In 1998, the UK technology scene was in a state of flux. The internet was nascent but growing with 9% of households having an internet connection. Consultants turned entrepreneurs Martha Lane Fox and Brent Hoberman launched lastminute.com to sell discounted flights, theatre tickets and hotel bookings. Semiconductor design ARM had listed on the London Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ. In a world first, a professor at the University of Reading had a radio frequency identification or RFID tag implanted under his skin.
Also in 1998, the Deloitte Fast 50 was published for the first time. The growth league table dedicated to the UK’s fastest-growing companies launched with games producer Eidos plc in the number one spot. Founded in 1990, the listed company had grown via acquisition and harnessing the success of titles such as Tomb Raider.
Since the inaugural list, the Fast 50 has been published annually and has become a key barometer of the health of the UK technology sector, and a showcase for the country’s most innovative and successful tech companies. Many of the companies that have featured among the Fast 50 are household names or are some of the most innovative companies in the world. They include stalwarts and household names such as racing team and car manufacturer McLaren, life sciences research tool supplier Abcam, DVD and streaming provider LoveFilm, flight booking site Skyscanner, and online marketplace Notonthehighstreet.com.
Over time, the composition of the Fast 50 has naturally reflected the most successful technologies and business models in the UK ecosystem. When the Fast 50 launched in 1998, software companies were already a dominant force on the list. The dot-com boom of the late 1990s saw internet-based companies ascend to insane highs only to come crashing down throughout the early 2000s. Assumptions about the speed at which the internet would transform the world proved to be unrealistic and many businesses had poor fundamentals and ran out of capital.
However, the Fast 50 shows that internet-based service providers rose to prominence during the early 2000s; those with viable business models were able to emerge from the ashes of the dotcom crash and grow rapidly. Hotel reservation service Active Hotel took the top spot in 2003, Lastminute.com ranked first the following year. Consumer computing and internet use was beginning to take off.
The internet began to change from the static web of the late 1990s and early 2000s as platforms like Facebook and Twitter rose to prominence. These platforms allowed people to connect with each other and share information in real-time - a major shift from how most people had used the internet up until that point. The appearance of companies like the online game site Miniclip - ranked fifth in 2007 - reflect how the consumer experience of the internet was changing.
Another important step in the evolution of the internet for consumers was the launch of the first Apple iPhone mobile device in 2007. In the early 2000s, smartphones were a rarity, used only by a small number of businesspeople and tech-savvy consumers. But adoption throughout the decade saw them become ubiquitous, with millions of people using smartphones to stay connected to the internet and each other. The shift towards mobile helped propel companies like Mobile Interactive Group through the financial crisis and to the top of the Fast 50 in 2010. It provided mobile commerce and marketing solutions to brands around the world and was acquired the following year by Irish rival Velti.
Widespread use of smartphones also allowed the sharing economy of the 2010s to flourish. The term refers to the emergence of a new way for people to access goods and services. Companies like Airbnb and Uber were possible because smartphones allowed people to easily connect with each other and share resources. Smartphones also gave publishers the opportunity to sell digital advertising and target individual consumers more accurately, propelling companies like video ad platform Unruly Media into second place on the Fast 50 list in 2012, programmatic ad buyer Infectious Media to the top spot in 2013, and social media tool provider Brandwatch to number 20 in 2014.
The increasing range of jobs we do on the internet, both as consumers and professionals, has helped drive success in the UK’s financial technology or fintech sector in recent years. The UK has long had strengths in financial services but technology has supercharged the sector, increasing the reach and impact of financial innovations. The Fast 50 saw digital payment provider GoCardless rank second in 2016, its peer Checkout.com ranked second in 2018, challenger banks Revolut and Oak North were first and second respectively in 2019, and the top company in 2021 was ClearBank, which provides financial institutions with digital infrastructure to support their operations.
A crucial trend over the last few years of the Fast 50 has been the rise of companies utilising artificial intelligence and machine learning. This is set to be one of the most transformative technological developments of our time. With the ability to learn and improve on their own, these technologies are already starting to have a profound impact on a wide range of industries, from healthcare and finance to manufacturing, transportation, and cyber security.
An example of a company innovating in this last area is cyber security firm Tessian. The London-based company is utilising machine learning technology to help organisations to keep their email secure by learning patterns of behaviour and flagging suspicious or unusual activity such as phishing scams or misdirected emails.
AI and machine learning are still in their early stages, but it is clear that they have the potential to revolutionise the way we live and work. The last 25 years of the Fast 50 have shown the tremendous speed at which technologies can change the status quo. This year’s Fast 50 provide a glimpse of what the next 25 years might hold.