Manchester - A Digital Future

Bright and early on Wednesday morning, the Wool team headed to The Hive in Manchester’s Northern Quarter for a breakfast panel, ‘Manchester - A Digital Future’ hosted by OBI property. 

First things first, the space was incredible and I loved all of the little touches, such as a huge jar of sweets and stools shaped like cups. What can I say, i’m a sucker for a gimmick.

Hosting the morning's session was Neil Tague from Tague Media, the group of experts in digital was made up of, Ryan Cheyne (People Director - Rental Cars), Mark Barlow (Founder & CEO - Applearn), Sam Jones (Managing Director - Tunafish Media), Maya Dibley (Head of Programmes and Partnerships - The Landing), Steve Pearce (Co-founder/ CEO - TickX) and Samuel Coley (Co-founder - TickX) all of which gave a great insight into the reality of business growth.

Starting off the panel was Ryan from Rental Cars, a business which has been operating for 12 years and has always been based in Manchester. In the early days, Rental Cars was found above a Subway (yes, of the sandwich variety), now the team of around 1500 can be found in 3 different offices around the city. Within the growth process of Rental Cars, the senior team were keen to ensure that the start-up culture was maintained whilst still being a business of a larger scale. With a brand message of ‘anything but ordinary’, they really wanted to make sure that Rental Cars truly was a great place to work - one of the largest steps towards this was a huge investment into the office space to make it feel like a real cutting edge tech company, importantly, this vibe also needed to be rolled out to the call centres to make sure every member of staff benefited from this fresh, fun feel.

Rental Cars also introduced a week long ‘values festival’ in their offices to ensure that the entire team truly understood the core message of the brand and the culture. The feedback which was gained from this festival was then used to create the official ‘values’, Ryan noted that for the most part, the values were launched as the event ran when all of the team came together. The people aspect of Rental Cars has risen vastly over the past few years with staff turnover halving and quality review scores on Glassdoor rising.

When asked, why Manchester? The largest factor was the wide pool of people with language expertise who can work with the company on their global reach. And the biggest challenge faced by Rental Cars? Finding great talent.

Next up on the panel was Mark Barlow from Applearn, a software solutions company which was set up in 2001, which is a large success in the HR space. When the company was started, they were faced with the question of ‘we have created a great product, but how do we get people to use it?’. The idea for this answer was found through the fact that staff need constant training on updates of software, and this is something which larger companies may struggle to facilitate, so Applearn created a solution to help teams to adopt training more easily. The first client for the product was based in Montreal, and the entire negotiations were complete without any team members ever meeting.  Now, many of the largest companies around the world use the product.

One of the biggest challenges for the team was finding funding, something which is much harder in the UK than the states. Mark explored how many companies are too focused upon making profit too quickly where, in reality, businesses should have more patience to grow and build a great company. When exploring the differences between the UK and the US, two questions were posed to the audience - name one hugely successful UK software company and name one mega successful UK internet company. Something which the audience were unable to do.

The third speaker on the panel was Sam Jones from Tunafish Media, a digital marketing and video agency based in Manchester which was started in 2011, thanks to the lack of jobs around in the market at the time. The founders of Tunafish spent time building a brand working 9-5 with clients, and then 6 - 12 moved to a pub they lived above to carry on working. In the early stages of the brand, Tunafish was based in the Sharp Project which lead to a great community spirit and the ability to get additional work. One of the most interesting parts of Sam’s presentation was the idea that Tunafish only work with social media and video to ensure they produce a really great product. At the start of Tunafish, the team networked as much as they could to build up their contact base. Tunafish have grown massively in the past few years, and in the past 8 months along have grown from 4 - 15 and are looking to grow further into a team of 25.

At first, Tunafish hired what they felt to be more senior staff than the founders to help navigate the business, but this didn’t work out - nor did the hire of apprentices as the team didn’t have enough capacity to dedicate to training. Now, the agency have a non executive director to help guide them, something which has really helped iron out any issues with internal policies and procedures - Sam recommended that this is something any business should consider from the get go.

Maya Dibley from The Landing in Media City introduced the audience to the incubator which houses over 100 start up businesses who they support through various services, including introducing them to other companies in the space, leading to the creation of long term relationships. The Landing is built up of loads of different spaces which helps to create a playground like vibe, along with offering different labs and services in the hub to develop and grow each business. Importantly, The Landing and Media City are completely geared for the development and support of new businesses making it the perfect location to be located.

The last presentation on the panel came from Steve Pearce and Samuel Coley, Co-founders of TickX, a platform which is positioned as the ‘sky scanner for events’ allowing users to search a variety of ticketing vendors in one location to secure the best deal - the idea came about as the two went to many events at university and saw nothing in the market for this idea. In 2015, TickX received its first bought of funding from Ministry of Sound, securing £175,000. More recently, the pair appeared on Dragons Den, and went on to reject their offers - luckily, this risk paid off as they have since received a much higher injection of cash for a much lower stake in the company. Currently, TickX are looking to expand their offering internationally and are growing their team from the great pool of talent which is based in Manchester.

Following on from the insightful talks from each of the panel, Neil began to open the floor to questions for the digital experts.

Graduate employment was the first to be brought to the table; Sam from Tunafish explored how they began to get apprentices in too early in the business and were unable to support them as much as they would have hoped, now to target young talent they opt for the hiring of graduates.

At Rental Cars, they have a graduate scheme in place, which explores the entire pool of talent around the UK looking for people who can keep up in the ever moving tech industry.

The next question was around engaging younger people in the industry.

Ryan from Rental Cars kicked off with the need to spark interest as soon as possible, and explored how his 12 year old daughter is great with computers, however, doesn’t really like them and has little interested in a career path based around this, something which shows an interest in tech is important from an early age. Rental Cars are also working with Manchester Digital to create a tech apprentice scheme, Ryan also noted that the solution to growing women in tech starts in schools.

Maya from The Landing presented that they run lots of hackathons to engage young people along with working with the small businesses which are part of their pool, but a large issue is that small businesses do not have the capacity to give up large chunks of their time and so funding is needed to make support more viable.

TickX explored that the perception of tech is a guy thing, and that the media never really explore women and so we really need to start showing the entire spectrum to engage as many people as possible and to hopefully get a wider range of children interested in tech.

The final question asked what was the single biggest challenge for each business, and the consensus around the table was recruitment, so each of the panel went on to explore how they have begun to tackle this issue.

TickX presented creating as good an environment as possible is key as this will engage more potential candidates. Steve and Samuel also presented that they offer shares as an incentive, especially as they recognise that people may come from backgrounds where staff were not as appreciated and so create an environment where people really care about that they are producing.

Maya from The Landing explored how good people management is key especially in mid level leadership, as when growing from a start up, some of the values and messages can be lost and it is key to continue these strongly as the business grows.

Sam from Tunafish explored how the company are really invested in creating a great working environment for the entire team. Another issue which they (and every other agency) have faced is the creation of a really great, innovative piece of work, which is then killed by the client - in order to stop this from demoralising the team, Tunafish set apart time for the team to be creative and create things which are helpful to their own brand.

Ryan from Rental Cars reiterated that the environment is really key to ensure that everyone is happy in the workplace, along with creating a great brand culture and allowing people to work on cool stuff which in turn, enables people to produce new and innovative pieces of work.

We had a great morning at The Hive with OBI property and can’t wait for their next event, we would love to hear from others who were also at the event, we are all places social @wooldigital.

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