It was almost exactly a decade ago that a young tech entrepreneur called Matt Biddulph coined the phrase Silicon Roundabout in a tweet, before most people had even heard of Twitter.
Something about the phrase, evoking the thrusting new tech wave to the east of the capital, stuck.
Soon after taking office David Cameron had taken up the baton and talked about establishing a rival to Silicon Valley.
All that is part of the London tech scene’s mythology now. But what is not as well known about Biddulph, whose Dopplr social networking service was bought by Nokia a year later, is that he sent his tweet from the offices of another Old Street pioneer, Moo.com’s founder and chief executive Richard Moross.
Moross’s fledgling tech-heavy business cards firm, namechecked by the Prime Minister in his November 2010 Tech City speech, was among a raft of start-ups within shouting distance of the roundabout, along with names such as music streaming site Last.fm, Songkick and software firm LShift.
It was shabby — there wasn’t even a cash machine — but the rents were low: Moross offered desk space to Dopplr and others such as Tweetdeck, later bought by Twitter. Twitter may now be a $34 billion (£26 billion) concern but back then it still didn’t have a UK office, so its post came to Tweetdeck’s address marked “c/o moo.com”.
Moross, an imposingly tall Londoner, is 40 years old now. Among the techies who were in at the ground floor, he’s one of the winners. Although he looks back fondly at the days of Friday night barbecues on the Last.fm rooftop, he’s now leading a £75 million business with more than 500 staff and plans to hit £200 million in three years.
“It was a lot of fun although I don’t think we were conscious about being part of anything,” he recalls.
But looking back he compares the scene with the legendary Sex Pistols gig at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1976, which inspired a sparse audience including a young Morrissey, and Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner, who went on to form Joy Division.
“I think back to the first time I saw Spotify, the first time I went on Last.fm, I look back at the crowd then and those people have gone on to do really interesting things, the diaspora of the roundabout, a bit like the people at the Sex Pistols concert.”
Rohan Silva, who set up Cameron’s Tech City initiative, takes up the musical analogy and compares Moross with Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie, who married rock and dance music, in the way he’s done the same thing with printing and tech.
Silva used to visit him and his mates in a “rickety old building which was about to be knocked down”. “I was impressed by the scale of their ambition. Back then tech investors would not come to east London. It felt really like a group of guys talking a lot and drinking a lot.”
That’s a bit harsh on the bearded, shaven-headed founder, who’s done a lot of hard yakka to get Moo.com into its current shape.
He had a gift for design which runs in the family (his sister Kate is a renowned art director) but he wasn’t particularly academic at school in north London.
After Sussex University, he had a short-lived spell at the BBC in “programme finance management” (“I didn’t know what it was”) before getting involved with a start-up called Sorted.com, which aimed to tell its users about everything interesting going on in their area.
“It was 2000, the streets were paved with gold, and everybody was starting an internet company,” he remembers. But Sorted was a “basically unviable” business and folded, giving him an early lesson in the start-up journey “from enthusiasm, to pragmatism, to survival tactics and then usually disaster unless you raise a load of money”.
He joined a design agency, but his entrepreneurial instincts kept nagging away. During one of his regular bouts of insomnia he finally hit on his big idea, reinventing the business card, and quit his job in May 2004 to pursue it.
He had the idea but not the name. Although he managed to raise £150,000 from Robin Klein, a leading early-stage investor in many of the era’s big dotcom names, the firm was originally called the cringeworthy Pleasure Cards. “I flinch because it sounds bad, and it reminds me of the very difficult early days of the business. I came up with this brand that was really bad but I was stubborn.”
Things were looking dicey, the start-up cash was nearly gone, but what saved the company was a partnership with photo-sharing site Flickr, allowing its users to print their images onto the company’s cards. That helped win another round of investment.
The rebrand to Moo.com, picked because it sticks in the head and prompts questions, followed in September 2006. Much to the relief of Moross, the orders started rolling in.
Moo’s half-sized mini-cards became the “secret handshake” of the web community. Even though we live in a social media age, “ultimately most networking isn’t done online and the business card is a brilliant differentiating token for people”, he says.
It’s a premium product, but still cheaper than 20 years ago when those wanting a top-end card would have to enlist designers and specialist printers. Now Moo’s personalised cards, and a host of other products, are being printed at the rate of millions a month; the business has hundreds of thousands of customers in more than 190 countries, alongside bigger names such as Airbnb and WeWork.
Some 85% of Moo’s sales are overseas but the big market is the US, an entrepreneurial nation where around 500,000 businesses are started every month.
Moross has gained public company experience in recent years, serving as a non-exec on the board of Ladbrokes, and more recently with fashion retailer N Brown.
At Ladbrokes times were particularly difficult as the bookmaker was facing a host of problems with its website, hitting profits. (“He was light years ahead of us on tech but didn’t get gambling,” says one insider there.)
But it was there he met plc board veteran and former Carpetright boss Darren Shapland, who agreed to take over as Moo’s chairman.
Shapland’s arrival, alongside a new chief financial officer who floated car-sharing firm Zipcar, inevitably raises questions over Moo’s own plans, although Moross appears to be in no rush to float.
He acknowledges “huge advantages” in being a public company but “is not planning to do anything at the moment”.
“We have no need for capital, we’re self-funding and we’re benefiting from being a private business in terms of how quickly we can run,” he adds.
As a 25% owner of the firm he’ll be a wealthy man if and when the firm does a flotation.
Ironically though, for a founding father of the Silicon Roundabout, he’s moved the business to Farringdon. Moo’s light, ultramodern headquarters, dotted with twentysomething hipsters plugged into laptops, bear all the fingerprints of Moross’s design instincts.
Meeting rooms are named after fonts, filled with design classics like Eames chairs, and there’s a stunning rainbow ceiling display stretching half the length of the office to celebrate Pride.
His tech quirkiness is also on display as well; the coffee shop is called the 404 Bar, taking its name from web error message, and staff who serve two years with the business get a miniature doll in their own likeness: there are shelves and shelves of them on one wall.
The rising prominence of the Roundabout in the past decade has inevitably altered the character of the area, prompting complaints of inflated rents damping the start-up culture which gave it the original buzz.
But Moross, a keen travel nut who’s ticked off 65 countries, isn’t misty-eyed and prefers to look to the future. Techies and artists are “always going to flock to the next area, the next thing,” he says.
“I don’t think it’s sad, it just goes somewhere else. Haggerston, Peckham, Croydon, who knows who’s next?”