Could the Northern Ireland protocol mean there’s even less support for Northern Ireland’s indigenous startups?

The Northern Ireland protocol has been an ongoing saga, I’m sure which has even fatigued even the most ardent fans of long running debates, the good news is the growing consensus is that the Windsor Framework is as good as done, every high level business person and other movers and shakers I know all agree, all that remains to be resolved is certain folks finding a way to save face and divert attention away from the fact that there actually was no problem to begin with, whilst avoiding alienating the more hardline and limited IQ’s of their base.

I mean, I’m not in the slightest bit interested in soap operas or pantomimes, so I obviously don’t do or pay much attention to politics, but i’d imagine whoever is chairing the strategy talks to get that over the line has had a few late nights.

There’s widespread optimism amongst the business community that Northern Ireland has a very real opportunity of becoming somewhat of a hybrid between Antwerp and Singapore, creating a queue of companies lining up to create a presence here, in turn creating lots of new jobs, including many well paid, skilled and professional jobs.

Many also believe that the benefit wont only be Belfast centric, but if Derry plays it’s card right Foyle port and the the city could benefit hugely, as could the other commercial ports of Larne, Warrenpoint and Coleraine, their surrounding areas, not to mention additional infrastructure and terminal creation could benefit the economy of all of Northern Ireland.

There is however an obvious global strategy to target the wealth of the middle classes in many countries over the short to mid term, so the opportunity Northern Ireland has could all happen at a critical time with rapidly changing geopolitical dynamics and uncertain macroeconomic headwinds.

So for once, it seems like a win, with no obvious losers, with plenty of rays of sunshine poking out from the clouds above Northern Ireland.

Anyway, full disclosure I’m no expert on Politics, far from it, I build and scale startups.
So what could this mean for Northern Ireland’s indigenous startups?

I’ve long said Northern Ireland’s startup founders are lacking meaningful support.

It’s pretty much common knowledge that a key factor is the strategy and structure of Invest Northern Ireland, the Economic Development Agency for Northern Ireland. It has 3 remits, FDI, Local Business and International trade) all sitting under one roof, which are obviously conflicting remits.

But as I’ve learned more about the organisational structure of Invest NI, I realised they probably deserve to be cut a bit of slack as apparently they only have ~50 people working on local business and startups, which is ~10% of their team size.

So. they’re obviously stretched. Not to mention many of their team members work on legacy projects, so inevitably this just limits their manpower and they have to prioritise, there’s clearly lots of red tape and overlap with The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) so the machine isn’t as simple as yesteryear and inevitably decision making is slowed.

In the past I’ve pointed to the South where they have the IDA solely focussed on FDI and Enterprise Ireland take the focus on local industry and startups. I didn’t argue they were perfect, but at least they have very clear remits and have the ability to collaborate with each other.

What’s obvious is the protocol will have companies lining up to create a presence in N Ireland, which is great news for the economy. I think the looming problem that presents is the inevitable and strategically important prioritisation to capitalise on that could really make the focus on supporting startups become prioritised less and even becoming an afterthought.

So It’s important for bridges to be made between stakeholders now, as prevention is the best cure.

It’s very easy for N Ireland founders to think one dimensionally and say “Ah Invest NI aren’t on the ball” and trust me, hands up… I’ve occasionally been one of them lol, but being mature and pragmatic about it, we have to understand the organisational mechanics, priorities and try to present solutions, as opposed to only highlighting problems.

The misconception is that founders simply want money from Invest NI and I don’t believe that’s valid, most simply need guidance and mentorship, as there’s limited experienced startup operators, execs, stakeholders in Northern Ireland, right from grassroots to scaling, so that’s the critical gap. Which if focussed on could easily make startups here become more sophisticated and able to attract much more investment from further afield, as well as help to stimulate the grass roots.

I truly believe mothering and handholding is counterproductive, startups shouldn’t need that and it’s obvious doing so really undermines the potential for them to scale to become independent, very significant and successful.

Think the support and bank of Mum and Dad as a metaphor lol, it is about balance, between empowerment and guidance.

Having worked in ecosystems across the world, from London, to Berlin, to Dubai, to SE Asia, I can see obvious and pretty easy things that could be very easily done to provide the guidance and mentorship Northern Ireland’s startup founders obviously badly need, so they can flourish.

At grassroots, you could create an automated platform to up-skill aspiring and local founders, whose naivety normally gets preyed upon by charlatans.

Yes I’m aware of It’s fine, but it could be better and really create much more creative and engaging content to educate/up-skill.

Ultimately, for anyone starting a startup it’s daunting, opaque and its not simply about how to go about it, it’s the strategic side of how to make it work and translating that in a way that people understand that’s missing focus.
When you actually speak to young people in N Ireland, they have aspiration but as there isn’t robust guidance/mentorship, they tune into these NLP charlatans who use supercars as stage props, talk shite which is nothing more than regurgitated shit Tony Robbins said 20 years ago.

And if we look above grassroots at more experienced startup founders and high potential startups, there’s still a gap with guidance/mentorship.

I remember in the early days of the growth of the “Silicon Roundabout” in London the camaraderie and togetherness of the tech ecosystem. If a founder needed something there was so much opportunities to be pointed in the right direction or even directly find the advice and help they needed.

You also can’t underestimate the impact @Google opening campus on Bonhill Street had in terms of fuelling/facilitating ambition. Many great events were held there.

Not to mention top tier Pre Seed and Seed Venture Capital fund Seedcamp being based in the same building and running great events like Seedcamp week and creating a pioneering mentor program for its portfolio, which I eventually started mentoring for.

I literally experienced and observed first hand the impact a lot of these ingredients made.

Throughout all of these developments and the growth of the Silicon Roundabout and wider London ecosystem, I was helping to build JUST EAT from startup.

In the early days we were based in Edgware, on the outskirts of London, because we had no money, then when we did have some, we were based in Borehamwood because we were frugal, but JE quickly opened an office in Holborn Viaduct because all of the best talent wanted to be near the exciting and flourishing tech hub in East London.

JE also opened an office in Bristol as there’d been long established and an amazing critical mass of exceptional tech talent there, which again was a result of corporates and companies Scaling from there and universities being key stakeholders.

So, it isn’t lost on me how the nucleus of an ecosystem has a gravitational pull and complimentary wider benefit to startups on other cities. JUST EAT went on to achieve a $2.44Bn IPO which was the largest technology IPO for the previous decade.

Do I believe we would have got there without all of the things combined to make the London ecosystem better, probably because we didn’t rely on anyone and really started to scale out of the 2009/9 recession, but I do believe the ecosystem taking off really complimented our grit and will, so it unquestionably blew some wind in our sails.

Obviously it’s a different world now and in reality companies can and do work very optimally being totally remote, but I do feel there are many lessons from the past and growth of other ecosystems which are still relevant today.

Is Belfast now on the international tech map? yes!
It’s increasingly renowned as a high potential ecosystem, especially as a hub for cyber security and that’s great, but that was because of FDI, I know some of the people who made it happen.

Will there be a half life of the talent working in the spaces like Cyber Security, going on to build? yes, I believe so but they still will need guidance and lets not forget that exceptional talent still has to choose to remain in Northern Ireland as many ecosystems are aggressively trying to entice, lure and offer favourable conditions which make them more attractive options.

I mentioned before that there is an open, global strategy to target the wealth of the middle classes and you’d have to be a fool to not expect that to manifest in things like Income and Capital gains tax increases.

So all of the good progress with any ecosystem could rapidly deteriorate.

I’ve been personally mentoring founders in Northern Ireland for over a decade, have things improved? Dramatically, to the point I chose to come home and create my own startup here.

Do I see the energy and camaraderie which I saw in London ecosystems early days? No.
There’s a total disconnect between Belfast and other cities and towns, I don’t see many complimentary aspects of cross pollination and the energy is far from being what it could be.

I see “them and us” silos and yet founders all seem to have the same limitations and encounter the same problems.
It seems that nobody has the capacity or remit to take ownership of sparking that energy and camaraderie to connect those silos, raising ambition. I mean when Banks are ultimately viewed as the key stakeholder of leading local innovation, you know there’s room for improvement. ?

So anyway, what I believe could be hugely useful is someone really taking ownership of this, how that look could range from strategic events to cross pollinate to a well managed mentor program which connects high potential startups with experienced execs/operators/founders.

And at the very least, startups need to help themselves and really start championing each-other.

In the end, a rising tide lifts all boats, theres obviously going to be a lot more very big boats coming to Northern Ireland, but we shouldn’t forget that our own “wee boats” can become very big boats and in my opinion once we have a few unicorns built and scaled from here, then it really shows we mean business… not just enticing it here, but making it. If not, it wouldn’t be the first time boats built here sunk.

So we really should be building bridges, working with each-other not in silos, shouting from rooftops championing each-other.

I know that’s not culturally the way shit is usually done, as traditionally it’s very modest and silos are a speciality, but it will help.

It isn’t about fluffy PR, optics, Politics, it’s about making the most of what we have, empowering entrepreneurs and making things happen. Onwards!