Manchester founders focused on tech success

There is little regret at the departure of David Cameron, but in some circles he continues to be praised for one thing at least.

His decision to plant a flag on Old Street roundabout and declare the Coalition’s backing for a community of tech businesses on the fringes of the City continues to be remembered as a powerful endorsement of the UK’s commitment to building tech businesses with global appeal.

Six years on and London’s Shoreditch is far and away the jewel in Europe’s tech scene and other UK cities are keen to import some of the startup magic.

Perhaps the closest competitor to the capital is Manchester, which has developed a vibrant tech community of its own in the last four years.

Manchester’s tech and science credentials are huge. This is the birthplace of the modern computer and the cradle of graphene. The North west has also been the starting point for no fewer than eight so-called unicorns, the name for tech businesses that have sales worth a $1 billion.

But it is the possibility of finding a future tech star that is attracting London-based investors like BGF Ventures to the city. BGF Ventures, which has about £200 million to invest in tech companies with the potential to become household names, held a founders event for the Manchester’s tech community last week.

Around 80 people braved a Mancunian downpour to come along and meet the BGFVentures team and participate in a panel debate about Manchester and all things tech, smoothly chaired by Martin Bryant, the communities editor of Tech North.

We heard Simon Calver, one of the founding partners of BGFVentures and a former chief executive of LoveFilm, explain what sort of companies BGFVentures was interested in. We heard Richard Potter, the founder and chief executive of Peak, a young data analytics company, tell companies that they should still be prepared to get on a train to London to find investors and we heard Claire Braithwaite, former tech advisor to Manchester Growth Company and now a partnerships consultant at the Co-op’s fast growing digital arm, on why it was critical to address the gender imbalance in the industry and make sure girls didn’t loose interest in coding after 12.

But what was most fascinating and instructive were the conversations around the room, when the formal bit of the evening was over and the wine resumed flowing.

The founders I spoke to were enthusiastic and brimming with ideas. Their businesses were successful and not a few were already profitable.

They were also confident of their ability to overcome the problems that were besetting the region. Skill shortages were endemic and hiring was very difficult; yet they were convinced that selling the benefits of being in Manchester - lower cost of living, great thriving culture, easy access to the beautiful Northern countryside – would help with hiring.

While there were potentially wealthy investors in the area, they had had not made their money in tech and were cautious about investing in it; but there were moves afoot to create angel networks and Manchester’s tech successes – which include AO.com, boohoo.com and privately owned The Hut Group – would help create a first generation of angel investors.

Big companies, including Sainsbury’s and the BBC - were sucking up all the developers in the region; but there would always be some people who would learn as much as they could from a corporate environment then decide to set up on their own or join a startup.

One founder, Rachael Turner, described how her social enterprise, Madlab, finds brilliant women in their 30s, 40s and 50s who could code faster than they can write a shopping list. “Diamonds in the rough,” she called them. Other tech founders told me that the best thing about the community was that you could always find someone to help you or suggest someone else who could help. No one was too busy or to grand to offer advice.

Manoj Ranweera was typical of the experienced entrepreneurs who turned up. Despite having had two successful tech company exits, he still networked like a 20-something and was very proud to say that he knew almost everyone in the room.

The founder of PushDoctor.com, Eren Ozagir, was keen to talk about how Manchester could be his company’s springboard to China and Poland, two markets that he has identified as ideal for his digital doctor services which already connects UK patients with over 7,000 GPs online in just 6 minutes.

To some extent venture capital and early seed investors are pushing out to Britain’s regional cities because London is pretty much saturated with eager investors seeking the next big scalable business. Former investment bankers and VC investors who have never been much beyond Watford Gap might be thinking that they too will find “diamonds in the rough”.

But they should be wary of patronising this vibrant tech community which is on an upwards trajectory. Direct flights from Manchester to San Francisco start next year and entrepreneurs are already looking beyond these islands.

In future politicians will have to go a lot further than E1 to embrace the UK’s tech talent.

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