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Calling all North East tech start-ups: can you help us?

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Part Two of our series on tech start-ups in the North East of England will look at the quality of institutional support and resources available to start-ups, and whether some well-intentioned development programs are doing more harm than good to the local digital economy. We need you to tell us about your experiences with Business Link, Codeworks, One North East, North East Finance, NorthStar and everyone else. We want to know everything: the good, the bad and the hideously ugly. And we want you to tell us on the record (your name will printed next to the comments you make).

  • Are you an internet start-up CEO in the North East of England?
  • Have you worked in technology in the North East for a while?
  • Do you know the sector well?
  • Do you have experience of starting out, trying to get funding and asking for help and support?
  • Do you have a story to share – good or bad – about any publicly-funded bodies in the North East?
  • Do you have an opinion about the level of support and access to expert knowledge in the region?

Drop us a line by email or leave a comment below if you’d like to help. Feel free to tell us about your experiences anonymously (Chatham House rules) or off the record (in which case we won’t repeat them at all) as well, but please indicate which you’d prefer at the top of your message, or break your message into clear sections.

This is politically and financially sensitive stuff. We’re aware of that. But if you’d like to have your say (and who know, maybe even make a positive difference to the long-term economic health of the North East), get in touch.

[Cross-posted from Check both locations if you don’t want to miss out on any comments.]

  • » Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough :: Milo Yiannopoulos

    […] Visit this TechCrunch post and leave a comment if you’d like to help. Feel free to tell me of your experiences anonymously (Chatham House) or off the record (in which case I won’t repeat them at all) as well, but please indicate which it is clearly at the top of your message, or break your message into clear sections. Alternatively, you can call or email me privately (full contact info at the bottom of this page). […]

  • Anon

    [ Cross-posted from ]

    OK, staying anon but some initial comments and not wanting to rant but…

    Codeworks is funded by the RDA OneNorthEast to the tune of £2m per year. Thinking Digital is a great success and members (who pay subscriptions to Codeworks for Think and a Drink events) evangelise about the company but without RDA support would they exist? They operate from separate offices and have staff (admin, project management etc.) that overlap with the RDA so if this service is needed and there is no private sector alternative should the RDA run it directly and save the tax payer at least £1m a year? It was as shame that the Codeworks CEO could not meet with you but it seems he was at TED for the full 5 days. Another option for sustainability of Codeworks would be to actively seek VC funding so that they could stand on their own two feet which could provide the RDA with funds to plough back into the region, if the regional “star” Codeworks can raise a round of external finance (and not via NStar etc.!) this would be positive for the region.

    The RDA has lots of other businesses that are subsidiaries and “non profit” that distort the local market and in some cases appear to offer no value – eg The North East Regional Portal that has been in existence since 2001 and although has delivered against “targets” by being awarded projects directly by the RDA bypassing tender processes has also wasted public money by lacking focus, hiring staff and, like Codeworks, operating out of separate offices.

    There are many more “subsidiaries” not connected to the tech sector operating in a similar manner; who knows what money will be diverted to these with the new “clean energy” focus the region has.

    NorthStar, NSEI, Northern Finance (or whatever they are called) is not a “real” VC but is slowly, hopefully, becoming one? They are set up with European funds that are much needed in the region (and deserved to the region that pays their fair share into Europe) but have distributed the funds against RDA “targets” with little or no interest in actual exits – have they made any financial returns and if so what has happened with that money? Technical expertise within Northstar is limited but that should not be so much of a criticism as if they are focused on returns then that surely helps all of their portfolio businesses, if they are a distribution mechanism however then it is merely storing up problems for the future as all these new VAT registered businesses go out of business.

    Business Link is, well, Business Link and is on par with the rest of the country which is not an endorsement. Again wholly funded by the RDA it begs the question about efficient use of resources.

    Sunderland Software City sounds great in principle but the potential conflict of interest between an RDA board member, his new business providing software outsourcing and his brother in charge of this new initiative is a Private Eye story waiting to unfold.

    The region does not have any angel investors of quality (or non self certified wealth) in the region that know or understand tech, “under the radar” Hotspur Capital is probably the only real network but that seems top secret at the moment.
    Organisations like Entrust rely on public funds and still operate in a 60’s manner of working, if you are a tech business then don’t waste any time with these unless your grandma really does understand your proposition and is willing to invest herself!

    Reasons for staying anon? – the RDA essentially holds the purse strings for business development in the region and most businesses looking to expand and grow are reliant on them and their various funded initiatives. Very few people (informally) have good words to say about the RDA but they are the 800lb gorilla in the room and there is no silverback ready to take them on or hold them to account which is a great shame.

  • Anon

    [ Cross-posted from ]

    I largely echo the thoughts of anon above and prefer to stay anon myself. Especially for those in the service sector, public criticism of the RDA and related bodes is a sure-fire way to get ignored and vilified covertly. It is also a great way to alienate yourself from potential customers as the community is well networked and everybody knows everyone else.

    Here are my thoughts on each of these organisations.

    One North East – The intent of One is very good and arguably they are much better than other RDAs in the country (I myself have experience of 2 others which were frankly pathetic, considering one is in a region we could consider “tech heavy”). The problem with One and general government thinking in the North East is that there is very little support for tech industries while they pour billions in essentially reviving dead industries like manufacturing, mining, ship building etc. I know this is a controversial statement but please let’s accept that we cannot compete with the Chinas, Indias and Easter Europes in terms of better manufacturing output and let’s use our knowledge-based workforce to get a competitive advantage providing premium services for premium. That is another long debate but essentially focus is One’s biggest problem.

    Codeworks – Codeworks is by far the most successful organisation when it comes to public-funded bodies (IMHO) in the North East. It is run by a good team and well-liked by many. However, I am not entirely sure their focus is right too. Thinking Digital, while a welcome addition and great PR for the North East, is just a smaller version of better conferences elsewhere. In the last 2 to 3 years, I feel that Codeworks is shifting the focus from promoting the companies in the North East and tangibly helping them out to promoting it’s own profile and it’s good deeds. I hate saying it but my opinion is Codeworks is going the direction of Techcrunch where it is all about the “cool” stuff and little about the many software and digital companies who make up a large part of the North East. How exactly is Thinking Digital promoting my company other than charging me ludicrous rates for a conference where I have to go hear re-hashed speeches from people saying the same thing year over year?

    Sunderland Software City, North East Regional Portal, etc etc – This is where I agree with anon that there are far too many “cost centres” that pretty much are trying to do the same thing. What is the point of SSC when Codeworks was doing the exact job before it came along? I know SSC “technically” has a different brief but given that ex-Codeworks staff work there (or even current), is this not just another distraction from actually doing some good work? I fear all these organisations are smoke screens to give the illusion that the North East has “great support” but are essentially many faces of the RDA with similar objectives but more cost. I also agree regarding the board member and links to another person but it should come as no surprise that even in the NE, there is an “Old Boys Network”. Frankly, I think the only people who complain are people like me who are not in it!

    Entrust – This has got to be the worst support body ever conceived! I completely agree with previous anon that no one at Entrust has a clue about the tech sector and what it takes to succeed. Everything they do, from the Graduate scheme to their funding is a huge hit and miss. Having used them, I can categorically say that except for free money, there is no value Entrust gives us as an organisation. This is a shame as I know a few good people there who are wasted in their current jobs.

    Business Link – Is slightly better than Entrust but nowhere on the scale of usefulness as Codeworks. I appreciate Business Link has a larger mandate than Codeworks does, but the red tape in some of the Business Link offices is unbelievable. They are useful once you manage to wade through the myriad complex rules and procedures but prepare to have a lot of patience to deal with. However, this is a generic problem with BL over the country and nothing specific to NE.

    NorthStar, NStar etc. are on par with many semi-private venture organisations across the country but the problem is with their funding philosophy and the organisations they fund. They do have a Proof of Concept fund which is designed to go into high-risk investments but looking at most of their investments, it looks clear they are sinking money into companies that might generate a huge PR profile but little actual returns. If they are generating returns, then I wonder if they are re-investing it in the region. I highly doubt this but I might be completely wrong in this scenario.

  • David King

    Being rather “wet behind the ears” in a business sense I can’t offer too much of an insight into the real hands on of dealing with the RDA’s, VC’s or their counterparts (things I would associate with larger ventures than ours). However I can certainly describe the help and direction we’ve received to guide our concept into maturity and stop us “effing” up in some way or another…

    In March this year, we had an idea and bugger-all business experience or knowledge (I’d worked as an ad-hoc freelancer for years, but what’s that good for?). A few of the bods at Sunderland Software City and Teeside Digital City were cool enough to see potential in our idea and encouraged us to join their crash courses for business. Both taught us the basic concepts we lacked (cashflow, planning, marketing, staffing, project management etc) as well as giving us a foot in the door with some very influential people. Without this help and support I *know* that the idea would have crashed and burned by now – certainly one way to show some of the local infrastructure works.

    Codeworks has bent over backwards to help me and Paul find the resources we and give us advice to help with the business (on a technical level, and recommending strategies etc). Their networking events ThinkingDigital and ThinkAndADrink are really very valuable, but whether that matches up with the amount of funding required is up for debate. I can see that Networking is *big* business and important to economic strength, so there’s pros and cons to be seen…

    PS – Oddly enough we wrote a condensed history of the journey we’ve taken so far on our blog:

    PPS – I’ll be one of the most chipper, optimistic person you’re likely to meet so my views are

  • David King

    …truncated apparently?! You get the picture

  • Paul King

    I’d like to shed a slightly different perspective on my brothers comments about the help we’ve received over the last 5 months or so.

    The Sunderland Software Ventures program has given us a great overview of many areas of business we were previously clueless about. They seem to have a knack of teaching the core elements of business to tech-savvy people without wasting time on unnecessary lesson “filler”. Another credit to the program is that post-Sunderland Software Ventures we still receive regular updates about events that will interest us within the sector, and possible PR opportunities.

    Teeside Digital City – As well as offering us money to live on as our idea is being developed, they also provide us with some invaluable resources. One such resource is the flexible mentor scheme whereby over the course of our fellowship we have 6 opportunities to hand pick mentors of our choice and spend a half day with them. Without this service we would have never been able to fly over a Danish programming student to help us with our project. Subsequently we have managed to implement the cutting edge Oauth technology used by Twitter, into our software.

    Codeworks demand a lot of respect in the North East and with due reason. As we have risen to the challenges faced by a small growing tech company, Codeworks have remained one step beside us in some capacity or other. Whether that be through local schemes we’ve been involved with, or by providing us with excellent networking opportunities like ThinkAndADrink, they have helped to speed up our growth enormously.

    OneNorthEast seem to have been instrumental in all of the above, providing funding which makes these programs possible. Further to that however, we have also found them to be inspirational in encouraging start-ups themselves. Their North East ambassadors scheme is something we are heavily involved with, it’s vision to promote the North East as a great place to live and work. Which naturally we agree with!

    Other organisations like Finance Tree, Nstar, and Business Link have all made themselves prominent at events we’ve attended, with a view to offering finance to the “right people”. Yet as a young business we haven’t arrived at a position where we’ve asked for the help of such giants. Still I feel confident that we’d know where and how to turn to them, and that itself seems like a positive thing.

    Thanks for reading


  • Milo Yiannopoulos

    [ Cross-posted from ]

    I agree with most of the above anon’ comments.

    I agreed with some of the content of your original Grim up North article – not so much with the tone or lack of real evidence – really glad you are taking the time to have a closer look at the region. I felt I could not publicly agree with what you said for fear of suffering adverse consequences in the region. The region is close knit – which is a plus – but could also act against you if you dare to be critical of the key players and purse holders in the region.

    We (tech start ups) are at a disadvantage in the region – there is insufficient knowledge or support available. There are few tech savvy investors. The bodies that should be supportive of companies often put up barriers in the way they set up competing offshoots/not for profits who seem to have very little accountability. Projects awarded to these offshoot bodies are hailed a great success all too readily via active PR depts – without tangible benefits to the region or businesses ever being required of them. There is a lot of waste of resources.

    While there is clearly a need for a regional body such as the RDA – ONE – it needs to be looked at and “trimmed” down to refocus – and maybe with a change in government it may happen. We live in hope.

    We as a company have considered moving out of the region due to these reasons – which is drastic – given most of our team are well established in the region and have personal roots here and love the region.

    Dig deep Milo! – really sorry am unable to go on the record – we are hoping your investigations will wake up some of the bodies concerned and even lead to some positive changes – no pressure! Thanks for your efforts thus far.

  • Stuart Varrall

    Here’s my initial take on all this…

    Quick intro, I moved up to the North East to study and stayed up here to start a company, Fluid Pixel almost exactly 2 years ago. It’s been a great successfully and during that time I have experienced most of what the NE has to offer support wise.
    I’ve used, not relied on, the various bodies at different points during the business development.

    Early stage: IDI (Institute of Digital Innovation then Digital City) for business training, Teesside University for Incubation and training, UKTI & Digital City Business for Trade Missions.
    More recently: Business Link for training, Codeworks for placements and events, NFM for networking, NStar for funding to name a few.

    IDI are doing some great stuff and have some really exciting projects coming out of their support system. Having come out of their mentoring during its infancy, I’m now on the mentoring team seeing some great prospects that they’re giving opportunities to.

    Codeworks have provided a great help, have a great placement scheme and hold the best networking events (parties) that are always worth attending. They’re also trying to raise the bar through their conferences, which have both been great this year.

    Teesside Uni are helping to support new companies through incubation space and free workshops in all areas of business. They’ve got a great team and helped me out a lot along the way.

    I’ve had a mixed experience with Business Link as initially they didn’t seem to provide much assistance, but it ultimately comes down to the advisor so now that I’ve found someone who understands the business and can guide me through the red tape I’m getting a great service from them; I’ll be clinging onto her!

    Another body, Northern Film and Media are also emerging as a useful asset with project funding, events and networking opportunities, so one to look out for.

    Thanks to assistance from NStar I have just started a 2nd company, ImobiGo. It took a while to get their support and they pushed us hard (I’m glad they did) to improve our offering and delve further into the technology and our implementation of it before agreeing the investment. Are they funding the right businesses, who knows – let’s hope so!

    Would I be where I am, further ahead or even given up by now if I were somewhere else? Who knows? All I know is I’m here, I’m glad I started a company here and I’m making the most of the opportunities and support available and trying to give back to the community along the way. Will I be here indefinitely? I don’t know. I’ll do whatever is best for the company at the time, and right now that’s certainly here.

    I’d be happy to chat with you further; this is only scratching the surface of my experience of funding and support in the area.

  • Charlie Hoult

    I’m fresh to Newcastle’s start-up scene from 20 years in London, where I ran First Tuesday as a start-up networking organisation. I started my first business aged 26 and grew that to 400 people. I’m now back to my roots and working on practical ways that start-ups can grow and prosper. I’m just launching NomadNewcastle, an incubator deskspace for small teams to work in an open plan collaborative office environment – for £40 per week. Get out of the bedroom and into this space with others.
    It’s all a bit depressing to have to review the support organisations. JFDI, guys.

  • Calling all North East tech start-ups: can you help us? « new media monthly

    […] by Milo Yiannopoulos on July 27, 2009 Posted in Jobs […]

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