Simon Brereton, Head of Economic Policy, Sector Development and Innovation at Leeds City Council, has seen how Leeds’ technology and digital sector has changed and thrived first hand in recent years. Here he explains what makes the city such a fantastic place to be for new startups and why more graduates should look at the opportunities available in Leeds.
Tell us about your job.
Thousands of people work for the council and they all do something slightly different. At the end of the day, my role as Head of Economic Policy, Sector Development and Innovation, is to help others create jobs and grow the local economy. And there are three very different bits to my job.
Sector development involves looking closely at seven areas which are considered to be particularly important for the growth of the city, which is where I come into most contact with the tech industry in Leeds. I do that by trying to understand what businesses in these sectors want, so all my work with tech has been trying to identify the factors that will help it grow in Leeds, what set companies back and what we can do as a council to help.
The innovation part of my job is really about working with our universities to make sure they aren’t just universities that happen to be here but are actually leading institutes in their own right. The University of Leeds, for example, is one of the top research institutes in the world, so it’s about getting them to do more research that will benefit people here in some way. We also work with Leeds Beckett and Trinity, which aren’t really research based, but are more focused on teaching. My job looks at how do we make sure they are giving people the right skills that industries in the city need, which helps ensure that young people are given opportunities when they graduate.
This involves looking at things like graduate retention, which Leeds has a really good record for in some areas and at some universities but not others. For courses like medicine and teaching, where people have to work within the community as part of their training, the retention levels are really high. The graduates who find it hardest to stay here are people studying art subjects and computer science, which are a little more insular and they don’t make those links with the community.
However, a lot of graduates struggle to find jobs in tech as companies want a minimum of two years experience. So now we’re working with the universities to look at ways we can get around this, such as by introducing more short-term internships with local tech companies. Small firms struggle to be able to take on an inexperienced person but they may have a project where they need someone for three or four weeks to help out. We’re looking at joining these things up so graduates can leave university with experience.
Economic policy looks at what the financial impact of things like Leeds Pride or the Tour de France starting here for Leeds. It also involves bigger factors like what will leaving the European Union do for companies in the city. It’s not my job to come up with all the answers, but to make sure all the questions are asked.
Recently, my job has involved helping things like Hyve and Leeds Digital Festival get off the ground, as well as supporting projects like FutureLabs to support local businesses. We’ve done a digital skills plan, which helps people to become more work ready as companies are struggling to recruit the employees they need.
Why is tech so important to Leeds?
It’s something we have a real strength in as a city, and we have for a long time. If you go right back to the Wharfedale Printing Press, which was invented in Otley and manufactured in Leeds, revolutionised the journalistic industry. You can find technological advances that have happened in Leeds that have changed almost every industry in the world.
Now we’re talking about digital technology, there are still really interesting things that are happening here. The way that things like social media are used to communicate with customers and drive direct marketing campaigns has its roots in direct mail, which was essentially a Leeds’ invention.
That’s progressed now and the communications industry is really strong here. Some of the very early ISPs and mobile phone companies are based here, which means there’s a lot of tech here in the city that’s been quietly happening in the background for a long time. There are more IBM-distinguished engineers here than any other city in the world. There isn’t really an IBM office here but there are the people based here.
Tech is important to Leeds because of its heritage, and it’s important to just about everything now. But we’re in a great position as a city to capitalise on everything we’ve done so far. There are plenty of places around the UK that are trying to create a tech centre where there isn’t one. We’ve got a great one already.
Our culture in Leeds of not really shouting about what we’re doing hasn’t really held us back, but it’d be great to see people get the recognition they deserve more and encourage more people to come here.
As we head into a new world, where we aren’t in the European Union and people are taking more of an interest in what’s in the UK, it’s really important that we put the focus on tech and showcase what we’re doing. We’ve got a lot of things that makes Leeds a natural place to do tech. It’s cheaper than many other places like London and Manchester but it’s also got an incredible infrastructure, among other things. Our story in Leeds is about communicating what we have got, not what we’d like to have.
What does Leeds have to offer, as a city, to tech businesses?
A business needs a market, and we’ve got a brilliant one here. The demographic of Leeds is the same as the rest of the UK so if you’re looking to sell to UK consumers, starting off in Leeds is a brilliant way to do it. We’ve got the same age range, the same mix of cultures, the same gender balance, as the UK as a whole. So that’s a great technical reason.
Office and warehouse space is much cheaper here than in London or even parts of Manchester, which means you can have relatively low start-up costs if you found your business in Leeds. It’s a brilliant place to live and it’s becoming more recognised for that and the work-life balance it can offer. A 20-minute journey and you can be in the countryside, but then we’re just a couple of hours from London, and even less to Birmingham or Manchester. Having Leeds Bradford airport means you can easily catch a flight and be just about anywhere you need to.
Everyone likes to moan about traffic but congestion is actually much lower here than other big cities. The average traffic speed in rush hour is 26mph, which is amazing compared to London, Birmingham and Manchester.
There’s also lots of talents in terms of well-qualified young people, and a fantastic feeling that things are on the up in the city. Of course, some areas were hit by the recession but there’s always been this positive and vibrant attitude. We’ve always been like ‘we could have the next Google on our hands, this is the type of place it could come from’. There’s alwayds been a sense of possibility and optimism, which is really important for businesses of all sizes.
What are you excited about for the tech and digital scene in Leeds?
I am really looking forward to the next wave of startups coming out of Leeds. We’ve already had a fantastic number of them over the past five years or so and they’ve been largely formed by people who have come out of other tech companies in their late 30s.
I think that will inspire a whole load of younger startups and I think that’s the big cap we have the moment. But I think that’s going to come and it’s going to be really exciting to see.
There’s been a lot of buzz about the internet of things over the last few years but I think we’re going to see some big changes in that. The attitude Leeds has taken for the whole ‘smart cities’ agenda is to get connectivity right, in terms of data sharing and things, and work out what products to develop. I think that will pay dividends for us and this will become a fantastic city to experiment in with internet of things type products.
If you can get something working here in Leeds, which has pretty much the same challenges as any city in the world and a broad demographic, it can be a great starting ground for expanding throughout the country. I think we’ll become known as somewhere that’s brilliant for trialling things that make people’s lives easier.
What advice would you give for people looking to start up a business in this sector?
Meet up with other people. Of course, you’ll need to keep some ideas close to your chest but businesses work best when there are three or four people, not just one. Even Richard Branson or Bill Gates didn’t found their companies on their own, it’s impossible. A successful business needs to do three things; sell, develop a product, and look after its money and run itself. Those things things need three very different personality types to do well.
I’d say recognise your strengths and weaknesses as an individual and find people that can complement you. So if you’re really great at sales, find someone who is brilliant at creating products and someone who is passionate and bringing money in. A lot of people think businesses all start with a great product idea but that’s not worth anything until you’ve sold it, and that’s no good until you have the money in from your buyer. Until then, it’s just a great idea, which is lovely, but isn’t going to provide jobs for anyone.
Also dream big. Leeds is a great place to develop international products so do that. There’s been a lot of doom and gloom surrounding Brexit but it’s just rewritten the rules. It’s a massive disruption but that creates all sorts of opportunities. Moving quickly and swiftly is important, and don’t get too stuck on your original idea. You need to understand what people want and find a way to give it to them. The market needs to shape your idea, not the other way round.
Favourite Yorkshire eatery/bar?
My favourite eatery is Lal Quila, which is a curry house in York, and my favourite bar is either Harrogate Station Tap or Ten Devonshire Place in Harrogate.
What tech do you use?
At home, all my machines run Ubuntu and I have a Nexus phone and tablet. For work, I have to use a Windows PC so at home I like to be a little different and stay away from Microsoft. I learnt computing at university in the very early 80s and we had to use DOS systems, where it would take a couple of weeks to send anything.
Top 3 films?
Being John Malkovich, Clockwork Orange and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
What do you drive?
A very old Volvo Estate.
Perfect Sunday Breakfast?
Scrambled egg, smoked salmon on some sort of multigrain toast, freshly squeezed orange juice and a cup of very nice coffee.