Life in the Edinburgh Tech Cube

The company I work for is fortunate enough to have offices in the Edinburgh TechCube, a technology and startup accelerator/incubator/hub that opened in January of this year.  I thought I’d show people what life is like working from the “World Class Startup Space” that we have here in Scotland.  The mission of the TechCube is to be a magnet for the area’s technology companies and technologists, help get startups up and running, see them fail or succeed, rinse, and repeat.

The City

For those who have never been, Edinburgh is a breathtaking city, one of the most beautiful in the world.  The entire downtown is a UNESCO world heritage site due to the incredible architecture (dating from as early as medieval times) that surrounds the iconic Edinburgh castle which is perched atop a dormant volcano.  Known for its festivals and culture, it has the highest resident satisfaction of any city surveyed (by MORI), more restaurants per head of population of any UK city, and a temperate climate that has the same annual rainfall of New York City, Frankfurt, and Rome.  Its compact footprint is small enough to walk across, yet it has an excellent public transport system, a great airport, and convenient rail links to other UK cities. (Source)

The TechCube really benefits from being in such an inspiring and historic city that’s just a short flight from most of Europe.  Just a couple blocks away is the campus of the University of Edinburgh and its excellent Computer Sciences and Informatics department which provides a steady supply of top graduates each year.  There’s a lively tech community that has monthly meetups focused on a variety of technical subjects and several annual conferences that attract technologists from around the world.  I can’t think of a better place to live or start up a business.

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The Building and Location

The TechCube began life as the Royal Dick College of Veterinary Medicine, and was constructed sometime in the 60s.  It’s an incredibly ugly building from the outside, but the key to ugly buildings (if they must exist) is to make sure that you’re on the inside looking out.  We have offices on the 1st (2nd floor for Americans) and 4th floors which means we have spectacular views of the Pentlands to the South, Arthur’s Seat to the Northwest, and the Meadows to the East.  It’s an amazing sight to see the Scottish weather rolling in from a distance, experience the rain or snow that it brings, then have a crystal clear view of the sun as it breaks through, all within a couple of hours.

View of Arthur's Seat from the TechCube
View of Arthur’s Seat from the TechCube

The Techcube is just a few steps from the University of Edinburgh, is located on several bus lines, and within walking distance of most of the city centre, the Waverly train station, and airport shuttle.  There are also several excellent cafes, sandwich shops, pubs, and eateries within just a few minutes walk of the building.

The Team

How many times have you been happy with the landlord of your office? It’s rare enough that it warrants mentioning  that one of the things that sets the Techcube apart from other office buildings you might consider is the team that manages the facility.  Composed of managing director Jamie Coleman and his intrepid team, they make being a tenant here completely hassle free, really fun, and they’re very aggressive about consistently improving the facilities and public profile of the building.  Running a startup can be quite an emotional roller coaster, particularly for early stage, pre-revenue startups that need an environment like the TechCube to get launched from, and my guess is the cheerful words and laughter upon entry and exit of the building from the front desk staff are a special kind of therapy to many founders within the building.  It’s really hard to overstate how great the crew behind the TechCube is.

The Resources and Facilities

While the building may be ugly, the facilities available are top notch.  The entire building was renovated from top to bottom and each floor includes ample meeting room space as well as a kitchen.  Access to each floor (as well as 24 hour access) is controlled by RFID proximity cards that make the environment informal yet much more secure than your typical office space.  High ceilings and the freedom to paint and decorate as desired is another major plus.  While the windows look small from the outside, they provide plenty of light, and all outlets and ethernet ports (of which each room has dozens) are located at desk height.  Thanks to a generous donation from Skyscanner, there are free, high quality desks available to tenants to save on office costs.  Offices are well lit, well heated, and quiet (you can’t hear other tenants).  The offices available range from the very small (2 man teams) to very large with space for 20+ bodies.  Electricity is included in your monthly rent and internet is priced at a flat rate per head.  Leases are available for periods as short as 6 months, and all leases allow a break with 2 month notice.

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Pricing for office space depends on the stage your company is at, with price hikes occurring at important financial milestones such as break-even and profitability.  The goal that later stage companies eventually find space elsewhere to make way for newcomers.

The TechCube is part of the larger Summerhall complex that caters to the arts and creative community in Edinburgh and enjoys the benefits of several shared facilities:

  • The Summerhall Cafe serves coffees, sandwiches, snacks, and provides a great “offsite but not” meeting location.  There’s an outdoor deck for seating during the summer.
  • The Royal Dick brewery and pub is located across the way and serves their onsite-brewed Ale along with other bites to eat, and makes a nice place to have a meeting as well.
  • Summerhall boasts some extremely unique meeting rooms that can be rented as required for larger or more formal functions.
  • There is a theatre in the basement of the TechCube for presentations to audiences up to roughly 150.
  • The ground floor of the TechCube includes a just-completed hot-desking environment which can double as a meet up space or be used for hackathons/special events that require desk and network connectivity.
  • There’s a massive boardroom/meeting room still under construction also on the ground floor.

Another resource that’s connected to the building is a pool of early stage funding currently being raised by the building to have for those companies that meet their (yet unannounced) criteria.  Expect this to be broadly patterned after well known incubators like YCombinator or Techstars.

The Neighbours

While the building is still very new, it’s already almost filled with technology companies that range from product companies to consultancies, pre-revenue to post break-even, funded, bootstrapped, and everything else you’d expect from assembling a wide range of tech companies.  There are still two floors to be renovated, and as companies succeed and fail, I’d expect the range of companies to always be in flux.  There are plenty of opportunities to bump into others in the halls, and everyone operates an open door policy for visitors.

The Intangibles

Most accelerates/incubators/hubs really sell themselves on the intangible benefits they provide such as proximity to other likeminded companies, access to the broader technical community, ongoing events, and the possibility of funding.  TechCube is no exception as all of these things are squarely on its radar and if not already available, are in the planning stages.  Already I’ve been to a few meetups and events held in the TechCube that I normally might not attend as we can just walk down after work, and that is a huge benefit.  Even if you’re like me and a bit skeptical of how much an incubator like the TechCube really matters, right now there are more than enough tangible benefits to make the building a no brainer decision, even if the planned items never materialise.

The Bottom Line

Great people, great culture, a great location, great resources, and a cadre of peers who are all at different stages in the startup journey conspire to create a place that is greater than the sum of its parts.

An Evening with the United Kingdom’s CTO

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending an event that included a short speech by the UK Government CTO.  I didn’t really know what to expect, and like most who attended, I wasn’t even really sure what a government CTO is supposed to do.  It was being held at the TechCube and as the topic was related to government procurement of small business services, I thought it might be worth an evening to attend and see if we could drum up any business.

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Just prior to the session I was intrigued to learn that this was the team behind Gov.UK, which is a highly regarded foray into centralising, opening, and publicising government processes and guidelines via open APIs.

The talk opened in very English fashion, as quite a bit was made of the universities (Oxford) that the CTO and his companion had attended, and I felt cynicism brewing.  What followed was an almost surreal experience.  Liam Maxwell spoke for roughly thirty minutes on what his goals were for the UK government from a technology perspective, which distilled to:

  • Cut wasteful government procurement processes and government IT spending
  • Commit to sourcing at least 25% of government spending from Small to Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs)
Gov.uk provides APIs and other data for transparency and consumption.
Gov.uk provides APIs and other data for transparency and consumption.

Maxwell shared a fact which I found to be utterly staggering: in 2010 the UK government spent 1% of the entire country’s GDP on IT.  Much of this could be categorised as waste.  As an American, government waste isn’t surprising, but the scale of it can be unbelievable in the literal sense when presented with facts like these.  Liam had dozens of anecdotes which he casually referred to throughout the presentation:

  • UK Government data centers are currently utilised at 7% efficiency.
  • After a presentation from Amazon Web Services CTO Werner Vogels discuss the power of cloud based architectures employed at the world’s largest cloud service provider, Maxwell overheard a departing departmental government CIO remark, “We should build one of those!”
  • During an apples to apples comparison of services, a government contract was orders of magnitude more expensive than the same contract from the open market.

Maxwell and his team, who are very new in their roles, are aggressively combatting waste and wasteful procurement processes in four ways:

  • on online government store which is easy to sign up for and which provides market rate services to government entities: the GCloud
  • an anonymous “Bad Request for Proposal” reporting website where ridiculous government RFPs can be brought to light, and shut down.
  • a review board of seven people that must review and approve all government IT projects above a certain level
  • making sure that SMEs are allowed and encouraged to bid for government work

While the presentation was interesting, the ensuing question and answer session, to put it bluntly, blew my mind.  Maxwell answered questions in a blunt, often humorous way.  Stupid questions were rejected and his answers explained why the question was lacking.  He was self deprecating, sharp, and utterly committed to making sure his vision was communicated to the entire room which numbered about 75 attendees.  He relentlessly talked about culture change, asked for direct feedback, took notes of ideas proffered by the audience, and asked some to stay behind for more information.

During the Q&A session, I figured out why the experience felt so strange – Liam Maxwell was solving problems with an openness and bluntness that was commonplace in a well functioning, healthy business.  Or maybe more accurately, a startup.  Not government.  Were there cameras or recording devices?  He didn’t care.  Was he being political?  Only in that he was fulfilling his mission.  He was spending time soliciting opinions from companies across the UK, and he was pitching his idea just like we would to investors.  It was like I was watching a living episode of the West Wing where all of a sudden Hollywood transforms government staffers into extremely competent, hardworking, humorous, and admirable people who work as a team to battle against their problems.

As a UK taxpayer, (even if I am an American!), I was so impressed by Maxwell and my only thought is I hope he lasts.  Administrate is currently signing up for the GCloud if only to support the idea that small companies can sell to government.  I truly hope the Government Digital Services team continues their approach and manages to change the culture over their tenure.