VI for Victory
In my time I’ve come across a few things with the title incubator. There was the SEBI (Synergy E Business Incubator) which was most certainly an incubator of sorts, and worked quite well for a few years before inexplicably falling off the face of the earth (maybe someone else out there knows why?) But it wasn’t really an incubator in my mind. I’ll go on to explain why later.
Then there was a whole section for incubation written into the original plan for the Oh Yeah Music Centre which for me, as a founding member, was probably the most exciting part of a number of hugely ambitious and maybe unreachable goals. There was even a pilot scheme in the guise of Scratch My Business that brought a few music entrepreneurs together and created a shared workspace for them with access to wifi, a desk and a shared pool of knowledge. Again not an incubator as such, more a Co Working idea. Hopefully we’ll see that part of Oh Yeah’s plan come to fruition in future times, spinning out music businesses and helping them to get a foot on the ladder instead of being mere hobbies or side projects. There will be immense value in that and people in music need it probably more than most.
And that’s as close as I’ve come. Which says to me that in reality, Belfast does not have an incubator in the true sense of the word. I’m happy to be corrected. For me an incubator should be a hot house, an environment that promotes the idea of taking your business by the scruff of the neck and pushing it hard in a concerted effort to grow. An incubator should be focussed on taking businesses with true world potential in and helping them to progress towards the possibilities that the founders created when they anted up and took the plunge into the uncertain, scary and exciting world of entrepreneurship.
It should be a home for the crazy ones, the risk takers, the ones who believe it is better to burn out than fade away. It should not be a place where people come to avoid failure, it should not continue to support businesses that cannot fulfil their potential. It is not a place for those who aren’t looking beyond these shores. It should not be a half way house for grant seekers and businesses whose culture is aimed towards syphoning from the public purse.
We’ve all talked enough about putting Northern Ireland on the world stage and the peace dividend. While our politicians are focused on inter-tribal point scoring we must be looking to ourselves, our peers and those who have succeeded for leadership and drive. We’re in this together after all.
And so to VI (pronounced six and meaning Virtual Incubator). VI is an empty room. It needs painted, stud walls, electric points, heating and people to help do all of those things. It needs energy and creativity, ideas and heart. It will need money but for now it has enough to get by. It needs a good internet connection to give it tentacles to the world. It needs five businesses willing to take a risk at being all they can be. Why five? Because AirPOS, my spin out, is VI (1) and I’ll be on this journey with everyone else. And I’m very very excited about that.
VI needs mentors and investors, those with the war wounds and nuggets of wisdom that are more valuable than 100,000 start a business programmes.
VI has no business plan nor a strategy. It has no board of directors. It has no logo. We’re incubating the incubator too, if that’s not too surreal, and its success will be tied into those within its walls.
Take the first step at www.startVI.com
An interesting notion was raised a few days ago at the latest Digital Circle Export and Internationalisation subgroup meeting (whoa, hefty intro I know…)
The meeting touched on a lot of themes relevant to pretty much everyone in the digital industry who is interested in selling outside of NI but for me two things were most pressing and urgent. The first surrounded the idea of what exactly it is that we’re trying to sell and I suppose that spilled into the second notion which was a wider question over how Northern Ireland itself is percieved by people outside of it.
1) WHAT ARE WE SELLING TO THE ESKIMOS (AND ANYONE ELSE WHO’S INTERESTED IN OUR WARES?)
This is really a question of definition and over the years there have been far too many definitions of the digital industry to count. Multimedia used to be the blanket term, Information Technology is another (and better) blanket term but since we’re addressing Northern Ireland here it’s worth noting just how many different ways our industry is classified. For instance Momentum is seen to represent the IT sector and most specifically software. Digital Circle is seen to represent digital content creators under the terms of the Digital Content Strategy that was used to define the organisation, a document that it is clear needs revision in order to stay relevant to the shifting changing industry it addresses.
We’re also lumped in under the creative industries banner, probably more out of convenience than anything else and personally I’ve always struggled with being under that heading and I imagine businesses with even less of a creative slant than ours, like grey box software makers for instance, have even less of a reason to be included.
Also there’s a culture that thinks anything creative is not really business per say, more of a glorified hobby that you get some pay for (if you’re lucky) and I for one entirely reject that notion and see it as a great reason to jettison the creative industries tag immediately. What we do I don’t consider creative anymore than I consider the installation of lighting or the building of a guitar to be a creative endeavour. The guy who designed the guitar, I’ll give you that, but I’m not looking to extend creative kudos to the people in the factory who put it together. Writing a song is undoubtedly a creative endeavour, designing a website is really not on the same level for me.
So for me I’d like to get rid of the defining terms. I’d like us to start seeing a digital industry as a whole rather than drawing lines between mobile, games, web, grey box etc etc etc. The very nature of technology is convergence anyway and as across the board languages like HTML5 become more mainstream we’ll see a lot of skills being applicable to multiple platforms. This should be our aim! And then we have to educate those who seek to define things and pigeon hole disciplines that actually, there’s more common ground than differences. At that point can we start the process of selling our digital industry as a vibrant, connected, multi-talented and highly educated workforce? Maybe. And then we can start dealing with the perception of the North as a low-cost option. If you want best of breed work, come armed with best of breed budgets!
2) WHAT IS THIS NORTHERN IRELAND THAT YOU SPEAK OF ANYWAY?
This was the second big question to raise it’s head. When we’re out there in the world talking to people about Northern Ireland what exactly is it that we’re talking about? What are we really really good at? What size is this digital industry talked about in point 1? What defines it? What age is it? What is it better at that other regions don’t offer? Why would I want to spend my money with people in NI rather than people in more recognised centres of excellence like Israel? Is NI much different from the south of Ireland and if so how? What are the USPs of NI? One dividend of the conflict here is that everyone knows that we exist but what are they’re perceptions of NI now that the conflict is not its most immediate characteristic?
There are a million questions really, some may be answerable by asking the right people others may need some work to really get to grips with. But with less than eight weeks to go before we’ll be both in the deserts of Austin, Texas at SXSWi and in the heart of Silicon Valley I’d love to get my head around how exactly to explain ourselves to everyone we meet. I want to be a good salesman for our region, but really I’m not savvy with what we’re trying to sell.
So I suggested at the meeting that we could maybe start with doing a ‘12 sheeter’ on what Northern Ireland is, something we could all be showing on our travels to make sure we have a consistent message. A Powerpoint presentation really (or Keynote if we want it to look good!)
Anybody got any suggestions? Anybody got any really good images they could donate to the project? Anyone with some time and graphic design savvy they could contribute? Anyone sitting on all the stats we need?? Maybe someone has already done this and we’re playing catchup?
If so post em up here or email them to Matt Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject ‘NI Slideshow’ and I’ll rope him in to being the catch all. He won’t mind (much…)
*that’s Web of Spiderman #21 apparently up above, where Spidey saves Belfast from itself. Nice…
The Web Has Won
Just thought you all might like to see the video of Eric Meyer’s Build talk that we’ve been harping on about for weeks. A brilliant angle on things we thought, see what you think for yourself:
The old believe everything; the middle-aged suspect everything; the young know everything.
“The main difference between Belfast and London is that London values young people, Belfast doesn’t…”
The above was said to me recently by a good mate who’s lived in London for a few years and was a stated reason as to why he isn’t ever going to return home. It was one of those statements that immediately had resonance. It might not be entirely true, but there’s a lot of truth to it and in my own experience I can see why he thinks that.
Perhaps it’s part of our national mentality but one thing we don’t do well is praise (outside of a church anyway) while we’re masters of the critical assault for the most part, as various message boards and social networks based here will stand as testament.
With more young people than ever before now staying at home in Northern Ireland since the ceasefires and the subsequent semi-normalisation of the place this is something that we need to change. If we want to retain the obvious talent that is all around us and not break the spirit of those with outlandish and weighty ideas we’re maybe going to have to learn to think differently.
We liberally sponsored and went to UnConvention Belfast a couple of weekends ago in the Black Box in Belfast. It was a music based event where people got together to discuss the way forward in the music industry in Northern Ireland and beyond in a room full of their peers and industry folk. It was certainly more relaxed and slightly edgier than other events of this type and got quite lively at times.
It also managed to attract quite a few high profile guests from the UK and further afield. It paid for itself and allowed the public in for free. On its own modest terms it was a success. And the lessons from this year will be carried on to Manchester and other places where more UnConventions are being planned, before it returns to Belfast at some point a more fully realised entity with ideas and concepts from elsewhere appropriated and recycled as people see fit. Its strength is the truly free exchange of ideas, innovations and contacts across a wide range of people and territories. The very idea is made to be copied and reappropriated. There’s no trademark or copyright on this, in fact at its core it opposes such ideas. This is its beauty.
And similarly in digital media there’s OpenCoffee where people meet up freely to chat about what they’ve got going on that’s now got spinoffs in Newry and Lisburn. BarCamp, a more evolved version of OpenCoffee with speakers and such will return on the 25th April 2009 at the Black Box, Belfast while there will no doubt be another CreativeCamp, there’s a Linux Users Group, an XCake meetup and all manner of super techie stuff too. Most of this stuff can be found at the Digital Circle website and at other sites such as NI Creatives. The recent Belfast Twestival managed to raise £500 for charity:water in a single night.
Between all of these events and the others that we either don’t know about or have omitted from this list hundreds of people are meeting on a weekly basis to share thoughts, problems, ideas, work and ultimately their lives with each other. Friends are being made. Mad ideas are spawned and forgotten while some are followed through. And the entry criteria is simply showing up.
There’s no owner as such, no board of directors or need to know basis. It’s as open as some of the titles say. Although much credit should go to people like Andy McMillan, Phil O Kane, Matt Johnston and the many other creative folk behind these happenings. They’re not asking for praise, how very Northern Irish of them, but they deserve it in droves for working so hard and for being so infallible in their spirit.
This is also true of people like Lee Munroe and Paddy Donnelly whom you might have heard of as founders of the well publicised Big Word Project, that was such a success that it was mercilessly ripped off and plagiarised, the greatest form of flattery. Lee’s been finishing his Masters while working for a bunch of clients and his latest creation is www.lookaly.com, a website that allows people to review and rate places, businesses and more in Northern Ireland. It’s wonderfully executed as all of Lee’s work is. The fella’s an inspiration in terms of following through with the big ideas, long may he continue to keep churning out such great work.
And so I’m not too sure that my friend in London is right with his appraisal of where Belfast is. He might be right in saying that those with a few shlocks of grey on their temples are suspicious and unsupportive of the young in this city but that will hardly matter as long as the young people are supporting each other.
And the Big Word Project we mentioned above?
Seemed appropriate to buy
January 15th, 2009
Hullo. Remember all those great events and conferences that were in the boiling pot a while back in our Xmas message? What do you mean no?
To quote the late great Anthony Wilson you should read more. And then when you’re done reading get along to the wonderful freeness that will be Unconvention Belfast. We always sound like tubes when we try to describe the Un type events so we’ll just nick some blurb instead:
Unconvention is an unconference aimed at the grass roots of the music industry – bringing together musicians and industry professionals for conversation, inspiration and collaboration.
With Huw Stephens from Radio One, an acoustic room, bands playing and an industry-type attachment this should be fun. But like all of these types of events there are bound to be a few welcome surprises that no-one anticiapted or expected which is what makes them so good.
See you there?
All the details are at the Unconventi0n Belfast Website