The English Disease

In the 1970’s through to the present day the English Disease referred to the reputation of a small minority of football supporters from England with a penchant for violent behaviour, the likes of which has not been seen in the US since the Rodney King riots.Within the technology sector there is another English Disease, this has been touched upon by Mike King, managing director of Johnson King in this op-ed which ran in Tuesday’s FT Creative Business. I would argue that it merits as much if not more attention as the organised violence of English football hooligans as is gnaws away at the future prosperity of the UK.

This disease is a chronic lack of ambition and vision and manifests itself in different ways:

  • Mike complains that British start-ups are reluctant to invest in marketing and PR to enhance their reputation and grow their business. They often do not recognise the value of it and even where they do, the pathetically low budget put into marketing is below the critical mass required to deliver results. There is a similar attitude whether the management team are novices or drawing down a serious package as an ‘experienced entrepreneur’. Yet the most respected businessman for these people would be Richard Branson; a modern-day Barnum who built his empire with large doses of shameless self-promotion. Mike owning a PR agency was particularly interested in this aspect of the equation! However this is only a small part of the picture.
  • Funding is not forthcoming; venture capital in the technology sector is based on trying to achieve a ten-fold return on the money. UK start-ups have lower expectations of themselves, they do not share their American colleagues dreams of being the next Oracle, Apple, Microsoft or IBM. Consequently the technology business is trapped in a self reinforcing prophetic circle, a black hole with an expanding event horizon sucking away the vision and dreams. This in turn encourages the fund managers to husband their limited cash as much as they can by cutting back on ‘unnecessary expenditure’ on things like marketing and looking for an early exit strategy through acquisition or technology licencing agreements. It is not because the UK does not have the expertise and the smarts:
  1. US chip pioneer LSI Logic was founded by Wilf Corrigan, a Liverpool docker’s son made good
  2. Apple Computer’s sizzle is in large part to a product design team headed by Geordie designer Jonathan Ives who has designed every successful product from the original bondi blue iMac to the latest iPods
  3. Cambridge boffin Alan Turing was arguably the inventor of first programmable computer and laid down the defining test for true artificial intelligence
  4. LCDs: liquid crystals were invented in the UK, but made Japanese companies rich

The problem is that the disease is pervasive, it affects the value of houses, how much your future pension is going to be worth and what jobs the UK citizens of tomorrow are likely to have. The FTSE has underperformed US rivals for the past decade because it does not have its share of high-growth technology companies. Vodafone and mmO2 is just a seller of wireless services, just as much a merchant as supermarket chain Tesco, Lastminute.com is an e-tailer echoing the Napoleonic-era cliche of Britain as a nation of shopkeepers. ARM Holdings, the UK’s leading chip company, is a chip designer that can barely be described as a medium-sized enterprise. Software company Autonomy is noticable only for its lack of peers. Cambridge’s Silicon Fen is actually a laughable Silicon Sahara with precious few oasises.

With such a poor technology sector, money for investment sloshes around in management buyouts (with the intention of trying to squeeze more value out of mature businesses), a cash bloated property market and overseas where entrepreneurs generally have more vision. Thus setting the UK up for economic underachievement ad infinitum. Instead the UK will be an economy based on the export of a small amount of golf sweaters, rainwear, antiques and pre-prepared curry cooking sauces. It would be side splittingly funny if it wasn’t so tragic.