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Startup Review & Activator Launch - The Roundup

Manchester Digital hosted their Startup Review and Activator Launch on Thursday 7th December 2023, providing insight into the current landscape for startups, advice from founders at various stages of the startup process and a preview of some of the upcoming startup support the organisation is set to offer in 2024.

The event at No.1 Circle Square drew an engaged crowd of startup founders, investors and other players in the local tech industry. 

Following an opportunity to network, Manchester Digital's managing director Katie Gallagher got proceedings underway as she unveiled highlights from the new Startup Review report, a piece of research Manchester Digital have undertaken on behalf of the sector which outlines the current state of play for early startups and founders in a region.

It’s been a difficult few years for startups, and raising has become harder than ever, so it’s worth taking stock and seeing what is available in Manchester, what we do well and what needs improvement. You can download your copy of the report here.

The Startup Review provides an overview of what Manchester does well, and what it still needs. 

Next up, we had a vibrant panel discussion hosted by Ben Davies (Group Marketing Director at Praetura Ventures and Manchester Digital board member). He was joined by Paul Boardman (Director at North West Cyber Security Cluster & UKC3), Kate Longworth (Chief Executive Officer at Gaia Learning) and Rakesh Maharaj (Founder at Armsa Academy) who shared insights on their various startup founder journeys.

Panel L-R: Ben Davies (Praetura Ventures), Paul Boardman (NWCSC & UKC3), Kate Longworth (Gaia Learning) and Rakesh Maharaj (Armsa Academy)

The conversation began with a discussion around the benefits of bootstrapping versus raising. The panel mainly came from the point of view of having bootstrapped, with some interesting points raised:

  • Paul: “We were bootstrapped and didn’t get funding, with a couple of reasons for that. We wanted to keep all the equity and get more return on the exit. Plus, our work was around business services, so we had a good route for bringing in revenue and sustaining it.”
  • Kate: “Bootstrapping keeps you connected to your customers and on the ground with what you’re trying to achieve. As we’re in such a competitive landscape (online learning), we simply can’t bootstrap at the rate we’d like to.
  • Rakesh: “If you want to be a master tightrope walker, you will bootstrap! It’s a great way to understand all the functions of your business in a way you simply couldn’t otherwise. It’s a great maturing opportunity, but at some point you get to the stage where your capacity is working to the detriment of your product.”

With his experience at Praetura Ventures, Ben pointed out that there is still money out there for those looking to raise, but it should be sourced on the right terms. Finding investors is like a marriage, and chances are you’re going to be working with them for a long time so it’s important you have a positive working relationship.

Kate explained how she had turned down an investor because it just didn’t feel right, and it’s important to trust your instincts.

Kate Longworth, CEO of Gaia Learning, provides insights on her founder journey so far.

Moving on to growing a business in the North West, all of the panellists agreed that this is a great place to start your business. 

  • Paul: “We grew our business at MediaCity in Salford, and the amount of talent available in the region was one of the main factors behind choosing that location. We didn’t see as many ecosystems or support networks around back in 2014, and it would have been great to have the support that is available now.
  • Kate: “I’m a huge fan of accelerator programmes and wish I could spend more time in communities like this. Organisations like Manchester Digital being on hand to support startups is essential”.

When it comes to what is holding startups back, the panel agreed that lack of education is a major factor here. Kate explained how there is a lot of assumed knowledge around access to funding and grants.

For Rakesh, the journey has been challenging, frustrating and complex. 

“If you’re not prepared to roll with the punches it will grind you down. It’s very important to equip yourself with the knowledge and appreciate the complexity of the journey ahead. Know the motives of your investors and have trusted advisors to hand who can help guide you.”

The panel concluded with a look ahead to 2024 and what was exciting our founders. 

For Rakesh, it was about securing the support of an investor who meets the profile they have set out. They are at the forefront of a rapidly growing renewable energies market, and there is a real opportunity to gain global traction.

Kate said that her hopes for next year included plenty of new customers and to create a world first learning hub, confident that the world needs the solution that Gaia Learning have got.

Finally, for Paul his hope was that some of the various startups he’s met through different programmes achieve lasting success. Ben agreed on this note, with a hope that we’ll see more breakout business from the region. The more £50m exits we see the better for the ecosystem.

Michael Hill, Head of Operations at Manchester Digital, introduces the Startup Activator

Wrapping up the afternoon, Manchester Digital's Head of Operations Michael Hill launched the exciting new Startup Activator programme coming in 2024, which is designed to propel more local startups to success. 

The programme will provide early stage founders with an overview of the landscape across Greater Manchester and the support available, giving startups all the knowledge and resources they need to flourish.

If you’d like to register your interest in taking part in the programme, click here.

Whilst the landscape is certainly more challenging than it was a few years ago, the future still looks bright for Greater Manchester's startups and Manchester Digital is here to help them harness the power they need to succeed.

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