How Sheffield Digital champions tech in the city (and how you can help)

Kane Fulton, June 2, 2017 5 min read

This article was originally posted on the Tech North website.

Sheffield Digital recently celebrated its second birthday. Rather than experiencing a case of the ‘terrible twos,’ the membership-backed organisation, which champions the digital sector on behalf of businesses and individuals working in it, has seen its profile continue to rise.

Plusnet, one of the biggest employers in the sector to reside in the south Yorkshire city, recently joined the organisation as a fully paid-up member. It joins a list that includes Sky Betting & Gaming, Snake Pass developer Sumo Digital, and Tech North Northern Voice Cari Kirby from games studio Team Cooper. Sheffield Digital has also held a series of Conflabs – open sessions held to discuss digital policy with stakeholders in digital across the Sheffield city region.

For the organisation’s co-founders Mel Kanarek and Chris Dymond, the challenge now is growing membership and attracting more companies in particular. In a recent blog post, Kanarek reiterated Sheffield Digital’s aims and how joining as a paid member will help it achieve them. We spoke to the pair to find out more.

What was the reason Sheffield Digital started up two years ago?

Mel Kanarek: Because every time I went out and spoke to a digital business, one of the things that they complained about was that they couldn’t find out what was going on in the city; or nobody was taking any notice of them. Digital had the potential to be really big and awesome in Sheffield, but somebody needed to make it happen.

Chris Dymond: As we saw in the Tech City Tech Nation 2017 report, our digital concentration [the geographic concentration of businesses in a city relative to the UK average] is 0.19. We have the least digital concentration of any of the 30 clusters, so our sector’s never been given much attention or representation by policymakers, economic bodies and institutions in the city region.

What are you proudest of having achieved so far?

Mel: People tell me that they’re hearing about Sheffield Digital everywhere they go. We have profile and traction now, but the big thing is how we do something with that and keep the ball rolling.

Chris: Things used to happen all of the time without anybody knowing about them and there was no coordination. Now, nothing really happens that we’re not aware of. We’re not instigating anything that happens and that’s fine – we don’t want to be – but it’s rare that people start an initiative now and don’t talk about it. The challenge is how to convert that information and involve people in the community.

Mel: That’s where resource becomes a real constraint. We need to fix and find the answer to that, otherwise we’ll just carry on as we are. That would be no bad thing but we’re in a position to really make things happen now, which we want.

Sheffield Digital’s Slack community has passed 600 users. How do you get more of them to sign up as paying members?

Chris: I think many people sign up to see what it’s like and drift off. There’s a lot of chatter which is fantastic, and people use it regularly, but a lot aren’t very high up in their organisations and don’t see signing up as their responsibility.

Mel: Part of the challenge is that on an individual level, people know they’re using free tools like Slack and as such don’t see why they should pay. We need to do a better job of explaining what takes up a lot of our time that isn’t visible but will benefit everybody in the long run. For me, having individuals onboard is great as it helps with engagement and commitment, but I really want companies because that says we’re the digital industries’ association; it lends us clout.

Plusnet, one of those big companies, joined Sheffield Digital recently…

Chris: Plusnet came onboard seven weeks ago. They’re a massive player – one of the biggest tech employers in the city with 1,200 people. We tried to woo them as a member two years ago but could never convince them that we could deliver on certain things.

Two years down the line they’re onboard as a member, and there’s loads we want to do to support them – such as collaborating on the skills agenda. We also want to organise events and invite policymakers and local authorities – that’s the catalytic potential we’re trying to release.

Sheffield Digital has played an increasing role in facilitating discussion around policy and digital. How have your Conflabs been received?

Chris: They’re a really important mechanism – we wanted to do quarterly policy events and roundtable discussions that the community could be involved in, and we’ve communicated them well since the beginning.

It took us a long time to get them going, starting small and then doing the second one in conjunction with Creative Sheffield. They basically said ‘we’ll sponsor you to do four more as they’re an important way of us testing our ideas and policies, and what we intend to do within the sector.’ Having company members signed up makes all of that so much easier.

Plans to turn Castle House into a £3.5 million digital hub for startups have been revealed. How might that spur on digital in the city?

Chris: I think it will have a big impact. To be honest, Kollider Project, which won the tender, has a vision that goes much further than the money they’ve got from the treasury. They’re not tech people – they’re from Sheffield but it’s kind of a bigger deal to them. It’s a regeneration project to revitalise part of the city, but they need community and the digital sector onboard to deliver it.

Mel: The thing to remember there is that it’s capital money. Once that’s been spent on the building, the big questions are: what’s going to happen; how will it be funded; who’s going to get involved in it; and how will it benefit the city? We’ve had lots of positive conversations with them and their plans are due soon.

What digital and tech startups on the Sheffield scene are catching your eye right now?

Mel: Epiphany VR is doing interactive 360-degree VR artwork, which I haven’t seen but sounds very cool. I think the poster child is [2016 Northern Stars finalist] Tutorful, who are growing as fast as they possible can and recently doubled their crowdfunding raise. I have a suspicion that there are startups we don’t know about.

Chris: We had some maturing startups last year, such as Mobile Power and Databowl. Twile and Receptive are going strong, and then there’s Joe from Additive Manufacturing Technologies. AMT was granted £600,000 from Innovate UK to develop a 3D printing process – basically industrial-scale 3D printing finishing – to make finished surfaces product-ready in a whole range of different materials. There’s a bunch of startups coming out of advanced manufacturing and that’s probably where we are [as a city].

You said it took a while to get the local media’s attention. Why was that?

Mel: Like the rest of the city infrastructure, they’re naturally focused on more traditional industries. People often said to me that they didn’t understand digital, so we started to explain it in a way that’s understood – like jobs, or GVA (Gross Value Added). That gave them a hook, which local media needs. If they contact us now we can quickly give them somebody to talk to, and a relationship starts to build. It’s not their fault.

What do you want to achieve in your third year?

Mel: To be able to hire somebody to keep all of the nuts and bolts running so that we know the organisation is in safe hands. Chris and I could use what time we have available to do lobbying and focus on strategy.

Chris: I want payoff for the first three years. I want to convert what we’ve done into support and hire somebody to do the day-to-day running, but ideally I also want to turn it into a proper organisation that’s well enough funded for us to focus on it full-time.

How to, Sheffield, Yorkshire, Tech Nation Report 2017