Autopilot was selected as part of the UK trade delegation coordinated and sponsored by SW7, Microsoft Bizspark and UK Trade & Investment. The main focus was attending the two-day Innovate 2015 conference held at Old Billingsgate, a Fish Market in the 16/17th century but now a bustling tech hub. The aim of the event was to “help innovative, high growth SMEs unlock the wide range of UK government support available for expansion and/or internationalisation.”
Particularly valuable to me (and for our startup) were one-on-one meetings that took place with industry experts. It was like speed-dating with business experts - a loud bell would ring every 20 minutes and you had to move on to the next person, so there was no time for waffle. It was straight down to business, which was great. I was so impressed by their field knowledge and passion for business and industry growth.
Wednesday and Thursday were spent visiting shared workspaces in London; this is definitely the “in thing” and there is an incredible variety of coworking spaces available. These range from the expensive and highly sought after http://www.level39.co - so named because it is based on Level 39 of a smart building in the financial district of Canary Wharf - to the Google Campus which offers incredible facilities and is free, so it’s well worth looking at if you ever need working space in London. Other great workspaces include https://london.techhub.com , http://centralworking.com and https://www.wework.com. It is nice to know that back home in Durban, as well as Cape Town, there are similar collaboration hubs popping up to emulate the evident value here that comes from these setups. It is clear to see how much sharing knowledge, sharing expertise and sharing services helps drive the industry forward.
Bandwidth bandwidth bandwidth!
It is just crazy how good the connectivity is over here. It started with free wifi throughout the flight over. This stood out to me because it is so vital to Autopilot's service - continuous, effective internet access is the backbone of our app being able to help users get things done and make work flow, anytime, anywhere. However, it is also important to note that London is not the whole of the UK(!) and I heard some stories of terrible connectivity outside of the city. We may not have the fastest connections in South Africa, but we can generally connect from most places in the country which is a huge positive.
Access to funds is one of the biggest hurdles facing entrepreneurs around the world.
The UK funding scene is extremely mature, with lots of Venture Capitalists, Angel Funders and Crowd Funders. But take it from personal experience, these investors are not waiting for us at the airport with suitcases full of cash. In fact, it was really difficult to pin them down, even with access to all the events and organisations above. Another learning was that even though the exchange rate is sitting at 22:1 (gulp), money is still money and it is not cheap for investors to invest in South African companies. I won’t go into the cost of travelling on South African Rand over here, but let’s just say the British Pound has a new meaning...
Going in the right direction
Our workflow product was really well received over here. In the discussions I had here, it was clear that the SMME challenges we are solving for South African businesses are just as much a problem for businesses worldwide: the hassles experienced performing repetitive tasks on email, difficulty tracking requests, needing to constantly remind colleagues to get back to you, no audit trail, inconsistent approaches to completing the same business function and needing to be in the office to ensure that your business runs smoothly. It's good to know that we(Autopilot) really can help a lot of businesses, wherever they are.
A huge thank you must go out to our fearless leader Keith Jones from SW7, Miana Naude from Microsoft Bizspark and Duncan Hoyland from UK Trade & Investment for making this trip possible. It was incredible to be exposed to Tech life in the UK and to all the other systems that my colleagues on the trip have to offer. The bottom line is that there are some incredible ideas and efforts out there, but after our week in UK, I am more convinced than ever that South African companies can absolutely compete and succeed on the world stage.
Adam Shapiro is a cofounder of Autopilot and heads up Marketing and Customer Engagement, because he's pretty much a human social network. Say hi: @AdamShapiro