The second in our series of online events for the digital tech sector, Tech Nation Talks North West followed Yorkshire’s lead with an engaging panel discussion that reflected on past successes while looking to the future. From Manchester’s record-shattering tech investment to Liverpool’s strong creative scene and greater Lancashire’s collaborative vision, it was clear that founders and support organisations alike are driving the sector forward in the region.
Lending their thoughts on the panel were Gemma McCall (cofounder and CEO at Tech Nation Rising Stars 1.0 Grand Finalist Culture Shift); Jessica Jackson (Investment Director at GC Angels); Matt Latham (cofounder at Fintech 2.0 alumnus Tickr) and Safe Hammad (Co-founder and CTO at Arctic Shores). The event was opened with an introduction by Liz Scott, Tech Nation’s Head of Entrepreneur Engagement and a key figure in Manchester’s tech scene.
Before continuing, we would like to thank our partners Openreach and Barclays for supporting our Tech Nation Talks events. Both are pivotal in supporting digital businesses through the provision of valuable infrastructure, and in championing the UK tech sector.
Tech in the North West
Our Tech Nation Entrepreneur Engagement Manager Mo Aldalou kicked off the panel session with a series of impressive statistics from Tech Nation Report 2020 that painted a picture of health for the region’s digital tech ecosystem.
Manchester hit national and international headlines in March when it was revealed that tech investment grew 277% in 2019, making it the fastest-growing tech city in Europe. The North West as a whole attracted £600m of VC investment in the same year and is home to five digital tech unicorns and four high-value scaleups. Between 2015 and 2019, £25m was invested in AI, and £77m was invested in emerging tech companies (in all sectors) in the region. However, as Mo reminded delegates, numbers only tell half of a story.
Before turning the topic of conversation to the Coronavirus-shaped elephant in the room, Mo asked panellists for their thoughts on what makes North West tech tick. From Liverpool, Tickr (appropriately) was highlighted as an example of the region’s strong fintech credentials, while Edtech and immersive tech were mentioned for their “huge cohorts of great businesses”.
Location was deemed a plus point by both Tickr and Manchester-based Arctic Shores. It was said that the growth of Manchester’s tech sector is an advantage for Liverpool companies, who can recruit from its rich talent pool – especially when looking for developers who are “career-minded” and looking to stay with a business for longer. For both companies, the combination of having an HQ in the North West, combined with a London office (for sales, fundraising and other activities), is one that works well. At the same time it was noted that, despite having grown in recent times, the talent pool in the North West is “not growing quickly enough to meet demand.”
One panellist, who hailed the region’s digital tech workers for their “can do” attitude, said that the location people work from will become of less importance post-pandemic. This was seen as both a positive and a negative for the region, with the suggestion that skilled workers there may be tempted to join London-based companies offering higher wages if given the opportunity to work remotely. In response, it was suggested that this may balance out to an extent by workers from neighbouring locations, such as North Yorkshire, joining North West-based companies.
When pressed further on the subject of talent shortages in the region, one panellist called for companies to be more flexible in hiring candidates that don’t have all of the listed experience requirements. “Find someone who’s a great culture fit and has the potential to grow in your company,” they said. “That’s incredibly important.” A greater difficulty, they added, lies in finding mid- and senior-level managers to help mentor and grow those with less experience. “The squeeze for me in Manchester is finding those mentors who can help enable that growth.”
Impact of Covid-19
Coronavirus is forcing companies in all sectors to adapt, not least those in digital tech. One founder on the panel had rewritten their company’s business plan for the next 12 – 18 months while reducing spend on marketing and in other areas to reduce cost and extend runway. In some ways, it was business as usual: their plan to raise investment in 2020 remained, underpinned by continuing growth in users and assets. “Coming out of the other side, we’ll be in a great position,” they said. “But obviously this wasn’t in the script.”
Another panellist said that the “constantly moving goalposts” was presenting the biggest challenge for their company, which has been happy to see orders from its international clients grow during the pandemic. For them, planning for the unknown has become vital – whether that’s moving quickly to react to a news update from the Government and its medical team, or an event that causes an unexpected change in cash flow. When asked whether they are looking at Government support packages, several companies expressed an interest in the Coronavirus Future Fund while conceding that it’s “early days”.
Covid-19 has meant that digital tech founders across the country have had to make the difficult decision on whether to furlough staff. Fortunately, one founder on the panel, who kept their team lean and secured investment prior to the pandemic meant, is now looking to bolster rather than cut.
“Resilience” was a frequently mentioned during this part of the panel, and one founder couldn’t say how much the pandemic had changed them on a personal and professional level – only that they weren’t convinced that remote working ticked all of the boxes. “You can’t get a team in the same room for that exchange of ideas that comes naturally with people,” they said. “It’s even harder to have a heated debate over Zoom.”
All of the speakers were hopeful that the pandemic would change attitudes and society for the better. One spoke of their desire for a future where business owners will become more “paternal” for their company and team, rather than constantly thinking about what comes next. Right now, all that is certain is that nobody knows what that will be.
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