In the early days of the internet, one of the most exciting prospects was the promise of mobility. Here at last was an opportunity to run a business from anywhere.
Things did not quite work out that way. Technology companies tend to clump — especially start-ups. If a fledgling business is not in a “hub” — be it San Francisco, London, Paris or wherever — it seems to lack serious intent.
There are many benefits for start-ups of physical proximity. I have visited incubators in London’s Shoreditch, Brooklyn in New York, Turin and even Guernsey, and have been struck by how young companies collaborate. Exchanging ideas appears to be what makes them successful.
“Sometimes you wonder where one of your coders has disappeared to,” says an entrepreneur at Brooklyn’s New Lab incubator. “Then you find him in the coffee shop helping out another company.”
Why, then, would anyone launch a tech business far away from the start-up scene?
The beautiful, windblown Shetland Islands, with a population of about 23,000 and several thousand miniature ponies, were originally part of Norway. They are one of the most remote parts of the UK. A flight from Aberdeen on Scotland’s east coast takes an hour; a ferry trip 12 hours.
A new company, Diktionary, launches on Wednesday from Shetland, its founders’ home, without the support of an incubator. Its offering is just as promising as any you might find from a company in a big hub — and just as likely to fail.
Diktionary’s service aggregates an individual’s or a company’s social media accounts and other information under a unique, one-word name. So if I were quick enough to snap up the name “Jonathan”, all anyone would have to do to access as much about me as I chose to reveal would be to go to Diktionary’s landing page and enter “Jonathan”. There they would find links to everything about me.
“We’re not Facebook. We don’t want your personal information. All we want is your word,” says co-founder Chris Clough, 25.
Diktionary’s founders have a plan for monetising the service. It could be a fine social and business tool.But what about that remote Shetland base, and the lack of structural support from fellow start-ups?
“We see it as a massive advantage being from somewhere unusual,” says Mr Clough. “Nobody knows anything about Shetland apart from the ponies, and we will exploit people’s surprise at where we are, hopefully even to benefit these islands one day, where we have lived for most of our lives.”
In fact, there is a small tech scene emerging in the island’s main port of Lerwick.
The Scottish government body Highlands and Islands Enterprise points to three companies doing well: MH Apps, specialising in software for the shellfish industry; Mesomorphic, which builds bespoke software for small and medium-sized enterprises; and Kildrummy, which builds financial software for the oil and gas industry, and even has an office in Texas.
“We are exploring the possibility of converting a disused school into an incubator,” says HIE’s area manager, Rachel Hunter.
Is Diktionary making a mistake by basing itself in such a remote spot? Mr Clough and his partner, Adrian Finnegan, have no background in technology and work in other jobs to fund the venture, so could benefit from collaboration with other tech start-ups.
Mark Hume, founder of MH Apps, set up his Lerwick company eight years ago. His clients include McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble. But he points out that although Shetland-born, he had many years’ experience working for technology companies in Glasgow, which gave him contacts to bring to the island.
“It would be difficult, but not impossible, to start here without experience elsewhere,” he says.
Robert Thomas of Pure Acoustic, another Shetland company, echoes this. Diktionary’s founders are “doing it the hard way”.
I discussed Diktionary with start-up consultant Heather Delaney of Gallium Ventures, who is based in London and San Francisco.
She too sees drawbacks: “Even something as simple as a brainstorm is so much more effective when it’s done in person,” she said. “Verbal cues, the shaking of heads and writing down of notes are really difficult to replicate remotely on a video chat. The same would go for funding meetings.
“On the other hand, working in isolation on an island would force you to learn to do everything yourself. So it’s a negative at the beginning because you’re going to be stretched and exhausted. But I think it can build better business people.”
Mr Clough will keep Diktionary on Shetland for now. But he admits the founders may move the company “down south”.
By which he means not Shoreditch but Aberdeen — for most in the UK, as far north as it is possible to imagine.
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