, you’re not reading the blogs in French, German, Spanish and therefore not hooked into what’s going on at a local level?

    Anyway, all good food for thought.

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