While Silicon Alley was racing to catch up to Silicon Valley, folks in the UK were quietly working away on developing the foundation for a dynamic Internet industry in their country. Not many really thought of London having a Silicon-based nick-name, but many agreed that there definitely was a lot of activity going on lately that could warrant one soon.
Most people I spoke with considered the London cyber scene a bit more digestible and gracious than the flurry of activity in the States. Even Americans here said new hires in their companies desperately plead to come to the UK offices. Because the scene here is very much like New York in the mid-to-late 90s, there is an incredible sense of excitement in the air with possibilities. In addition to people new to the industry, seasoned veterans in the US see the opportunity in London as one where they could renew their interest and regain a fresh perspective.
It wasn't really until a company called Freeserve launched the UK's first fully-featured free ISP in late September of 1999 that the industry began snowballing. Soon there were "dot-com" ads cropping up everywhere--on cabs, Double Decker buses, in magazines and on the telly. Some complain there's too many; they haven't seen anything yet! After Freeserve got everyone's attention, a few VCs I met over the week, Carol Weatherall, eVentures and Anne Farlow, Electra Partners, said now almost anyone you meet has a business plan they want to tell you about. Harpal Randhawa, chairman of AntFactory.com, an "opervesting" (operating and investing incubator) agreed and added that there are just as many VCs cropping up to do business too. With momentum like this from the entrepreneur and VC side and with incredible technologies like WAP and interactive TV primed for harnessing, this market will explode even more very soon.
Companies from the US, like Excite, JFax, Razorfish, Agency and Amazon all have significant shops over here. And some of the uniquely UK web design firms like Demon Interactive, Realdesign, Zinc and SohoLondon are designing sites for firms like Nike, London Transport, Vodaphone, MyWapWorld and other brick-and-mortar and e-tailers alike. Lastminute.com has also been attributed as a Internet company that's propelled consumers to consider the Net as a medium to use.
And while PC saturation isn't as high in private homes as it is in the States, the Internet cafes have taken over the coffee shops. Because London is the first and last stop for travelers East or West, this city has always been a hub for international passers-by. As a result, many Europeans with free email accounts have begun to increase the demand for Internet access in convenient places. Some traditional pubs have tried to accommodate by adding little "Coffee Sh@ck" franchises inside and there has also been a burst of purely Internet-salons. EasyEverthing.com is one business that the EasyGroup is developing. With the goal of trying to give Virgin a run for their money, they have several "Easy(fill-in-the-blank)" businesses. EasyJet, the popular European-based airline, was the first and the easyEverything Internet shops are gaining popularity as the cheapest and most convenient franchises around. Their first five shops boast an average of 500 PCs available 24/7 for surfers. There are others that also offer Internet access--like O24 (Office 24), which acts like a Kinkos and Simply Internet, which gears itself more upscale and Soccer-Mom friendly.
Portals for sports (sport.com, sportal.com), shopping (handbag.com, boo.com), events and tickets (lastminute.com) and auctions (FiredUp.com, QXL.com) are leading the pack of consumer sites. In a few months time, there'll be much more "noise." Even grocery delivery sites are in development (foodferry.com) and I'm sure Kozmo has some plans to be offering porridge or fish and chips after 10:00pm, which will be a great service since all dining establishments pretty much stop serving food by 9:30 or 10:00.
Of course there wouldn't be such developments in the industry independent of a strong social structure and I've done some research on this end too. Most everyone in the US has heard of FirstTuesday.com, a national phenomenon in Europe. These social gatherings started small, like most groups, and have taken off like wildfire. Now in over 30 cities throughout Europe and the Americas, this networking event draws over 400 people regularly in London. Some may complain they're too big, but others fairly balk if you don't go. There are more than a handful of other significant, if less populated events, to choose from too. For instance E-academy, TheChemistry, Boob Night, Net Night, e-Women and other targeted niche groups meet up to exchange ideas and business cards.
So, as I learn more about the scope of the scene here, and as I type this from my stark-white calming room with selective "mood lighting" in the ultra-swanky new Ian Schrager hotel, St. Martin's Lane, I have a sense that my next trip to London will have me encounter even more new leaders, movers and shakers. Our week was well spent after the cocktail party with filming and interviewing for the next installment of CyberScene TV. With the experienced production work of Chip Lewis, now in his own venture, Continuous Media, you will get a further glimpse at the London Cyber Scene in this show too!