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Author: Stuart Rock
Written on: 17 July 2018
Last updated: 17 July 2018
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Tomorrow’s Rolls Royces

Where will the next UK world-beater brand come from, asks Howard Bell, a venture partner at Octopus Ventures.

In a blog post published here on Medium, he defines “world-beating," as a company that "the person on the street will have heard of. Not just in London and L.A., but in Manila, Buenos Aires and Anchorage too." In other words, "a home-grown company that competes all over the world, in its own right."

At present, he reckons, the world's citizens will still come up with "Rolls-Royce" as the answer. Despite spawning a number of highly successful technology companies - such as ARM, Skyscanner or (bit more of a stretch here), Zoopla - Rolls Royce remains "the archetypal — and somewhat mythical — British world-beating brand name."

His perspective comes from being part of the team that took PayPal in the UK from a small unlicensed startup to one with 20m users, FCA approval and £200m revenue in five years. Bell cites technology transfer as one example of things being done well in the UK, with the National Graphene Institute at Manchester University an exemplar. "Entrepreneur First demonstrates and feeds the fertility of the UK entrepreneurial ecosystem, drawing talent from the likes of Google, Goldman Sachs and Stanford."

"It’s technically easier to set up and run a small business than ever before, and the UK is holding its own despite Brexit: there’s more talent, more capital and more investment happening here than ever before," he writes. "The risk-averse, sceptical culture of investment of past decades is well and truly dead. Companies like Farfetch, Deliveroo and World Remit are making significant inroads into foreign markets, even the impenetrable giant, China." [our note: these companies were founded by a Portuguese, an American and a man who grew up in Somaliland.]

On the other hand, Europe’s biggest tech companies are Scandinavian (such as Spotify), German and Dutch (Adyen). While the UK has its share (and, actually, the greatest numbers), Bell isn't sure that ASOS, Deliveroo and Boohoo "carry the brand recognition and operational clout to be called world-beaters. "These and others, like Funding Circle, are great businesses, make no mistake. But we’re looking here for the names that could measure up to, rather than snap at the heels, or be swallowed up by Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Google - or even the Asian giants such as Alibaba and TenCent.

He is not being gloomy, he insists. "It’s simply to point out the scope for greater ambition" and the "unvarnished truth" that "our British unicorns achieve glittering exits rather than established global fame in their own right. This in itself is not a bad thing. These days, foreign ownership (of the likes of Skyscanner, Swiftkey and Magic Pony) doesn’t steal away talent and resource from our shores. In fact it retains and grows teams here, drawing in further investment."

Things are good, he concludes, "but let’s set our sights much, much higher."


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