It was Oscar Wilde, one of London’s more flamboyant 19th century guests, who said of it: “Oh, I love London Society! It is entirely composed now of beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics. Just what Society should be.” One wonders if his views would be much changed by today’s influx of tech entrepreneurs, many of whom might affectionately fit part of his description.
London has long had a tradition of welcoming, even embracing, foreigners. The 2011 census showed the capital to be the UK’s most cosmopolitan city — just 3.7 million out of 8.2 million residents described themselves as “white British.”
It is not Wilde’s London nor Dickens’s gloomy vision of the city that causes geeks and outliers with great expectations to flock here; today the UK capital is seen as the best place for European entrepreneurs to raise money and to scale.
But what is Europe’s largest city like for the people driving its tech boom? We asked overseas entrepreneurs in Wayra, a global program for entrepreneurs set up by Telefónica, who have made London their temporary home. It may surprise locals, but one word that came up time and again was “polite.”
“You don’t feel threatened by bumping into someone on the street,” says Slovenian Igor Čenar, CEO of JollyDeck, an online learning platform. “Everyone is very polite, everyone says sorry — even if they don’t mean it.”
War Stories About Renting Apartments Abound
But while the city’s hospitality may score highly, its prices do not. Renting an apartment is prohibitively expensive compared with other European capitals. Exact cost-of-living comparisons are notoriously difficult, but according to Numbeo, a user-generated price comparison website, average rents in Berlin are 63% cheaper; they’re 58% less expensive in Madrid and 27% less in Paris.
That’s if you can find a place to live. Frida Issa, a computer engineer from Israel, and CEO of Mally, a tool for navigating inside buildings, and her husband Pablo Morato moved to the UK earlier this year from Spain via Israel to join Wayra.
“We turned up at Heathrow in February. We thought it would be like when we were in Israel and like we did it in Spain. We would look for two to four days tofind an apartment, find one and close the deal. We took a hotel for three days thinking that would be fine.”
So when did they move in? “We haven’t. We don’t have an apartment.” After four months of searching the couple is still living in temporary accommodation.
War stories about searching for accommodation abound and so do tips about how to land an apartment. Neil Daly, the Australian CEO of Skin Analytics, a startup that monitors moles for cancer indicators, advised turning up with cash in hand. “When I was trying to find a flat for the first time, if you didn’t show up with a deposit in your hands in cash and went away to get it, by the time you got back the flat was gone,” he says. “Competition is fought tooth and nail.”
The Significance Of The Utility Bill
But it’s the most commonly cited bugbear of living in London — the utility bill — that is the true test of entrepreneurial ingenuity. Utility bills assume a significance far beyond their status. Proof of address, in the form of a utility bill, is absolutely vital.
“Don’t start me on that,” says JollyDeck’s Čenar. “You need a bill to open a bank account, to get a phone contract. To do anything. You have to have this bill. But how do you get one?”
Everyone has their work-arounds. Mally CEO Issa’s was to persuade her cousin, who lives in London, to allow her to pay for the electricity for a month so her name was on the bill. Skin Analytics CEO Daly advised registering for council tax. “The councils are really fast at getting you out the confirmation form and how much you have to pay them. Much faster than anything else they do.”
You even need the bill to open a business bank account, another topic guaranteed to generate weary sighs from entrepreneurs. EU citizens have no problems opening personal accounts, but business accounts are more problematic because of the credit checks. No bill, no credit check.
“Diversity — there is no city on earth that can match it”
“The credit check is so rigid,” says JollyDeck’s Čenar. “It is slow and laborious. It takes four to six weeks to complete. I even had a bank phone me up to apologize for the process.”
But assuming you can get a flat, sort out the bank, and get your utility bill, what is London like? Does it live up the the cliches? By and large, yes. For better or for worse.
The good parts? “Diversity — there is no city on earth that can match it,” says JollyDeck’s Čenar. This view is shared by Mally CEO Issa. “We don’t stand out. You are not the weird foreigner.”
Britain’s notoriously mixed food got, well, mixed results. “I love the different cultural groups and ethnic food,” says Jaime Hodson, Engagement Officer of JollyDeck, who comes from Missouri in the U.S. Her colleague was less impressed. “If you want to go to a pub and get English food it is expensive and not very good,” says Čenar.
Not Much Romantic About The District Line
The bad parts? Transport seemed to feature highly. “You romanticize about London and the fun things,” says Hodson. “The Tube [the London Underground] is a tourist attraction for a lot of Americans — people buy the T-shirts. I can tell you there is not much romantic about the District Line.”
One thing all were agreed on, even native English speakers such as Hodson and Daly, was British English often took some decoding.
“People are very polite, but sometimes you just don’t get what they mean,” says JollyDeck’s Čenar. He said a recent internet “meme” about what British people say and what they mean had him crying with laughter. “It is so true,” “I am from Israel; people are used to telling you what they think,” said Mally’s Issa. “Here you have to translate everything they say.”