How to ignite the tech startup scene in Manchester

I’m here at the latest instalment of Techcelerate’s series of events for tech and digital startups in the Manchester and NW area.

Martin Bryant, Managing Editor of ReadWriteWeb, kicked off the evening with an extension to his recent TEDx Manchester talk on getting traction in the tech scene in Manchester. Having visited various tech hubs across the UK and the vibrant European start up scene, Martin was left wondering:

“With the strong sense of industrial history in Manchester, why don’t we have a vibrant startup tech scene here?”

Martyn set up a Facebook group to glean views and followed up with a blog post to further stoke interest. Feedback affirmed his initial prognosis – support networks are fragmented and disparate. Lots of startups want help but don’t know where to go.

A lively debate ensued with much consensus around the view that there are plenty of success stories that have emanated from Manchester e.g Laterooms. Its just that new and more established tech businesses circulating at the moment get very little air time (than they might in say London or across the European startup scene).

My own view is that we need a hub. In fact I think we need two. One physical and one virtual.

First, we need a physical venue where startups can congregate, work, collaborate, share ideas, whine, celebrate and work through all the pleasure and pains that go into building a business. Manoj Ranaweera has done a great job in setting up Techcelerate and the Tech centre in Manchester city centre (where I am right now for this event). Madlab is also a great initiative too.

A question I am grappling with is whether it should really be for startups to lead in terms of establishing where they want to congregate. I don’t think this can be led (although Daresbury, the Sharp Project and perhaps the Tech centre may disprove this!). To me, a hub needs to grow organically to have a real chance of success. An example might be where a business grows fast, becoming successful and then opens its doors to new fledging startups who wish to congregate around the buzz. From there a hub can grow.

Secondly, I think we need much more online air-time to sing the praises of our early stage startups and growing businesses. To profile them. Highlight events. Provide a platform for the businesses to showcase their products, ideas and solutions. I suppose a Techcrunch but specially targeted at Manchester and the NW. (I would be happy to toss my hat into the ring to assist with this).

As Martyn noted, it feels like we are on the brink of something exciting that is about to explode in Manchester. What are your views on what needs to happen to support tomorrow’s businesses in Manchester?

Pitching for Management – Manchester – 12 October 2011

Do you want to take your business onto its next stage of growth? Do you need to find some senior talent to help you do this?

We are partnering with AngelNews for its latest Pitching for Management event in Manchester on 12th October. This will be the perfect event for exciting businesses to find senior people to help them build their teams at no cash cost and for executives to identify interesting early stage businesses that would value their expertise.

Pitching for Management is a live event series which runs in 18 cities across the UK. It will be held at Brown Shipley’s offices in Spinningfields from 4.00pm to 7.30pm. As well as the pitches there are plenty of networking opportunities at the event and canapés and drinks will be served during the evening.

The Pitching for Management concept is simple. Make a short pitch to an audience of senior executives who have come to see if they can offer their services to help you.

These executives are willing to work for sweat equity, bonuses, commissions and/or share options. So pitching companies do not need to pay high salaries until they are delivering the results you require.

You can read all about Pitching for Management at

We are expecting between 30 – 50 relevant senior executives will attend the event. Past events in the series have shown that pitching companies have a good chance of finding someone that suits.

AngelNews is holding a competition for the best pitch of this series of Pitching for Management. The winning pitch at the Manchester event will go through to the final in Bristol on 13th December. The winner of the final will receive a £2,000 cheque.

To find out more about this opportunity, please call Caroline Sage at AngelNews on 01761 452 248 or email her on caroline[at][dot]uk or contact me.

You can find booking details here.

Hopefully see you there!

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5 tips for growing a digital creative agency

Around 100 attendees packed How-Do’s recent Creative Industries Business Forum held at the stylish The Hive in Manchester.

Liane Grimshaw (former managing partner at Amaze) stole the show for me with a passionate summary of the key learning points that have framed her entrepreneurial journey so far. Here’s my summary from my notes:

1. Know when to say “No” – the more you can narrow your focus, the more you can become an expert and dominate a niche. Once you can dominate a niche and develop your own unique approach, the more price becomes an irrelevance.

2. Practice what you preach – why is it, she questioned, that marketing agencies have some of the worst and most unimaginative websites? Websites and literature that simply lists services…… Agencies frequently use words like “innovation” and “creativity” and then deploy “pedestrian” techniques for marketing their own services and solutions! You need to practice what you preach every day. You can’t have an away-day to create a strategy document and then expect this to magically change the agency culture overnight! The culture comes from the way you and your people act every day.

3. Trust your gut – this applies to selecting your people, strategy and interpreting your results. Probationary periods for recruiting new staff should be observed and people moved on if they do not fit into the company culture – shirking these difficult decisions early on often can develop into much bigger problems further down the line. Your intuition is rarely wrong.

4. Size does matter – there are pros and cons to being a small agency and likewise for larger agencies. Being smaller agency allows for greater agility, speed of decision-making and willingness to take more risks in terms of creative briefs. As agencies grow, the pressure to become more “corporate” in approach can result in employees trusting their own initiative less and starting to “lean on company processes”. Many large agencies could learn a thing or two from smaller agencies e.g. using smaller teams within an organization.

5. If you don’t want to get up in the morning, change it or let go – life’s too short. It may seem like a difficult decision at the time but trusting your gut instinct and making changes or walking away completely to start again may be the best decision for the longer term.

In the discussion groups that followed, these themes kept cropping up repeatedly. These principles can be applied to any business. Home truths – well said. Thanks Liane.

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Reimagine your business using mobile technology

An interesting event this morning on “Redefining the Customer Experience using Mobile” hosted by the Institute of Directors (Young Directors Forum) held at the Alchemist in Manchester’s Spinningfields.

In addition to some mind-boggling stats about the proliferation of mobile connections and apps being launched on a daily basis, the overarching message for businesses is that the mobile tech opportunity whittles down to three key advantages:

1. Better customer information
2. Better customer understanding
3. Better customer relationships

After all, a smart phone or mobile device sits in the pocket of pretty much every single one of your target customers.

Some interesting case studies demonstrated how apps can add a element of engagement and fun e.g. Barrett shoes asking for user’s dates of birth to identify their birth stone and therefore their likely personality traits and of course shoe preferences (the live demo worked!). Plus Kiddicare who has built in a multitude of capabilities into their app to allow customers to view video demos of products and even scan barcodes in competitors’ shops to get a price match – plus next day delivery and a 365 day return policy (a no-brainer?!):

“so our competitors become shop windows for our products”

Watch out bricks and mortar retailers!

In designing apps, advice was given to focus on your target market and ideally get them to help design it – otherwise you’ll risk ending up with a highly functional yet dull and unengaging app. And to:

“think multi-channel rather then just Internet in approaching and targeting your market”

Disruptive technologies such as mobile point of sale apps and hardware were highlighted (I was surprised that Dorsey’s Square was not mentioned?) plus user friendly technologies to help offsite / mobile workers transfer data for processing in realtime as opposed to dropping in and out of the office.

Mobiles or smart phones have become such an integral part of daily life that if you as a business owner do not have (or at least are not thinking about building) a channel into your existing or future customers’ mobile device, then you’re pretty much toast!

I liked the comment from Kiddicare:

“we’re a tech company that happens to sell childrens stuff”

Its like McDonalds founder, Ray Kroc‘s comment “we’re a real estate company that happens to sell hamburgers” updated for the 21st Century.

Approached from this perspective, it should help us all reimagine our business or even our entire industry.

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Utilising spare office space across cities

We are proud to be hosting the next Techcelerate event on Funding Options for the North West next Wednesday evening.

This promises to be a fantastic event which has been matched by the high level of interest and ticket sales so far. The rising number of attendees means that we may need to decamp the event from our office due to capacity constraints and instead hire external conference space say in a local Manchester hotel. (No longer in our building and additional cost. Ugh.)

This got us thinking about the newly refurbished (and currently empty) floor in our Manchester office building. Utilising this would have the advantage of allowing us to host the event in the same office building without incurring the cost of a hotel whilst providing a great opportunity for our landlord to showcase the available refurbed office space. A win-win.

With so much spare office space available across most major cities and towns, think about how you could match this opportunity to your future events programme with minimal, if any cost?

I should add that we’ve yet to receive the final nod from the landlord as to whether we can go ahead with this plan but hey at least the thought was there!

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Why 2011 should be a great year for north west entrepreneurs

Despite talk of economic doom and gloom, here are just 3 reasons why I think 2011 will be a great year for entrepreneurs and fast growth businesses across the north west:

  1. The North West Fund is here to provide £185m of equity and loan funding making investments of £50,000 to £2m into fast growth businesses across the North West. This includes specialist funding for local emerging sectors such as digital and creative, biomedical plus energy / environmental.  Just the spark that businesses have been looking for to help them achieve their ambitious growth plans – I look forward to working with my clients to make this happen in 2011.
  2. MediaCityUK finally launches. A £650m new city built to service creative and digital companies. Large parts of the BBC are on their way; ITV is also coming and, more excitingly, a hot-bed of exciting new talent and businesses should flourish to support these Goliaths of the creative sector. (I look forward to taking a trip around it to check on progress this Friday).
  3. Despite public sector cuts and the demise of the NWDA, local initiatives like Techcelerate, Manchester Digital, Sharp Project, Daresbury Innovation Campus plus many others will step up to the plate in delivering access to services and support for new businesses – and further new initiatives will no doubt emerge to plug gaps as they emerge.

This is an exciting time to be living and working in the north west. Make no bones about it, its going to be tough plus I am mindful that we need to continue to build solid links with London and internationally, but so long as we can get our own entrepreneurial infrastructure firing in the north west then we should be in good shape for 2011.

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Earning (accountancy) Bucks in the Digital Age

In collaboration with Pro:ManchesterManchester Digital brought accountancy professionals and digital creative businesses together this evening in Manchester to explore opportunities for us to work together and support each other more effectively.

Shaun Fensom kicked off the session by outlining the key to many Manchester digital businesses’ success i.e. speedy collaboration plus a willingness to share ideas and intellectual property, before Mike Taylor (NW Business Insider) took over in leading the panel discussions in his consistently entertaining and energetic style. I was a representative for Team Accountancy on the panel, initially fearing a bashing similar to that received earlier this year by the lawyers in Earning a Buck in the Digital Age Round 1.

We covered plenty of ground including:

  • differing financial needs of digital and creative businesses – some are lifestyle businesses that are more keen on creating interesting work and developing their people than profit; others grow at a ballistic rate (per Mike Ryan) – I find these businesses normally need help to cover all compliance bases and avoid overtrading (aka running out of cash); others die.
  • is the limited company the right vehicle for creative businesses given that intellectual property is often created almost like bridges between them? A great question by Shaun Fensom that led to much head-scratching from the lawyers in the audience. My own view is that the blind pursuit of intellectual property protection is futile; instead this effort and financial focus is far better directed toward harnessing the free flow of intellectual property. This applies to accountancy firm’s intellectual property as much as digital businesses. A question was raised whether 80-90% of intellectual property could be released into the public (open source / creative commons) and 10-20% retained for profit? Good suggestion. Is intellectual property still the right definition? Who owns it? Not enough time to dig further – I welcome your views in the comments section below.
  • how can accountancy professionals and digital businesses work together more effectively? There was common ground that scary accountancy fee structures, uninviting shiny city centre offices and power suits are not the way to court relationships with small fledging (yet often fast growth) digital businesses. Us accountants need to invest more time in mixing with digital creatives to better understand what makes them tick and build relationships on their turf e.g. tech office clusters, coffee shops and emerging north west initiatives like MediaCityUK and The Sharp Project. We also need to match this with a fee structure that invests in these companies for the future – we for example already hold meetings (for £nil cost) and then offer reduced rates. This is our investment. Please drop me a line for a coffee to discuss further by emailing me or contacting me on Twitter: @stevelivingston.
  • will Manchester ever have a Facebook? Why not?!

Discussions like this fill me with excitement for the future of the accountancy profession. Left as it is, the accountancy profession is staring into the abyss. Yet for those who embrace change, there are huge mutual benefits for both digital and tech entrepreneurs plus forward thinking accountants. A win-win. So change it is.

Please leave your comments for the changes you would like to see implemented for accountants to earn a buck in the digital age.

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Headlines speak for example in effective business presentations

It was a pleasure to once again host a Speakeasy event at our offices in Manchester this evening. Speakeasy as a concept – to assist business owners and professionals craft and deliver their business message – is growing in popularity with 7+ live groups in and around Manchester and international expansion imminent. It is a testament to the hard work and effort invested by its founder, Andrew Thorp.

Alistair MacDonald was an excellent co-facilitator at this evening’s event.

Key learning points in relation to delivering effective presentations for me were as follows:

Start with a headline

Rather than launch straight into the dense detail of your presentation content, start with a teaser headline e.g.

“It was on the 10th January 2010 that my life changed…..I’ll return to the reason for this in a moment but first let me explain how I got there…..”

Think about news programmes and how they craft their message. They always start with short, punchy headlines.  Headlines both frame a story and provide a teaser to pique interest, before returning to flesh out the detail. The same technique can be used with great effect in public speaking.

Tell stories by using the words “for example”

A repeated lesson from tonight’s Speakeasy (in fact from pretty much every decent presentational training event I’ve been to) stressed the need for the presenter to use stories to engage the audience and provide memorable hooks for the audience to take away.

Alistair MacDonald provided a great insight in that he said his ears prick up when he hears a speaker say the words “for example” as he knows a story is imminent. This provides an excellent hook for speakers to remember to use to introduce stories plus it provides a smooth bridge to bring in stories throughout a presentation.

Are there any other tips that you find help turn an otherwise dull, mundane talk into an inspiring and engaging presentation?

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IPOs for technology companies – Key learning points

Yet another insightful Techcelerate event this evening in Manchester chewed over whether ‘initial public offerings’ (IPOs) or ‘stock market listings’ are the right capital raising vehicle for growing technology businesses and the process required should they choose to go down this route.

Marcus Stuttard (AIM CEO) delivered a concise analysis of the advantages of listing on the markets including scenarios where this might not be so appropriate and then Anish Kapoor (Telecity LSE listing) and Simon Elms (Warthog AIM listing) delivered warts and all accounts of the IPO process as entrepreneurs who had been through it and managed to live to tell the tale.

Here are my notes:

  1. Choose the right broker or nominated advisor (NOMAD). They hold the key to your long term success in the market.
  2. Your management team will also be key to the success or otherwise of the IPO and beyond. Start making connections with potential non-exec directors etc who can help (sooner rather than later) with strategy and helping build your team in areas like finance and perhaps getting the wheels in motion to appoint a highly regarded chairman.
  3. Have your business model nailed down before you start the IPO process. Markets don’t like unexpected strategic changes.
  4. Be prepared for a long and arduous due diligence process in the run up to listing as lawyers and accountants crawl over your results and forecasts. Your business will be in better shape afterwards!
  5. Costs of listing are significant – both in professional fees and management time. You then have the ongoing regulatory and reporting requirements to comply with. Think through why you are seeking a listing as there could be better alternatives if you are seeking a one-off injection of cash.
  6. The flip-side of point 5 is that once you have been admitted to the markets, raising future cash is easier than seeking private / VC funding.
  7. Institutional investors like to see a track record of management having successful executed IPOs and exits. They are prepared to invest in the management team – even for pre-revenue businesses.
  8. Listings in the US are even trickier than the UK – tighter regulations etc. Proceed with caution.
  9. VCs are increasingly looking to AIM markets to invest capital. Espec VCTs. Another advantage for listing.
  10. Think about the impact on your staff and how the fluctuation of the share price might unnecessarily unsettle them. On the flip side, think of the opportunities to incentivise them with a ready market for the shares.
  11. An IPO can be great for your PR in your sector – speaking of which, consider getting a decent PR agent as part of the IPO process.
  12. For AIM you’re probably looking at a minimum capital investment of £2m+ with the majority currently in the £30m-ish bracket.
  13. As a founder, think about when you can get your cash out post IPO – you will probably find you are severely restricted in cashing out shares due to potential negative sentiment and insider info plus lock-ins. Work this out upfront.
  14. Don’t try to time the markets. You need to take the best deal you can get when presented if you are to continue to build your business and stay one step ahead of the competition.

Any further comments to add?

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Techcelerate event: Tech IPOs 8 November, Manchester

We’ll be hosting the next Techcelerate event aimed at supporting North West technology companies tomorrow evening in Manchester.

It promises to be a great evening including talks by:

  • Marcus Stuttard, CEO, London Stock Exchange – Alternative Investment Market (AIM)
  • Anish Kapoor – ex CFO Telecity and CEO
  • John McGuire, CEO, FreshT
  • Simon Elms – Warthog and Image Metrics

Get your tickets here – be quick as we’re almost full.

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