This morning I found myself at Intellect's Regent Conference, which is an annual get-together for executives of the UK's tech industry. This year's conference was splendidly mistitled Keeping ahead of the changing markets - in reality, the theme for pretty much every speaker was We have no advice for you, because no-one knows what's going to happen, but you're quite possibly done for. Less catchy, I know, but there you go.
The tone of the event was magnificently downbeat. Anyone foolish enough to express much positivity was quickly sliced'n'diced by the moderator, Jeremy Paxman (for it was he). It also became quickly apparent, glancing at the pre-printed slides that were distributed to delegates, that some of the presentations had been significantly altered quite soon before the event, so as to be more realistic/pessimistic.
Let's put it this way: no-one now expects the recession to clear up later this year.
Anyway, an interesting question amidst all this doom and gloom: is now a good or a bad time to be a tech start-up? I asked this because I've heard conflicting opinions on the subject before, and it was just the question for the people giving their presentations today. Here are two rather similar answers I received:
Paul Robinson, director and chief Sterling strategist at Barclays Capital: I think the trough is actually now, in terms of the rate of contraction of the UK economy. In a way, it's a fantastic time [to be a start-up]. You want to get in at the trough, when things are really bleak. You have an opportunity to gain market share and a reputation but, if you're really dependent on credit, it will be an extremely hard time. It's a high-risk strategy. You could die a quick death.
David Keene, vice president of industry and competition at SAP EMEA: Now is a great time for start-ups. Start-ups will fail quickly if it's not a good idea — Darwinian selection has been accelerated.
Jon Moulton, founder and managing partner at the private equity firm Alchemy Partners, also mentioned that "at the small end, angels are still present, but there are fewer of them" - "angels" being venture capitalists such as himself. Moulton also noted that now was a good time to snap up talent, particularly if said talent is sans salary at present. Every cloud...
Speaking of clouds, I had a particularly surreal moment while trying to get a straight answer out of Keene about his analysis of the old guard vs the new guard in business software. The old guard appears to include his employer SAP (hey, it was his chart!), whereas the new, up-and-coming guard includes Amazon, Salesforce.com etc. There was also something in there about companies like American Express and JP Morgan "starting to come in and replicate what Amazon is doing" (??!!) in cloud platform provision.
Keene spoke about dinosaurs, mass extinctions, digital natives and such, and sang the praises of the cloudy new guard. I asked him what this meant for SAP, and how Amex & Co. would differentiate their products (still, ??!!) from Amazon & Co. His answer:
"No-one has found a solution to cloud computing. The industry isn't changing overnight. The credit crunch will speed the change process. There will be some degree of battle."
Not sure which question he was answering there. But I asked again, how would new cloud companies differentiate their services. "No-one knows", he said.
At which point Jeremy Paxman saw I was about to repeat the question and cut me off, saying: "OK, we'll have to crack on." Again, ??!!