When you’re an early-stage founder, every penny counts. So how would you feel if — from day one of founding your business — you had monthly travel expenses in the hundreds or even thousands of pounds?
That is the frustrating reality of founders who live outside capital cities and urban centres. Because whether we like it or not, building a business requires following the money. Founders outside major hubs are the ones who must bear the costs: to both their bottom line and to their momentum.
In our hyperconnected internet age, why do siloed tech hubs still exist? Sure, connecting in person is invaluable. But we know ideas aren’t limited by location. Aren’t we doing the whole of society a disservice by not building stronger bonds between capital and entrepreneurial talent — no matter where it’s based?
Building from Bristol
As a founder born and raised in Bristol, it took me far too long to discover where the truly influential networks were in my own city, so when it comes to commuting to London that’s even harder. And as someone building from a £0 budget, train ticket bills add up — if I know a few weeks in advance, I’m lucky to grab a return ticket for as little as £60. But on late notice, which clients and opportunities often involve, a return ticket can easily extend beyond the £100 mark.
That adds up. It’s money I could be paying someone to help grow the business and scale. It’s money that those fortunate enough to be closer to hubs don’t have to factor in.
This is despite the fact that Bristol is one of the top 20 startup cities in Europe, and we have three tech companies worth over $1bn. Yet there are only a handful of local funds — there's Bristol PE Club, Science Creates Ventures, and Ada Ventures has an office, to name a few — and hardly any events where founders can meet angels. Founders often feel like if they’re not able to raise serious money from investors here, and much sooner than they should, got to go to the city.
Whether founders realise it or not, they are subject to a lack of access, a lack of support and even simply a lack of encouragement
It's simply harder to build a business outside of a hub. That has always been and will likely always be true. In a talent and capital-dense place like Silicon Valley, founders could walk into a coffee shop and meet a tech billionaire who wants to write them a cheque. In Bristol — a city with one of the highest concentrations of startups anywhere outside of London — that has an infinitely smaller chance of happening.
When you start a business, you don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t know about accelerators, incubators and university programmes. Usually, networking helps fix that knowledge gap — but when you’re outside the networks of big cities, you’re at a disadvantage from the get-go. Whether founders realise it or not, they are subject to a lack of access, a lack of support and even simply a lack of encouragement.
It took me a couple of years before I discover that accelerators even existed. With most businesses statistically failing within that timeframe, that presents a fundamental problem — and a huge opportunity for those that solve it.
Should we be lobbying London-based or Berlin-based investors to travel more? At a philosophical level, they’re not bound to do anything. They were lucky enough to be born in the city. But from an economic point of view, it makes absolutely no sense for them not to. As a species, we could be missing out on world-changing/improving ideas by limiting ourselves geographically. What if the next impactful unicorn lives inside the mind of someone outside a major hub?
Cities are hubs of economic wealth — and thus also of opportunity-based entrepreneurship. Founders who can afford to start a business and chase their dreams. In and beyond the suburbs of these big hubs, I see much more necessity-based entrepreneurship. People start companies because they have to — more so now than ever, with inflation pushing more people towards entrepreneurship as a means of earning extra income.
Founders building out of necessity may be more likely to build something truly transformative
We’ve seen a lot of “nice-to-have” services built by these opportunity-based entrepreneurs of the big city. Take 10-minute grocery — is a bit more convenience really what the world needs? Founders building out of necessity may be more likely to build something truly transformative.
In my experience of 10 years in entrepreneurship, working with over 1,000 founders across the country (and beyond) I’ve personally witnessed how necessity makes us non-hub founders scrappy and resourceful, and I'm no exception. As I prepare to raise money for my next company and need to be in London more, I’ve offered to give workshops about my decade of entrepreneurial experience to universities and other organisations for free if they’ll pay for my ticket. It’s helping me keep my costs down while still being able to meet investors.
But a lot of the incredible founders outside of the city don’t even know what VC is. Many VCs talk about regional opportunities, yet only pass through on flying visits for a PR picture and continue to invest on their doorstep. Ivory towers stifle countrywide and worldwide innovation and socio-economic growth. Perhaps they should think about connecting beyond their capital-based comfort zones.