Issues surrounding advice and visibility took centre stage during the evening’s panel discussion, chaired by Stick Theory founder, Di Gates. Here, four industry experts including Creative UK’s Head of Investment, Tim Evans, Head of Access to Finance at Innovation Supernetwork, Jordan Dargue, Venture Stream CEO Vic Morgan, and Tom Bunten, founder of start-up Grid Finder, came together to offer an honest view of what levelling up in the North East is like for those on the ground.
The foursome left no stone unturned while offering their candid insight on a range of points – from the need to better showcase the sector as a leading exporter of creativity and the critical importance of finding the right type of support, to the work Creative UK is currently doing to fix these gaps through our North East Create Growth Programme. However, it was the allure of the region as an appealing space for creators, innovators and investors that kicked things off.
“I didn’t come here specifically to start a business but I’m definitely staying because of all the qualities Newcastle has,” admitted Bunten, discussing his fondness for the North East. After a stint in the Navy, this entrepreneur relocated to the area to study before stumbling upon his start-up idea and deciding to stay for good. “There’s a fantastic ecosystem,” he told attendees. “There’s a huge network of support, both through programmes and through the start-ups that are already here. Newcastle and the North East is full of incredibly talented people, industries and businesses…,” he added. “There’s a sense of ‘Let’s show investors what we’ve got and see if they want to invest in a slice of its success.’”
This urge to amplify the work already being done in the area is something that was echoed by Evans, who pointed to the North East’s glowing reputation as one of the primary reasons why it piqued the interest of Creative UK. “We’ve been investing in the region for nine or ten years. It’s got a history and pedigree in terms of its creative quality,” he explained, highlighting an output that spans everything from writers to disruptive tech experts. “The opportunity is [here]… but I don’t think it defines itself as a creative region in the same way that some other areas do.”
For the formerly Silicon Valley-based Morgan, it was the North East’s close-knit feel that emerged as an appealing factor when it came to developing his third business, Venture Stream. However, while he warned that a thriving “hub” threatened to become a “bubble” without external input, Innovation Supernetwork spokesperson Dargue reminded us how investors were very much already starting to sit up and take notice of the location’s word-of-mouth success. “Through the programmes and initiatives brought forward by Creative UK, it’s becoming more apparent that there are some fantastic businesses developing and growing here and some amazing founders,” she explained. “It’s those people who are starting to raise the ears of investors.”
While the event’s chair, Gates, reminded panellists that the British Business Bank had recently described the North East as having a ‘self-contained’ investor base, Dargue was quick to remind both her and the evening’s audience of the tenacity of its locals. “I think that brings challenges – but the North East mindset is that we like to overcome challenges,” she reasoned. “We should fundamentally have our own creative ecosystem which we develop here in the region and we should have other regions looking into the North East and saying ‘I want to be part of that.’”
On the flip side of the coin, the panel’s two founders, Bunten and Morgan, were full of thoughts regarding the importance of finding the support that’s right for the current stage of your creative journey. As they detailed, the main issue lies not with a lack of options but rather too many clouding a founder’s focus. “It was easier to follow the stars than the North East support network,” laughed Bunten, harking back to his Navy days. “Not all support is created equal and not all support is as useful to one business as it is to another.”
Morgan also admitted to encountering these issues before revealing a left-field solution for all those looking to cut through the jargon and find the support that’s right for them. “To me, it’s still a massive gap in the way [schemes] are communicated versus the way a typical entrepreneur thinks,” he said, instead suggesting ChatGPT as a potential in-between simplifier. “One of my best prompts is [asking ChatGPT] to describe something in a way that a five-year-old can understand… I swear, try putting details of the programmes through that prompt!”
For Bunten, it was bespoke support — much like the type offered by our own Create Growth Programme — that proved most useful. “When I started, I was bombarded with everything,” he recalled, listing the various free seminars and lengthy webinars that came his way. “It’s about getting one-to-one time with experts who have done what you’re doing and can mentor and coach you. That makes a huge difference in how far a company will go.”
Rounding out the discussion, Gates turned the conversation towards creating a more diverse future: “The ultimate challenge is creating a diverse network of investors,” reasoned Dargue. “It’s said that more women investors will invest in more female entrepreneurs so we have to create more female founder funds — that’s where the starting point is,” she added, quickly highlighting that the stats related to this issue already look promising. “What we’ll start to see is more female and diverse founders coming forward with their business opportunities and more businesses surviving. It’ll basically create a picture of prosperity. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
Words by Simon Bland
If you are looking to grow your business, Creative UK is running several initiatives across the North East to facilitate growth and investment. Sign up to the mailing here to find out more about what is available to you.