Geek Talent: a Sunderland startup with globally scalable products

Vicki Shiel, March 10, 2016 6 min read

This article was originally posted on the Tech North website.

One of Tech North’s Northern Stars and featured in the Tech Nation 2016 report, Sunderland-based Geek Talent develops digital products, including a recruitment portal, for educators and employers to help bridge the skills gap.

Founded in 2014 by Dominic Murphy, Geek Talent’s proud of its Wearside roots and the support it’s received locally to establish and grow the company.

The UK is under the spotlight at the moment, but Geek Talent’s also planning to take its products worldwide.

We caught up with Dominic to find out more. Here he talks about how he built a ‘people search engine’, why they chose Sunderland as their base, how they’re integrating their product with that of another company, and the need for business cheerleaders.

What’s your elevator pitch to investors?

Geek Talent is trying to close the skills gap between education and employment. It’s a recruitment portal actively searching for talented staff.

We also have a careers advice portal Career Hacker where we’re using our data know-how to change the curriculum in education, linking it to the real labour market.

We focus on skills, education and employment, showing educators and the education system what employers and the labour market needs, with an increased level of detail they’ve never seen before.

Dominic Murphy

Dominic Murphy, Managing Director, Geek Talent

Where did the idea come from?

We started in June 2014. Previously, my job was working with a bank for four or five years, outsourcing tech jobs from the UK to Poland and India.

It got me thinking about the future of employment; internet speeds are getting faster and faster and you can work anywhere, so place becomes less relevant.

I thought, what we’re missing is a search engine. There’s this rise of the gig economy – people working purely online, so I built a virtual team to build the Geek Talent people search engine.

I raised the investment on the back of that and then built the company. We launched the search engine towards the end of 2015.

Once we realised the value we had in the data – it created a way to monitor the labour market at a new level of detail – we needed to get in front of the education system and Career Hacker was born.

We’re hooked into labour market intelligence and the vision is for us to try to join up the education system with schools, further education and higher education all working together.

At the moment schools just care about league tables, FE just cares whether there are enough students that want a particular course, and HE generally cares about international students and research grants. It’s not joined up.

We need to change and match the curriculum to what the labour market needs as it evolves.

You can predict this and forecast skill needs for the next five years.

What were the big challenges for you as a startup?

Starting out, probably the transition from leaving a well-paid full-time job to start a business. It was a big leap.

Then we had to convince investors to invest in the ideas we’d created. Using those virtual teams to create the product helped.

I met an investor on the train, then she introduced me to others. They were investing in me as a person as well as the product and vision.

Recruiting staff into a startup is quite difficult too, as you try to scale up.

The next issue is making sure we’re building what the industry wants. We’re focusing more and more on Career Hacker – it’s very timely. There is a lot going on in the North East that has helped us, and timing is everything.

Geek Talent employees

Geek Talent employees

Why did you choose Sunderland for your base?

As an early stage startup, it was cheaper to base ourselves here. There was a good support network with Sunderland City Council and Sunderland Software City. I wouldn’t have had the incentives elsewhere that I do here.

The clients are all in Newcastle and so are our employees – about 80 per cent of our company travels from Newcastle into Sunderland.

But we’re here because we had a good relationship and support from the council to incubate the business at an early stage. Realistically, without that we wouldn’t be where we are now.

We would probably still be a couple of people working from home, rather than the 11 people we have now.

What’s the digital scene like in Sunderland?

It’s growing. At Rainton Bridge, things have been there a bit longer and there is also Sunderland Software City.

There are more events. The Digital Catapult Centre is based here, with its link into local and central government and EU funding.

It’s growing but it’s in infancy compared to Newcastle.

Dominic Murphy, Geek Talent

Dominic Murphy, Geek Talent

Do businesses in Sunderland collaborate and learn from each other?

Yes, we do meet the people in different centres – facilitated by Sunderland Software City and the centre itself.

There is some active collaboration as well as meeting and networking. We’re integrating our product and another company’s product together to link their software testing capabilities into our products. And we’re doing work with other local SMEs on local government bids for work.

What challenges do you face now?

The challenge now is more sales and marketing to reach the customers.

Our vision is to join up the education system, which is a huge thing to do. We’re trying to be pragmatic as a startup and have a vision of what we want to do, but we need to understand the education system and create case studies that deliver value now. The longer-term vision is to join up education in the UK and internationally.

But for the next phase, hiring is going to be the issue. We’ve launched our own training programme and we have four students. The need is there for us and other companies and we are partnering with Sunderland College on that.

You can’t do all of this on your own; the more people knowing about you and wanting to work with you the better. You need more cheerleaders for your business.

We need more people to see Sunderland as a place to live and work, otherwise it can’t attract the talent, so we work with the council to make this city a great place to start and grow a business.

How do you innovate as well as keeping on top of the day to day?

What we’re doing in general is quite innovative – no one else is really doing this.

Obviously, we have a very stringent engineering product development process. We do try out ideas and test them. We use the ‘lean startup method’ from the Eric Ries book.

We test the market and work with existing companies to test the software. We work with friendly clients like the colleges – they can be the cheerleaders and sell the product on through recommendation.

But we have to deliver and bring the money in. We have to continue to innovate or we won’t exist in the next five years. I see us continuing to innovate and bring new products to market all the time.

Related: Sunderland enjoys 17% rise in digital employment / Tech Nation infographic

What are your thoughts on the Tech Nation 2016 report?

It was surprising in terms of the salary growth across the North, the amount the digital industry is growing and seeing the variations across the region.

What does that mean for our type of company as we continue to try to recruit? As a company, we’re right in that space in terms of the data and analytics – we’re at the coalface, so to speak.

What’s the best thing about the digital scene in the North?

The willingness to collaborate and work together without necessarily thinking immediately: ‘What’s in it for me?’

You can always have conversations with anyone, whether that’s at Sage, HP, Accenture or a new startup with one person. People are willing to give you their time in this region. I see this when I go to York or Hull too – they’re always very receptive about what we’re doing in the North East.

People are willing to learn from each other rather than seeing this as a way to compete with each other.

What would improve the digital economy in the North?

We need to improve education and show that these sorts of jobs are being created. Teachers, careers advisors and parents need to know this.

The information needs to get out of just the digital sector and show people there is a role for everybody in the digital sector, not just the geeks of the world. We need to educate people that this is the reality of the sector.

What’s next for Geek Talent?

Growing the business in the UK and focusing on the North. We have a partnership with Tech North to embed our careers platform and we will launch that eventually nationally.

The laser focus will be on the UK for the next 12 months and then the next route will be the US and Australia. Australia is talking about STEM subjects and is moving away from mining to the knowledge economy.

What we are doing in the UK will be scaled up elsewhere.

ecommerce & marketplace, Startup stories, Topics, Newcastle, North East, Yorkshire