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Tom Griffiths - The Belfast Startup Scene- An outsider perspective
by Startacus Admin
You have probably noticed that May has been designated as our Belfast startup month, where we take a long look at the events, the people and general goings on that make Belfast the startup place that it is.
So far we have heard from plenty of local entrepreneurial, startup-type folk who have all been very keen to share what they think of Belfast as a place to start a business. But we wondered ‘what would someone from further afield, who had experience of running a startup in another city, think of the offerings of the Northern Ireland Capital?’
As luck would have it, at a recent Friday night Mash Up Event in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter we happened upon the perfect person.
Tom Griffiths is something of a prolific entrepreneur and even if you haven’t heard of him we are sure you must be familiar with the very successful online travel community Gapyear.com of which he was a co founder. Now Tom is head of Acorn Incubator and has hopped himself across the Irish Sea to Belfast where he has been getting very involved with the startup scene.
We couldn't miss the opportunity to have a chat with him - we started by asking him about the impression he has formed about the city’s startup scene.
“My first impression was ‘This is a really exciting place’. It’s very clear immediately that there is a lot going on here with plenty of great organisations like the Northern Ireland Science Park, Friday Night Mash Up, Invest NI and The Prince’s Trust. So on the face of it, it’s exciting and buzzing, but deeper down it’s more limited, the ecosystem is still developing and hasn't reached the levels of many other places in the country…but it is definitely getting there. In many ways NI is like a new economy, there are new buildings and organisations sprouting up all over the place”
“That’s one thing I really remarked, there is a real sense that this place is going somewhere, it’s a small place but I think a lot of the time that actually works in its favour - everything is really accessible, the infrastructure is great and there is a fantastic sense of community within the startup scene. Northern Ireland is a small place but its very well connected especially to other major UK cities like London.
The conversation inevitably turned to the outside world's perception of Northern Ireland and the attempts of those within the province to change it. He filled me in on a new movement called Brand NI, which he hopes will be a step in the right direction
“One of the biggest problems with Northern Ireland is the naming of it... what is it called? Ulster? The North of Ireland? Northern Ireland? This creates real problems for the regions business brand. Young businesses sometimes struggle to decide where they should say they are based and will often resort to simply saying ‘The UK’ or ‘Ireland’. This is a huge a shame because people here are fiercely proud of where they come from. Brand NI is a Movement, a Collaboration of loads of people over here, it is a non-political, non-religious neutral business brand which is positive, inclusive and accessible”.
We then got on to the topic of self deprecation and Northern Ireland folks’ unwillingness to sing their own praises and tendency to play down their achievements… Tom had loads to say on this topic.
“Northern Ireland is without a doubt, the most self-deprecating place on earth - it’s sweet, but It can be a real problem. The people here have absolutely no idea just how good they are, and the talent that’s is here really is astonishing. I go to the U.S. and I tell them about Northern Ireland and they are genuinely shocked at the place and the people that I am describing to them...on the whole they have no idea. If I walk into a room full of Americans and people from Northern Ireland, I instantly know the ones that are from here, because the Americans are busy blowing their trumpet up with lots of bravado, and the Northern Ireland people are just getting on with it. They are doers - quietly knowing that they are the best in the world but with no desire to shout about it”.
“Over the past 400 years per head of population more innovations and inventions have come out of this tiny place that anywhere else on the planet, more than America, China, Russia. That’s an astonishing fact. People from NI, per capita, are some of the most talented people on Earth. That’s something to be proud of right? Maybe it’s time to shout about this a bit more. I always say NI might not the best place in the world, but it is one of the best places for the world… Americans can't believe that ¼ of their Presidents have come from this place. Think about that statistic ¼ of all American presidents have originally come from here… that really is amazing”
By this point in the conversation it was clear that Tom holds Belfast, Northern Ireland and the people who live there in the highest possible regard, but I was keen to find out if he had any criticisms of the startup scene.
“There is a downside here and that is the handout culture which is prevalent within the startup community - money is given out too freely to new companies and it stifles innovation. You see companies being given money over the course of a few years and not really doing much. ‘We need more NI startup success stories to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs. Even better, startups that didn’t rely on Government cash to get going. When we started we slept on the office floor and almost starved to death to prove the business and as a result raised £1.65m because of this spirit. It was ‘do or die’, not ‘only start if I’m paid to take the risk’. The hand-out culture here is scary. It worries me.
But having said that… the money is there and that has to be viewed as a good thing overall. I worry though about Northern Ireland when the cutbacks really start to kick in… which they will. It has become too dependent on money being poured into new businesses and there needs to be significant growth in the private sector”
Enormous thanks to Tom for giving us an outside perspective on the Belfast/Northern Ireland startup scene. Why not pay a little visit to Acorn Incubator to find out more about the work that they do?
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