Entrepreneurship in London

So in the aftermath of the Entrepreneur’s International Challenge, I have to write my post on business and entrepreneurship in the UK. I already started profiling a few startups in London through a guest post on the RUNmyERRAND blog last semester. Here, I’m going to focus on more big picture things.

First off, London is no Silicon Valley and it’s probably not even a Cambridge, but there is a good deal of activity going on here. When I was doing sponsorship work for EPIC, I visited several modern, unconventional, and fun startup and small business offices that reminded me of those we saw on EPIC. We also went to a massive 2 day entrepreneurship fair where startups and businesses that support startups (like IT and marketing) tried to promote their businesses. There were keynote speakers, “speed dating” style workshops, and all sorts of networking going on.  And despite this recent article on TechCrunch, I do think the UK government is legitimately trying to promote entrepreneurship especially through giving out seed grants. They’re just really inefficient by nature.

Nor are UK startups absolutely dull and old fashioned. No one’s expecting the next Facebook or Google to come from here, but as you can see from the four business I profiled for RUNmyERRAND, and WAYN.com (Where Are You Now, a travel social network), another EPIC connection, are tech related. Some of them are uniquely London or big city like eCourier. Others are just downright quirky like carding service Serve Legal (don’t know if paying someone to make sure your own employees are carding is really sustainable) or Ben and Jerry style smoothie maker Innocent (who have an annual cap knitting campaign for their bottles).

Even students are coming up with some good ideas. The finals for Pitch It! this week, LSE’s version of BCVC, featured three interesting but in my opinion misguided companies:

  • BestGiraffe is an online marketplace for corporate advertisements. However, other companies have already done this and the mid-smaller size firms they’re aiming for could easily use Craigslist or crowdsource directly to get their work done. Also the team relied on leveraging developing countries for labor to offer low prices but since advertising is highly sensitive to regional and cultural nuances I doubt its really as useful as they believe.
  • Pressure Trade is an online game that simulates certain trading skills. It’s obviously targeted to investment banks and those who want to get jobs with them. Honestly though I think this is a very weak idea. Why not just play a real stock market game that simulates actual trading, not just activities that are similar to trading? One of the judges was smart to point out that this business could have a lot more potential if they just made it a fun, social game. Think WoW or Farmville for trading and investing. I would play that.
  • Youny is a matching service for tutoring. I think this one ended up winning (I didn’t stay till the end) but again I thought it was a weak idea. First off, most universities offer formal tutoring programs that will do this for free. You also run into a one time user problem because once someone finds a tutor they like, they’ll bypass the middleman and arrange future sessions on their own. Finally, the team wanted to attract users by building up a database and having live responses but this can be done for free through a wiki or forum.
  • Younity is a social enterprise that allows users to donate their loyalty points from shopping to charities. I didn’t stay for the social enterprise portion of the competition, but this one caught my attention. I like it because it’s creative, simple, and viable. However, I think most loyalty programs/credit card rewards programs already give you this option to an extent, so I don’t know how much of a market they’ll have.

So maybe I’m a little harsh on these business plans, but as you can see, there’s no shortage of ideas or inspiration.

The problem I think lies in the culture. Entrepreneurship just isn’t something most people consider as a career path. Students at LSE are mostly stuck on the investment banking/consulting route. There’s a culture of working for a nice corporation with a steady paycheck and not taking risks. One entrepreneur told me that in some parts of England, there’s actually a social stigma attached to being an entrepreneur or small business owner. I find this to be the complete opposite of the U.S. where the small business is heralded as the everyman of America. The education system also has a lot to do with it too. The university system here is really focused here so there’s little to no chance to explore outside subjects. The core and liberal education in the U.S. may be a pain at times, but it definitely stimulates creativity and innovation.

Will things change here? I think so. Just look at the popularity of BBC’s Dragon’s Den, an American Idol style competition for business plans. In fact, of all the reality show competitions the Brits could’ve exported to the U.S., I wonder why this one hasn’t made it across the pond yet.

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LSE Student Life

I thought I would follow up my post earlier in the month about school in the UK with this piece on student life. For better or worse, I think non-academic student life plays a bigger role here because of the way academics are structured.  I’m dividing it up into three categories: Extracurriculars, Athletics, and Social

Extracurriculars

Extracurriculars play a huge part of student life outside the classroom at LSE. Clubs here are called “Societies” and all official societies operate under the umbrella of the LSE Student Union (more on this later). This being LSE, the most popular societies have something to do with business (Finance Society is the largest) or culture (curiously no “American Society”). There are also a few political societies and a few odd balls like the Hummus Society. Arts here aren’t too big. I know we have a drama society, chorale, orchestra, and some dance groups, but no band or a capella groups as far as I know.

For the most part, I have to say I really like the Society system here. Yes there are a lot of redundancies (Chinese Student Scholars Association and Chinese Society?) and a lot of E-boards are definitely inflated to give more people resume fodder, but they actually get big things done. LSE Entrepreneurs, which I have chosen to get involved in, puts on a business plan competition called Pitch It! and I specifically am part of an Apprentice-style competition called EPIC. Other societies like the Investment Society and China Development Society put on their own conferences in fancy conference rooms with high profile speakers. The Finance Society regularly brings in bankers and traders from “The City” to talk about their jobs. The aforementioned Chinese Student Scholars Association has its own rec basketball league.

Of course, all this is possible thanks in large part to the ability for LSE Societies to obtain outside sponsorships. As a result, groups like the Finance Society have massive budgets into the hundreds of thousands of pounds thanks to lucrative sponsorships from big corporations and investment banks. It allows them to put on lavish events and hand out tons of freebies at Student Activities Day (although they still charge a nominal £1 dues). Some of them can even sponsor other societies! Granted, this emphasis on fundraising might help explain why the business-related Societies seem to have the largest presence, but I think overall this is a good example of the market bringing in much more resources than a measly “student activities fee” ever could. It makes the Society experience much richer than any club I’ve joined at BC.

Athletics

This is LSE we’re talking about and it is in London so athletics naturally would not be the LSE’s strong point. There definitely is no such thing as going to Alumni or Conte in your Superfan shirt on the weekend, but there is a variety of competitive and intramural sports available to everyone via the Athletics Union. Facilities are usually located a fair distance from the school and people don’t take it nearly as seriously since scholarships aren’t at stake, but teams do compete against other schools (apparently LSE and Kings even have a BC-BU-esque rivalry). In a sense it’s more like high school sports in the US with A teams and B teams (the equivalent of varsity and JV). Personally I joined the Tennis Society with the intention of playing for fun on free weekends, but right now it looks doubtful if I’ll ever hit the courts here (long story). In general, I think people join the AU more for the social aspect. LSE’s AU is notorious for its crazy parties and antics on Wednesday nights.

Social

London has one of the top social scenes of any city in the world. Since the drinking age here is 18, everyone is legal and as a result clubs and pubs are a big draw. Since those living in Central London generally have small flats, you don’t see many American style house parties. The real strange thing for me (aside from freshmen drinking in the hallways without RAs) is that most of the kids here go out during the week and stay in on weekends. For the most part, I think this would be inconceivable at BC (puts thirsty Thursday to shame), but in this context it actually makes some sense. With the way classes are structured, there’s not much written work you have to prepare each night. Moreover, most LSE classes are later in the day. Lastly, a lot of clubs have discount “student nights” during the week, which is a great incentive for cash strapped students. I for the most part have stuck to a relatively conservative American schedule, but if these British kids can do it their way, good for them.

Student Union (and The Beaver)

LSE’s equivalent of UGBC is called the LSE Student Union and when they say “Union,” they literally mean union (as in AFL-CIO union). Every student is automatically enrolled (thankfully there are no dues) and can therefore attend general meetings, participate in debates, and enjoy the “protection” of the Union. As a legitimate union, it also means it carries a lot more weight and power than UGBC. The LSE Student Union has successfully pushed for 24 hour library hours during finals and is currently working on re-sits for exams. In addition, the Union oversees the finances of other societies and operates its own cafe, shop, and bar on campus.

Overall though, I’m not too big of a fan of the Union. For one, I think it’s a little too militant in portraying things as an “us-against-them” struggle with the administration. In general, I think the people who run the political side of things are the self-important, egotistical, smooth talking type who will eventually become politicians. For example, Palestine is a big issue here (on both sides) and the SU regularly passes resolutions on Palestine. Come on people, what is this, model UN? (for PHS debaters, a bill demanding world peace suddenly seems plausible). I think their attitude turns the general student body off and it shows as attendance at the general meetings lately have reportedly been abysmal.

Lastly, I have to put in a little bit about The Beaver, the weekly student newspaper here. Again, I have to say I’m not a fan. I read it occasionally to get a feel of a side of the university I may not be exposed to otherwise, but I am disappointed by the quality of journalism. First of all, the appearance is kind of childish with way too many colors on the headings and such, although appearance is never a strong suit for UK newspapers in my opinion (I’m looking at you FT pink). The news articles are generally short with a minutes-like report of what happened. There’s no analysis or discussion of the larger picture. There are plenty of editorials though with all sorts of crazy views. Then there’s some ridiculously trashy stuff like a recount of the AU’s Wednesday night antics or a “Body of the Week” feature.  Overall, not a very polished or professional newspaper. I’ll stick with my Heights.

Tech in Britain

So last time I talked about how I’ve jumped on the podcast and netbook bandwagon since coming to London. In part two of my series on tech in the UK, I’m going to talk a little about my observations of the tech industry and tech usage in London. In general, I would say consumer adoption of new technologies is at about the same level if not slightly higher than in the U.S. However, institutional or systematic adoption seems to lag behind the States. Here are some examples to illustrate my point:

The mobile industry here is quite possibly better than in the U.S. I can’t speak to 3G coverage here because I don’t have a smartphone, but regular call services are definitely superior to the U.S. First off, there are more carriers than back home so the industry is much more competitive. The major carriers are Vodafone (parent of Verizon), O2 and Orange, but there are also second tier carriers like T-Mobile and 3 and smaller players like Lyca Mobile. Unlike the duopoly that AT&T and Verizon have in the U.S., these carriers all have about equal market share so they all have very strong networks and consumer-friendly deals. I’m currently on a recurring 30 day contract with Vodafone (who, no surprise, have the best coverage here) with 100 minutes and 500 texts per month for just £10 a month ($16). What’s better is that you don’t pay to receive incoming calls and texts. Therefore, I essentially get 200 minutes and 1,000 texts assuming my incoming and outcoming usage are about equal. There also seems to be a greater selection of fancy phones here outside of the iPhone and Blackberry (although most study abroad students just get a cheap basic phone). The iPhone is going to be on multiple carriers soon (Vodafone and Orange are introducing it early next year) and

Android phones seem to be more popular (although that could change with the Droid). Overall, the competitive landscape of the mobile industry here seems to be a big gain for consumers.

Other technologies are on a similar level to the U.S. as well. At LSE, I see an equal amount of PCs and Macs, although Macs are not officially supported by IT services here. TV is a little different because they don’t really have cable here. Everything is either broadcast (which you need to pay a TV license for) or satellite (Sky box, which gets you lots of American shows and even some American sports). There are some things that they don’t have here, namely the Kindle. It’s also annoying that I can’t access things like Hulu or ESPN360 because of broadcast restrictions. A small aside here: I think going subscription is a horrible mistake for Hulu. If my situation right now is any indication, there’s always a way around if content isn’t easily accessible through legal channels. Any sensible businessman would realize that some revenue is better than no revenue.

One interesting site they do have here that’s not in the U.S. is Spotify. I first heard about it on This Week in Tech; it’s basically a legal, ad-supported peer to peer streaming service. It lets you listen to as many songs as you want on your computer and mobile app and then links you to traditional music stores if you want to purchase the song. Right now, its invite only for free use or you can pay for the premium subscription. Unfortunately, Spotify seems just as bad as Google Wave when it comes to giving out invites, as I still have not received mine for either. This thing sounds more innovative from a technical aspect than a consumer aspect. From what I can tell it sounds a lot like any other streaming service.

I also want to comment briefly on Internet here especially in light of the net neutrality debate that’s been going on recently in Congress. Publicly, there are plenty of wi-fi hotspots around London and the ethernet connections (at least at LSE) aren’t bad. However, I don’t think the UK has net neutrality. LSE’s website, for example, actually states that it prioritizes school related content over “social” sites (although Facebook has worked fine). I’m not sure how exactly they differentiate this or how much this is actually implemented, but I’ve definitely experienced more problems with Internet here. For example, for the first few weeks here I couldn’t get CNN or ESPN videos to buffer at any reasonable rate. Then magically they started working fine. Of course this could be because these are American sites and it has nothing to do with net neutrality. However, I’m still a little skeptical of this whole situation.

The disparity in institutional tech adoption is much wider. LSE definitely weaves less tech into its infrastructure than BC. For example, LSE doesn’t have an equivalent of Eaglebucks or any type of electronic currency. Everything in the dining halls is paid for in cash. Also, if you thought class registration at BC was bad, its a lot worse here. Some universities, such as King’s, don’t even have electronic course selection. LSE does let you add/drop online, but I’m pretty sure the actual adding/dropping is done manually by a person because it only updates about once a day. There’s no Laundryview here (although they have a version of it for computers on campus) and the machines are the old models we had at BC which were replaced this year.

There are a few things they do well here as a school. The library has these cool self-checkout kiosks where you can just pop the book on a scanner and it automatically senses what the book is and checks it out for you. The NHS also uses a touchscreen self check-in system for appointments, thus freeing up receptionists to do other things. Believe it or not they actually do some things efficiently. And like a lot of countries I’ve seen around Europe, the credit and debit cards here have a little chip in them so you can stick it into the machine instead of swiping it. I’m not really sure what the advantage of this is because any time you save from the physical motion is negated by the few seconds you have to keep the card in to verify it, but it looks kind of cool.

I’m sure more observations and comments will come up over the next few months. I will also be doing a post on entrepreneurship here so keep an eye out for that. I’ll try to get back to the strictly travel/London related posts too, but I honestly haven’t been anywhere the past few weeks so there’s not much to say.

Part 2: The other kind of immigration reform

It took a little longer than I expected, but here’s part 2 to the rant I began on immigration earlier in the week. First, though, a little aside about another faulty claim my debate team made:

I know that we said this mostly in jest, but a water free toilet is NOT a waste of money. In fact, I’ve come to believe it may be one of the most important technological breakthroughs in the 21st century. Imagine all the water we could save if every flush was waterless. If we can efficiently and cleanly remove waste without utilizing precious fresh water, we could go a long way in reducing water shortages and save the stuff for the really important things: drinking, cooking, cleaning.

Now back to the main topic of conversation. Last time I whined a lot about flaws in the system but what about solutions? Obviously I don’t have all the answers and I think it will always be an imperfect process. However, the system can be improved. For those who wonder how a massive nationwide selection process can possibly be efficient, I point to the college application process. Each year, American colleges and universities receive millions of applications from across the country and all over the world. Boston College alone got nearly 30,000 applications last year. Applicants come from a variety of backgrounds with various credentials. Yet somehow they still manage to read all these applications and make their decisions in about 4 months for just $70 per application. Compare that to an average of 9 months for $675. Yeah I think the USCIS has some work to do. Here are some specific changes I can see:

The easiest step would be to allow electronic filing the way most colleges allow. Right now, the USCIS lets you fill out your forms online but you must print it out and mail it in. It should take next to no effort on their part to allow electronic filing. Such an option would save paper and allow for easier transfers between different offices. Cloud computing is the way of the future. Why does the government continuously insist on operating in the pre-electronic era?

The government can also use its website to help applicants answer questions and track their progress. Whenever I log onto Bank of America, a chat window is always popping up for me to speak with a customer service representative. I understand this may be a little much for the government, but at least give us an email address! Right now a 1800 number and mail are the only ways to get in touch with them. Additionally, the USCIS should allow occasional online tracking to see where your application is and what the approximate time frames are. If I can track my pizza order online, why not my naturalization application? Currently the USCIS home pages says a redesign is coming soon. I hope there are substantial improvements and not just a new logo and color scheme.

Another idea would be to remedy the pathetic excuse for a test currently given to naturalization applicants. I agree new citizens should be required to have some knowledge of English and civics, but this is a joke for people like me who have grown up here. How about this: let’s create some kind of exemption for people like myself who have gone through the American education system and graduated with a high school diploma. These tests are a joke and any high school graduate should be able to pass it without trouble. That is unless the American education system isn’t preparing kids sufficiently in civics or heaven forbid English to pass these tests. Then I would say there’s a bigger problem at stake.

The actual swearing in process could be better too. The ceremony is nice and I realize you want to make it a special moment. However, given the backlog in getting ceremonies scheduled and the urgency of some people’s schedules, the government should allow an express option. Just like there’s a legal and traditional ceremony to a wedding, there should likewise be two components to the swearing in process. The legal part should be a quick, no frills process that legally makes you a citizen. The traditional ceremony, with the dressing up and music should be optional for those who want a fancy photo op. This way, people on tight schedules can become citizens without having to wait long periods of time or sit through a drawn out ceremony.

Reform on this topic should be easy to pass. We are, after all, talking about honest, legitimate immigrants who have already been screened and most likely have something valuable to contribute to society. Sadly, this type of reform will probably not happen because there is little political urgency. Legal immigrants will become citizens sooner or later. Immigrants do not have the right to vote and unlike illegal immigration, there’s little glory in taking a strong position. I only hope one day our politicians wake up and start doing the right thing.

Despite everything I’ve said in the past 2 posts, the U.S. government is not the most inefficient I have had to deal with recently. That distinction goes to the British. Since I am going to London for a full year, I have to get a student visa. The UK has three offices in the U.S. that process visa applications in New York City, Chicago, and LA. Each office handles a certain region. Guess what region PA belongs to? Not New York, not Chicago, but LA! Instead of taking a 2 hour bus ride to New York to get everything done in person, I had to mail my application to LA. As of this writing I’m still waiting for a response!

Look, I know you guys never made it out to California when you ruled the U.S., but come on! Look at a map! It makes absolutely no logical sense!