'Doing a startup is a very lonely thing': Google's Campus and what makes Tech City tick

Q&A: Eze Vidra, head of Google Campus London on what makes the London startup scene tick and how Tech City compares to other hubs.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

Eze Vidra is the head of Campus, Google's co-working building for startups in London's Tech City. The building opened in April 2012 and offers entrepreneurs work and events space as well as access to mentoring from Google engineers.

ZDNet: What's the idea behind Campus?

Eze Vidra head of Google Campus
Eze Vidra, head of Google's Campus co-working space in London's Tech City. Image: Google

Vidra: If there was an equivalent between real estate and software, Campus is an open source building. It's a platform for startups where you have multiple ways as a startup or an accelerator or an investor to plug in and decide how you will interact. It's a place of passion both for the entrepreneurs and for me and the community.

What makes a startup scene like Tech City work?

There are three things that make startup hubs successful. One is community — you need to be surrounded by the community when you are launching a startup, because doing a startup is a very lonely thing, and you can learn from the people around you about what to do and what not to do, and you need the emotional support.

Secondly you need the numbers; you need the density of network. Startups are organisations, organisms, that are designed to grow. If a startup does well it will double in size every few months and when they raise money it accelerates even further. You need the numbers because startups need more users and more partners and more backers and co-founders and developers and so the density of network is extremely important.

Third is serendipity, and sometimes that's a factor of the community or the numbers, so the stronger the numbers and the tighter the community then that creates more serendipity, so you bump into your co-founder, find an investor or close the deal that makes a difference to your startup. It's something that you would see in places like Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv where if you throw a stone into a crowd most chances are you're going to hit an entrepreneur.

That wasn't the case in London, but I think that's changing now. In the first year of operations of Campus we hosted more than 850 events that attracted more than 60,000 people to Campus and these are startup events only. There's a cafe in the basement, anyone can sign up to work from the cafe for free and there's 15,000 people that are signed up to work from the cafe.

Why hasn't that ecosystem existed in London until now? What has changed?

In New York 10 years ago if you weren't in finance you were a little bit of a second class citizen. And then there started to be a little community of startups and a couple of companies that become big names. In San Francisco there was always this concentration, that it was the place to be if you are a startup.

London is more comparable to New York, a big media and financial centre with lots of brands and clients there, but the time it is taking to get to the stage that New York is at today is much quicker than it took New York to get there.

You have the decreasing cost of creating a startup compared to ten years ago, you no longer need the permission of West Coast venture VCs to launch a company. You don't need to get expensive machines, expensive office space.

Platforms like cloud or open source platforms reduce the barriers to entry and let you very quickly launch a startup and all of that helps more companies get created and helps spark start-up clusters all over the world. In Europe, London is probably the largest startup cluster and a lot of the continental European startups come here because they know this is where they can find clients, raise investment etc.

It's often said that it's easy for tech startups to raise small amounts of money in London but it becomes harder when they get larger.

It's much easier to raise the first stages of capital than it is to raise the late stages of a capital. But I think that it's changing and I think that we have to open our eyes to what is happening, instead of beating London down, because there are a few things happening that are meant to alleviate this sort of pressure, the new AIM regulations that enable a company to take a smaller percentage of the company public to create liquidity.

There's a few big funds in the UK and they have billion dollar plus portfolios or funds and they need to show a return on those funds so they tend to concentrate a lot on the bigger rounds. So it does happen, but not every company can get there, there's a certain level of potential or promise you have to show in order to raise a £50m round.

There are [two chasms]. One is after you raise seed or angel money — getting to that round A is difficult. And then there's what happens after A which is when a lot of companies move to the West Coast because they can get the valuation that they are looking for more easily there.

What does success look like for Campus?

Campus has only been around for a year and some change and it was a huge success in the first year and we are still growing. It's a not-for-profit activity for Google: success would be around helping entrepreneurs to add scale.

We have over 100 startups based at Campus every day and we helped over 1,000 startups in our first year across mentorship and co-working and events and accelerators. We have a weekly office hours programme where Googlers come and mentor start-ups from 10 to 12 every Friday in the cafe on different topics.

This is the first time Google has done anything like this — until recently Campus London was the only one, but a few months ago we launched Campus Tel Aviv — but there are plenty of other startup ecosystems that don't have a Campus next to them and could benefit from what goes on at Campus so I want to connect these people that's why we installed hangout equipment in all the events spaces.

[Google founders] Sergey [Brin] and Larry [Page] started in the garage, two entrepreneurs in the garage and today there is this better kind of garage, this different kind of garage called Campus so it's part of our mission, part of our DNA. We are very much still a founder-led startup, albeit much larger than the typical startup, with this startup mentality and that's something that Googlers are proud of theirs lots of Googlers involved with campus whether as mentors or as volunteers.

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