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Wednesday 26th October 2016
Following last week's City Impact dinner organised by Digital Agenda, we caught up with Paul Lancaster (Founder, Plan Digital UK) aka @lordlancaster, where he gave us some background into his career, some of his thoughts on all things digital in the North and future plans for his latest project at Digital Agenda.

After helping people start and grow their business for over 10 years whilst at Shell LiveWIRE, Sage and Tech North (part of Tech City UK) and co-authoring the ‘Small Business Marketing For Dummies‘ book for Wiley, Paul launched his ‘Plan Digital‘ business in April 2016 so he could offer content marketing and business development services to startups and scale ups and promote digital entrepreneurship in the North of England.
Hi Paul, thanks for taking the time out to answer these questions for us. You’ve had a varied career so far. What initially prompted you to pursue a career in the technology sector?

I pretty much fell into it. After studying Geography at the University of Leeds between 1995-1998 my first job was in customer / tech support for Sage (UK) Limited in my home city of Newcastle. I didn’t know anything about them beforehand but my dad is an accountant so when he saw they were holding a recruitment day he encouraged me to apply. I must admit it was a bit of a shock to the system but the training was fantastic, it paid well and the hours were good too as unlike other call centres, it was just Monday-Friday, 9-5. I was also dealing with quite complex queries about tax and payroll where you had to use your brain which kept things interesting. Even so, after 2yrs of being on a helpdesk I needed something ‘more’, started teaching myself basic web design in my spare time and landed a job as a Graduate Trainee Web Editor for British Airways in Newcastle which led on to all the other web and content marketing roles I’ve had ever since, including a second stint at Sage as their ‘Content Marketing & Social Media Specialist’ between 2012-2015.

How has the tech sector changed in the last 10 years in the North?

‘The North’ has had many hugely successful IT and software companies over the years, including the aforementioned Sage which was founded way back in 1981 and has since grown to be the UK’s biggest business software company and only tech business on the FTSE100. However, it’s only really in the past 5-10 years that people started trying to join these digital-based companies up through networking and educational events and by marketing and promoting them as a collective whole known as the ‘tech’ sector. Some of this was supported by the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) but most was done voluntarily by a bunch of enthusiastic individuals who wanted to create their own version of what they witnessed first-hand or heard was happening in places like Silicon Valley.

Some of your more recent work has seen you working with Tech North.  What are your thoughts on the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and the Tech North initiative?

Tech North is loosely linked to the Northern Powerhouse concept which is all about rebalancing the UK economy, giving more power and focus to our Northern towns and cities which is something I and many others think is long-overdue. However, from what I heard on my weekly travels across the North I’d say most Northerners actually hate the phrase, and see it as a quite patronizing and old-fashioned. Actions speak louder than words and unfortunately, most of the Northern Powerhouse conversations have been around transport infrastructure which is obviously important but very expensive and takes a long time to put into place. What I feel is more important and needed is an ongoing programme of small-scale events and initiatives that bring people together from across the North, opening their eyes to the opportunities and benefits of looking outside their local area to other towns and cities where they can network, collaborate and do business. This is what Tech North’s ‘Northern Stars’ competition has done very well by giving people a reason to travel to another city, often for the first time, to discover and celebrate what ‘the North’ has to offer as a collective whole.

What has Tech North done to support the tech community in the North?

In addition to the ‘Northern Stars’ competition, Tech North has done a huge amount of work to help shine a light on the great tech businesses in the North through their own blog and social media and this is something that they have really excelled at. Within the first few months it was surprising how many journalists and investors started getting in touch and enquiring about what was going on in the North, not realizing there was a tech sector up here which highlights why it’s so important that someone is beating the drum for us and making sure we are not ignored by the national and international media. In the 8 months I worked as ‘Community Engagement & Partnerships Manager’ for Tech North, I spent a lot of my time matchmaking, making introductions between people and businesses, encouraging more collaboration within and between cities and putting small amounts of funding into events and initiatives which would bring people together and act as a catalyst to bigger things. I see this as a really important role for Tech North as unless they do this type of thing, I don’t see anyone else doing it.

If you could describe tech in The North in three words what would they be?

Innovative. Purposeful. Successful

What differentiates tech in The North apart from other up and coming tech clusters across the UK?

It’s very hard to make sweeping statements about the whole of ‘the North’ but in the early days of Tech North we did some work alongside the Northern Stars programme to try and understand what makes the North, ‘the North’, what makes it different to London and other parts of the UK, what connects our great Northern cities and what makes them all unique. What was really pleasing to see and hear is that there is a very deep social conscience across the North with people wanting to use ‘tech for good’ and to tackle real-world problems. That’s not to say people don’t want to be rewarded and make good money from their work but many see this as a by-product of creating an excellent service that can make people’s lives better. All 7 cities that Tech North primarily focused on – Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, Sunderland and Newcastle – all have thriving tech communities that are well-defined and highly evolved meaning anyone wanting to start a business, open another office, relocate or invest there will be able to hit the ground running whilst making considerable cost savings compared to doing so in London. 

Do you think the tech scene in the North can emulate some of the world’s most well know areas such as Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv, Berlin and London?

I don’t think we should try to emulate any of those places as each one has evolved due to their very special and unique set of circumstances caused by economics and geography. Having said that, there are things we can learn from how other tech clusters have developed and two books I would highly recommend are ‘The Flat White Economy: How the Digital Economy is Transforming London and Other Cities of the Future’ by Douglas McWilliams and ‘Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City’ by Brad Feld which have both informed my work.

What does the North need to do in order to compete?

Be much bolder with our place marketing and messaging, but be honest with it too. We ‘Northerners’ are often guilty of not doing enough to celebrate and shout loud enough about our successes because no-one likes a bragger or a loudmouth do they? However, if we don’t do it who will? And if other cities and countries are better at this than we are, then the money and the talent will go to where it looks more exciting and our economy will suffer. At the same time, if we over-promise and under-deliver people will soon see through this and the Startup Heatmap Europe Report published earlier this year showed that in the case of Manchester, tech startup founders are saying that the reality does not live up to the hype.

Who are the real success stories of technology in the North of England?

There are way too many to list but anyone who has started and grown a profitable tech/digital business in the North that has created jobs where there is less hype and money to go around deserves high praise indeed.

Is there one company who stand out?

Having worked for them twice and seen what a truly awesome company they are from the inside, I’d say no-one comes close to Sage. They really are a phenomenally successful company that has created great products, jobs and wealth for hundreds of thousands of people over the years. It frustrates me that our British media and politicians often talk about wanting to create the next Google or Facebook when really they should be looking at the ingredients that led to the creation and growth of Sage and holding them up as the benchmark that others should aspire to be. Everyone in the UK should be proud to have such a hugely successful company as them which still has its’ global headquarters in the North of England.

What would you say are the biggest challenges facing the digital northern powerhouse from becoming an internationally recognised digital hub?

We need more collective, joined-up efforts to promote ‘the North’ as a collective whole on an international stage - encouraging foreign investors, businesses and talent to move to our Northern cities. This is something that Tech North were starting to do but they’ve recently made their ‘Trade and Investment Director’ redundant which means they have no-one with the skills, knowledge and international networks to do this well in their team anymore. It’s even more important now that our Northern businesses and local councils work together and with national government to make sure that we are given the chance to promote ourselves on the world stage.

You’ve been called a ‘Super-Connector’ by your peers in the tech community. Tell us what that means and what you do.

About 5 years ago I read ‘The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference’ by Malcolm Gladwell which explains why some great ideas work and others don’t. In it, he talks about how in order for great ideas to spread like wildfire you need three types of people – Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen. I was already pretty good at marketing (which is a form of selling) and I enjoyed discovering and sharing new ideas both at work and in my spare time so I decided then that I would set out to be the best I could be at all three things and have become known for doing this type of thing well for both employers and people around me who excite me through their work. My role at Tech North was the first time I was paid to do this type of thing on a full-time basis but it’s only when I started my own business, Plan Digital, in April 2016 that I started calling myself a ‘SuperConnector’ which is a bit tongue in cheek yet a totally apt description for the type of work that I do. After 6 months of doing this, it was really satisfying to be presented with the ‘Collaborator of the Year Award’ (sponsored by Accenture) at the Dynamites16 event last week!

Your latest project sees you working with Digital Agenda which focuses on ‘technology for a change’. Could you tell us more about this?

Digital Agenda is a recently-launched news and events platform which focuses on technology and digital innovation that has a positive social impact on people, places and businesses. Because of my background working for not-for-profits and social enterprises, I like to think of myself as a ‘Social Entrepreneur’ and so am particularly interested in technology that is for impact, not just for profit which is why I’m supporting Digital Agenda. Over the past few months I’ve been helping the team with their positioning, partnerships and sponsorships which include a series of roundtable dinner debates hosted by KPMG in Newcastle, Leeds and Manchester which have so far been sponsored by Muckle LLP and your good selves at Amsource Technology. We’re also working on a big ‘Impact Awards’ event at The Barbican in London in March 2017 which will celebrate the most impactful technology from across the UK. In my humble opinion, Digital Agenda’s founder and editor, Julian Blake, is one of the UK’s finest journalists so if you want to know more about ‘social impact’, please check out his excellent work at and get in touch if you’d like to sponsor a future dinner or one of the awards.

We sponsored Digital Agenda’s City Impact dinner at KPMG in Leeds on the 18th, discussing how technology can continue to make changes to better our city.  What was the purpose of the event?

The purpose of the ‘City Impact’ dinners is to bring up to 30 entrepreneurs, academics and public sector officials together over dinner to discuss some of the biggest challenges facing their respective city and to consider or suggest ways that technology is already or can be used positively in the future. Apart from being a great social event with stimulating conversation that is summarized in Digital Agenda articles like ‘Leeds responds to future challenges’, this is often the first time that some of these people have been in the same room together and so it’s exciting to see new partnerships and collaborations forming which otherwise wouldn’t and this is how new innovations and breakthroughs often occur.
In order for Digital Agenda to be a success what are the outcomes you’d like to see it deliver?

‘Social Impact’ is still a relatively new term and not many people know what it is until you explain it. However, once you do there is a real appetite for this type of work and so I hope that more people support what the Digital Agenda team are trying to do either by reading and sharing the content, attending the events or even sponsoring the programme of activity if they’re in a position to do so. Unfortunately it’s often the most important work in society that has the least funding behind it so it’s vital that people and businesses support initiatives like Digital Agenda if they want to see better business practices highlighted and rewarded.

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