Just over 10 years ago, the term "Silicon Roundabout" was coined by entrepreneur Matt Biddulph. The Dopplr co-founder had just moved into temporary office space in the not-so-glamorous Old Street region of London. As he looked out over the dull, polluted, multi-exit circular traffic system, Biddulph tweeted: 'Silicon Roundabout': the ever-growing community of fun startups in London's Old Street area. The name stuck.
Continue Reading Below
In 2008, Old Street was nothing to write home about. In fact, its heyday had been back in Shakespeare's time; the bard is known to have performed at the playhouse on Curtain Road in 1576. So when Biddulph sent his ironic tweet, it was a world away, figuratively and distance-wise, from Silicon Valley or Silicon Alley, the only two "Silicons" on the map at the time.
I know, because I used to work on nearby City Road in the mid-1990s, as a (very) junior journalist on the national newspaper The Independent. There were a few old-style sandwich shops and if it wasn't raining (too hard) you could eat your lunch in Bunhill Fields, the burial ground for non-conformists.
How Times Have Changed
On a recent trip to London, I exited the Tube at Old Street and got a shock. The area was full of shiny tall buildings, "flat white" upscale coffee purveyors, numerous co-working spaces and hundreds of tech types walking purposefully to make a deal (or so it seemed).
I tracked down a few notables in the tech industry to find out what brought them to Silicon Roundabout, where the geeks hang out, meetups they rate, and the companies they've got their eye on.
Danny O'Brien, International Director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, left London for California in 2000, but is seen as part of the movement that led to Silicon Roundabout. Here's what he, as well as Piers Ridyard, CEO of Radix DLT ("blockchain without the blocks"); Ally Owen, Founder and Digital Fixer at Hoxton United; and Charles Armstrong, Founder & CEO of The Trampery (Workspace Provider of the Year 2018) had to say:
What brought you/your company to London?
"I originally left Oxford and came to London to write comedy and moonlight as a tech journalist in the early nineties, and largely ended up doing neither. In 1993, I wrote a one-man show about the internet, which meant that I was one of about five people that anyone in media knew who was connected to the online world. Tony Ageh at The Guardian hired me to be the first editorial employee at Wired UK."—Danny O'Brien, EFF
"Our HQ is in Stoke, but we've based our commercial office in London for the following reasons: crypto events + meetups; immediate crypto community and network; Transport connectivity."—Piers Ridyard, Radix DLT
"I've lived in the neighborhood by Silicon Roundabout for nearly 30 years. I founded a digital agency, Hoxton United, which, along with industry sponsorship, funds the Brixton Finishing School for digital talent. The school aims to resolve the diversity challenges the tech and ad industry face by training and placing in entry-level roles talent from under represented groups. It was inspired by the fact the young people from my area are next to Silicon Roundabout but not connected into the businesses that thrive there."—Ally Owen, Hoxton United
"I moved to Shoreditch in 2003 to set up one of the neighborhood's first software businesses. Then in 2009 I founded The Trampery and established the first coworking space in Shoreditch. Since then The Trampery has opened a total of 12 buildings in London, along with a variety of specialist courses, and become one of the city's major supporters for entrepreneurs and creative businesses. Nine years later our flagship is still located on Old Street in the centre of Shoreditch."—Charles Armstrong, The Trampery
Do people still refer to this region as Silicon Roundabout?
"I am travelling to Camden [in North London] more and more for tech meetings, as well as parts that were traditionally "the City." The tech movement that started in Old Street and Shoreditch has become better funded and larger, and more of London is within reach of what were once scrappy startups."—Piers Ridyard, Radix DLT
"Those of my generation do; no doubt those just starting out will have different terminology. The 'Silicon' bit of London has seeped into a wider ecosystem, including Plexal out in Stratford, London Bridge, Kings Cross and Peckham."—Ally Owen, Hoxton United
"People have mostly gone back to discussing the neighborhood as 'Shoreditch' or 'Old Street,' which is what people did before 2009. Part of the reason for the change is that the innovation scene which started in Shoreditch has spread out over other areas. The Trampery actively pursued a strategy to help this happen, since we could see prices were going to become unaffordable in Shoreditch for a lot of businesses. Right now, Hackney Wick and the Lea Valley are the areas where we're seeing the most exciting growth in activity. But Shoreditch is still the anchor of London's innovation scene."—Charles Armstrong, The Trampery
What are the area's biggest successes?
"Honestly? Probably the Government Digital Service (GDS). People here [in the US] gawp with admiration at how a government managed to get the internet right. Getting a billion dollars in investment is easy over here [in SF]; fixing government is hard."—Danny O'Brien, EFF
"TransferWise. Head office is still in Shoreditch."—Piers Ridyard, Radix DLT
"If I had to choose one Deliveroo as it feeds my family at least one a week."—Ally Owen, Hoxton United
"The first big tech success from Shoreditch was Last FM who sold to CBS in 2007. That was also emblematic for the area as it united technology with a creative sector. Right now there's a handful of ventures nearby with values above $1bn; such as TransferWise, FarFetch, Funding Circle and Improbable."—Charles Armstrong, The Trampery
Why is London a good place to start a tech business today?
"For me, the biggest differentiator between a good place and great place to run a tech business is often the availability of good mentors, either formal or informal. London houses many companies and people that have already been successful in the tech space. This success helps new companies also be successful as the last generation of entrepreneurs pass on their success, failures and contacts to the next."—Piers Ridyard, Radix DLT
"It's a truly global city that attracts the world's best talent."—Ally Owen, Hoxton United
"London is one of the best cities in the world to grow a business that's already made it through the first stages. There's an extraordinary concentration of creativity, experience, talent and finance here. The tech and creative communities are large and multi-faceted, which generates a lot of energy. However London is also one of the hardest cities in the world for anyone starting a business and taking the first steps. For an entrepreneur who's just setting out the cost of housing and the cost of living are a serious challenge."—Charles Armstrong, The Trampery
Where do nerds converge?
"Ace Hotel, Shoreditch is still a favourite haunt."—Piers Ridyard, Radix DLT
"I'm going to stick to what I know. Come to Dalston for tech hipster super nerds who seem to survive on a mix of matcha green tea, bagels and vinyl."—Ally Owen, Hoxton United
"London's center of gravity for innovation is still definitively in the east not the west. Shoreditch remains the heart but there are now dozens of pockets of activity stretching from Tottenham in the north, through Hackney Wick and Canary Wharf, to Peckham in the south."—Charles Armstrong, The Trampery
Any good meetups/conferences to recommend?
"Like most of the founding generation of Silicon Roundabout, I ended up in this 'industry' so that I didn't have to meet people in real life, or even answer the phone. Except online. Meet-ups there are acceptable. I like Mastodon! You should all be on Mastodon! Or surely there's some blockchain dApp we can use to avoid each other?"—Danny O'Brien, EFF
"Ethereum monthly meetup is still one of the best in the world, let alone London."—Piers Ridyard, Radix DLT
"AD:Tech, MAD:Tech, 10-16th June 2019 is London Tech Week."—Ally Owen, Hoxton United
"We host a multitude of specialized community events at The Trampery; they're very good :-)"—Charles Armstrong, The Trampery
Finally, can you sum up 'Silicon Roundabout' in three words?
"(the) Place. To. Be."—Ally Owen, Hoxton United
"Inter-disciplinary / Creative / Outward-looking"—Charles Armstrong, The Trampery
"Idealistic. Experimental. Supportive."—Piers Ridyard, Radix DLT
"Smile You Buggers"—Danny O'Brien, EFF