I didn't expect to be in Croydon last night, but thanks to a tweet by James Governor (@monkchips) and pure curiosity, there I was. This was Croydon Tech City, a monthly meetup with 50 or so attendees tonight, crammed into the whitewashed backroom of an entrepreneurial hub in the town centre. Some were there to network, most were there to learn more about how to be successful as a tech startup.
This is unexpected in Croydon. The last time the town was a trendsetter was in the 1960s, when planners encouraged high-rise office blocks and surrounded the town centre on three sides with a multi-lane ring road. From nearby hills, the downtown buildings look like a mini-me version of central London's skyscrapers that poke up on the horizon a dozen miles to the north — and in its heyday, that was a thriving model. But many of the office blocks are empty now and Croydon made global headlines during the 2011 summer riots when arsonists razed the entire city block housing the retail outlet of century-old family firm House of Reeves.
It seems that nadir was also a beginning. One Croydon resident walking through the town centre in the dawn light after the riots decided to found Matthews Yard, the meeting and working space where last night's event took place. Adjoining a cobbled square overlooked by an imposing Victorian pumping house and just yards from the site of Croydon's medieval market, awarded a Royal Charter in the 13th century, this is Croydon looking to its future while reconnecting with its historic heart.
Even so, we in the UK are only just getting used to the idea that we can have a Tech City in central London where startups can flourish without having to migrate to Silicon Valley to find funding, talent and growth. Isn't it premature for people to be getting the idea that even in Croydon, digital entrepreneurship can thrive? When I picked up my handwritten badge on arrival, I had a flashback to First Tuesday, London's dotcom boom networking forum, where badges had color-coded dots to identify whether attendees were looking for finance or handing it out — tonight's attendees were tagged as startups, investors, sales, tech or 'business dudes'.
So I'm wondering whether this is the tail end of the tech bubble, when the ordinary folk arrive to get in on the act just as the crash sets in. Or is it more a case of arriving at the plateau of mainstream adoption long after the boom and bust — when tech, cloud and Internet are now so ingrained in society that the idea of setting up an online business is becoming commonplace.
First up on stage was 18-year-old serial tech entrepreneur Andrew Brackin (@brackin), organiser of Tomorrow's Web, and now on his fourth online start-up. He passed on plenty of great tips from his experience of building online businesses — striking insight of the night was, "When you send someone an email they're much more likely to open it than click a link in a tweet or a Facebook newsfeed." Still living locally (though he commutes to work in the other Tech City of London's Silicon Roundabout), he's now started the Bunchy social funding site. The next speaker was 38-year old David Lee, Croydon-based founder of DNA Dezign and creator of the Smart Dresser virtual changing room app. He explained how his venture stepped up a gear when he tapped into a Canadian mobile app development platform.
That ability to tap into global resources wherever you are is the real reason why towns like Croydon can have their own tech hubs. The Web and the cloud have levelled the playing field so that you no longer need to be in the same neighbourhood as the star players to get ahead. This is about the mainstreaming of technology, the same reason why I can sit at home two miles down the road from Croydon and still post to a site that's administered from New York, grounded in San Francisco and has contributors across six continents.
Tonight's event closed with a panel of tech experts. It included contributors from global enterprise vendors SAP and Successfactors as well as Croydon-based email marketing automation provider dotMailer. The advice on offer from the panel was as robust and experienced as you'll hear at any tech event I've been to around the world. The knowledge of how to be successful with an Internet or mobile based app startup has gone global and it's now as readily available in metropolitan suburbia as it is in the innovation hotspots of Silicon Valley.
Sure, there are more VCs south of Market in San Francisco than you'll find south of Croydon's market. But who's to say the entrepreneurs and innovators are any less creative and determined in Croydon than they are in Old Street or Brannan? This pattern is being repeated all over the world and the next generation of tech entrepreneurs is becoming a truly global phenomenon, not limited to any single geography or hotspot. Croydon Tech City is living evidence of that.