Francois Mazoudier grew up and studied in Paris before moving to the UK in 1990. He has experienced the highs and lows of tech, with a great ‘start-up to IPO story’ (Real Networks), the dotcom crash of the early 2000s, a company bankruptcy and several companies that were destined to great success but didn’t make it. He is open and honest about the harsh realities of life as an entrepreneur and the particularities that make the tech world so appealing yet so cut-throat. Now as a seasoned entrepreneur, he uses his practical business-building experience, industry knowledge and contacts to help the next generation of start-up talent, using a new and purpose-built tech space (aptly named TMRW) in Croydon.
TMRW will soon be celebrating its first anniversary – tell us what you have achieved so far and the response from the local community?
Well, like all start-ups, we started with big ambitions and little else, and had no idea whether it was going to work. But the product and the many services we offer to the local tech ecosystem here seems to have been well received, so we managed to make TMRW profitable in less than a year and we are growing 10 percent every month, which for a property business is rather good. We are now full with our 100 desk stations filled and around 24 tech companies. Our Byte Café downstairs was voted the best independent café by the locals, which made us very proud (we could have sold out to a big name chain).
As for the locals’ feedback, we have received nothing but amazing support, from day one. Aside from the one or two anti-change, anti-everything naggers (there are always one or two), we have received nothing but outstanding support from the local community – individuals, businesses, local government – it would seem all of Croydon realised that they had a real, tangible chance of having their very own tech hub to build and grow real, fast-growth tech firms in and turn things around. TMRW’s big on tech for Social Good, so all money invested in the project went to the local economy, all Byte staff are locals, the food made locally, even our furniture was cut, built, and assembled by a local firm, so locals took notice.
What do you think has been the key to TMRW’s success?
Three things make us very different from other tech hubs and co-working spaces.
First, we’re the most spacious hub in the UK, we offer more free space per member. Whereas most spaces are focused on optimising revenue for every square foot of space they have (remember, most hubs are run by property companies, not tech firms), we provide the optimal space/s for companies to flourish. And great companies with great staff can’t perform in a shoebox, in a tiny glass bowl, with half desks and all the other tricks used by most hubs. You need space to think, to reflect, share and learn from others, you can’t do that in a confined environment – it’s kind of obvious really, but look around London, free space is something so rare and so precious today. We also provide fresh air (everybody has their own window) and natural light – because to perform at peak, you shouldn’t, cannot be in a tiny space with no natural light and aircon for 10 hours solid. It’s obvious, it’s just bad for you – yet that’s what most others offer.
Secondly, we are true tech, our entire management team stems from tech companies, so we know what our members need and go through because we’ve been there ourselves, and we know that our community is real, not just a marketing tagline. At TMRW, members help each other and share contacts and code and best practices – that can’t happen if you mix industries, they can’t help each other. We were very selective of who we allowed in (which was very testing, as we didn’t have funding and were losing money for months) but it paid off nicely. We have a solid community, with true collaboration and shared values, something nobody can buy or build later on in a shared space. Without a strong community, members are just paying for a desk.
Thirdly, whereas many are huge PR machines, our entire focus is to make our members successful, not glam. Building a tech company comes with super high risk, high velocity, high complexity, massive competition, and typically a lack of funds – so if you’re not ready for this environment, you’re just deluding yourself. So we strip out all the media hype (been to Shoreditch lately? the level of hype is scary) and instead we address the real, hard-hitting realities of where they’re at, what they need to do now and how to get their business to the next stage of development. We don’t hype up our companies, we provide them with the tools and share knowledge, give them honest feedback and early warning signs; we help them plug skill shortages, hire the ‘right’ team; help ‘lawyer up’ properly so they don’t get ripped off; get them financed, and get them to meet industry giants, top investors and entrepreneur celebrities so they learn from those who’ve achieved (and failed) in real life. And that part, we believe, is invaluable – and you can’t get it in hipster hubs.
Croydon has been highlighted as the fastest growing tech cluster in the UK – how does it feel to be a hub for that growth and what is happening to transform Croydon into one of the country’s top locations for tech?
It feels great – Sadiq Khan [Mayor of London] visited us and showed his belief in what we do, supporting TMRW as a great case for regenerating rundown areas, and I really believe that tech is the best tool for harmonious, fast-track regeneration.
London has tons of great talent and we believe that we are building a credible, secondary tech hub in London. You have amazing media related tech in Shoreditch, FinTech in Canary Wharf, and I think Croydon can be the cluster where smaller tech companies can meet, work with and exit to large corporates. Large corporates often struggle with the Shoreditch ‘thing’ – they hate the over-hyped valuations, the condescending kids with the constant “old dinosaurs” mantra, and the lack of reality. We think we’re the right interface, the proverbial clutch between the large corporates with capital to spend and a real need for innovative solutions, and the tech community that wants to build real tech, not hype. We’ll announce something about this topic soon.
Why did you personally come to Croydon?
I have always been a fan of the new ‘new’ thing, and also to go against the grain, the established thinking, the pre-conceived ideas. When everyone goes right, one must go left. Croydon came up through Sarah Luxford [co-Founder of TLA Women in Tech and co-founder of Croydon Tech City, a local not-for-profit pushing for Digital in Croydon] who invited me to pitch for a tech space. My initial reaction was as expected: why on earth would I ever go work in Croydon, all it has is a disastrous reputation nationwide and somehow it is always the butt of all jokes. But some research and the hard facts convinced me; here’s a very large city (technically a London Borough, but as large as a city), with a large, well educated workforce, a fantastic heritage, one of the best transport infrastructures in the UK, ultrafast fibre optic networking, a past opulent city where most of its residents accept to just leave, and commute to central London for work. And not one tech space to be found. It would be like Birmingham not having a tech space; it would seem impossible. So I jumped in and built it.
There is a lot of hype around tech – what areas in tech really excited you and is PropTech up there?
There are plenty of amazing opportunities to build great companies, and huge innovations coming through. We’ve found a few interesting ones within property, insurance, retail and government tech (yes, even councils and government bodies need better, lighter, cheaper SaaS platforms to manage services more effectively). And, of course, the big Mother of All Changes: Artificial Intelligence.
We’re particularly focused on BuildingTech (whereas PropTech includes financial services e.g. marketplaces for mortgages and debt, LendInvest etc., which we’re not focusing on). It’s now clear to all that non-smart buildings, built today, will see a freefall in asset value compared to smart buildings. And we’re talking in the next 10 years, not 20 or 30, so the entire property industry (from investment funds to management agents) is keen to avoid disaster and find out how to leverage tech innovation. The Croydon regeneration initiative is roughly worth £5.5 billion, and construction is at the centre of it – so we consider ourselves lucky to be here, working with the construction and property industry, helping them secure and build their innovative edge.
Technology solved many crises from farming to renewable energy. How might tech help solve the housing crisis?
Everyone thought that as we grow older and wiser, and much like our parents, we would need larger living spaces to store more and more possessions, but actually the trend is strongly going towards a more minimalist lifestyle; today’s generation is digitally native so almost everything they buy and need to keep is digital, from books to music and video collections, pictures etc.; they favour buying unique experiences over owning things, so they rent and share hardware, cars, equipment, spare bedrooms etc. – so it is now possible to live in smaller sized flats but keep an outstanding standard of living. And at lower costs.
Co-living is developing nicely too but will take longer to mature. You have a smaller flat where you eat and sleep and then shared living spaces where everyone hangs out, socialises, networks and enjoys entertainment – it means less commuting, cool stuff happens on your doorstep. The Collective is a good example of this.
TMRW has been extremely well received in Croydon and Byte Café is buzzing constantly – what can we expect in the next year?
Next year, we are going to roughly double up on what we do, focus on inward investments and add more fun initiatives.
We’ll double the number of companies we help and double the number of events we run. We will also start focusing on making investments and bringing outstanding investors to TMRW – I don’t think a tech company in Croydon has ever received inward investment from a big-name investment fund yet and we’re going to change that.
We’re going to work with some local arts and music partners to deliver amazing entertainment, fun nights and memorable experiences.
Finally we’ll increase our engagements into tech for Social Good initiatives; we’re lucky to have an amazing Board that includes one of the top VC funds (Fred Destin, ACCEL), our very own Lord (Jim Knight), our Arts Master (Kevin Zuchowski-Morrison at the RISE gallery) and the amazing Gi Fernando MBE, serial entrepreneur and now CEO of www.FreeFormers.com, the digital upskilling academy and platform that’s changing how people from all walks of life can get into good, technology focused jobs.