Jeremy Biggerstaff is involved in number of business ventures including his main role as Managing Director at Belfast-based web agency Flint Studios. With over 20 years of industry experience, Jeremy has an unrivalled understanding of all things commercial with an extensive background in digital and tech. Here are Jeremy's thoughts on wealth creation in Northern Ireland’s digital sector in 2015.
As every company leader knows, the main focus is on the long term success of a business to deliver sustained growth. In order for Northern Ireland PLC to succeed, especially in the digital sector added value products and services will need to be at the centre of the long term planning. In overall terms Northern Ireland remains in deficit by around £9 billion per annum, representing a shortfall of about one third of its overall performance. The digital sector can and must play a significant role in reducing the deficit through the supply of services and products that are seen as high potential and value to the local economy.
In 2006, DETI launched a new program for supporting a broadband content initiative. A first of its kind, the program helped stimulate ideas and innovation in the content sector as opposed to supporting traditional capital intensive schemes. The sector has moved on substantially since then thanks to a focus on external sales and job creation and has established a number of great examples of companies that have been successful start-ups.
Over the last few quarters, the Northern Ireland market has been experiencing a brighter outlook, including the recent potential positive impact from the changes in Corporation Tax. Invest NI has set out a growth strategy for the digital media sector for 2013 to 2015 which includes a vision for 2020*. Despite their well published success and performance with Tier 1* and Tier 2* growth, they have a focus on increasing the number of new, Tier 3*, digital media business start-ups by 180 (60 per annum).
So how does the Northern Ireland market create 60 new start-ups per annum and address the need to create wealth in the economy? At a fundamental level it requires investment in ideas and talent and this is being delivered via a number of initiatives that are in place from Invest NI and other Government bodies. The clear challenge is to get talented individuals to consider starting up their own businesses, but what are the challenges they will face if they choose to do so?
Funding and Support
There is already a number of potential options for support including Propel and the Collaborative Network Programme to help get you started. There is Proof of Concept funding offered by Techstart NI, who provide £10k Concept Grants, followed by £40k Pathfinder Grants. Research and development funding can follow and help you to deliver innovation and it can be supported with various levels of job funding through Invest NI.
One area that is growing is in relation to collaboration projects with Queens and University of Ulster, both of which provide innovation vouchers to help access to their extensive talent pool.
It is important that you consider the potential to export right from the beginning. The talent and knowledge driven by the competitive nature of the Northern Ireland economy and its success globally, will make you more current and relevant than you may think. Trade missions and potential partnerships should all form part of the plan as Northern Ireland led companies have a proven track record of success, once they invest in export markets.
The immediate reaction to the Corporation Tax change is that it will be positive by stimulating the sector but it will nearly exclusively impact the Tier 1 and Tier 2 companies for additional investment and growth. This will have a direct impact on wage costs, a shortage of skills (especially in ICT and Finance) and more importantly the availability of young talent with new ideas and an appetite for disruption. Support and development of graduates and entrepreneurship will remain the biggest challenge to create wealth from new start-ups in Northern Ireland.
Mergers, Acquisitions and Partnerships
At this early stage, you are less likely to have thought about an exit plan, a merger or a partnership. In the digital sector ‘exits’ are common place and unless you have a clear plan of where you think your start up business could end up, you might never be able to execute your plans and make the business a success. It is worth investing some time and resource in understanding the wider markets, especially in external markets to provide clarity on your thinking.
At a recent Chamber of Commerce event in relation to exporting, Mark Regan, CEO of Ding.com said "If there is something that you are passionate about and interested in, you should invest in it”. He also stressed about the importance of mentors to entrepreneurs and you will be surprised how much support and help you will find out there, especially through stakeholders like Invest NI, Universities, Northern Ireland Science Park and the different funders.
Northern Ireland has a lot to offer in terms of the start-up scene and with follow on funding options, through Halo, Co-Fund and private investment, it has the making of a region for generating wealth for all of the stakeholders in 2015 and beyond.
Do you have a great idea with commercial potential? Talk to Jeremy about your Proof of Concept by calling 028 9045 5554 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info visit www.flintstudios.co.uk/poc