Last week saw Tech North bring their Summer Showcase events to Sheffield. The aim was for the team at Tech North to share what they are up to and what they have planned for the future. But it was also a chance for people in Sheffield’s tech and digital sector to meet up and learn more about what’s happening in the city.
Our own Chris Dymond kicked things off on behalf of Sheffield Digital. He covered a wide range of topics, from Sheffield’s many current success stories to how Sheffield Digital itself is moving on from its ‘startup phase’. Chris was followed by a great Q&A session with a four-strong panel featuring Sheffield companies, including Team Cooper, WANdisco and The Floow.
David Walsh has put together a great write up of the event in the Sheffield Star. The piece has lots of ace things to say and it’s fantastic to see the sector covered in such positive light.
Read Chris’ talk in full
I couldn’t make it to the event, but watching the (sadly, poor quality) video of Chris’ talk, I thought it would be good for everyone to have access to what he said. So I’ve embedded his slides, transcribed the entire talk and popped in a few headings to help you navigate its 4000 or so words.
On an exciting year so far
“I want to give you an update about where we are with Sheffield Digital. I want to have a look back at the last six months and talk about what’s coming in the pipeline.
“2017 so far has been really exciting. There’s loads that’s happened in the tech and creative digital sector in Sheffield. Some of this stuff we’ve been involved with – I don’t want to take credit for any of this stuff, some of the stuff had nothing to do with us at all – but it’s worth mentioning because not many people really know about it.”
On the Digital Snapshot report
“So there’s the Tech Nation report produced by Tech City UK, and the Digital Snapshot Report, which was produced by the University of Sheffield’s Vanessa Toulmin and Creative Sheffield. The latter report is online now and you can go and read it. It shows a spotlight on our creative digital industries. That’s our marketing agencies, brand agencies, digital artists, games and entertainment companies, and all other activities that are going on. It’s a snapshot – a moment in time, if you like – for the city, in those industries.
“The Snapshot Report shows how buoyant the industry is. It shows how many companies are looking to hire and their turnover, things like that.”
On more tech stories in the press
“Another thing that has happened this year was Plusnet and the Sheffield Star hosting a roundtable with the tech industry, just to talk about some of this stuff and understand it better. As a result, we’ve had a lot more articles in the local press about tech companies and what’s going on in the sector.
“Last week, there was a digital supplement inside the Telegraph – about eight pages of interviews and information about the tech sector. It’s great to have that relationship. It’s great for us to be able to talk to David Walsh, who is here, and to get some of those stories out. To get more of the city understanding what our industry is about and what it’s doing.”
On Hallam’s degree apprenticeships
“Sheffield Hallam University launched their degree apprenticeship scheme this year. This is a scheme whereby companies can take on an apprentice for three years, and while they work on apprenticeship wages, they also earn an honours degree at the same time. It combines degree academic learning with being an apprentice – and it’s had massive take up.
“So we worked with Hallam earlier this year to try and get more local, smaller companies to take on apprentices. It’s funded through the apprenticeship levy. Small companies basically get funded, as well as the apprentice, who ends up not needing to be in debt or pay any fees to the university. They get a wage while they’re learning and it’s a great way for small companies – or large companies – to bring on staff, train them and get them qualifications at the same time.
“It would be really great if more local companies took this up. Six months ago, we weren’t sure how many people were going to be on these courses, or whether there would be enough to even run. They are fully subscribed for September and they are going to be running additional courses starting in January, as result of the uptake.
“A lot of the companies are from outside the region. There is one small company in Bedford, for example, who are sending 10 apprentices on the scheme. They have doubled their workforce because they see this scheme as a way to get a head start on building talent and a core team. The whole scheme is kind of a first. There are not many universities doing this with computing courses yet.”
On bids in progress
“The University of Sheffield are part of a bid for the Institute of Coding. It looks like, on paper, the strongest bid. We’ve got really high hopes about this. They are in a consortium with the Open University, FutureLearn and The Tech Partnership, as well as a few others. Hopefully, we will find out in the next month or two whether or not the Institute of Coding is going to be awarded here in Sheffield. If it does, it will be absolutely fantastic for the city.
“There’s also the Channel 4 relocation bid that’s going on. Sheffield is throwing its hat into the ring and it’s got a pretty strong bid. We’ve got to wait and see how that pans out.”
On the Sheffield City Region action plan
“There is also the Sheffield City Region action plan, which was commissioned at the beginning of this year. It’s being produced by SQW in Manchester. This is basically a view of the digital sector across the region, especially looking at the digital skills – base level and advanced skills – coming into the industry. The action plan is due to be released next month. We’re all waiting to see what kind of recommendations it makes and what kind of picture it paints of the industry in Sheffield, and across the region.”
On incubators, hubs and workspaces
“Then there’s loads of news around new incubators and hubs and workspaces. We’ve been working with Hallam on investigating the potential of turning the NXP building on Furnival Street into a new digital hub. There is also work on converting the old co-op building. I spoke to the Kollider guys two days ago and they still think that an announcement is imminent. They have signed a number of deals. They have still got a few deals to sign off, but they are looking at, basically, filling a large portion of their £80,000 fee with technology incubators and accelerators.
“The original MakerHub is now essentially an entrepreneurship development organisation. They are looking specifically at scale-ups – startups who are through that first stage of investment. They are looking to take those sorts of companies and support them to kick on to the next level, build ambition and build business plans to allow them to grow.
“And there’s a handful of other workspace projects that are going on at the moment, to say nothing of all of the other work spaces that are coming on stream. The Acero building, which is the next phase of the digital campus, opened two weeks ago, and as far as I’m aware, they’ve got an anchor tenant lined up who is going to take at least one floor.
“Then the Steel City House – that’s on stream now. Plus the spare capacity in St Paul’s Place is being filled with three companies moving in there. There’s the NRQ and HSBC’s new headquarters that are being built. I think we had 15 cranes on the national crane count a couple of weeks ago, which is the best I think Sheffield had for about 10 years!
“So there is a whole load of development work going on in the city and a lot of positivity amongst the business community in general as well, and the digital and tech community is part of that.”
On the Digital Leader Awards
“Moving on to the Digital Leader Awards. The awards have happened every year for the last five years, I think, and I don’t think Sheffield has ever won anything. It won two awards this year! Helen Milner from Good Things Foundation is Digital Leader of the Year, which is fantastic for her, and them and us. And the Sheffield Flourish project won Digital Leader Charity of the Year. That’s Roz Davies and Dr Brendan Stone and the team building a digital platform for mental health services. So we have two digital leaders who took away gongs that night.”
On good news for Sheffield companies
“We’ve also had Jaywing relocate from outside the city to a spanking new office just down the road here. They converted a beautiful old works building. Then we have got the Google Digital Garage that has moved in. It’s the first time Google have had a presence on the UK high street.
“Zoo Digital have moved offices and expanded. Sumo have released their first original game, which has gone straight to the top of the charts. It was the first number one on the Nintendo Switch charts. Tutora have expanded and completed their Crowdcube a fundraiser. The Floow are expanding – I think 60 new positions by Christmas. And WANdisco have just won $30 million worth of business.
“Pimoroni are now the second-fastest growing engineering business in the UK. Databowl and 3Squared are expanding. Appt has just set up in China. Born + Raised has moved to a beautiful new office in an old grain silo, which was listed as the best workspace in the north by Agent Media about two weeks ago. Lightworks Design has just moved to a beautiful new office space out at the Barracks.”
On what now for Sheffield Digital
“So, with all this activity going on, there is a lot of positivity and a lot of things that haven’t really happened before. For us at Sheffield Digital, it’s really time to take stock over the summer. As some of you know – some of you were here for our second anniversary party six weeks ago – we are moving out of our startup phase. We are growing up.
“What that means is we are transitioning from being funded by our founding members into being funded principally by membership sign-ups. We’ve taken on a Community Manager, Iain Broome. He’s going to be running the day-to-day engagement and publishing – all of the things that we do to promote and connect the sector.
“That’s what those memberships goes towards paying for. We have individual and company memberships. That money basically goes to paying for Iain’s work. We have him for the next four months and we want to increase that membership to keep on paying him beyond that.”
On strategic partnerships
“Having a Community Manager has freed Mel and myself up to work on strategic relationships with specific organisations that come on board. Associate Sponsors, which are companies that want to work with the digital sector, but essentially have services to sell the digital sector. So we don’t accept them as members, because our membership should consist of people in the sector. So we have associates sponsors, who are organisations that want to engage with and support the sector through the sponsorship. And we also have Regional Partnerships with other entities locally and in the region, who we work with on joint agendas, if you like.”
On our current members, partners and sponsors
“We have seven founding members and I’m going to mention them because they are the people who got us off the ground in the first place. Lightworks Design, Sumo Digital, Sky Gaming and Betting, the University of Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University, Tech North, and Sheffield Technology Parks.
“We have three associate sponsors in Affecto, Shorts and now Northcoders, who joined us last week. Finally, we have two regional partners. One is Barnsley DMC and the other we announced a couple of weeks ago, the AMRC. We are now working with the AMRC to create links between the digital sector and advanced manufacturing.
“On top of all that, we have 32 company members. These include companies ranging from the size of Plusnet to small micro businesses. We have 40+ individuals that pay for membership too – and can now do so on a monthly basis.”
On our current reach
“In terms of our reach, we now have 453 newsletter subscribers. June was the biggest month for the website with over 1,700 unique visitors. We have 672 people on our community Slack, where there are daily conversations about all sorts of topics. People meet and ask questions and organise things – there is so much organising going on in our Slack. We have over 2000 Twitter followers.
“So far, 80 employers have taken advantage of our jobs board, advertising 162 jobs. There are currently 24 tech jobs open on the board. The duration is a month – they automatically fall off the bottom after a month – which gives you an idea of how that activity is ramping up as well.”
On the AMRC and Northcoders
“Just to mention again the work we are doing with the AMRC. So that’s the Factory 2050 building, which is now full of projects. Most of those projects involve machine vision or projection mapping. There is loads of opportunity for tech companies and people in the tech industry to work with advanced manufacturing to create more value for our businesses.
“We are developing, basically, a connected pipeline between tech talent in small companies through Kollider and the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District out to the AMRC. There will be a series of events that we are running with them to get people to understand what the challenges of the industry are and how digital can benefit them.
“As I mentioned, Northcoders have come on board as a sponsor. They run 12-week bootcamps to get people job ready, providing an additional componentsof the talent pipeline to our tech companies. So far, they’ve run bootcamps from Manchester and other places, but they’re going to want to do them in Sheffield as well. And we also have Sheffield students on their courses, who are completing and looking to find work here.”
On having more to announce soon
“And we have got some more to announce! One of the things that happens over the summer is we’ve had lots of conversations about stuff that bubbles away. But we’re not allowed to talk about any of them until we’ve got press releases sorted and can make formal announcements. We have some really big announcements to make. We have some new partners coming on board – both regional partners and associate sponsors – that we’re going to be announcing in the next month, hopefully.”
On a new podcast and newsletter
“So, how do we continue all of this work that we have done so far? Our mission is to promote, connect and represent the tech and creative digital industries in Sheffield. As far as promoting is concerned, bringing in a community manager and giving them the tools to do this stuff is the first step in taking it to the next level. We are going to be upping engagement.
“We are going to be doing a regular podcast and sending out newsletters at the rate of one every two weeks. It’s just about keeping people informed of all the things that are going on in the sector as it hots up. We also do company spotlights, whether startups and small companies or big organisation. We write short articles about them and highlight what they do to the rest of the community, here and externally.”
On sharing #-goodnews
“We also have a channel in Slack called #-goodnews. People mention even small stuff, like ‘I’ve just completed a course,’ or ‘I’ve just put a project live that I’ve been working on for six months.’ And if anyone would like to pipeline stories through, we can share them with the rest of the community. But also with the Star and the city to highlight the fact that this stuff is happening, and people are working on some really major things that have kind of gone under the radar. A lot of these companies work outside of Sheffield and do work that’s internationally significant, but their stories never filter back. So that’s one channel we’ve got for that.
“We will carry on navigating all of the tech events that go on in the city and beyond. They go into a single calendar on our website that you can look at and subscribe to, so you can be informed about what’s happening. Same with jobs and our ecosystem map, which gives you an idea of where companies are located. It includes co-working and other facilities in the city.”
On Slack, social and Geek Brekky
“In terms of connecting, we are going to carry on using Slack and social media. The uptake on Slack has gone up again over the last month or so. Lots of people are joining, talking and creating new channels. They create little communities to organise things or get things off the ground.
“We will continue to do our regular Friday morning networking event at Tamper coffee, Geek Brekky. I think I missed three weeks last year, so we are there pretty much every Friday morning (apart from this August as we’re away for most of the month). Anyone can drop in and talk to us. It’s been really good to engage with institutional stakeholders in the city – like from the council and Sheffield City Region – who just come and meet us there.
“We’ve got busy lives and this is not our day jobs, so to have two hours on a Friday morning where we know where we are going to be is great. We can turn around to people and say, ‘If you want to come and talk to us, come to Tamper at nine o’clock on a Friday morning.’ You can talk to us, but you can talk to anyone else. There’s no agenda. But lots of good stuff comes out of those engagements.”
On the first Meta Meetup
“We ran the first Meta Meetup about two weeks ago at the Google Digital Garage. It’s the first meetup for meetup organisers, a meta-meetup, and we had over 40 event organisers turn up to talk about their events, including what they need, whether that’s sponsorship, venues, promotion or speakers. We crowdsourced a database of all of the regular, irregular and annual tech-related events in Sheffield. We’ve got about 70 identified – there are over 40 active ones. Lots of them are monthly or bi-monthly, so there is a community of people who run events now. And they are helping each other out.
“Where there is a demand for new events in particular areas, we can help people set them up. We can find them venues. We can find them sponsors. We can get the message out to the community to get them attendees. We’re going to run another Meta Meetup before the end of October, before Google Digital Garage shuts down.”
On digital policy conflabs
“We also do fairly regular Digital Policy Conflabs, which provide an opportunity for open debate around digital policy in the city or externally. We did one for Creative Sheffield earlier this year. Creative Sheffield have asked us to do once every quarter on issues that are relevant to the digital industries in Sheffield. We’re hoping to do the next one in September, so we are going to get the message out about that in the next couple of weeks or so. But it’s basically a way of feeding into the debate and policy, and getting policy makers in touch with the community in an open environment where people can have those conversations.”
On The Platform takeovers
“The Platform is an event that runs here at The Workstation most months. We sometimes take over curation every so often. We’ve done two this year and we’ll probably do some more before the end of the year. They are opportunities for us to get voices from the community on stage and out talking about their work, their projects and what they are doing.
On representing the sector
“Finally, there is the representing. This is the thing that maybe people are least aware of and does not show as obviously as how we promote and connect. But it’s actually what we spend most of our time doing – emailing and answering emails, going to meetings and talking to people about how to develop the things that are important to the digital sector; how to develop the talent pipeline to the universities; how to develop smart city programmes with the council and other actors.
“We talk to Sheffield City Region about how to develop the economy better. And Tech North, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, firms big and small, we are constantly talking and going to meetings and making sure that all the people we represent are in those meetings. We can influence in some ways, but also feed back to the community and ask questions about issues of policy.
“[For example] we wrote an open letter about the public wifi programme that the council put out for tender earlier this year. It resulted in us being asked to feed into the procurement process, to advise on the kind of questions they should be asking of people who are bidding.”
On what Sheffield Digital really does
“Finally, I want to talk about what we really do.
“We open spaces for debate, ideas, help, partnerships, deals, influence, knowledge and development for those in Sheffield’s digital creative and tech industries, and those who wish to engage with them.
“That is fundamentally what we do. We have a mission to connect, promote and represent, but fundamentally, we open as many of these spaces as we possibly can. Some of those places are physical spaces and events like this. Some are are online spaces and places where people can say, ‘I need this,’ or ‘I’ve got an idea about this,’ or ‘Can anyone help me?’ Whether they are individuals, small companies who want to start out, or major international organisations, or local and regional institutions.
“We leverage and amplify what others are doing whenever we can.
“If there’s someone doing stuff that’s good or if there’s someone that did something that was really good in the past and isn’t doing it anymore, and it’s needed, we will try to figure out a way to resurrect that thing and bring it back. Or try to amplify what’s already happening.
“We try to fill the gaps where we see them or where there is a real need.
“When we started this, there were more needs than there are now, but we’ve still got an awful long way to go before this ecosystem is really ticking over, and we really have a national and international reputation for the work that we do in the tech and digital sector. We try to work out smart partnerships with people, smart business models, ways of combining things together to make them work. Or we just do them!”
On the importance of memberships
“We do not receive any public sector funding. That’s quite intentional. We didn’t want to start up with a load of money from the public sector – or even a small amount of money – and run the risk of it disappearing and us having to close down. We wanted it to be independent.
“Sheffield Digital is a not-for-profit organisation. We are a company limited by guarantee. We have no shareholders. We are doing this for the benefit of the community and we are investing our time to make sure it happens. As I say, all of the membership that we do get now goes towards paying for a Community Manager to keep the message going while we concentrate on the strategic partnerships that we need to really kick on as an organisation, and as an ecosystem.
“So, it’s your memberships – individual and company – that allow us to do the things that we do. It’s £5 per month for individuals and £15–£200 per month for companies. We really want to keep doing this beyond the next four months, which is how long we’ve got Iain signed up to.
“So if you can find a fiver in your back pocket, or if you can go and convince your CEO, or if you are an FD or a CEO, we see no reason why you shouldn’t be putting 40 quid a month into what we are doing. I’m happy to talk to anybody in detail about what that is that we do. We’re relying on you. Thank you!”