Posted: Tue 21st Feb 2017
I experienced democracy in many forms last night.
Exiting Westminster Tube station I was greeted by people brandishing 'Dump Trump', 'Theresa the appeaser' and, my particular favourite, 'Don't comb-over here' banners as people seized their right to protest against the US president's planned state visit. But I wasn't there to wave any wooden sticks; it was a debate about growing the UK's digital economy that saw me in London.
In the Macmillan Room of Portcullis House, the glossy office building opposite Parliament, we were gathered for a meeting of Pictfor, the Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum, an All-Party Parliamentary Group.
APPGs represent key areas of interest and invite us private sector types in to help them solve problems and make Britain a better place.
As the red parliamentary screen above the panel counted down the Lords debating the Brexit Bill across the road and to the faint chants of 'Trump out', we got down to business.
A lack of digital skills?
As is protocol with these things, the hosting politician set the scene.
Mims Davies MP shared some shocking stats that 10% of British adults have never used the internet and 23% lack good online skills. That's just the basics that the government is seeking to change with efforts to get consumers and public services better at embracing the web and helping more businesses use digital to start and grow.
"People's big business idea can come down to how good their broadband is,". It's a life necessity", she said.
Following up shadow digital economy minister Louise Haigh challenged that we need to make sure the growing digital economy doesn't create an entrepreneurial hierarchy with the rich techies at the top and their exploited workforce below. It's vital the whole of the UK is part of the story, she says. Citing examples such as former miners made redundant in Yorkshire retrained as broadband engineers, she said "it's the very same areas that can lead the digital economy that need the biggest reinvention".
And government has a crucial role to play, the Labour MP added. "The idea that government is an enabler for new businesses and then steps out of the way is completely irrelevant in the digital economy," she said, reminding us that Google started with a government grant."
The Brit who exited to Twitter
But it wasn't all political soundbites. Entrepreneur Rob Bishop shared some frank views.
When it comes to business, the Hull born business owner turned investor knows what he's talking about having started Magic Pony Technology and sold it to Twitter for $150m just 18 months later.
But while 18 of his team are still in London, Bishop has moved to Silicon Valley. "I'm in the fortunate position of being able to invest the odd Â£100,000 in other start-ups but I'm now in San Francisco because that's where the investors are, that's where the start-ups are. If I'm going to start another start-up, it will be there. I'm not in Hull sharing advice."
So where are the great British small businesses getting advice? Aside from Enterprise Nation's Go and Grow Online campaign (ahem), there's lots going on up north it seems.
Richard Gregory from Tech North told the story of founder of Bristlr, a dating app for people who like people with Beards.
What started as a joke has become a business that all five of the millionaires wanted a slice of on Dragons' Den this week and he got his investment from backers in Newcastle and Manchester. But not everyone finds it easy, particularly those outside London Gregory said, because there is a sharp funding gap at the seed funding stage. While there are 119 co-working spaces in London, "we're barely scrapping double figures up north", he added. There were also 59 start-up accelerator programmes in London last year, compared to just five in Northern England.
For Bishop, it's the type of investor who's key. He said we need more investors who understand the risk early on; people who get that a business won't make tonnes of cash straight away but can see the potential. We need more investor engineers, rather than people from insurance and financial services, he said.
Boring businesses need love too
But not just about the sexy tech start-ups. Stephen Canning from Essex Council Council told the story of the growth of a 'boring business', a popcorn maker that has grown from a two person operation to one employing over 100 and it has technology at its heart.
And there's the point. Technology and digital isn't just about the beard wearing (disclaimer: I have one so I can say that) start-up trendies hanging out in the bars of Shoreditch. It's about all businesses. It's about converting the 40% of companies that don't have website and that don't use social media to its full advantage.
Excuse another ad but that's what our Go and Grow Online campaign has been doing for three years. Yes we've heard from a super techie company like Blippar valued at £1bn, but we've also looked at the basics of SEO and why you should make your shop Instagramable.
And it's about collaboration.
When the discussion turned to audience Q&A, several stood up and shared the digital training schemes they've involved in. But as one delegate said, where can a business owner go to to find it all?
Louise Haigh said she and Davies would look to find ways to communicate it better.
We don't really want that to be yet another government website though, but we do want businesses everywhere to find ways to get better at digital because it's not going away and as nation, we risk being left behind.
Regions across the country are battling to be the digital capital of Britain but to prevent more Rob Bishops starting businesses, exiting to US giants and then settling in the Valley to mentor Americans, shouldn't we, as panelist John Spindler from Capital Enterprise said, all learn from each other and focus on creating the UK as one powerful, single digital ecosystem rather than trying to build lots of mini ones?
Dan Martin is head of content at Enterprise Nation
Images via @Pictfor