Manchester – the best place to scale-up a business

Thursday, 15th March 2018

Last week we invited some of Manchester’s tech leaders to our Tech Roundtable. According to a TechNorth report and backed up by stories in the media, Manchester is now recognised as a major tech hub, and one that competes with the best tech cities in Europe. Yet there’s still a feeling that our city is not quite doing enough to promote itself, within the UK or beyond.

More back-scratching required

One word has committed itself to memory from the discussion – ecosystem. We need one, basically. But we’re not quite there yet. pro-manchester had managed to assemble its own microcosm of that ecosystem for the discussion, with tech entrepreneurs, legal and inward investment representatives, figures from industry (namely Siemens – a huge supporter of Manchester), and recognised regional spokespeople including Martin Bryant, Rupert Cornford and Michael Taylor.

Martin set the scene by highlighting just how far the city has come. In fact, when I moved here in 2011, Martin was setting up TechHub, probably the first co-working space for tech companies in Manchester. To say the co-working market’s taken off since then is an understatement indeed. His vision of creating an ecosystem of companies that could support and nurture each other is now being amplified by the likes of Accelerate Places, Ignite and even WeWork.

But many in this discussion felt that the ecosystem needed buy in from the very top to make a real difference – and the general consensus was that this isn’t happening as much as it should be.

Martin Balaam, CEO of product information management SaaS company, Pimberly, for example, felt that rather than being able to capitalise on their proximity to a thriving ecommerce sector, small players and start-ups are finding it very difficult to get on to the radar of some of the region’s biggest retail success stories.

And while Silicon Valley companies proudly boast their location as part of their identity, the feeling was that this is happening less here. Some believe that’s because the city is still emerging from its industrial past and is perceived as such nationally. On the flip side, Dan Reilly of Ruler Analytics, although based in Liverpool, thought the burgeoning reputation of Manchester was of benefit to all of its surrounding cities. Outside of the UK, Manchester seems to have no such identity crisis. Everyone felt that the city’s profile internationally is probably higher overall than it is domestically.

Leapfrog capital of the UK

There are many exciting things happening though. Andrew Toolan from MIDAS was able to pinpoint some of the strides that have been made, particularly in the FinTech space. With more companies moving into the city, more global brands putting people on the ground in Manchester, and more businesses looking to scale up here, there’s huge opportunity for us to raise the profile of the city on the international stage.

Andrew has also seen a pattern emerging of international companies leapfrogging London to grow their UK presence in Manchester. This feels like a huge opportunity, offering a haven for companies that are looking to scale-up without the sometimes punitive costs of London.

Brain power

Of course, to keep these companies flooding in we need the brain power to do the work. As Michael Taylor pointed out, the job of Manchester’s universities is to give its students the best possible education and make them ready to work anywhere in the world. It’s not realistic to expect everyone to stay here. But equally, we have to make the prospect as attractive as possible. Although things are getting more expensive, Manchester still offers great value as a place to call home. And Andy Burnham is doing his bit to raise the profile and make Manchester a more exciting place to live and work. We also need to look outside of Manchester for talent. Leeds, Sheffield, Keele etc all have excellent universities and graduates there should certainly be considering moving north as well as south.

This blog was written by Nikki Scrivener, Fourth Day