Opinion

Column: Is Britain cheapwalking into oblivion?

British industry seems to have an almost suicidally short term fixation with being cheap.

Our book publishers, for example, always gave Amazon better discounts, because it could sell more books by undercutting the book shops. Never mind that Amazon, with its eBook wing, is the single biggest threat to the survival of Random House, Harper Collins, Penguin and all the other old traditional book publishers. All they could see was the instant gratification of a minor upturn in sales and a reduction in effort. For that they were more than happy to betray an entire channel of booksellers that has supported them for centuries.

Having come for their partners, Amazon is now coming for the book publishers, and there's nobody left to stick up for them.

We know that buying from the cheapest bidder is a false economy. We're slightly ashamed of it too, which is why you can't say 'cheapest', you have to describe something as 'low cost'. Albeit, temporarily low cost.

The obsession with short term penny pinching and lack of a long term vision is holding us back, arguably. It's why life is so bleak for start ups and there's no supporting ecosystem to help them grow. This is something that Wendy Tan-White, CEO of Moonfruit.com, has achieved among the company's huge constituency of traders. Which is why Moonfruit was selected to take part in a major new government campaign aimed at inspiring people to start or grow their own business.

Moonfruit exemplifies how big and small - in this case the Government and the private sector - could come together. But there's not enough being done by bigger companies to support the smaller ones. There's too much of a something for nothing culture, where smaller players get shafted by companies that don't pay their invoices, abuse trust and expect to be able to use other people's services for free.

"We give people free support and they don't always return the favour, but someone will," says Tan-White, "most of our growth comes from the goodwill in our user base."

The something for nothing culture isn't confined to Britain, says Andy Gent, CEO of Revector, a fraud busting company that identifies dodgy activity on mobile networks.

Despite saving mobile operators millions in lost revenue by preventing fraud, many companies expect to get Revector's crime busting managed service free, on a trial benefit, says Gent. "The trouble is companies are often set in their ways, and nobody wants to put their neck on the line," laments Gent.

If Revector gave away its service free for a month, the majority of the cost savings couldn't be billed for, as the payback on the service is almost instant. Which is a shame, because once Revector identifies exactly who is illegally hacking into a GSM gateway, they inform the authorities, who go and boot down the door of the criminal gang and bang them up. Which is more exciting than most cloud businesses.

At the same UKTI show, last week, there were 19 other UK starts up showcasing their technology, all struggling from a lack of support and at the wrong end of Britain's cynical business culture.  

Another crime fighter is Wood & Douglas, which has created a system to automate the capture of cable thieves who keep bringing the nation's railways to a standstill and cost us millions in downtime for the sake of stealing £46 worth of scrap copper.

There were plenty more UK start ups trying to make the world better. Meanwhile Carbon Hero's CarbonDiem helps you calculate the carbon footprint of any journey. I wonder if they take paralysis on South West Trains, caused by a cable thief, into consideration when they calculate CO2.

Datawind is tackling the global digital divide with its Ubislate, which it claims is the world's cheapest tablet PC at just $35 each.

Guardian24 meanwhile, protects lone vulnerable people. There's a way it could be used to protect freelance writers too, but that would involve ms explaining how the system works, which is a secret. Even so, it's used by more than 32,000 workers already, they can log their whereabouts, send GPS locations and, importantly, raise an alert in times of need.

Hailo helps cabbies get paid more often and us to find taxis quicker, by making the system more efficient. They're even looking to export the system to Europe and America.

P2i's Aridion uses a liquid repellent nano-coating technology to protect any handset against water. Which would save millions of handsets from an early landfill grave.

Meanwhile PowerOasis is saving the environment through power management, enabling mobile operators to power up ub stations in emerging markets, by juggling the use of solar, wind and diesel generated power more efficiently.

Another power saving device is from Pyreos, which has made an interface that allows you to control your mobile handset (or indeed any computer) through hand gestures.

Meanwhile both Stream Communications (StreamFreeFlow) and Sub10 Systems have created ways to sweat much better performance out of the networking infrastructures. Sub10 even makes its equipment in the UK, in a factory in Devon.

A start up UK manufacturer? Now there's a company we should support. I wonder what its long term prospects will be like.
 

This was first published in January 2012

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