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Belfast for Startups- the good, the bad and the ugly

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by Startacus Admin

When its comes to startups and all things startup-related Mary McKenna is a lady who knows what she’s talking about. She has had a long career launching and developing start-ups in the UK and US and was the first person ever to receive an MBE for Digital Technology, Innovation and Learning… mighty impressive stuff!Belfast for Starups, the good, the bad and the ulgly

She is also from Northern Ireland, so who better to cast a discerning eye over the Belfast Startup scene for its Startup Cities month?

Belfast for startups – the good the bad & the ugly

The Startacus team has asked me as a Northern Irish tech entrepreneur to write a short piece on 3 good reasons to locate your new startup in Belfast and (to balance that out) 3 not so great things about the city as a base. This is what I’ve come up with...

Lets start with the good news:

1. Belfast is a small and compact city. When I moved back home after 20 years working in London and began working in a startup spun out from Queen’s University based on the Malone Road, I used to say to everyone on the phone – you’ll never believe this – I can see mountains from my window. Because the city’s small, there’s a great sense of community in the startup scene (including support networks like Digital Circle), it’s easy to get to know everyone & there’s plenty of activity to participate in. Belfast has the fastest growing knowledge economy in Europe. It’s a great place to live and work and almost half the population of the city is under the age of 30.

2. Costs are much lower than most other places in the UK and there’s easy access to a variety of government funding programmes (seed finance and grants) for startups. My own business, Learning Pool, was London based when we started out but we weren’t long in shifting it back to Northern Ireland. Lower costs and ready availability of grants was the main driver for that decision.

3. We have a unique position politically and that means you are in Northern Ireland, in the UK, in Ireland and in Europe all at the same time.  I struggled to find much not to like about the Belfast startup scene if I’m honest –

...but if I try very hard these would be my gripes:

1. Cut throat competition exists for the best talent. Invest Northern Ireland’s obsession with attracting in foreign direct investment to Northern Ireland works against nurturing of the indigenous startup scene by over-egging demand and therefore remuneration for certain skillsets. Having said that, most talented and ambitious young people would rather work for a startup than a corporate so it isn’t much of an issue and is likely to get less so as beta generation starts to mature.

2. There’s a severe lack of local Venture Capital firms for when your startup starts to scale and needs to access bigger funding. This has improved slightly in the last couple of years and there’s an active local Angel network, HALO, that operates from the Northern Ireland Science Park. At the end of the day, you’re probably just as well raising finance elsewhere.  The good news is that plenty of channels exist to help you find finance outside of Northern Ireland when you’re ready.

3. The travel can be tiring and a bit of a grind. As a founder or CEO of a Northern Irish startup you’ll spend a lot of time at airports and on planes and there’s no getting away from that. On the upside, there are plenty of flights and these days plane fares compare well against train travel.

Thanks Mary,  Im sure we will hearing from you again soon!

You might like to check out some of our other Startup Cities Belfast features for more info on this fast changing and exciting scene.

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Published on: 7th May 2014

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