These days, my job at Spigit has me spending 50% of my time in London, and the rest in California at our head offices in the East Bay area. This is very interesting, because it really illuminates the difference between startup world in both places.
Firstly, the obvious: London may be a hot place to start something in Europe, but it lacks the scale of the community in the Valley.
But the real differences are all about attitudes to the way things are done.
The UK is a much, much less business friendly environment than the US. The amount of red tape involved in doing anything is absurd, and you don’t realize it till you have seen the two compared.
Let me give you an example. Here at Spigit, we have our employees provide themselves the mobile phone they want to use, and expense the costs back to us. It sounds sensible, right?
In the US, this is all fair and good, but in the UK, we have to report that as a benefit in kind to the tax office. Then, what happens is the employees all get these coding notices from the tax office saying they owe additional tax because they had a personally owned phone paid for by their employer. Most of the time they only use the phone for business calls, but that, apparently, isn’t the important test of taxability.
Our CFO, based here in the US, made a very sensible suggestion: just pay their tax bill. But no, we can’t do that either. The payment of the tax bill, apparently, would be another taxable benefit.
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So, instead, we have to work out a way of taking over all their phones, which are all with different operators, just so our employees won’t be out of pocket when they do our business.
Stuff like that happens all the time. I was on the phone to some unhelpful people in the UK’s tax office the other day and made this point, and discovered, somewhat to my horror, that they hadn’t yet discovered Britain no longer had an Empire.
I’m also not the first person who’ll make this observation: there is a stigma attached to being in a startup that doesn’t work in Europe, whilst trying and failing in the Valley is celebrated.
In London in particular, this is a big issue. The idea that you’d leave a relatively senior job in a big company and go to a startup and not succeed is something of a career limiting move.
It says, if you ever wanted to go back, that you can’t run projects, you can’t manage budgets, you know nothing about marketing, and have poor networking and people skills.
To get that kind of taint in a large European organization, you’d have to screw up repeatedly over the course of years. But Europeans, and the UK in particular, don’t celebrate failure as a learning exercise: it is just failure plain and simple. And as a leader, you get associated with it personally.
Here is the real challenge of the startup scene in London: it is an all-or-nothing bet. You are either completely off the career track in large organizations and doing startups, or don’t go there in the first place.
I think this might be more true for people who are at my stage in their career than those who are coming into this earlier on. It encourages major risk aversion, which, lets face it, is the number one inhibitor of innovation.
I do have this piece of advice though: startups are exciting, and they’re exhausting, but they put zest back into your work life. I used to get really annoyed with people who carried on in large companies about work/life balance, and I have come to realize something: it is only people who don’t like their jobs that rant on about it. Everyone else finds a way to make it work, because they want it to work.
The whole question of work/life balance is one that comes up only when there is a huge disparity between the amount of joy you get in what you do for money and what you do for life.
A startup, in my experience so far, has the chance to bring the two closer together than anything else I’ve tried so far.
I can’t, however, say, that the comparison between the Valley and London is all bad, though.
Europe, and London in particular, has phenomenal talent, and lots of it is available now that being a banker is so much less an attractive career choice.
The thing in the Valley is the best people are all in huge demand, and you have to be either exceptionally hot or exceptionally rich to get them.
In Europe, there aren’t so many great places for the talent to go. It is sad, but true. So, when you want XYZ skill, you can usually get it, and you can usually get it for a substantial discount on the rates you’d have to pay in the Valley. That’s wonderful for companies like ours who have operations in both places, of course. And it will continue to be so, I think, until the rest of the Valley works out what a phenomenal place for talent Europe is.
I suppose the interesting question is whether my experiences are typical or not. So let me end this post by asking the question: if you work in both places, which is better? Or, like us, do you prefer to have the best of both worlds?