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Kentish Cluster: North London’s answer to the Shoreditch meet-up phenomenon?

asasembly roomsRiding the no. 46 single decker bus that skirts the edges of Hampstead Heath as it makes its way from Maida Vale to Kentish Town feels like taking a trip through Trumpton, even during rush hour! There’s sensible folk everywhere, going about their daily business, and to be honest, that’s kind of what I expect from North London; it’s where all the rich people live, after all, right?

There is of course the edgy cool of Camden town, with its rockers, vintage football shirts, iconic music venues and comedy stolen bicycle shops, but even the upstarts of Camden have been somewhat usurped by the start-ups of East London. Let’s face it, if there’s one area of London that is apparently so hot it may need to call in the fire-fighting skills of “Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grub”, it’s Shoreditch. Positively burning with ambition.

Tech City, Old Street, or the “Silicon Roundabout” (so hot they named it thrice), is home to places like “Google Campus”, “Techstars”, “Playfair Capital”, “Forward Partners”, and East London is where you find the hipster entrepreneurs, the techies, the young, the thrusting, the combustible. It’s a controlled creative explosion, a Large Hadron Collider firing not atoms, but bearded artisans at one another with such force that it has created a black hole of investor’s money, with the promise of a whole universe worth of fast-food, mapping and social sharing mobile phone apps. Who needs the City when you’ve got Tinder? Passion, a funding deficit and a coalition Government is all you need to get by these days.

Amidst all the excitement in Hackney, however, it is easy to forget that other neighbourhoods are, albeit less noisily, going about the business of being new businesses. And, perhaps you should sit down if you are reading this in Dalston, they also go to the pub and talk about it. They really do, and now I’ve seen it with my own eyes!

Yes indeed, Shoreditch did not invent the pub, the beard, or the elevator pitch, in fact, it’s not even the only district brewing its own beer. Step forward the Kentish Cluster, a monthly get together taking place at The Assembly House, Kentish Town, where people can discuss local businesses, compare outfits, and drink beer that is brewed in the pub itself. Did you hear that hipsters!

kentish townSo how did I find out about Kentish Cluster, and what was it like? I found out about it in the Strongroom, Shoreditch, of course, attending a meet-up event, whilst chatting to one of the hosts, who happened to run a business out of Kentish Town. Reader, it seemed scarcely believable to me too, but after wrestling with the idea of a “meet-up” style event that didn’t take place between Barbican and Hoxton Overground for a good month, causing me to miss at least 2 get-togethers, I finally made my debut appearance last Wednesday night.

Having selected a pair of slightly looser jeans and some posh clobber I found stuffed down the back of a wardrobe (for when my parents come to see me), I hopped on the bus, noted that London consists of large, detached houses with chandeliers visible in their underground kitchens, as well as 1 and 2 bed flats with identical bathrooms, and live / work spaces, smoked a Marlboro 100 (should really have been a roll-up) and hit the pub, where I was quickly engaged in conversation by…3 members of Camden council.

Over the course of the 50 odd meet-ups I’ve been to in Hackney I have yet to bump into a member of Hackney council. I assume they have all been too busy fighting each other for the right to pin penalty notices to my car, or posing as Jehovah’s witnesses to try and “out” single person exemption council tax cheats, to find time to observe local people do business and talk about how they plan to change the world. But in North London, the council and the techerati conmingle. Ooh-err missus.

The Council have their own development team led by CIO John Jackson (@JohnJackson1066), who are encouraging Camdenites to pitch for council contracts. Broadband is a big problem in the North, apparently, but Francois in development and Arturo in data analytics are pressing ahead nonetheless with plans to pioneer data dashboards which could be franchised out to other boroughs. Note to Hackney Council, it’s called a business infrastructure, you probably know it as a clusterf*ck.

hipstersAnd so to the Meantime ale / lager, which emerges from a large stainless steel tub by the window. The first beer was on Highgate Studios, who sponsored the event. Highgate Studios is a large collection of Victorian warehouses in Highgate, which have been converted into chic work spaces. Sound familiar, hipsters? There is no mention of accelerators or incubators in the website blurb, however, so perhaps Camden is still playing catch up after all. Or does it simply look down its nose at these “get rich quick by selling out to a multi-national in just 12 weeks” type schemes, favouring a genuinely original and more long term approach to creating sustainable, independent businesses?

As if to answer my question, George Johnston, one half of the founding team behind IncuBus, the start-up incubator which takes place…on a double decker bus, pops up. George is a Shoreditch guy, whose idea it is to get entrepreneurs between the ages of 16-22, ahem, on board, and pushing the entrepreneurial envelope. The plan is to have a bus in every city, he tells me. That’s a lot of buses. And a lot of equity stakes once companies arrive at their destinations and exit. Right now you can experience the thrills and spills of start-up bus-dom for a whole day for the price of a single fare, he tells me. He also shows me an IPhone gadget that records me talking and photographs me while I put my details into his phone. That’s more like it, I feel all hipster again; I can almost taste the beer and pizza!

Kentish cluster has actually laid on a tasty selection of Thai and Chinese nibbles, and tucking into a cracker or two is Ellesse Santander, Head of Sales at, where you can record, write, or video yourself reviewing anything from local businesses, to new products, to North London networking events, presumably. Ellesse is refreshingly honest about the relatively slow growth of the business, which makes for a refreshingly honest and straightforward conversation, easy on the ear, unlike the usual filibuster you find yourself getting better at ignoring with each event that you go to. It also made me think that feedbackfcamden might be a success.

Another local who I am keen to speak to, after he published a fantastic “how to” guide on starting a “hyperlocal” online / print newspaper, is The Kentishtowner co-editor Tom Kihl. Tom’s guide is also an honest account of the trials and tribulations of reporting on the locals without offending them, and remaining impartial whilst trying to monetise. Tom, who was previously deputy editor of DJ magazine, and founder Stephen Emms, have built a monthly readership of over 50 thousand, and a Twitter following of more than 15k, but still, he finds people are surprisingly cagey when it comes being shaken down for a few quid, despite the astonishing amount of free and interesting content they are getting (incidentally, Haggerston Times gets around this problem by being unashamedly biased and never expressing a point of view). Kentishtowner is the model “hyperlocal” site, and that may be its most saleable commodity…franchising. Watch this space (and read Kentishtowner).

Sat in the corner, exuding a sense of contentment that only comes with working for a start-up that has genuinely made it, I learn, is a team from Young, friendly and slightly tipsy, perhaps, they are part of a 70 strong team of writers, content producers, developers and, well, mums, although none of this lot are mothers (3 of them are men, for a start). No matter, it turns out they handle the PR side of things, while other staff explain the best way to clean up baby sick, deal with a child who doesn’t want to go to school that day, or choose the right family dishwasher. Mumsnet also has serious political clout (no one dares offend this demographic!). One of the girls I spoke to has been covering the Scottish independence referendum and has just returned from Glasgow, where she interviewed Alex Salmond and Gordon Brown. The power of the blogger, eh!

Mumsnet is based at Dean House studios, another communal office space housing 10 more young, fresh companies disrupting the way North Londoners do business. The last word should go to the most quotable member of the this month’s Kentish Cluster, Razvan Patrascioiu, business partner of Ellesse: on having to relocate to London from Romania: “in Romania, you can build it but they won’t come!”, on his objection to businesses in East London looking to make a quick profit: “don’t be stealing people’s private information just to make money; business is like making a baby, you cannot rush, nature has its’ ways”. And finally on the Travel Technology lab and Kings Cross knowledge centre, the brainchild of London’s mayor Boris Johnson, (and possibly Razvan, too): “they spent 96bn on the Olympics”, now they can advertise London again properly”.

hipster bingoThere you have it. There’s still time to catch up with the redoubtable Amy Silverston, advertising veteran and now freelancer par excellence, who claims to have pioneered the naked photo shoot whilst at Grey Direct Ad agency, Rod Bowkett, composer and bon-vivant, and Isabelle Zhen, TV and Radio presenter who helps to run Kentish Cluster with its creator James Eder, whom I arrived just too late to meet.

Rod joked with me that he had come because “I don’t have any friends in Camden anymore, they all moved away”. While this clearly did not seem to be the case (or he’s the kind of guy who makes friends very quickly), he makes an astute point for our purposes of comparison. People come to Kentish Cluster out of curiosity, not desperation.

Now I’m not saying Shoreditch and the Silicon Roundabout is full of desperate people, but if you’re on the make, and basically all of us are in one way or another, you don’t have to show and tell everyone. They already know. So relax. Sure you can work the room, sell your brand like there’s no tomorrow, and try to outdo the competition with ever more outrageous publicity stunts. There is a place for that. But sometimes you can talk it out over a drink, have a bit of a chat, and see where it takes you. Different paths, similar result.
North London, East London. Different areas, similar goals.


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