How Facebook’s LDN_LAB is trying to steer London’s tech startup scene
This year Facebook set up its first London-based startup incubator, LDN_LAB, inviting a handful of companies to spend 12 weeks working in-house at the social network’s offices. Under the theme of ‘community’, the first batch included mum-based networking app Mush, food sharing initiative Olio and game-based exercise firm Rabble.
As LDN_LAB looks towards its next cycle of startups, we chatted to Facebook’s Julia Ognieva about the programme’s future, London’s startup scene and what advice she has to give budding companies.
Why was LDN_LAB set up in the first place?
London Lab is Facebook’s long-term commitment to the tech ecosystem here in the UK. It was built on the mission that, in the UK, we have one of the largest product and engineering offices outside of the US. Coupled with the really vibrant startup community here we felt that we could do something really special.
“We wanted to build something that was different”
We also wanted to build something that was complementary to the existing support ecosystem that startups have access to. We know there are already over 100 accelerator programmes in London alone, and more outside in the wider UK, so we wanted to build something that was different, unique.
Based on that premise we created LDN_LAB inside our London office, which is also closely aligned with our mission to give people the power to build communities. That was the theme for our first cohort of startups, so we really went out to look for companies that are building communities using technology.
What was the reason behind setting up an an incubator, instead of other kinds of financial support?
Besides LDN_LAB, Facebook already has many other programmes to support startups. But this one was special because it was the first we did in-house. Probably the most meaningful differentiator for the programmes was for the startups to have access to Facebook’s talent and expertise, who mentored them throughout the project in areas from engineering to marketing.
What was the main takeaway from that first cycle?
I think the biggest thing we learnt was the power of human capital. The power of the culture and people we have at Facebook is unique. Our products touch millions and millions of people, but our employees also have backgrounds prior to Facebook that can be very complementary to mentoring startups.
An example: [Food-sharing company] Olio worked with their mentor, who is currently a growth manager scaling our workplace solutions. But prior to that he was an advisor and mentor to many startups in the ecosystem. He was a cofounder of a startup and a CTO himself. Bringing that experience into mentoring Olio has been a really powerful experience.
The second thing I’ll say is that this was our first chapter, and we leant a huge amount, but it’s not just about the 12-week programme for the startups. There’s also an alumni network that they’re becoming part of. This is a long term commitment. LDN_LAB is part of a series of programmes around the world. Over time we’re planning to build an alumni network of startups globally, so they can not only support each other from the network we build during the programme in a particular city, but they’ll also have access to a global network as well.
How would you characterise the London startup scene?
Very vibrant. The community is a big part of it. That’s why we decided to base LDN_LAB around the idea of community, because we have seen a huge pool of startups doing interesting things to bring people together. This is the reason we partnered with Bethnal Green Ventures as well, as they focus on tech for good and community based tech.
(Facebook’s Julia Ognieva, head of the social media’s LDN_LAB incubator. Credit: Facebook)
What are the biggest challenges facing startups over the next few years?
There are a lot of opportunities available to startups right now; an abundance of support systems in London alone. At the same time it is very competitive, and things like raising investment are becoming increasingly hard.
That’s why we launched LDN_LAB with the model that we’re not taking equity from startups, and we’re not investing in these startups. We want to set them up for success, giving them the knowledge and expertise that we have so they can compete on their own, creating jobs and an impact in the community. The ecosystem is very demanding. The types of innovation we’re seeing needs to be sharper, faster… more innovative.
What’s the focus for the next batch to pass through LDN_LAB?
As it says in the name, LDN_LAB is very much about trying different things, then iterating and improving on what we’ve learned. The first chapter has been very focused on tech startups, our second chapter will try a different model. We’ve just invited content creators that create interesting content for Facebook and Instagram, and we support their growth as well.
What advice would you give to a startup?
Stay as focused as possible. Be very clear and very confident, and believe in the idea that you have. The UK is possibly the best place to build a startup right now. The network that we have here is very supportive, so tapping into that and staying focused is the advice I’d give.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
It’s all about the people you know. There are a lot of people, especially here in the UK, that are willing to help and support startups. It’s about being plugged in, building relationships and giving back as well as taking. Being able to help other startups as well as building your own is really important as well. You can give advice, share knowledge, not be secretive about your idea. It can benefit your own startup in the long term.