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Summary:

Four years ago developer Matt Biddulph jokingly coined ‘Silicon Roundabout’ as a description of East London’s small but growing startup scene — now it’s become the de facto term for the area around Old Street. Here he recounts how a moment of mirth turned into a meme.

Matt Biddulph

July 2007: Dopplr, where I was CTO, moves into a shared office above a pub on Hoxton Street, along with James Governor of Redmonk. I’m happy to be in the area because there are good places for lunch and I can cycle from my home in Hackney in about 20 minutes.

March 2008: Dopplr relocates to a sublet at Moo Studios, 100 City Road, directly overlooking the roundabout. We’re always bumping into startup friends in the street, the cafe life is great, and there are regular rooftop barbecues at nearby Last FM and Moo on Friday evenings.

23 July 2008: I’m chatting in the office with (probably) Russell Davies, Ben Terrett and Matt Jones. We’re talking about the neighborhoods our friends work in in other cities, and I jokingly suggest that Old Street has become Silicon Roundabout. It feels very British, slightly awkward and a bit silly. I put it on Twitter.

24 July 2008: At the Moo Summer Party I bump into Tim Bradshaw of the Financial Times. I mention the joke and say I should draw him a map so he can write about it. I don’t expect this to happen.

25 July 2008: To my surprise, Tim emails me. He says he pitched the story to his editors and they want it. I write back with a list of the first 15 or so companies that come into my head, mostly friends:

“Here’s a list off the top of startups and agencies based in Old Street/Hoxton/Shoreditch off the top of my head:

Dopplr, Moo, AMEE, Trampoline Systems, Redmonk, Last.fm, Skimbit, Techlightenment, Kizoom, Schulze & Webb, tinker.it, LShift, Cohesive FT, Poke, Consolidated Independent.

and these are supported by the San Francisco-style cafes with late hours, available power sockets and free wifi: Shoreditch Old Station, Coffee@whitecross st and LCB Surf.

My guesses for why it’s more than a coincidence:

    It’s out of zone 1, so it’s cheaper and out of the way of commercial streets full of shoppers
    It’s near enough to The City, the West End and Canary Wharf to get to meetings, but has more of a casual character and streetlife
    Great food
    It’s mid-gentrification and there are lots of good property deals on small rooms in soon-to-be-demolished office buildings
    Easy to reach if you’re living in the cheaper areas of east and south-east london like Hackney”

27 July 2008: Tim asked for a map so I made one on Google Maps and tweeted about it.

28 July 2008:Mark Prigg of the Evening Standard gets in touch after seeing the tweet and says his editor wants to do a story in the paper tomorrow.

29 July 2008: Tim blogs about the idea for the FT, and the Evening Standard sends a photographer to take a picture of me by the roundabout. I register siliconroundabout.com and point it to a generic Ning social network that Matt Jones set up.

30 July 2008: The Evening Standard redraws the map with the same companies I listed, and writes about it on page 11.

Silicon Roundabout in the Evening Standard, used under CC courtesy of Matt Biddulph

The newsagent in Old Street underground has the story headline on the boards outside the shop:

Evening Standard billboard of Silicon Roundabout used under CC license by Matt Biddulph

I’m a bit surprised.

Techcrunch writes it up too.

August 2008: Many startups email me asking to be added to the map. The government’s Department of Trade and Industry emails asking if they can help Old Street companies expand their business overseas. Real estate companies email me offering kickbacks if I help them get companies into office space.

After this, it’s all a bit fuzzy.

Ben Terrett created some ironic merchandising shirts with a lovely design:

Ben Terrett wearing an ironic Silicon Roundabout T-shirt used under CC license courtesy of Matt Biddulph

Wired did a big special in January 2010 with a helicopter shot and a new map with lots of companies on it.

Tech City happened.

I moved to Berlin in November 2009 and was a bit surprised at how big the whole thing was when I came back in November 2011. The unscientific original list of 15ish companies is often used to create false measures of growth — 15 companies listed in 2008 to 400 companies in Wired’s 2010 article means 25x growth!

Since then, the name has been cited in a Victoria and Albert Museum show on British Design. Thinktanks and academics have done studies. And there’s now a street just off the roundabout called Silicon Way.

Silicon Way, copyright Matt Webb (used with permission)

All I really did was give an emerging community/movement a silly name that they somehow rallied behind. The community in the area goes back to the first dotcom boom, and Shoreditch has been a creative hub for decades.

Strong community people like Richard Moross and Michael Acton Smith have done much more than I ever did to throw parties, get people together and use the name as a banner. I think the Tech City initiative may have done a lot to cement the name, in what amounts to a classic display of British stubbornness: “the government comes in and calls it Tech City, but it’s our Silicon Roundabout”.

All photographs used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Matt Biddulph, except the Silicon Way photograph, which is copyright Matt Webb and used with permission

  1. Let me see if I can fill in some of the fuzzy gaps between August 2008 and Tech City – trace a few paths – because I was banging the Silicon Roundabout drum pretty hard for a year or so of that. I’m know other people were working on this too — this is my particular story.

    So after Matt B left town, it was bugging me that there was still no community in Old St of like-minded companies. I mean, yes BBQs and pub meets and a little bit of “Silicon Roundabout”-ness, but not *enough*.

    So I decided to take it on as a mission…

    At BERG, my company, the first thing we did was work with Georgina Voss – an ethnographer friend – to do some research:

    http://berglondon.com/blog/2009/05/12/stories-about-silicon-roundabout/

    She interviewed a lot of people, and when she reported back the basic result was that there *were* lots of companies in the neighbourhood, but that nobody felt like they were part of the same thing. To everyone, Silicon Roundabout was something happening to other people. That wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but it did give a good direction for future efforts.

    Now I’m not sure of the particular route of this contact, but Georgina shortly went on to work with Wired UK regarding Silicon Roundabout. See this in August 2009:

    http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2009-10/22/help-us-map-londons-silicon-roundabout?p=6

    …and that somehow informed or became Wired’s Jan 2010 special on the area.

    Then – I believe because of BERG’s appearance in the Wired 100 and a focus on small, tech-focused businesses – I was asked to go to India with the new government at the end of July 2010.

    I was going to turn down the offer to go, but I was still beating the drum about small businesses and Silicon Roundabout. I figured it was an ignition problem: if we could “ignite” the area, then there would be more people, more services, more good chats, more community, etc. So I decided to accompany the delegation to India, and made it my sole task for the trip to ask the smartest people I could find for advice about how to ignite. I knew this was a rare chance to put the case for supporting the emerging cluster to people who could really help.

    Here’s what I said at the time on the BERG blog:

    http://berglondon.com/blog/2010/08/02/india/

    “Of course being so close to government was good. David Cameron took a number of ministers, and there are particular issues close to my heart: how the Internet start-ups and small businesses in London can somehow ignite into a stronger community, and contribute to the recovery. I asked for thoughts and advice, and I’ve come back with a few ideas about what could help there.”

    And what actually happened was written up briefly in Wired some months later:

    http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2011/02/start/silicon-roundabout?page=all

    I spoke with both Rohan Silva and David Willetts — Rohan mainly. I believe I cited both the Jan 2010 Wired article as validation, and the research Georgina had done as a framing of the “ignition” problem. “I remember someone (Willetts I think?) saying that government had three levers for effecting change – legislation, taxation, and attention – and we agreed that attention was the best thing that could be brought to the area.

    And four months later in November 2010 the government announced the Tech City initiative with Cameron making a visit to Brick Lane — Rohan’s baby I understand, very smart cookie that one. And what happened in those four months is of course invisible to me, the initiative involved UKTI, the Olympic Legacy project, and the Mayor’s office too. Remarkable stuff.

    Two years on, I regard the Tech City project as a success. The community of knowledge is excellent – much better than it has ever been – and there are start-up specific services (like lawyers, VCs, etc) in the area, things that were hard to come by before. I wish there was more emphasis on getting into universities and demonstrating to students how they can create their own jobs, and that Silicon Roundabout is a community that can support that, and I wish more acknowledgement and support was given to London’s very special design colleges and heritage – which have created and continue to feed the strong creative history of east London – and I’ll continue to make those points whenever I get a chance.

    MW

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  2. Another significant moment was when Silicon Roundabout made the front cover of the Economist. My picture is dated 26 November which I would guess is just after the launch of Tech City. http://www.flickr.com/photos/benterrett/5209769178/

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  3. Silicon Sheep

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  4. An aspect of Old Street’s evolution that doesn’t get discussed so much is that a lot of (most of?) the early new media companies in Old Street were actually agencies rather than product start-ups (e.g. usability agencies, design agencies, outsourced development firms), typically set up by staff leaving established agencies in the more expensive Holborn / Clerkenwell district.

    In other words, most of the Old Street new media firms I was knew of in 2008 weren’t startups building their own products, they were doing commissioned work for others, and an attractive aspect of Old Street was that its relative cheapness could be turned into a virtue by enabling agencies to present themselves as not part of the new media ‘establishment’.

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