Have you heard of Kim Dotcom? Me neither, until I went to the Challengers start-up event in Barcelona this week. The guy is a legend judging by the roar that came from the crowd when he loomed over us on a huge screen direct from New Zealand where he’s currently living/avoiding the US authorities for all sorts of data shenanigans (yep, his story is very interesting). Kim is a German/ Finnish internet entrepreneur and changed his name from Kim Schmitz to Kim Dotcom back in 2005 apparently because the internet had made him so much money, and I mean a LOT of money. Looking at the customized number-plates that he apparently owns from HACKER, MAFIA and STONED means that Kim won’t be invited to our Cognizant Community events this year but I did find his pitch provocative, thought provoking and a call to arms to transform digitally or else be slain. He is the start-up all others admire and start-ups are at the vanguard of the art of the possible. Their energy is infectious.
I credit my colleague Ben Pring who put this Economist article under my nose because it characterizes the explosion of start-ups as a “Cambrian Moment”. The idea has its roots in the history of the earth—so around 100 Million years ago give or take a decade of millennia, something amazing happened to life on Earth as life began to multiply and accelerate, leading to what is known as the Cambrian Explosion. The Economist argues that something similar is happening in our virtual, digital world today. We are witnessing an entrepreneurial explosion. And it’s not just in the valley. Digital start-ups are sprouting everywhere around Europe—just go and see how new, digital economies are kicking off in London, Berlin or Belfast and it’s been happening in Spain and in Barcelona for some time. I heard pitches from a fascinating raft of startups offering new products and services as well as the accelerators who offer the space and mentoring needed to succeed, and businesses like Cognizant that are looking to partner. I got talking to some fascinating entrepreneurs that say their “tribe” is becoming abstracted from their culture and see opportunities everywhere. So, while the cheap and ubiquitous building blocks for digital products and services are causing this explosion in startups, it’s also creating a rise of a new nomadic entrepreneur workforce.
I would strike a note of caution based on some of the pitches I heard. The phrase “peak startup” entered my head much in the same way “peak beard” has done for hipsters in London (the beard count was noticeably lower in Barcelona for a younger crowd too). Do we really need another snap-chat, social style service? Facebook is clearly seen as for older people i.e. those that are my age (what?!) and this is the big one, that Twitter has apparently peaked. But the majority of start-ups that were fascinating for me were those benefiting from the explosion in open API traffic which points towards the rise of the IoT (Internet of Things). This is the phenomenon I cover in the rise of our latest study, the smart product economy: I argue that the industry value chains and product eco-systems are beginning to break down, morph and shape into something new and interconnected—witness the connected car, connected health, connected home, connected life…the list goes on. Products and services will increasingly integrate together as firms co-opt and share product data and co-invest in product development. Some of the younger, fresher players from digital’s Cambrian age are fundamentally important in this process. Open APIs allow startups to catalyze a value chain with profound effects: just look at what the Spanish banks have done with their rapid innovation cycles, hackathons, and open APIs to plug in 3rd party solutions. No surprise to me that it’s a Spanish Bank BBVA that shows how to do this with open talent competitions that will showcase digital banking for the rest of us in the 21st century.
PS Barcelona’s Sonar Festival held the same week as Challengers is scaling significantly into a music and technology festival and Europe’s answer to South by South West in the US. At last, better than trailing over to Hannover in Germany for the annual IT show. And apparently the latest hot destination for any budding start-up? Lisbon.