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A Q&A WITH STUART CLARKE, FOUNDER OF LEEDS DIGITAL FESTIVAL

Friday 29th September 2017

In this Q&A Stuart Clarke (mastermind behind the Leeds Digital Festival and initiatives such as the London to Leeds project) fills us in on his career path, what differentiates the tech scene in Leeds to others in the UK and more...

"After a career building marketing and corporate relationship teams for the likes of Alliance & Leicester, first direct and TD Bank of Canada, I co-founded a successful marketing consultancy working with clients across the professional services, digital and arts sectors. We help firms create long term strategic plans.

I’m also an advisor and non-executive director to a number of start-ups, and the co-founder and Festival Director of the Leeds Digital Festival, as well as being a member of the Leeds Digital Board and the co-founder of Media Yorkshire."
 
What initially interested you in exploring a career in digital?

I started my marketing career many years ago, before all the great tools we have now were available, so my journey was one of adopting digital methods and tools as they came along, rather than leaping into a digital career. Instead of waiting a couple of months to find out whether a direct mail pack was successful, it’s great to be able to test campaigns on an almost real time basis.
 
You’re the founder of Leeds digital festival ‘the north’s largest digital festival’ can you tell us about how you came up with the idea, and how it’s grown to the size that it has?

As with all the best ideas, it started in a pub. I invited a group of people working in the sector (a “coalition of the unwilling” according to one of the group, Alex Craven from Jaywing Intelligence) to discuss how we could make more noise about the great talent and innovative companies that we have in Leeds, and also how to create more collaboration in the city. 
 
I took on the role as Festival Director to see if we could get a festival going. Leeds City Council helped us with a grant, then we brought other sponsors on board and before we knew it, three months later we had the first festival happening.
 
The first Leeds Digital Festival in 2016 saw 56 events; the 2017 version had 115 events, with over 400 speakers across 58 venues. Over 10,000 people came together to hear about the many incredible things we’re creating in this city. It’s grown because we’re giving people and companies an outlet to tell the city and the world about the great stuff we do, but also because it’s a chance for collaboration. 
 
We were very clear about having a city-wide, open platform Festival, where people can put on what they want; there are no curators telling you what is right or wrong. Most of the events are free which enables everyone to take part.
 
We’ve started planning next year's Festival and already have some great events planned. Of course, we’re always looking for sponsors, so please get in touch if you can help.

 
You work with a number of interesting start-ups in Leeds. You’re also a founder of the London to Leeds project. Can you tell us more about that and what differentiates the start-up scene in Leeds compared to others across the UK?

I think the biggest difference in Leeds to other cities is that we’re much more collaborative. There are over 25 tech meetups each month for example, where people from different companies come along and share best practice. This also applies to the startup sector where founders can be seen at events like Founders’ Friday at Futurelabs, sharing their experiences.
 
The scale of the city helps; even though Leeds is the third biggest city in the UK, the compact size of the city centre makes it easier to work with other companies. 
 
We’re also seeing more students stay in the city after graduation to build their startup; they no longer feel that London is the only place to be. You can build your company and have a great standard of living here, which isn’t always the case in London. Accommodation is a third of the price in Leeds compared to London and the beer is cheaper (and better!). 
 
The London to Leeds project encourages startups and tech companies in London to visit Leeds and find out what a great, digitally-connected city it is, brimming with talent. I take visitors on a walk through the city centre, that usually ends up walking through the Victoria Quarter and then to a bar like Headrow House; even die-hard Londoners are impressed with the buzz of the city.
 
What would you say to a start-up torn between choosing Leeds or London as a base for their business?
 
London obviously has many things going for it, it’s the tech capital of Europe, but it doesn’t suit everyone. As I mentioned above, the compact nature of Leeds makes it easier to find all the people you need; your funding can also go much further in Leeds. Leeds is only a couple of hours from London by train, so if you need to visit a customer or investor, it’s easy to do so from your highly-affordable office.
 

The technology ‘brain drain’ is something that is heavily documented in the industry at the moment. Large tech employers based in the region including (Sky Bet & Asda) are finding hundreds of their vacancies are being left unfilled. Your work with Signin sees you working with universities in the area to help retain tech talent in our city and counteract this problem. Can you tell us more about this?
 
Any conversation about the digital sector in Leeds invariably ends up as a discussion about skills and talent. We do need more people to fill the vacant roles and as a city we’ve seen some really positive moves over the last couple of years. The universities and companies are closer than ever, which helps to keep graduates in the city; bigger firms such as Sky Bet and NHS Digital are also investing heavily in apprenticeships and graduate schemes.
 
As a city, we’re now making more noise about how great it is to live and work here, and that promotion is bringing people to the city to work. With a mix of homegrown talent, graduates staying in the city and people moving to Leeds, we should keep the talent pipeline topped up.
 
Signin is an innovative startup that connects universities, students and graduates, to match internships and graduate roles with the right applicants, which will hopefully contribute to closing the talent gap. The founder, George Biddle, is a great example of Leeds keeping hold of its students. Originally from Solihull, after graduating from Leeds University George could have set up Signin in London or back home, but wanted to stay in Leeds because it has everything he needs to build a successful company.

 
Leeds is booming with activity in the tech sector. What digital advancements / investments would you like to see in Leeds in the next couple of years?

We’ll start to see the impact of Leeds City Council’s £3.7m tech hub fund, which was invested across a number of projects. The first, Futurelabs, has already seen dozens of jobs created in software startups; the Platform tech hub, above Leeds City Station comes online in November. Together with the Open Data Institute and Duke Studios, these centres of digital and creative innovation will further cement Leeds’ reputation as the digital capital of the north.

We’ll also see more access to funders, the lack of which has sometimes held back the growth of digital companies. TechNorth are launching their Angel Network in the autumn; alongside the likes of NorthInvest and ADV, we should see more investment in the sector.

Above all, I’d like to see everyone keep banging the drum for Leeds on a city, national and international stage. Leeds is a great city and we should be shouting more about it.

We're getting more national coverage now than we used to, for example Sky News' Swipe tech show recently featured three innovative startups from Leeds; let's keep pushing the message that Leeds truly is the Digital Capital of the North.



For further information visit stuartclarke.co.uk.
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