Welsh public sector funding convergence or means?

With the zombie corpse of my last start-up still warm and twitching I was invited to the University of Glamorgan to a talk that promised to teach me “How to make a million from the iPhone” (where was this beauty when I needed a quick cash injection?). The talk was put on by a new Welsh organisation called “Software Alliance Wales” or SAW. Sadly SAW isn’t as sharp as it sounds and when I asked what its objective was I received a typically opaque line about accreditations, pamphlets and training courses. Undeterred and craving more information on this exotic beast I ventured to their website and found this definition:

“The Software Alliance Wales (SAW) programme is led by IT Wales at Swansea University in partnership with the Universities of Bangor, Glamorgan, Aberystwyth and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. SAW has been developed to provide specific support to the software sector, to address skills requirements and to respond to demands to help Welsh businesses to maximise the potential of exploiting new technologies.”

All clear? Me neither!

The talk sounded fantastic and it turned out to be just that. It was a talk about making lots of money given by careerist academics who honestly have no idea or experience about starting and running their own business (unlike like the guys from Abertay University for example who have spent most of their working lives in games companies before joining the Uni). Just in case you think I’m generalising I asked them candidly if they had run or managed one and the nearest I got was “no, but I have spoken with some quite a lot” and I was then offered a pamphlet on Software Quality Assurance as if I was opening my door to some new age Jehovah’s Witness. I wasn’t trying to catch anyone out and whilst different perspectives are important it’s trumped by direct experience for me. My insistence that they needed to focus on start-ups was met with a steely cold suspicion. They drew rank and file. I was obviously some free market private sector witch and needed drowning in a river of methodology pamphlets.

My overly zealous (and admittedly piqued) point here is that without start-ups there is no foundation for growing larger companies. You know, the ones that employ lots of people, train people and most of all, use those pamphlets on Software Quality Assurance. Without them there’s nowhere for entrepreneurial people to fail. Think about this, it’s not as stupid as you think it is.

“There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all”

– Bob Dylan, Love minus Zero

To top it off, last week I was by invited by SAW to attend their 5 day course on programming the iPhone in Aberystwyth. Which as I’ve just started a games company whose first product will be a … iPhone game, it sounded perfect. Even if the course wasn’t pitched at a high level I thought it would be good opportunity to network and group learning is always fun! So I replied saying I’d love to go only to be immediately turned away because I’d declared that I live in Cardiff, which is in Wales but not in the “convergence” area. So the convergence area sounds like something cool from Star Trek but is actually quite dull; it’s essentially all of Wales except the South East, East and North East.

I actually live about 2 miles away from the boundary which means that my cash strapped project which would directly benefit from the project can’t whilst in theory a cash rich (nay more savvy located) business in Caerphilly could hop on without problem.

I’d like to suggest that drawing a boundary on a map to determine eligibility, as an awful lot of history will demonstrate, is in this day and age, absurd. Why not introduce an element of means testing?…factor in the likelihood of the company’s ability to employ and train?… look at the actual product that’s trying to be developed and it’s impact on the region. For my money, trying to setup a games development company in Wales would be a relative Hen’s tooth.

So the convergence area means that this policy disregards those that can benefit outside of it, is made available to those within that don’t need it and is, perhaps something more damaging, spreading what little talent we have in Wales far and wide instead of concentrating into a single point of excellence like Silicon Valley for example.

I actually tried to connect them to some friends in Silicon Valley to bring speakers over for new Welsh startups to network with and perhaps setup a series of talks. These are speakers from Google, Youtube, Zynga, etc who I thought might serve to create a good series of “How we did it” type lectures to inspire the young Welsh entrepreneurs. Sadly, their only interest came from thinking they could create a possible “jolly” (A boondoggle to my stateside friends) out to Silicon Valley.

Sadly the mechanics of these funds tend to mean that the committees that oversee them, very well intentioned though they are, are wasting a potentially good idea and wasting it before it’s even able to make a difference. I mean a real difference, not a pamphlet or a consultant to come in and tell you what you probably already know. It needs to be focused to achieve three things: you need youthful talent, investment money and people with experience of how to manage those two things in a single geographic location. When those three things coalesce that’s when you will start to see exciting things happen. Not when you give it to people with no experience of start-ups and try to spread it across a region that has thus far only fostered agriculture and tourism. Let them carry on with that stuff, it’s useful and we value it.

Start-ups are not normal companies and you need to have been inside one to know what they look like when they move forward. They accelerate at alien speeds, often in strange directions and mostly into brick walls. You learn to fail fast, you learn that learning is everything and you learn to keep going. The ones that survive grow and inspire others to do the same. Let’s inspire the ones following in our footsteps.

“Only now, at the end, do you understand”

– The Emperor, Return of the Jedi

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