Celebrating the end of Campus London

It’s hard to explain to younger people how different the London tech scene used to be, even ten years ago. Like when you explain you used to call someone’s house to find out if they were in.

Back in the mid-Noughties, a man emailled my blog, asking if I’d write for his startup. Despite having a developer dad, I had to Google the word “startup”. Soon, I was working for his company in a badly-lit Shepherd’s Bush basement, underneath the office of fashion brand Mulberry. Coming from the uptight hierarchies of journalism and advertising, it was pretty seductive that nobody knew what we were doing and we had to figure it out for ourselves.

Twitter was new, more a place for play than work; money men seemed to be all in Mayfair; co-working spaces didn’t exist; meetups and thriving sub-communities did, but it was hard to know where to start. Even later, after I’d joined a few larger startups then Google, I never shook the feeling that I’d got into the tech industry through an accidental back door, and, when you have that feeling, the natural thing to want to do is kick the door open for everyone else.

Like everything mythical, a cast of thousands says they were there right from the start of Campus London, and many were.

In the almost decade since it opened, Campus London more than accomplished the mission. This one scrappy space on Bonhill Street provided the container for many different sub-communities to start or come together, and a way in for incredibly different profiles who wanted to find out what this “tech” thing was. Campus was a home for some brilliant stalwarts of the European scene; Startup Weekend, Seedcamp, Code First: Girls, Silicon Drinkabout, early Entrepreneur First, early Bethnal Green Ventures (with a note to the much-missed Glen Mehn) and of course TechHub (also RIP). Thousands of events. Thousands and thousands of hours of free mentoring time from Googlers and other experienced types. Repeatedly, I’d meet an uncertain early founder in the cafe trying to figure it out then bump into them, a year later, with a team and funding and a clear way forwards. Sometimes, those companies flew; sometimes they didn’t and a great hire was back on the market.

Inheriting the Head of role from Eze Vidra in 2014, after several year’s building out the programming for women alongside my day job on Google Maps, was a brilliant and unusual job; part small-town mayor, part coach/therapist. I have too many memories to even whittle it down, from the over-the-top opening party to the number of times I got trapped in the terrifying lift, most often when late for an important meeting. The weekend hackathons Stemettes used to run when the space would get taken over by tiny girls intensely creating sites full of kitten GIFs. The Startup Funerals. The book vending machine. The feel of the cafe the day after the 2016 US election (I was away for Brexit). The first pilot Campus for Mums, when the VC presenting knelt down to pick up someone’s crawling baby without pausing. The first time a founder who started at Campus came back to do a fireside chat. How excited people got buying coffee with Bitcoin in 2014. The year before Campus Seoul when the entire Korean government seemed to visit (I got to meet the then-prime minister at the opening, who later went to jail for a scandal that’s best described as “horse dancing Svengali”). The copycats that sprung up the world over before we’d even started expanding internationally.

I could tell you the conventional success metrics but that would be to miss something very essential about this one physical place and the community built around it; the shared belief and connection between people lived above and between distinct companies or programs.

I probably speak to someone I met at Campus every single day.

And I realise now (I didn’t have the distance to write this in 2018) how many beliefs I hold that Campus encompasses:

  • Entrepreneurship (however you define it) should be an opportunity for far more people than it currently is, even now
  • Communities go further than individuals
  • Physical space matters (flexible working’s important but we’ve suffered from the lack of this in the last year)
  • Most importantly, we should lead with generosity

I’m grateful to Google for funding such a beautiful experiment for so long, and hope other corporates follow their lead.

It’s right that Campus won’t re-open after the COVID closure. Scenes change, and you have to play it as it lays. Under Marta Krupinska’s leadership, Google for Startups is going to focus on both expanding their work across the UK and continuing to launch proper funding like the recent Black founders fund (with congrats to her and Rachael; in my era, we never succeeded at persuading our Google overlords to fund at this stage).

In London alone, there are hundreds of coworking offers. There are spaces that serve the same purpose, from fancy to not. From Stripe to Amazon, there are deals and credits to be found everywhere. Dozens and dozens of accelerators across the UK. There’s more capital than ever and a growing pool of operator-angels (including me). A lot of flavours of success story.

And, having recently moved back to London from Silicon Valley, I’m reminded also of the opportunity ahead. It happens less now, but there was a time we constantly looked overseas. We don’t need to do that anymore. The UK has nearly every industry. Incredible talent. When travel starts again, we can be in Amsterdam, Berlin or beyond in only a few hours. There is a homegrown scene to be proud of, and I hope we keep seeing our difference for the asset it is; the techlash has come of age since I left Campus, and there are important conversations and choices to be had in deciding who we want to be. Let’s choose wisely.

To the cast of thousands who started or were deeply involved in Campus (and I already know I’ll need to keep adding to this list): Eze, Francesca, Mary, John, Obi, Joe, Matt, Sarah, Dan, Andrew, the two Davids, Michal, Stephen, Theo, Bronwyn, Katie, Alina, Connor, Mirela, Laura, Nathan, Stephanie, Debs, Belinda, Julie, Stefano, Helen, Vicky, Hazel, Cliff, Mike & Elizabeth & Andrew, Jose & Deb & Victoria, Carlos & Reshma, Line & James, Amali, Jen, and the many, many more people who gave their time and energy to make this happen…. thank you! Wasn’t that fun?

Director @OmidyarNetwork's Beneficial Tech. Ex-head Google's @campuslondon. Into communities, London, looks and books.