Needles in stacks of needles: tracking down the UK’s smartest start-ups

By Richard Fearn, Director, Friday Club London

Finding start-ups is easy. Finding good ones is not. The last five years has seen a massive explosion of entrepreneurial activity. In 2015 alone, over 600,000 young companies were incorporated in the UK. They’re not all the bright shiny, tech disruptors you might want to court, but the numbers, whichever way you slice it, are still fairly mind-boggling.

This is good: For the economy, for growth in genuine innovation, and for making the world a little more interesting to live and work in.

But not all start-ups are created equal. I should know. I’m an active investor in start-ups and a director of the Friday Club London. Our core aim is to find and help the best young companies in the UK, so I meet hundreds a year. There are a huge amount of exciting companies beginning their journeys, but there are many also that probably shouldn't have.

You want to meet the best…the ones that will make you look smarter… the ones who hold a window into the near future…the ones that can transform yours and your clients’ businesses. So how do you find them?

But first…

BEFORE YOU DO ANYTHING…Decide WHY you want to meet them.

And if that reason isn't going to be mutually beneficial, then DON’T BOTHER.

(Richard assumes protective, parental guise. Cue music. Something stirring with a string section.)

In their first two to three years, start-ups are still vulnerable, nascent experiments, whose ambitions are huge, but in the most part, whose obstacles are even bigger.

They, like you, simply don’t have time or resources to waste.

So think hard about why you want to work with them. Just like it irks when a client/colleague turns up without a brief, your engagement with them should be no different.

Give them a fair exchange in return for their time and any insight they might bring. It doesn't have to be money. You can give them your time and your expertise.

And the rules are simple: the more thought you put into the engagement, the better the start-ups companies you attract and the more fruitful it will be for everyone.

Here ends the sermon.

Now lets get back to the fun bit.

Here’s my three-easy-steps guide to finding and meeting quality start-ups.

1. Start with some desktop research:

Desktop research is a great way to familiarise yourself with the landscape, to find out who’s out there, doing what. But the key is looking at the right sources. If you’re reading about the company in Wired or the Sunday supplements, you might have already missed their ‘sweet spot’. That’s when they are early stage enough to want and need to work with you and when the rest of the world doesn't already know they exist.

Here are some useful UK sources which track early stage start-ups to get you started:

And some US ones too:

You can also follow what the leading VCs are thinking and investing in to see what tech categories are attracting the most attention. Here’s the big names to keep an eye on:

2. Build relations with leading tech accelerators:

Whilst it feels like you can’t throw a stick without hitting an accelerator programme these days, the best ones still provide excellent filters for finding good companies. They will receive hundreds, if not thousands, of applications from across the world before choosing just a few to go through their programmes. It is absolutely in their interests to find the best.

But turning up and just asking for a list of start-ups isn't going to make you any friends. The key is to build strong relations with them by offering ‘mentoring’ time — usually a few hours per programme. This will then give you excellent access to their existing and alumni start-ups. Their introductions give you credibility and a solid platform of trust with which to engage with the start-ups.

Here are some of the leading programmes in town. Find out who the programme directors are and contact them directly:

3. Work with those already working hard to connect the marcomms industry to start-ups

I could have started here. But I didn't for a reason. Completing the first two steps means you’ll get a wider view of the start-up ecosystem and be much better informed and ready to engage with it in the right way.

This step is the short-cut.

There are a few great entities in London, run by smart people, who understand the challenges that brands and agencies face. Their businesses are designed to help start-ups. All have the respect of the start-up community and the ears of the best companies.

  • roselewis and her team at Collider, a marketing tech accelerator programme that focuses solely on start-ups with innovations in the marketing/comms field. Find out more
  • alexdunsdon and his team at The Bakery London, a part accelerator, part match-making programme that works to align a brand’s issues with start-ups who can best help them. More here

Which, of course, leads me to the Friday Club London.

We set up four years ago because we felt there were two communities — brands/agencies on one side and start-ups on the other — who desperately needed something the other had, and if we could bring them together in the right way (fun, active, events), then perhaps a ‘value’ exchange could successfully happen.

The smartest marketers/agencies would bring their marketing expertise, their creativity and their corporate black-books; and the start-ups (with a heavy bias to the best, most interesting, most disruptive) would bring their insight into new tech, new business models, and new ways of working.

And all would hopefully leave that little more inspired and geared for success.

So that’s what we did. As of now, we've got 400 members; provided over 7,000 mentor hours; and learnt a lot from the 180 start-ups who have been through our events.

We try to represent the values I've talked about above. We ask people to give in order to receive. In the end, it’s all about balancing the help the start-ups need to make their businesses fly, and what you need to get on in this exciting new, tech-driven world.

Richard Fearn has worked at agencies including Lowe and Fallon before starting The Friday Club London and becoming a serial start-up investor.

This piece is part of a collection of 11 articles written by some of the leading industry innovators, tech start-ups, agencies and expert intermediaries. Download the full PDF

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