The Reality Check for NI Startups : #northernireland #code #startups #nocode #fdi #outsourcing

Disclaimer: Everything here is an opinion, the facts (as usual in NI) are very hard to pin down. Comment, tell me I’m wrong, it’s all fine if it makes the NI tech/startup scene a better place.

This is every startup in Northern Ireland looking for a coder to build their product right now. The odds of finding someone are really not that good. Don’t get hung up that it’s a Northern Ireland issue, it’s not, it’s a global one. Right now though I want to focus on what I consider home, NI, Northern Ireland, Our Wee Country, whatever you want to call it.

I’ll call it for what it is, I’m not scared, I’m not answerable to anyone and it’s just my opinion…..

FDI Ruined It For NI Startups

Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), like it or loathe it, while great for the economy as a whole is devastating for anyone trying to start a tech business in the province. I was reading back what I’d said in 2014 with two blog posts. dealt with the lack of CTO talent that would come in because startup salaries would be too low and too risky.

The startup founder (“Hey, I’m the ideas guy/gal!”) goes tail wagging desperately looking for a tech co founder, someone who can look at the holistic view of the startup, the long term, code the iOS app, the Android app and the back end, the reporting…. those unicorns don’t come cheap, circa £75,000 p/a if you want a quality tech co-founder, someone who will be “all in”.  Your short runaway will become a lot shorter, that £300k seed you need to get going is basically mandatory.

Me, six years ago.

NI Investment is still a team sport: founder, CTO, COO and then you’re in a shot with getting a good round of investment. The FDI cordyceps started with the CTOs of this world but six years on has ended up with all the coders.

The CTOs Were First, the Coders Were Next

To give you an idea of what I think FDI has done, just take a look at the median salary for a Python developer in Belfast. In 2019 it was £43,750, in 2020 £50,000 and in 2021 it stands at £75,000 – In the space of three years there’s been a 71.4% growth in the median salary. Your £300k seed round in 2014 is now looking like between £750k-£1m.

Note: if your development costs have vaulted up, so has your mythical CTO salary as well.

Interestingly, while researching the figures it’s cheaper to hire a Python contractor, the rates have done down from £575/day in 2019 to £470/day in 2021.

For a startup the choice is fairly simple, as no one I’ve spoken to can find a developer to code their product (and I get asked a lot), there are two options, you either outsource or go down the NoCode/LowCode route instead.

We Want To Be The Next Silicon Valley….

I hate this kind of statement, there’s already a Silicon Valley and it’s dysfunctional at best. I don’t want that here to be honest.

The Valley has changed over the years. It’s not the hot bed on developers it used to be, it’s where you go to raise serious money, but the work is being outsourced to keep the production costs low, usually to the hard hit Global South countries. So no I don’t want NI to do that.

A sidenote: (And it’s not just coding, if you look at data labelling for the big tech companies the “microworkers” (might be a sexy title but fuck it’s basically slavery) are averaging less than $2 a day. We can preach about AI ethics as much as we want but the cost is the living standards in the Global South countries such as South America, India and East Asia aren’t being helped by our lust for instant decisions, recommendations and so on.)

Anyway, back to NI. More and more startups are having to outsource abroad in order to get even the basic proof-of-concept done. The money amounts of proof-of-concept are still low so expectations, with what you can buy with your money, are low. From a customer’s point of view, they expect finished.

My opinion is we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. If we can’t have NI plc showing great, finely crafted products, then what’s the point of aspiring to Santa Clara’s finest? Falling back to FDI is fine but we may never have anything to show for it, this place cannot keep leaning back to the Titanic for it’s marketing.

Outsourcing has been done successfully by a number of startups in NI. While I was against it in the past, keep it as close as you can, startups like Armour have proven to me that outsourcing the core development, incremental updates and ongoing maintenance can, and does, work.

The key is to know exactly what it is you want, and be able to explain that to a development team.

Most of the startups I know are creating amazing things, working on brilliant ideas and watching them sink as the support is lacking….. now I know what you may be thinking…..

“We have loads of Incubators….”

We do, so what? Advice can come from anywhere in the world now. The question is how do we continue to encourage and support the ones that didn’t get selected. Imagine how many great stories we could get out there.

Build product, get customers and sell to them, that’s the name of the game. Getting investor ready is not the end itself, merely a means to an end. I’ve come across advisors that are quite happy to feather their own nests and their advice was worthless and nearly killed a perfectly good idea. But hey, no skin in the game and no responsibility, move on to the next willing victim. Who vets these people exactly?

I’ve no idea what the selection criteria is for inclusion to an incubator, or the ratio of applications to accepted companies within the NI organisations or the calibre of the advisors, panels and teaching. Yes, I know people involved but I’m not involved in their output so I’ve no idea really.

I’ve heard what I’ve heard, I won’t comment on second hand information though. The information out of Belfast is different to the information out of London, which is different from Berlin, which is different than San Francisco, Mumbai, Mexico City…. Who’s right? Who’s wrong?

If you’re not building and selling then it’s not going to last that long anyway. Why does NI really struggle at teaching selling? I never did get to the bottom of that one.

We’re all connected. Incubators and accelerators are in the game of taking you through a programme to make you investor ready. Fine, job done. Is there any after care? I see it in some circles, I’ve not seen it in others.

The incubators are essentially pipeline products, a huge pool of startups, whittled down into ones the incubators want to deal with, good marketing copy, are you sexy etc.

But with the lack of coding skills in NI, well the available ones, the advice is now to look at NoCode as a way of creating product.

Jase, We’re Gonna Do NoCode!

I need to add it to my list…..

I’ve come across NoCode solutions many times over the entire course of my career, even back in 1988 they were touting tools that would replace databases. It’s just another market cycle that comes and goes.

Now though, there’s added incentive, if you want to get your product up and running with no developers then you have think about NoCode. From the platforms I’ve looked at they seem to be revolving around the same mobile app concepts, pull data in, present data and show a nice thing once in a while.

The question is this, who owns the finished product? You or the NoCode service? How easy is it to port to another platform? What if there’s a problem, what about updating new features? How much is the ongoing maintenance.

It’s all too easy to say, “Go NoCode” as it was to say, “Go crowdfund it”. But is anyone looking at the second and third order consequences of going down this route? Because once the incubator as has suggested this route, it’s not their job to be bothered (sorry, the honest truth), once you’ve graduated with a product you may be lumbered with and can’t move.

While we see the headlines about content creators falling foul to the platform overlords they are hosted on, see a brilliant post by Ancilla ver der Leest called “Don’t let your livelihood depend on a platform. It WILL kill you“. The same goes for a lot of NoCode platforms, you are ultimately not in control.

The Ivory Towers of Salt Jae

I’ve heard it in the past, that it’s easy for me to sit here and comment. I’ve got a decent job and I can code. Yes I’ve built stuff, with varying results. Yes, I’ve hair brained ideas that I’ve scribbled in notebooks, my support network graciously listen to me and then bring me back down to earth.

Oh look, a unicorn….

The reason I wrote this, the startups that get the advice, realise it’s wrong, a few of them (many of them over the years I’ve been involved in NI) have been on the end of the phone panicking about what they are going to do because nothing panned out the way the advisors and INI client reps said it would.

And the one thing that’s coming up again and again in the emails and phone calls (for the record, I don’t charge, it’s all free) is all around building product with developers that don’t exist. How do you have diversity and inclusion when there’s no one here to do the work in the first place?

I say all this because I do actually care. While it all seems a bit critical, it’s honest, and I want to see as many Northern Ireland startups success as possible because some of them are brilliant (just checkout a Follow Friday and you’ll see many of them), that’s all.


This morning I wasn’t for writing this post but a few prodded me with an interest in what I had to say. I humbly hope my opinions bring some clarity to the space. Let’s help each other. Thank you.

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