North East entrepreneurs can drive the future, post-Brexit

Paul Lancaster at Bunker Coffee

In my last column (for The Journal), I wrote that one of the biggest barriers to economic success in the North East was a lack of positive media coverage outside our region.

Unfortunately, I fear this has become an even bigger problem as a result of the EU Referendum when the majority of people in the North East voted to ‘Leave’, with subsequent media coverage portraying us as racist, uneducated, closed-minded and economically deprived.

Although I voted to ‘Remain’ and was initially disappointed by the result, I can understand why so many people wanted to leave the EU.

Some clear divisions have emerged between the UK’s major cities which have benefited the most from EU funding and our smaller towns and cities.

Despite the North East receiving more EU Development Funds than any other English region between 2007-2013 (almost £500 million, the equivalent of £189 per head), much of this money has been spent on projects and initiatives set up to tackle high levels of unemployment, boost skills and encourage entrepreneurship which aren’t highly visible to most people.

Even when money has been used to pay for amazing new buildings, these are not always seen as open to everyone with some evidence to suggest that only the more affluent and highly-skilled people benefit from their existence.

There’s no doubt that many jobs have been created, great work has been done and our overall quality of life in the region has improved over the years as a result of this funding.

Unfortunately, it’s also helped create a dependency culture where many businesses and organisations rely heavily on this funding, either directly or as part of a supply chain.

Reports are also coming through that some of our academic institutions are being frozen out of European research projects because we will have left the EU before the work has been completed.

We also have a very high level of public sector employment in our region which tends to dampen entrepreneurial spirit with data showing we only have 633 businesses per 10,000 people in the North East versus 1,266 businesses (exactly double) per 10,000 people in London.

All of these things combined mean our regional economy is now massively exposed in many different sectors and we need to respond fast!

So what can we do?

Firstly, we need to take stock of where we are and then accept the new world we are now living in.

As our new PM Theresa May has said, “Brexit means Brexit”.

Secondly, we need to dust ourselves off and start ramp up the selling of our products, skills and expertise around the world in new markets that we previously didn’t consider because it was easier, cheaper and more convenient to sell to Europe.

This may seem daunting if you’ve not done it before, but we do have some truly fantastic entrepreneurs with first-hand experience of building global businesses who can provide the leadership we need to put our region on the world stage.

Excellent traditional organisations like the North East England Chamber of Commerce, Federation of Small Businesses, Institute of Directors and UKTI whose purpose is to support and promote the interests of their members will play an increasingly important role in selling our region to the rest of the world over the coming weeks and months.

We also have a thriving tech and digital creative sector, with startups, scale ups and big IT businesses represented by the likes of Campus North, Digital Union, Software City, Digital City, Dynamo North East and Tech North (part of Tech City UK), plus world-class facilities like The Core and National Institute of Smart Data Innovation (NISDI) at Newcastle Science Central, plus a talented and loyal workforce making us a highly appealing place to start and grow a business, retain and attract talent.

However, collaboration between all these different groups is more important than ever before and so it’s imperative that we all come together to present a united front that will portray the North East of England in the best possible light – both to Central Government and to potential global partners.

I believe this should be entrepreneur-driven, with our home-grown business leaders (from big and small enterprises) taking the lead and our local authorities, MPs and membership organisations listed above providing them with all the support they can give by removing barriers to getting things done and helping to shine a light on all their collective achievements.

We must embrace bold and innovative new ways of thinking and doing things, using big and smart data to identify patterns and emerging trends in education and healthcare, manufacturing and transportation.

We must become more experimental, take greater risks and rediscover our entrepreneurial mojo of the past to create more new businesses and grow existing ones that will create a much wider range of local jobs that aren’t just for the highly educated and will benefit a greater proportion of our population.

The North East of England has been #InventingTheFuture for centuries and so it’s now down to us to decide exactly what future we want!

(This article first appeared in The Journal online and in print on 21st July 2016).

7 questions every startup should answer

Taken from Peter Thiel’s brilliant book ‘Zero to One: Notes on Start Ups, or How to Build the Future‘, here are the 7 questions every new business should answer:

1. The Engineering Question
Can you create breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements?

2. The Timing Question
Is now the right time to start your particular business?

3. The Monopoly Question
Are you starting with a big share of a small market?

4. The People Question
Do you have the right team?

5. The Distribution Question
Do you have a way to not just create but deliver your product?

6. The Durability Question
Will your market position be defensible 10 and 20 years into the future?

7. The Secret Question
Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?

According to Thiel, ‘whatever your industry, any great business plan must address every one of them. If you don’t have good answers to these questions you’ll run into lots of “bad luck” and your business will fail. If you nail all seven, you’ll master fortune and succeed. Even getting five or six correct might work.’

Peter Thiel co-founded PayPal and Palantir, made the first outside investment in Facebook, funded companies like SpaceX and LinkedIn and started the Thiel Fellowship, which encourages young people to put learning before university.

He really knows what he’s talking about and ‘Zero to One‘ is essential reading for anyone looking to start and grow a successful tech business (and existing ones looking to launch a new product too). Have you got the answer(s)?

Welcome to Sunderland, Software City

Sunderland Software City, the organisation that exists to generate and promote a sustainable, world class software industry in the North East of England, is moving to a brand new, state-of-the-art building next to Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens called ‘Software City’.

Just a few minutes walk from Sunderland Metro station and the main shopping streets, Software City is a stunning new building situated on the corner between Toward Road and Tavistock Place, overlooking the beautiful Mowbray Park Victorian gardens.

The new building is really impressive, with several ground floor event spaces (including one with a reinforced floor designed with car launches by nearby Nissan in mind), a range of different sized offices and a co-working space for freelancers and startups to use on a drop-in or membership basis.

The large atrium and reception area will have wi-fi throughout making it an inviting place to work and hold informal meetings with clients, but there are also private meeting rooms available including one with ‘white board walls’ that will record what you wrote on them and allow you to load it back up again at a later date! There’s also a small cinema room, a breakout room complete with beanbags and another with a one-way mirror for businesses to use to watch and film focus groups of people using their products or services.

Atrium @ Software Centre

Reception / meeting area @ Software Centre

The large, open plan room in the far left hand corner of the ground floor is to be a co-working space that will provide easy access, low-cost deskspace for individuals or teams with innovative new ideas for a startup. Inspired by places like TechHub, Google Campus and White Bear Yard in London, it’s expected that this will be available to use on a daily (pay-on-the-door), monthly or annual membership basis.

Rooftop terrace @ Software City

Outdoor area and bike racks @ Software Centre

I’ve been extremely impressed with Sunderland Software City in the short time I’ve known them (particularly their Chief Executive, David Dunn who is full of ideas and enthusiasm for the North East tech scene). So if you’re an individual, new startup or existing software business looking for world class support to help you grow, I recommend you contact the team at info@sunderlandsoftwarecity.com, call them on 0845 872 8575 and/or Follow them on Twitter @SunSoftCity

You can also see more photos of Software City and listen to short interviews with David Dunn on the new Betarocket website at http://www.betarocket.co.uk/2012/08/26/who-would-live-in-a-house-like-this/

Why tech start-ups (and giants) should leave London (and move to Newcastle)

I think tech start-ups (and giants) should leave London and move to other parts of the UK. I also think the UK Government should stop putting all their eggs in one basket (i.e. Tech City / Silicon Roundabout) and give greater support (media attention, funding and financial incentives) to other tech clusters around the country to help spread the economic and social benefits more evenly.

Geographical location really shouldn’t matter if you’re a UK tech start-up. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that you are greatly reducing your chances of survival as a start-up if you base yourself in London. Yes, I know that’s where all the money and investors are, but the rents and living expenses down there are too high, competition for resources, attention and talent is intense (not to mention expensive) and you’ll burn through what little money you do have much faster than if you run your operation from elsewhere.

Living and working in Gateshead and Newcastle upon Tyne (in the North East of England for those that don’t know) for Shell LiveWIRE (one of the UK’s biggest and longest running youth enterprise schemes), means I can speak with some authority when I say that you don’t need to be based in London to run a successful national operation. Our overheads and staff salaries are much lower than if we were based in London so the money goes much further – providing better value for money to our sponsor (Shell) and allowing us to give away more start-up funding to the young entrepreneurs that we serve (48 x £1,000 start-up awards throughout the year and a further £10,000 in November). Furthermore, with a wife who once worked in London and many other friends who are still down there (or who have ‘escaped’ back home) I can tell you that unless you are making a ton of money in London, the quality of life up here is much higher with shorter commutes into work, bigger houses than you could afford in the capital, all the shops, bars, restaurants and cultural activities you need, plus all the beautiful beaches and countryside on our doorstep.

Running a national enterprise scheme means we do need to be in London a lot as that’s where many of the key decision-makers, events and meetings are but we are primarily an online service with clients/website users/award winners from across the UK which means we could really be based anywhere in the country. However, an office in the North East means that we’re well-placed to attend regional events across the UK and are able to understand and empathise with start-ups, wherever they are based and aren’t at all biased towards London. Many of our partner organisations also seem to like the fact that we’re not based in London too. If you’re a tech start-up founder, I see no reason why your office, developers and core team can’t be based somewhere like Newcastle (or anywhere other than London really), with you spending time in London only when you really need to be there for meetings and networking.

Transport infrastructure

When it comes to transport, Newcastle has great bus, Metro and train networks. London is just a 3hr train ride away so you can feasibly be there and back in a day (I can be sat working at TechHub, Google Campus or Central in around 31/2hrs door to door) although I tend to make an overnight stay and plan my meetings across the two days when I’m there. Living on a small island like Britain means people often have a distorted sense of distance (especially Londoners) which is silly really when you talk to people from the US who regularly commute 5-6hrs from one side of the county to the other.

Being on the East Coast Mainline means that it’s easy to get to large parts of the country (main destinations include London, Peterborough, Doncaster, Leeds, York, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow with various stops in-between. Meanwhile, the Transpennine Express has regular departures to the West of the country calling at major cities Manchester and Liverpool. Road links in all directions are pretty good too (although could the main roads into Scotland could still be improved), Newcastle International Airport has direct routes throughout Europe, Egypt and Tunisia and connecting flights to London Heathrow and Gatwick. The nearby, award-winning Port of Tyne is also one of the UK’s busiest handling a huge amount of imports and exports not to mention regular cruises and ferries to Scandinavia, Netherlands, Germany and France.

City living

Ok, but what’s it actually like to live in Newcastle? Well, I’d describe it as a ‘big, small city’. Large enough to keep you interested and discovering new things all the time but small enough that you can walk around it and feel like it’s somewhere you can really belong and make a difference. There’s something to suit most tastes and interests with all the major high street brands, high-end fashion outlets and local independent fashion retailers. There’s also a vibrant nightlife of pubs, bars and clubs, great arts and culture scene and some of the British Isles’ most beautiful wildlife, countryside and beaches just a short drive away, not to mention the abundance of castles and cathedrals and Roman-built Hadrian’s Wall (a World Heritage Site don’t you know)! The Geordies (and nearby Mackems of Sunderland) are renowned for their friendly, hospitable nature and if you’re into your football you won’t find anywhere more passionate than the North East which is home to 3 hugely supported clubs Newcastle United, Sunderland AFC and Middlebrough FC.

Local tech community

There’s a thriving grass-roots community of tech start-up founders, developers and designers all working together to support each other and build great things in the region. It’s very easy to get involved through weekly, after-work get togethers like the PHPNE, Ruby North East, Design Interest and Javascript North East events that occur at the PostOffice (opposite Central Station) every Tuesday night and numerous others in Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough. In fact, the block of buildings on Pink Lane in which the PostOffice is housed is owned by local enterprise agency PNE Group (formerly known as Project North East) who have won European awards for their low-cost incubator workspace for start-ups since the early 80s, and was one of the first places in the country that offered high-speed internet access, earning it the nickname ‘Silicon Alley’.

Over the years, this part of town and PNE has attracted and supported 100s of first-class digital and creative start-ups, precisely because of these lower rents, higher internet speeds and clustering effect of similar like-minded businesses. Current tenants include innovative m-commerce app MobiCart and exciting new private sharing app Cupple. Just around the corner, on the other side of the block is PNE’s Adamson House where ignite100, ‘Europe’s first £1m tech accelerator programme’ is based (current crop of fantastic cohorts = Blooie, Usable, Odimax, Blink Collective, Givey, CrowdIPR, RentMama, ArtSpotter and PinorPeg) and whose loft space office also currently houses online artisan food market Loveyourlarder.com and Little Riot (makers of ‘Pillow Talk’) amongst others.

Indeed this ‘Tech Quarter’ is positively buzzing with tech start-up activity right now, and the nearby pubs The Town Wall, The Forth and BrewDog Bar are where many of the local movers and shakers can be found, alongside great little coffee shops like Pink Lane Coffee, Flat Caps Coffee and 9 Bar. In the East of the city, Hoults Yard, Ouseburn Valley and The Toffee Factory provide fantastic facilities for a wide range of digital, creative and media companies with Screenreach (on the verge of global greatness) being the most notable start-up of recent years.

On the Gateshead side of the River Tyne, we have the Sage Gateshead music and conference centre and Baltic centre for contemporary art which are the venues for the internationally renowned Thinking Digital Conference (my personal highlight event of the year), which is organised by digital events and membership organisation Codeworks. The awesome new Northern Design Centre is situated just around the corner and is home to leading local digital businesses like Ayo Media and New York-based mobile design and development agency Fueled. There’s a wide range of affordable workspace available there and throughout the city for businesses to move into right now which offer much, much more than you could dream of in London for far less money.

But it’s not just Newcastle. Organisations like Sunderland Software City and pioneering companies like The Leighton Group and SaleCycle are showing that the city is one of the best places in the country for a digital business to be based, whilst Spotify music resource Sharemyplaylists.com are rocking it with 2 million users of their website and app per month! Furthermore, the great work of organisations like Digital City at Boho One, plus grassroots events from Refresh Teesside and North East New Tech are all adding to the mix of what gives the North East such a vibrant tech community.

Sage

Then of course there is the awesome Sage. Founded in 1981, Sage has grown to be a world-renowned, FTSE100 company, providing desktop and cloud-based software for over 800,000 businesses in the UK, 6.3 million businesses worldwide and employing more than 13,000 people. Their headquarters are proudly still in Newcastle, on the outskirts of the city in a custom-built office which is arguably one of the best and most impressive in the world and as a former Sage employee (my first job after University between 1998-2000), I can vouch for them as being a fantastic place to work with founders who remain loyal and passionate about the North East.

Investors

There’s serious money available up here too. We have a range of proactive, Newcastle-based investors and angels like Northstar Ventures, Rivers Capital Partners, IP Group and more all looking to fund exciting and innovative businesses that create growth and jobs in the region. Newcastle City Council and Gateshead are also two of the most forward-thinking in the county and the local Universities, hospitals and science community are world-renowned for the pioneering work that they do.

Talent, opportunity and ambition

There is no shortage of talent, opportunity and ambition in Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough and the North East right now, with the region exporting more than any other in the UK and an exciting new renewable energy sector growing by the day.

As a region, we just need a little bit more belief in our abilities to compete on a global scale (although there’s no shortage of that amongst the tech start-up founders), and collective cooperation from everyone in the area to do their bit to push things forward. Personally, I’d like to invite more outside investment from London, European and US-based VCs into the area and see the local and national Government doing more to encourage large tech companies to open offices up here (British Airways have some of their core developer teams in Newcastle) to help create jobs, reduce unemployment and provide stimulus to the local economy.

The ambition of North East industrial pioneers like George Stephenson, Joseph Swan, William Armstrong and George Burton Hunter are what made Tyneside and in turn Britain great and we now need a new breed of ‘Tyneside Tech Titans’ to follow in their footsteps!

If you’re a tech start-up or tech giant and would like to know more about the opportunities for you and your business in Newcastle and the surrounding area, please email me at plandigital@live.co.uk or give me a call on +44(0)7734 722716 so I can put you in touch with the relevant people or help coordinate a visit.

Why Mentoring Matters

This article was originally written for and published on Upmarket – the US-based online business magazine at http://upmarket.squidoo.com/2012/05/02/why-mentoring-matters/

There’s a big drive to increase the number of business mentors in the UK today through Government-backed initiatives like Get Mentoring and Mentorsme.co.uk. This is because along with finance, mentoring is regularly cited by start-ups as one of the things they need most in order to achieve success. Indeed, research shows that 70% of small businesses that receive mentoring survive for five years or more (double the rate of non-mentored entrepreneurs) and 20% are more likely to experience growth.

But what exactly is a Mentor? Well, it does seem to differ depending on who is asking and at what stage of development they are at, although the Wikipedia definition of ‘someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague’ is probably one you are already familiar with. In general, a mentor is usually a trusted person with whom the mentee can discuss ideas or problems and receive impartial feedback, encouragement and constructive criticism. A two-way process, the ideal relationship is one where the mentor gains just as much as the mentee, by being mentally stimulated and having the feel-good factor of ‘giving something back’ to the ecosystem.

Most of my career has involved ‘helping’ people in some way or another. Sharing knowledge and ideas and encouraging others to fulfil their potential is something that I not only feel is a worthwhile occupation but something that I derive a great deal of personal satisfaction from. The past three years in particular have involved me sharing business start-up information online by writing website articles and blogs, signposting young entrepreneurs to useful resources, delivering lectures in person, moderating forums and answering queries by phone, email and social media. In effect, I’ve been working as a virtual mentor for people across the UK, so when the Get Mentoring campaign began, I decided to register for some ‘official’ training to give me a better understanding of the role and how I could do more in an offline setting.

One of the things that surprised me about this training was that the ‘official’ Get Mentoring definition of a mentor is slightly different to what I understood it to be. There is a clear emphasis on the fact that although a mentor is there to be a sounding board and offer feedback, they’re not supposed to offer ‘advice’ to the mentee. Instead, the mentor is advised to do lots of signposting, ask challenging questions and encourage the mentee to arrive at their own conclusions through reflective conversations around problems. The difficulty arises when the mentor is asked a direct question like, ‘What would you do in my situation?’ or ‘How do you do X?’ and the mentee expects a direct answer or opinion on the matter. In this situation, the mentor is ok to talk about relevant, personal experience but is meant to offer a range of options from which the mentee can choose.

I understand the theory and reasoning behind this thinking, but in real-life, the entrepreneurs I meet and communicate with online usually want a quick answer so I’m not 100% convinced that the no-advice rule is suitable in every situation. I think it depends on the mentee, the urgency of their problem and the relationship with the mentor. Having said that, the ultimate mentors – Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi of Star Wars – often talked in riddles and set tests for Luke Skywalker to overcome and emerge more skilled as a Jedi warrior, so perhaps it depends on the scale of the task?

Startup Weekend Newcastle

Since doing the Get Mentoring training, I’ve had the chance to be a mentor at two key events in the tech start-up world. The first was at a fifty four hour Startup Weekend event in Newcastle where I did an epic twelve hour stint mentoring twelve teams who had only met the previous evening. Perhaps it was the time-limited nature of the event but there was a real intensity to each mentoring slot which felt more like a brainstorming session in which all kinds of crazy ideas were suggested by everyone in the room, before the best ones were filtered out and developed further. I got a huge buzz out of this event as I was able to share insight and knowledge whilst receiving inspiration from the mentees in return. It was also particularly pleasing to see that each of the teams had implemented some of the ideas we had discussed in their final pitches, demonstrating that they had both listened to and believed in me as a mentor.

Springboard London

A few days later, I travelled to London to spend a day at the new Google Campus to meet and mentor the eleven start-ups who are part of the Springboard London tech accelerator programme. This was more like a speed dating event where I was given a table and then each of the teams were given twenty minutes with me to build up a rapport, discuss their business and challenge their assumptions. Again, the short time period meant there was little time for polite chit chat and so it was straight down to business. I’d been sent background information on each of the teams and they had all done their homework on me too which was great to see as it helped the conversation move much faster than it would have otherwise. Apart from feeling good about helping a group of exciting new businesses there is kudos for me in being involved in a programme which is at the epicentre of the European tech start-up scene, not to mention the chance to spend a day at the Google Campus.

Rocket @ Google Campus
Start-up launchpad @ Google Campus

These recent experiences have convinced me that mentoring is a vital ingredient in the success of any new start-up. In my opinion, the major advantage that Springboard London, its Newcastle equivalent (ignite100) and similar tech accelerator programmes throughout Europe and the US give to their participants is not only access to finance but a wide range of experienced mentors who can open doors and help them achieve their goals much faster than they could on their own. Ultimately, it is still the start-ups themselves who are doing the work, but to know that there is a network of people out there who believe in you and your idea(s) can often be the difference between success and failure.

Obviously, not everyone is lucky enough to be part of a tech accelerator programme, but you can still build up your own network of mentors. Look around you in your current profession and further afield for people who you admire for their achievements and with experience relevant to what you are aiming to do. There are paid mentoring networks out there you can join but most people are quite happy and flattered to be asked to be a mentor. Just be clear about the format of the relationship, what you are hoping to achieve and respectful of their time. Remember that the mentor is not there to do all the work for you, but rather to talk things through and to push you to ever greater heights. Finding a good mentor or team of mentors could be the most important thing you do in your business career and so it’s important to do your homework and to ask for help. Your search for a mentor (or mentors) begins now!

Emotional Technology

Below are the slides from my Techmesh / CIM presentation at The Rose Bowl, Leeds Met University on Thursday 8th March 2012.

The theme was ‘Emotional Technology + How Ideas Spread‘ as I was trying to convey the fact that no matter how amazing the technology is, it’s only when it taps into real life human emotion, needs and desires that it will truly succeed. The slides contain links to two of my personal favourite YouTube clips (from Little Riot and Mad Men) which demonstrate the power of storytelling when getting others to buy into your ideas.

Techmesh is the B2B network for Yorkshire and Humber’s IT & Telecommunications sector and part of Leeds, York and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce. This was my first, but hopefully not my last event with them as I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and working with them. Visit http://techmesh.org to find out more about the great work they are doing for the sector.