Building Hubs and Destroying Barriers

I and my co-founder at Mimecast are proud South Africans, but what we’ve built is a UK company with an increasingly global footprint.  The UK is already a great place to start a business with innovation at its core, and the Prime Minister is today announcing plans that will make it even better.  Whether or not the East London Tech City will ever give Silicon Valley a serious run for its money, it’s clearly great news for UK business, both in terms of inward investment from the big US tech players and as an initiative to encourage home-grown innovation talent to flourish.

But we’ve got to keep our feet on the ground here.  At some stage, if you’re a business with ambition, you need to expand.  The UK is a great place to sell technology, but there comes a point – like a rock band that wants to make it big – you have to spread your wings.  The US is crucial, as the heartland of technology and the biggest market.  Asia Pacific has huge potential, also, particularly China and India.  But what about the opportunity right on our doorstep?  How easy is it to expand across the European Union?

The answer is, not as easy as it should be, and that’s why I am today attending the EU Government Leaders Forum, sponsored by Microsoft.  One of the big themes of this event is the idea of a ‘single European digital market’ where, in an ideal world, we’d be able to use our UK or off-shore data centres to serve any European customer, and Microsoft could do the same from its Ireland or Netherlands-based facilities.  What we’re seeing on the ground, though, is a far cry from this model.  It is not so much about legislation – the European Data Privacy Directive of 1995 technically allows for the free flow of ‘personal information’ within the EU – as it is about cultural and national differences, and perceived rather than real issues, and that makes it a much more difficult nut to crack.

As Ben Rooney wrote on this morning, I’m one of only two CEOs (the other being Steve Ballmer) amongst a big group of politicians.  But nevertheless, it’s important for them to hear what’s holding us back, and for us to gain support for breaking down the barriers that slow our ability to grow in Europe.  For me, it’s a worthwhile investment, and for innovators of the future - who may well set up shop in Shoreditch over the next year or two - it could be the making of them.