The Story of Tech Britain

Four Failures & a Restart

Back in the spring of 2008 a Southern entrepreneur met a Northern entrepreneur upstairs in a popular nightclub in Manchester’s City Centre (....this, by the way, is not the start of a bad joke!). Little did these two entrepreneurs know,.... a chain of events was about to unfold that would bind them together on a path which would eventually lead to Buckingham Palace and beyond.

Doug Ward was a successful nightlife photography entrepreneur with a team of over 50 members spread across 12 UK cities. They sold a variety of products ranging form key rings to social media consultancy for bars and clubs. Having dropped out of University just a year before where he studied Law and French, Doug had realized very early on that his passion lay in business or more specifically what business would enable him to do.

Before turning his back on his corporate job and deciding to start a business in 2008, Shaun Gibson had been an international telecommunications consultant, working for a variety of clients across the world. At the time all Shaun knew was that he wanted to start a business, but what that business was, had yet to be worked out. Moving from Sydney, Australia back to London he had set up a series of start-ups including a smoothie bar and an electronics ecommerce company. However Shaun quickly realized that throughout the various projects one integral component was missing…a passion for the idea.

It was passion for an idea called NightWorld, that brought these two unlikely business partners together and has kept them together ever since. The story of NightWorld is a novel in itself but in short, their excitement and determination to see this startup come to fruition saw Doug and Shaun close down their individual business ventures and move out to Sydney in order to build the NightWorld prototype. Raising almost £500,000 from personal savings, friends and family along the way, they made almost every mistake in the book before the company ran out of funds at the end of 2009. At this point the two entrepreneurs found themselves back in the UK on their respective parents couches having lost their apartments, cars and unsurprisingly girlfriends. It was at this point in time the difference in cultures between the UK and the United States became painfully apparent. In the UK they were ostracised and written off as failures, with no hope of ever recovering. Where-as they found their friends in the States celebrating their failure and congratulating them on having tried.

For many this would have been the end of the story, however Doug and Shaun had made a commitment, not just to one another but to each person who had backed them. Whatever happened they would make it. So they focused on the only resource they had left available to them...time!and decided to learn how to code so that they could build the MVP for NightWorld themselves.

Wind the clock forward to the start of 2012.

Both felt they had self learnt enough to allow them to build the prototype for NightWorld. This time they decided to take a different approach,  taking a long term view and agreeing on a 50 year plan. The first part of this plan was to do something good, to give back to the community... 

Where is the best place to base your startup?

Sat in Manchester at the start of 2012 Doug and Shaun found themselves asking; where is the best place to base a startup? Upon researching this further they found that the British media had a very London centric focus often relating to East London's 'Silicon Roundabout' cluster. Upon looking in more depth they found that there was no shortage of information about this community, one such resource being the Tech City Map.

When trying to piece together a similar picture on other clusters around the UK such as even in Manchester where they were based, they found it incredibly laborious and difficult to come up with any where near as much information. Out of frustration with the lack of information about tech startup clusters outside of London, they decided to take action into their own hands and build a TechCity type map for the whole of the UK.

This would not only help them to discover more about which community they wanted to base their startup in, but also enable them to give something back.

This was to be no small feat mind you considering that neither of them had two pennies to rub together, but they resolved that in order to do it justice and best represent the clusters identified, they would need to visit each of them and meet with the various influencers/founders who made up the ecosystems. A key aim from inception was that they didn't want to just plot the different startup clusters on a map but to also show the human side to each of the communities, as ultimately its the people in the ecosystem that make it what it is.

It was decided that one good way to initially highlight the people in each community was through conducting video interviews with the various influencers in order to not only share their stories but also find out what their perspectives were on their community and if they had any advice to anyone thinking of starting up there.

Megabuses, Couch Surfing & Digestives

After weeks of research Doug and Shaun identified an initial 13 startup communities they felt it necessary to profile and proceeded to plan out the infamous "Tech Britain tour" of 2012. Having little more than some scant goodwill they were able to borrow enough money to buy a camera, book a series of bus tickets and afford a daily expense allowance of £10 between the two of them. Undeterred the boys had little choice but to be creative on the accommodation front and so boldly took to Couch Surfing to see if they could string together a series of hosts for each community along the way.

The Tech Britain tour kicked off in May 2012 with no fixed timeline for completion, it would take as long as it would take to get the job done. Facilitated through the extensive use of often 8hour Megabus journeys, the initial tour took in; Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Belfast, Londonderry, Newry, Birmingham, Cardiff, Exeter, Bath, Bristol, London and Manchester, all fuelled on a diet of Caramel digestives and Gregg's.  The tour ended up lasting for 13 weeks, during which time they interviewed a cross section of each community ranging from Computer Science professors, to successful founders, meet up organizers and co-working space operators. Given the limited resources there were occasions when a host would let them down leading to some nights being spent in bus stations, and often a daily 10 mile round walk from host accommodation to interview location. Yet minus their iPods which they had to pawn along the way the two of them made it to the end of the tour in one piece although a few kgs heavier than when they had started.

The Tech Britain team had met with some incredible individuals along the way and were bowled over by the breadth of talent and opportunity in each of the communities. With a burning desire to ensure they didn't overlook anywhere they set out on a second tour in the autumn of 2012 upon which they visited; Cambridge, Dundee, Brighton, Sheffield, Leeds & Liverpool, albeit under less severe circumstances this time although still using the Megabus and couch surfing technique!

Brimming with findings, some questionable quality videos and a lot of stories to share, Doug and Shaun got to work on the first version of which was to be not just be a map of communities, but rather a map of stories of which those communities comprised. After hacking together a very bug prone prototype and launching the site in September of 2012 they were taken aback by the overwhelmingly positive response from the community. They were also, fully aware of the need to rapidly iterate on the first version in order to truly do the project justice. It was at this point that Tech Britain's incredibly talented Northern Irish CTO, Alistair Adams, joined the project having despaired at the first version of the site but also been inspired by the vision the project encompassed. Alistair, quite wisely, chose to not use the prototype as a foundation and quickly built the main Tech Britain site, which won a lot of acclaim and praise from the community.

Up to this point everything they had done had been achieved on the back of bootstrapping with just £5,000, a far cry from their first undertaking with NightWorld.

Bedrooms to Buckingham Palace

When Doug and Shaun boarded the first Megabus from Manchester to Glasgow on the 7th of May 2012 they had no idea where the journey would ultimately lead them. Beyond desiring to see the project through to completion and wanting to create something that would help to show all of Tech Britain. Never did they expect to meet so many inspiring and successful individuals along the way such as Gareth Williams from SkyScanner, Herb Kim from Thinking Digital and Mary McKenna from Learning Pool. Nor did they expect to find themselves sat down in HM Treasury 10 weeks into their initial tour sharing their experiences with the Cabinet Office, being asked how they could potentially assist the government in reaching the various communities around the UK they had already visited.

In March of 2013 Doug and Shaun were invited to take part in the inaugural UK Business & Cluster Summit scheduled to be held at number 10 Downing Street. Hosted by Joanna Shields, CEO of Tech City Investment Organization. This was a truly great honour to them, it was recognition as to the importance that Tech Britain could have to the UK tech startup clusters.Of all the Cluster Summit members in attendance, the majority representing their respective Clusters, Doug and Shaun were there to represent all of Tech Britain, having been the only people to have visited each of the communities. It was agreed that the Cluster Summit would occur every 16 weeks and an even greater honour was bestowed upon the two when they were invited to present to HRH Prince Andrew at the second Summit held at Buckingham Palace. Given the opportunity to share their vision for the future of Tech Britain the team won not only the support of TCIO and the wider Cluster Summit delegation but His Royal Highness as well.

Just getting started

Born out of very humble beginnings and just an idea that was felt needed to exist, Tech Britain is now on track to receive full funding and support from both the public and private sector, with the execution on the next phase of development. Some exciting plans lay in store for the future. Tech Britain will progressively become a national open data project with the most current and accurate data on startup activity across the UK. Tech Britain will be the portal for not only connecting with and allowing for discovery of startup communities but also for actively supporting all sizes of startup and entrepreneurs at any level. Tech Britain is a project for the community by the community with the best interests of the community at its core.

The aim was and is to do the best job possible by each of the communities Tech Britain represents and ultimately to highlight the amazing level of activity across the United Kingdom. 

After all it's not just a Tech City, it's Tech Britain.