We can’t take Britain’s tech-friendly politics for granted

How does a community get taken seriously by policymakers and actually help change things for the better?  What is it that has enabled startup communities in the UK, and elsewhere in the world to get such attention and support from policymakers.

It’s now two weeks since I launched Coadec’s Startup Manifesto, and I’ve been blown away by the response from both the community, and from the government ministers and MPs who I’ve spoken to. It’s too soon to tell what the long term impact will be, but I’m cautiously optimistic that at least some of the ideas will find their way into reality.

Recognising impact

We’re fortunate in the UK to have politicians and advisers who are interested in startups and digital companies.

To some degree it’s the inevitable consequence of politicians being attracted to the new, cool thing – and digital startups are pretty cool. But more importantly, the interest is due to startups having demonstrated their impact and relevance to the wider economy and society.

Research has shown that the UK’s digital economy will soon make up 12% of GDP and that it is one of the fastest growing in the world, not to mention the growing number of digital successes that have become household names. This makes it easy for politicians to see why startups and digital innovation matter, and should be something that public policy seeks to support.

We’re by no means there yet, and there are plenty of MPs and peers who have yet to grasp the potential of Britain’s digital economy. But there is a growing number who do – people like Ed Vaizey, Matt Hancock and Nadhim Zahawi on the Tory side, Chuka Umunna, Iain Wright and Chi Onwurah in Labour, and Julian Huppert and Simon Wright in the Lib Dems.

This trend has been echoed around the world, with many leaders rapidly trying to catch up with London, Berlin and Silicon Valley.  Just look at Francois Hollande’s package of pro-startup announcements last year, or Canada’s recent introduction of entrepreneur visas. I work out of Campus in Shoreditch, and have seen it become a popular stop for visiting ministers from around the world trying to figure out how to encourage startups in their own countries.

Taking startups seriously

I had taken this for granted, but it’s not the case everywhere. I’m currently in Warsaw, where I’ve been meeting startups interested in setting up a startup advocacy organisation (a bit like Coadec) in Poland.

There are some brilliant startups in Poland, including indie fashion platform Showroom and recommendation engine Filmaster, but it was striking that the main barrier they identified was simply that  policymakers and the media didn’t take startups seriously.

They still need to earn the right to be heard. The lack of data showing their economic contribution, clear success stories, and a unified voice is holding them back.

In the UK we need to avoid that trap. We’re in a good place, but we need to remember that times can change. We’ve already seen a backlash against tech in San Francisco, and some on Twitter called Coadec’s startup manifesto an example of ‘Silicon Valley imperialism’…

It’s a reminder that we need to keep making the positive case for why startups matter and why policymakers should care. It’s brilliant that there are new bodies like Innovate Finance joining the fray alongside existing groups like Tech London Advocates. It’s also great that traditionally fusty voices like the Institute of Directors are now making the case for startups.

For my part, Coadec is going to continue to be a champion of digital startups in the UK, making the case for better policy.