Community Work

One of my favourite business / economic development books is ‘Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City‘ by Brad Feld (Co-Founder of TechStars, VC & Managing Director of Foundry Group based in Boulder, Colorado).

In it, he compares the old, industrial era way of working under a hierarchy to the modern, information age where early stage entrepreneurship flourishes without one. He says if the hierarchy tries to drive the startup community it essentially stifles it. Instead of a hierarchy, many aspects of what we do today are working as a network.

When Brad talks about his ‘Boulder Thesis’ comprising 4 parts which he says are ‘essential to a sustainable, vibrant startup community’, I believe we already have a lot of this in Newcastle & the wider North East of England.

Watch the video and read my comments below to see if you feel the same….

  1. ‘The community must be led by entrepreneurs’ – The entrepreneurs are the leaders whilst the Government, Universities, VC’s, lawyers, etc are the feeders. The latter are important but they can’t and shouldn’t be the leaders determining how the community will grow and evolve. This is the role of the entrepreneurs who are anyone that is being creative, inventing and making things happen. I particularly like this idea and am excited by the fact that there are many different people doing interesting and exiting things in the North East right now simply because they want to, not because it’s their job or they are getting paid to do it. The opposite is when events and activities are controlled and dictated by a select few, which then has a negative impact on the wider community as it doesn’t allow people to experiment, learn and grow together. As Brad says at the very end of the video, ‘It’s the network chaos of entrepreneurs doing what entrepreneurs do to create things – that force to build something bigger than themselves and their company which is so incredibly powerful’.
  2. ‘Entrepreneurs have to take a very long-term view’ – It may take 20yrs+ before the startup community benefits from the work that they do. (According to this Tech North article we’re about 14yrs into the journey). Over time there ‘will be some extraordinary successes but also some really huge failures’. Even when someone is extremely successful they should still remain part of that community. Likewise, when someone is a failure, don’t cast them out of the community. Help them dust themselves off and welcome them back into the fold, reinforcing the idea that it’s ok to fail – it’s just part of the process. This is one thing that I think we could do better at in the North East. There are some, but at present I don’t see enough successful entrepreneurs reinvesting their own wealth into new startups and sharing their expertise, nor big businesses using them as suppliers, partners and innovation hubs.
  3. ‘You have to have a philosophy of inclusiveness’ – It’s not just other entrepreneurs but anyone who is interested in being part of the startup ecosystem should be ‘allowed in’ without any special handshakes, having the right credentials or ‘being in with the in crowd’. If everyone contributes energy to the startup community, it’ll get bigger and grow faster, be more successful and more fun. From my experience, the developers in the North East in particular are extremely welcoming and supportive of each other, always willing to help each other out and share knowledge and expertise. There are some natural leaders amongst them but it’s not forced and there is no set agenda other than doing things for the greater good of the community, having fun and growing as an individual. Regular collaboration & a sense of community are real strengths of the North East tech & digital sector.
  4. ‘You have to have activities and events that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack’ – These need to be content rich and full of useful content rather than simply a networking event or award dinner. The weekly developer meetups, monthly digital showcases & educational events previously hosted at the Campus North co-working & event space & now held at places like Tuspark Eagle Lab in Newcastle have been a major boost to the local startup community. My own 5-day ‘Newcastle Startup Week‘ festival was created to help engage the wider business community, attracting 600+ delegates from the North East, across the UK, Europe, USA and Asia. Our free monthly Founders’ Friday events also provide a useful platform for new, existing & potential business startup founders to come together with members of the wider business community to share knowledge, insights & support.

Newcastle and the wider North East of England is a fantastic place to start or grow a business, especially a tech / digital / creative one but the work is never done & we mustn’t get complacent or take things for granted. It’s important to take regular (probably annual) & honest reviews of where we are, how far we’ve come & where things can be improved but we’re in good shape & there’s nowhere I’d rather be!

[VIDEO] Thoughts on the Newcastle tech start-up scene, Shell LiveWIRE & Government initiatives

In this interview for TechBritain last year, I talk about the Newcastle tech start-up community, explain what the Shell LiveWIRE youth enterprise scheme is all about and touch on the national Government’s support for start-ups in London and other parts of the UK.

[VIDEO] How start-ups can get the most out of Shell LiveWIRE

Filmed at the PostOffice in Newcastle as part of the TechBritain 2012 tour, this video shows me explaining how start-ups can get the most from the Shell LiveWIRE enterprise programme for young entrepreneurs.

As I no longer work for Shell LiveWIRE, it feels a bit strange looking back at this now but the information and advice I gave is still relevant.

Co-working comes to Newcastle

I’ve been championing the idea of co-working in Newcastle since April 2011 when a tour of the ‘Silicon Roundabout’ area of London reinforced my belief that ‘clustering’ (close georgraphical proximity to other businesses and entrepreneurs) was an important ingredient in the success of a startup (see ‘Start-Ups: Know Your Place’).

This trip, which included visits to TechHub, Hoxton Mix and an exclusive interview with Moshi Monsters/Mind Candy CEO Michael Acton Smith (below) is what made me start hosting weekly events for developers, designers and start-up founders at PNE Group’s PostOffice building on Pink Lane.

My original idea, which I first mentioned at SuperMondays in April 2011, was to have regular co-working days and evening events at the PostOffice but for various reasons (mainly a lack of time and resources) they didn’t begin until 3rd August 2012 (see http://plandigitaluk.com/2012/07/12/postoffice-venue-launches-weekly-co-working-days-in-newcastle/). Instead, I decided to focus on turning the PostOffice into a hub / focal point for grassroots developer and designer user groups, starting with our first event with PHPNE on 21st June 2011. Watching these events grow in size and number to over 50 people some weeks has been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done in my professional career, although most of the credit needs to go to the leader / organiser Anthony Sterling as I’m merely providing the space for them to call home.

The success of PHPNE has attracted other user groups to the PostOffice, like Design Interest (which celebrated its 1yr anniversary at the venue this month), Ruby North East, Javascript North East, Python North East and one off events by UX North East, the Final Cut Pro user group and the first ever public pitches by the teams on the ignite100 tech accelerator programme. In fact, one of the great things about the ignite100 programme is that not only are they discovering and investing in exciting new start-ups but they’ve also opened up their super-cool office, ‘The Loft’ @ Adamson House on Westgate Road for co-working with desks available to rent at an affordable price (email paul@ignite100.com to find out more). To see what other events are coming up at the PostOffice, you should Follow us on Twitter @PostOfficeNE1 and ‘Like’ our Facebook Page www.facebook.com/PostOfficeNE1.

Unless you’ve been to one of the events it’s hard to describe but having a regular place that the local dev / tech community can call home, offering an informal and relaxed environment, in a handy location right next to some good pubs, is part of the reason why local people now regularly talk about what a great ‘community’ there is up here in Newcastle and the North East. There are many other factors which add to this which I outlined in my recent overview of the North East tech start-up scene but it shouldn’t be sniffed at as it’s a very real and magical thing.

We’re now doing monthly co-working events at the PostOffice on the first Friday of the month (at the time of writing our next one is on 2nd November and tickets can be bought for £10 at http://postofficenov.eventbrite.com) which again are reinforcing my belief that modern day business is all about working and collaborating in a more social (real-life) environment.

In addition to the PostOffice, I’m very pleased to see that Newcastle Business Village have recently opened a fantastic, full-time co-working space at Clavering House, behind Central Station where you can work in a great environment for just £15 per day (see video below). As the North East’s biggest advocate of co-working, Jayne Graham (Space On Tap / Colleagues On Tap) deserves a lot of credit for the input and advice she has given the team behind Clavering House, helping them to create the type of place that I plan to start working from occasionally and where I would urge you to give it a try yourself next time you’re in Newcastle.

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/

PostOffice venue launches weekly co-working days in Newcastle

After talking about bringing co-working days to Newcastle since April 2011, I’m pleased to announce that we are finally going to start doing them at our PostOffice venue in Newcastle every Friday, starting with a FREE launch event on 3rd August (9am-5pm).

The PostOffice also has a new Facebook Page at www.facebook.com/PostOfficeNE1 to go with the pre-existing Twitter profile @PostOfficeNE1. Please help spread the word by sharing the press release / information below as widely as possible and attending yourself if you can by booking your FREE ticket at: http://postofficelaunch.eventbrite.com

PostOffice @ 5 Pink Lane, Newcastle upon Tyne

[PRESS RELEASE]

‘PostOffice’ venue launches weekly co-working days in Newcastle

PostOffice, the venue for weekly, after work events for North East based developers, designers and tech start-ups, is to start hosting daytime co-working events every Friday starting on 3rd August.

Inspired by his visits to co-working spaces like TechHub and Google Campus in London, Newcastle-based entrepreneur and digital marketing expert Paul Lancaster (aka @lordlancaster) has spent the past 12 months trying to build a community of similar, like-minded people in the North East by opening the doors of the venue to local developer and user groups every Tuesday evening.

Situated on Pink Lane (directly opposite Newcastle Central Station), the former old post office is owned by local enterprise agency PNE Group (aka Project North East) who have been supporting small businesses since 1980 and have helped that part of the city become known as a Tech Quarter once dubbed ‘Silicon Alley’ by offering low-cost workspace and high speed internet since the 90’s.

The PostOffice now plays host to weekly, after work events by PHP North East, Ruby North East, Javascript North East and Design Interest which are ran by volunteers (including Lancaster) for the sole purpose of promoting collaboration, ideas and skill sharing in the North East.

Lancaster said ‘Around 100 people in total now come to the PostOffice events with a great deal of crossover between the different user groups which has led to some interesting collaborations and ideas for new projects including a design-themed conference planned for August’.

‘Apart from giving people the chance to learn something new in a relaxed, informal setting, the events are as much about spending time with your friends and peers with the conversations that take place afterwards in the nearby Town Wall and Forth pubs being an important aspect of the community feel which is apparent in the North East tech scene right now’.

Co-working is a concept that has been around for a while now, particularly in the US and London but Lancaster feels that it’s only recently that technology has made it truly possible for people to do it and still feel like they are being just as productive, if not more so than being sat in a traditional office.

He said, ‘the nature of my work (website management/digital marketing) means that I can literally work from anywhere with a Wi-Fi or 3G signal and in fact do a lot of my work on the move through my smartphone. You see people working in coffee shops but they’re not really suitable and there’s a limit to how long you can realistically stay there without upsetting the staff and fellow customers.’

‘Co-working is the modern way to work and brings an added benefit to participants by providing the space for serendipitous conversations and networking opportunities which a traditional office worker or home worker would usually miss out on.’

The format is simple. Co-workers bring their laptop / tablet, phone and business cards, and we provide the space, inspiring people and free coffee from our neighbours @PinkLaneCoffee. The launch event is free to attend but tickets must be booked at http://postofficelaunch.eventbrite.com

If people would like to know more about the co-working days or evening events that are taking place at the PostOffice, they should Follow them on Twitter @PostOfficeNE1 or ‘Like’ them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/PostOfficeNE1

Downloads:
[PRESS RELEASE] PostOffice venue launches weekly co-working days in Newcastle
The Journal (25th Aug 2011) – Co-working offers the best of both worlds

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.

Open letter to Newcastle City Council

My ideas below were originally sent to Newcastle City Council in response to their ‘Newcastle – a working city’ Green Paper on 14th February 2012.

Dear Newcastle City Council,

After reading your Green Paper ‘Newcastle – a working city’ I’d like to put forward a few ideas/suggestions for consideration.

Monument Mall shopping centre

Walking around Newcastle city centre at the weekend, it was pretty bleak and depressing to pass through the Monument Mall shopping precinct. A city like Newcastle shouldn’t have such an obviously failing building like that in such a prime location.

Instead of being so dependent on large, national retailers (who have no roots or loyalty to the region), my suggestion is to change the entire focus of that building into a destination for local art, craft, music and food.

Other Northern cities like Liverpool and Manchester have a clearly defined cultural quarter which includes these types of shops but we don’t, which is weird considering there is a vibrant arts & culture scene in Newcastle. The close proximity to places like the Tyneside Cinema, Theatre Royal would make sense and shops like Waterstones would benefit too.

If I was in charge, I would go so far as to give the units away, rent-free for 12 months to creative start-ups in the same way that The Shed on Gateshead High Street has been done following a suggestion by designer Wayne Hemingway. Only after the 12 month period, businesses that are still going would be expected to pay a ‘reasonable’ / ‘affordable’ rent (possibly subsidised).

Having interviewed Wayne in 2009 I believe he would fully support such a move as this type of environment is what helped him start his own business over 30yrs ago.

I believe there is no shortage of new / small businesses that would fill that space and create a truly vibrant hub overnight, including the fantastic Made In Newcastle (MIN) collective who are currently looking for new premises after a short spell on Grainger Street. These are exactly the type of people and businesses that would make Newcastle unique to other cities and so should be fully supported by the council.

Central Station / Grainger Town area

Over the years I have come to know the Central Station / Grainger Town area or Newcastle very well. Local enterprise agency PNE Group (formerly known as Project North East) has its Business Support and Workspace teams based on Pink Lane and since June 2011 I have been voluntarily hosting free, weekly, after work events for local developers, designers and tech start-ups at the PostOffice on a Tuesday night.

Newcastle City Council Leader Nick Forbes MP actually came to one of these events just before Christmas where he talked about the Green Paper and encouraged us to have our say (which is what I am doing now)!

As I’m sure you are aware, PNE owns a large block of incubator workspace which stretches up Pink Lane to The Forth pub, along the alleyway to Westgate Road and then back over to include Adamson House. PNE has been running this workspace successfully since the early 80s and has won numerous awards for this work, not to mention all the great businesses that have been based in those buildings over the years. I’d therefore like to suggest that any new developments in that area were in consultation with PNE Director of Workspace, Richard Clark.

On a personal note, I am very keen to support tech start-ups in the city and encouraged ignite100‘Europe’s first £1 million tech accelerator programme’ to base themselves in ‘The Loft’ (the top floor of PNE’s Adamson House building) at the end of last year. This is a great example of co-working and investment which the city should be proud to have on its doorstep.

In fact, this part of Newcastle is very popular with tech start-ups and could easily be marketed as the city’s ‘Tech Quarter’. Please see the crowdsourced Google Map at http://bit.ly/NorthEastTech which shows a high concentration of tech/digital/creative businesses in the city, particularly around the Pink Lane / Central Station area. I started this map just before Christmas as it’s had over 11,000 views so far and is being monitored by national and international tech journalists (including Mike Butcher of TechCrunch) who has acknowledged the city as a vibrant source of tech businesses.

As I’m sure you can tell, I have a lot to say about the city and would dearly love to get involved somehow. Please take my suggestions above into consideration and if you’d like to discuss them further I’d be very happy to meet up.

Paul Lancaster
Founder of Plan Digital
‘Technology Ambassador’ for the CIM North East of England Regional Board
www.linkedin.com/in/lordlancaster
plandigital@live.co.uk | 07734 722716

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!

Develop for the customer, not for yourself

I’ve recently taken on the role of ‘Technology Ambassador’ for the CIM North East of England Regional Board – a voluntary role to represent the interests of the tech community at a regional and national level whilst helping to increase membership of the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

The CIM celebrated its 100th anniversary last year which is a fantastic achievement and testament to its ability to adapt and evolve as an organisation. Having been a member since 2006, I’ve always been thoroughly impressed by the quality and range of their events and training courses, particularly the one day workshops which use industry experts, not just trainers, to deliver sessions on the latest trends in digital marketing. Their free member magazine, ‘The Marketer’ magazine for members is also a must-read for me and a great source of ideas and inspiration for the work that I do.

Apart from the training and qualifications it provides, the CIM also provides its members with a solid grounding in the founding principles of marketing and promotion which I think are relevant to every type of business, not just tech. Some people still think of marketing as selling things to people that they don’t really want, but really it’s about satisfying customer needs by presenting them with products and services that are going to make their lives easier, happier and more fulfilling. To this end, the greatest marketer of recent years has got to be Steve Jobs who not only turned around the fortunes of Apple, but revolutionised the computer (Mac/iPad), phone (iPhone), music (iPod/iTunes) and film (Pixar) industries too!

Where I see organisations like the CIM playing a vital role, is by encouraging more businesses and individuals to adopt a truly customer-centric approach to the development of new products and services. Far too much time, money and effort is wasted on developing things that no-one really wants just because the team behind it thinks it is cool or clever without involving real-life users in the design process.

A customer-focused mindset is absolutely fundamental to the principles laid out in the fantastic book ‘The Lean Startup’ by Eric Ries which I recommend that you read. (You can also listen to a 25min telephone interview I did with Eric on 31st Jan 2012 below:

With its foundations in the 50yr old Toyota Production System, San Franciscan entrepreneur and author Eric is a leading figure in a global movement of ‘Lean thinking’ which is all about minimising waste and maximising value for both the customer and business. If you’ve ever worked on a project or in a business that failed, you should read this book and think about how the ideas can be used in your work. Companies like Facebook and Amazon have already built ‘lean’ into their business so if they can do it why can’t you?

If you’d like to know more about CIM membership or training and how it can help you or your business, email me at plandigital@live.co.uk or call 07734722716.