Inventing the future

Inventing the future

As he launches Newcastle Startup Week, a citywide, multi-venue festival of entrepreneurship and innovation, we get into Paul Lancaster’s groove about loving the North East, and creating value in business.

He may be a Lancaster by name, but his pride in his North Eastern heritage is definitely in his nature.

You’ll be hard pushed to find anyone more passionate and enthusiastic about the region than Paul. Born in Gateshead 39 years ago and raised in Crawcrook, he returned from University in Leeds to build his life and raise his family here in the North East, and now he’s turned his attention to fostering startups right on his doorstep.

But first, his beginnings: graduating with a Geography degree, it was a role in Sage which ignited a love of customer service. He embraced the advent of the internet by teaching himself web design, prompting a move to the web team in British Airways, and putting his geography qualification to good use.

However… "I’m not a very good developer! I was sent on every training course, but I’m just not… my brain doesn’t work that way," he confesses, and he moved into copywriting and web editing at BA for a few months.

A few months which led up to the horrific events of September 11th, 2001.

He estimates that a few hundred staff lost their jobs in the immediate aftermath, with the airline focussed on cutting costs in the interests of profitability.

"I realised I was just a small cog in a big machine; very disposable," he says, "but I’d always been a bedroom DJ and I started experimenting with making music – and got my first record signed to an independent label."

Music became king. "I’m alright, Jack – I’m going to be an international superstar DJ!" he told his parents, who were both supportive (his mam) and concerned (his dad). And he embarked on what he describes as a "weird double life" where he’d land a gig, jet off around the world to do it, fly home, and have to sign on to the dole because he had no other work. Then he’d land another gig, and the cycle would begin again.

"During that time I went to a Project North East (PNE) course about starting a business – and I was really impressed, with them and with their training," he says. A few short years later, he’d find himself in their employ.

Working with PNE gave him the opportunity to really build networks, as he became @lordlancaster on Twitter, and started getting the chance to meet, and hang out with, entrepreneurs as he moved to look after the SHELL Livewire scheme. Increasingly, Paul had found his niche, his natural aptitude, becoming a marketer, and a connector.

"Such a London-centric media tends to think that if it’s not happening in London, it’s not happening anywhere. So I started to host meetups – like the Campus North ones that happen now – at the old Post Office on Pink Lane. On a Tuesday night I’d open up, put the lights on and let people talk, and when they were done I’d lock up and go home. It was what people needed."

And as the Ignite100 accelerator moved into the same space, Paul quickly saw the benefits that come from clustering – getting likeminded people occupying the same space and seeing what grows.

And he decided he wanted to start his own business. He got the bug.

But before that idea was fully formed, he encountered another opportunity – back with Sage.

007 ExteriorSage’s cloud product, SageOne, hadn’t taken off as expected and Paul’s burgeoning networking and close ties with the digital/tech and creative industries in the region made him the perfect fit to grow that aspect of their business.

And whilst he recognised that not-for-profit, socially motivated businesses made more of an impact with him personally, he thought he saw a good fit between the Sage product and the business community that he’d spent the last few years building relationships with.

He believed he could make a difference, both by getting firms engaged with the new Sage product but also to encourage Sage’s involvement with the local business community.

And so it’s no surprise to see Sage’s name on the list of partners of Campus North, the co-working space near the old Worswick St bus station in Newcastle that Paul works from. Tech North, where Paul helped to amplify the voices of the Northern tech sector, are also heavily involved in the space.

It’s also not surprising to see Sage becoming a headline sponsor for Newcastle Startup Week, which – as the name suggests – is a week-long programme of events aimed at helping people in Newcastle to start and grow successful businesses.

It’s Paul’s brainchild; the concept has been done in other cities, but nobody has ever tried to bring it here until now – and Paul is determined it’ll be done right.

His no-nonsense style really lends itself to the organisation, and an event that needs to build a real buzz around it. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the regional business landscape, and of support for entrepreneurs available around the UK, give it an immediate credibility that it could so easily have lacked with someone else at the helm.

Put simply, he knows people, and he knows how to make situations win-win.

005 StephensonImportant to note that Newcastle Startup Week is not specific to digital or tech-based businesses – although Paul also does point out that it’s unlikely any startups will manage to not embrace tech at all – it’s really focussed on embracing the spirit of entrepreneurship that has always existed in the North East. And he reels off a comprehensive list of Stephenson-esque historical figures who’ve changed the landscape of the world from their North Eastern roots.

Run from Monday to Friday, primarily in afternoon and early evening timeslots, each day has a theme: inspiration, getting started, finance and funding, growing and scaling, and closing with ‘keep going or pivot?’ hosted at the Entrepreneurial Spark offices on the Quayside.

Speakers and supporters are building quickly, from the North East LEP to international investment bankers GP Bullhound, and tickets priced at just £20 per person will give unprecedented value for money in the form of entry to the whole week’s events.

Paul’s own venture, Plan Digital UK, was founded earlier in 2016 as the time felt right to let the entrepreneurial bug that had been biting at his ankles for so long finally take hold.

"I’m loving it," he grins. "I’ve read all the books, been to all the events, had the best training you could have to go into business. But it is different when you’re doing it yourself." And he recognises how much it’ll improve his abilities to help others with some first-hand experience of entrepreneurship himself.

"I’ve got the creative freedom to do what I want to do; follow my ideas," he says. And if Newcastle Startup Week is a sign of things to come, then we’re tingling with anticipation.