Building a digital dynasty: Manchester tech is showing no signs of slowing down

Kane Fulton, October 8, 2018 5 min read

A city whose economic health is reflected in the number of cranes dotted around the city, Manchester and its tech sector is reaching for the sky.

That was a view shared by a panel of entrepreneurs who joined us for the penultimate leg of Tech Nation on Tour, which welcomed a capacity crowd to No.1 Spinningfields. The 92-metre office tower was completed last year and is Manchester’s tallest office block since CIS Tower, an office skyscraper, was constructed in 1962.

Our host venue sat opposite Tech Nation’s new Manchester base at Bonded Warehouse, a former terminus originally constructed in the 1860s that has been given a new breath of life as an enterprise hub for growing businesses.

In 2016, the most recent figures available from Tech Nation, Manchester’s digital tech sector saw 531 digital tech businesses formed in the city. According to Tech Nation Report 2018, turnover of the sector grew by 4% in 2017, outstripping the growth of the wider economy.

There was much praise for the disruptive nature of Manchester’s tech businesses. Aspects of living there that were held up as advantages included the region’s rich talent pool, related to the gravitational pull of Media City, and the availability of organisations offering mentorship to fledgling businesses.

Addressing what they perceived to be a concern, one panelist who runs a business highly dependent on fast upload speeds criticised the “monopoly” that internet service providers have on “some buildings” in the city.

Deal or no deal?

According to research by Tech Nation, tech companies in the North West have raised more than £200m in funding, with companies including TickX, Peak (a member of Tech Nation’s Upscale programme) and Airtime Rewards (on its Fintech programme) having raised significant rounds.

Investment, a hot topic at the majority of Tech Nation on Tour events to date, was discussed by a panel that included both self-funded and investment-backed companies. One panelist recalled how choosing a single investor – who believed in the changing nature of their sector, the future of media – gave them the confidence to scale rapidly on the back of trusted advice.

The need to find an investor on the same wavelength was an opinion shared by their adjacent panel member, albeit for a different reason. They were adamant that they would not be raising investment any time soon after being overly managed by a bossy VC.

Delegates were encouraged by one company, which had raised $25m, to spend sufficient time carrying out due diligence before undertaking the “distracting” experience of raising a Series-A round.

We also heard one reason to eschew investment altogether. A panelist representing Manchester success story UKFast said that the company has grown “sensibly and slowly” from the start without external funding, a positive move that resulted in its two founders owning almost the entire business.

Hannah Anderson, co-founder at Social Chain, said:

“We’re lucky to have one key investor who was right for us. He gets what we need to do, and that’s almost more valuable than the money he gives us. He’s on our journey, not telling us how to run the business, but giving us genuinely great advice that we couldn’t get otherwise. Choose the right person and you’re golden.”

Gail Jones, co-founder and MD of UKFast, said:

“We didn’t want to get any outside investment; we wanted to do it ourselves. We wanted to feel the pain and learn everything. You learn quickly from your mistakes which we have made over the years. It’s still really just us and I wouldn’t want to have investors who come sit round the table and ask what we’ve done and why we did it in that way. We did it the way we know best and that’s worked for us.”

Amman Ahmed, founder of Music For Pets, said:

I started out with £1,000 of my student loan – that was my VC funding, so shoutout to student loan company for that. I then went online and started talking to developers in India and my venture grew from there. When it comes to outsourcing to India you need to communicate in a certain way. It’s cheap, but there’s a specific way to do it.

Culture Club

The importance of retaining talent attracted to Manchester’s vibrant tech sector was discussed by the panelists, each of whom have employed different tactics to achieve success. Together they agreed that making employees feel involved, accountable and part of their company’s success was vital.

We heard how one panelist appointed a ‘Director of Happiness’ two years ago to work across five offices, alongside a company therapist – a move that contributed to the company’s “incredibly high” retention rate. Another panelist attributed their company’s learning and development processes, which are overseen by five qualified teachers, to its retention success.

The founder of an early-stage startup, whose activity includes making TV for dogs, took a humorous stance by pointing out how employees appreciate the novelty factor that accompanies working at their company. At the same time, they spoke of the merits of wanting to become a household name when it comes to retaining talent, with their company aiming to become ‘Netflix for Pets’.

Gail Jones said:

Culture is everything for us. Something we’re strong in is developing and training people, as they stay if they’re learning. We lost people to Facebook in San Francisco, how can you compete with that? It was a kick that spurred us on, so we wanted to invest in culture and make sure we could do everything we could.

Sarah Wood, co-founder and CEO at Unruly, said:

We’re about making sure people feel they’re responsible for ideas, will be held accountable for and get recognition from them. It’s also about ownership of the company; we were pleased when we exited as a quarter of Unruly was owned by employees past and present. It was everybody’s success and everybody owned a piece of it, which was powerful.

Hannah Anderson said:

We have a clear development plan. We treat people as people, not as numbers, so we haven’t had any horror stories as we’ve grown – and it’s been nearly five years now. People have moved on but them leaving has never been sour, and that’s because they have developed so much, added value and then left having wanted to add value elsewhere.

Data & research, Tech Nation Report 2018