Episode #1 - Ben Shorrock

Bristol startup ecosystem and a new investment programme

Who better to kick off our Tough Cookies podcast than Ben Shorrock, Director of TechSPARK? Nic and Ben discuss the resources available in Bristol for startups, what it’s like to live in the city and how people can connect with one another. They catch up about the new Investment Activator Programme(IAP) scheme TechSPARK has launched to help the investment eco-system and about New Year’s resolutions such as switching off the phone… Join the conversation on Twitter.

Read the transcript

Nic:
Hi, and welcome to the Tough Cookies Podcast where we interview individuals who build, scale and support startups in the Southwest. Today with me is Ben Shorrock, managing director at TechSPARK. Hi Ben.

Ben Shorrock:
Hi Nic.

Nic:
Thank you very much for being a guinea pig to the first Tough Cookies Podcast.

Ben Shorrock:
No worries, I’m excited about it.

Nic:
So the idea is to create a podcast by and for Bristol systems. So, we want to interview entrepreneurs, founders and the people that make up the Bristol ecosystem. Naturally you were the first one we thought for the first episode. So for those who don’t know you, can you explain who Ben Shorrock is and why Ben Shorrock is so important for Bristol?

Ben Shorrock:
Yeah, of course. I’m not sure I can justify how I’m important to Bristol! I’m Ben Shorrock, I’m part of the team at TechSPARK, who are the information hub for all things tech in the West as our strap line has it.

Nic:
Okay. So specifically, what does TechSPARK do for the Bristol ecosystem?

Ben Shorrock:
Sure, so TechSPARK has a mission statement, we’re a not for profit and our mission statement is about strengthening the tech cluster. What that means on a practical basis really is we spend all of our time trying to learn and share and connect with people. So really everything we do boils down to helping other people connect with people and all benefit together.

Nic:
And how do you achieve that?

Ben Shorrock:
So we do it across three main ways. The first of those is around learning and knowledge. We have a website: What the website does is it publishes news and features and has an event calendar and a jobs board. And there’s a whole set of things that you can learn about the cluster and join the cluster from that. For example, the events board has both our events and anybody else’s events, which are about tech or the startup scene here, so there’s about 1,500 events on there every year. Speaking of events, we run our own events. So we run about 70, 80 events a year and they range from small round tables to really focused things, up to the SPARKIES, which is our celebration awards which has about 500 people in the summer. So that’s the first thing that we do that makes it easy for people to connect. The second set of things we do are around talent. We have a whole set of things around jobs boards and showcasing the types of jobs that there are here and working to change the pipeline of people who are coming here into the sector. So whether that’s people at school age, whether that’s people returning the sector or whether that’s opening the sector up to be more diverse and inclusive. So lots of activity in that space.

And then the final set of programs and initiatives that we do are around business growth. So some of that is about peer to peer mentoring and joining the dots with founders. So, that’s part of what we do with things like Southwest founders. Some of it is about helping startups access capital and to grow. So we have a new program that’s doing that and some of it is just about signposting and giving advice to startup founders and scale up founders about where the support is.

Nic:
I mean, I don’t know if I’ve been adopted by Bristol or Bristol adopted me. I would like to think Bristol adopted me. But I’ve been living in Bristol for the past 10 years, moving from France. We’ve been living here 11 now, so I kind of speak about the “pre past” 10 years ago, kind of Bristol. But certainly in those 10 years I’ve been there. I think I arrived in 2008, so nearly 12 years actually. I’ve seen Bristol dramatically changed, whether that’s from like architecture, like constructions everywhere and like gridlock traffic everywhere now. But certainly, in the business space, I mean there’s been a spurt of growth that has been really good. What do you think happened here? Like why Bristol? And is this going to continue?

Ben Shorrock:
Yeah, it’s like it’s changed enormously. So I moved to Bristol by eight years ago now, and it’s one of those things I think has changed. And we’ve lots of stats to back that up. So one of the things I was looking at the other day was saying that five years ago, about 40 million pounds was raised in venture capital investment in Bristol. Last year, that was 400 million. So its grown 10 times in the last five years. There are lots of reasons why that’s happened and there’s no one single overriding factor. Historically, there’s been an industry in aerospace, in microelectronics, in creative industries and all of those things have come together in a really interesting way about a mix of high tech and cultural and creative industries that’s really well-placed globally now for the types of businesses who are successful.

There’s whole sets of people that do enormous amounts of things and who really give lots into the community and they make a big difference. There are lots of programs that are successful that make a big difference and there are lots of factors that we sort of take for granted, but do mean that there are really interesting things happening here. So lots and lots of people in the startup world will know what SETsquared is. They will know that SETsquared is an incubator that has bases in Bristol and Bath. It’s also the global number one university incubator. So the best university incubator in the world is based here and we just take that for granted. So it’s not a surprise that some of this growth is happening when there are all these factors coming into play.

Nic:
There’s a certain element, I mean, what I do love about Bristol, and again my view is quite biased because it’s the only place in the UK I have lived, but there is an element of like everybody seems to be willing to help. Everybody’s willing to connect, everybody’s willing to roll up their sleeves and just go on and get shit done basically. Do you think that’s also part of the contributing factor? Like this is the whole thing together that has helped?

Ben Shorrock:
Yeah, absolutely. It’s a sort of Goldilocks place and it’s big enough that there are interesting things going on but it’s small enough that people know one another and it’s very easy to get in touch with one another. And what that means is people are happy to collaborate, they’re happy to do things together to pay it forward quite a lot of the time. So I’ve seen lots and lots of founders who will work together and they don’t get an immediate benefit, but they can see that that’s a good thing for the community as a whole. And I think that’s something that you don’t find in a lot of other places.

And it’s really something that is quite hard to pin down as an example of what happens here, when you’re talking to people nationally and internationally, but very quickly when people come here and they see it. So lots of the time I have conversations with people who’ve opened a hub here or moved a company here and they’d be like, “It’s really weird.” Everybody just talks to one another and they’re all really open and they share and help. And it’s like, “Yeah, that’s just a thing you will get used to it eventually.”

Nic:
Bristol is just one of those types of cities you just fall in love with. You either fall in love with Bristol or you just leave Bristol and there’s no in-between. You just don’t get by in Bristol, you just have to embrace Bristol and it’s all weirdness basically.

Ben Shorrock:
Yeah. And it’s a relatively easy place to do that. It’s an easy place to connect and to find out what’s going on and to make friends and to be able to move about. And that’s one of the things that makes it great is there’s loads of stats. I think for three of the last four years, Bristol has been named the best place to live in the UK by the Sunday Times. All of those things make it a successful cluster.

Nic:
Good. And so we’re still in January, so we can still officially say happy new year. Obviously, new year resolution, new decade. Where do you see Bristol going in the next decade? If it’s even possible to think and say if it’s not, where do you see Bristol in the next five years?

Ben Shorrock:
So, I think there’s some really interesting positive things happening. There’s lots of opportunity for us to connect in new technologies and new industries. We do have very big financial services sectors here. A very big aerospace industry. Tech is making huge strides in those industries and making big differences and we’re really well placed to connect into those and lots of the most successful startups and scale ups recently have been in those. So really interesting projects starting to happen in those spaces. There will be more growth, there will be exciting things happening and I think that’s all great. I think there’s absolutely problems in the city, some of which are within our control, some of them aren’t.

So, God only knows what will happen with Brexit. We will ride it and see what happens and get on with it. But there are negatives that in the next three to five years we need to be focused on fixing. So tech particularly is a not very diverse sector. This is a very diverse city. There’s 92 languages spoken in Bristol schools. If we want to be a world class tech cluster, we need to be accessing and working with all of the people in the city. We need to be doing much more to reach into those communities, to be part of those communities and for them to be part of our community as well.

Nic:
And so obviously, that’s an inclusion problem within the city. Except for the inclusion … Well, not except, the inclusion is a problem we’ll have to solve. But what is the next big problem that you think Bristol has to solve for the particularly more the tech and startup cluster?

Ben Shorrock:
So as we scale, there’s going to be problems around talent. So we see lots of companies who are taking on dozens and dozens of staff now. And getting the very best people at the right time is a real challenge. And it’s a positive challenge in that if everyone wasn’t trying to grow, we wouldn’t all be struggling to get hold of people. That’s something that we’re doing lots more on this year and trying to do more to work with government to try and fix that problem. There’s also always a problem accessing finance. Lots of the businesses we see need big chunks of finance to grow. There are some really positive stories in that, but there’s lots of negatives as it still takes three times as long to fund from Bristol and Bath as it does from London it’s, I think the stats this year are 98% of all funding went to wholly male founding teams. There’s loads of issues that we need to be focusing on to make sure the best companies can succeed.

Nic:
So, you’ve just launched a new program with TechSPARK and various other organizations, we see the investment activation program. And is that what this program is supposed to solve or am I getting it wrong?

Ben Shorrock:
Yeah, so certainly, I’m not sure the investment activation program will solve it entirely, but it’s certainly trying to solve some of the problems in that space. So what the program is doing is, it’s a collaboration between eight different partners in the city who’ve all come together and said, “Let’s bring our resources together to help catalyze the investment ecosystem.” So we have two people, Abby and Briony who are focused on it and what they’re going to be doing is spending part of their time working on events and contents for founders. So things like pitching competitions to investors, making sure that we showcase companies to investors in London, showcase success stories of things that are happening. And then we’re also going to be connecting better with investors. So we understand much more about what they need. We gather that data, we make sure that companies are connected with the right types of data and we as a region as a whole all benefit from that. And I think that will quite quickly start to show benefits.

Nic:
Cool. I mean, we are trying to bring value specifically to the Bristol ecosystem. And so if today you were a startup or entrepreneur, just getting to start your first venture and they happen to share a coffee with you, what would you tell them to do?

Ben Shorrock:
So it sounds negative, but you should always do some sense checking. So what I see lots is founders who have a problem, who think they found the solution and are very passionate about that solution and that’s amazing. When you start off what it’s really easy to run with a problem and be like, “Yes, I’m going to solve this.” It makes much more sense to take a step back to spend time doing some research, talking to potential customers, talking to other people who’ve looked at similar challenges or looking at what programs there are to support you. And there’s lots of programs locally that can help support you, whether that’s funded by people like Business West or funded by people like the Combined Authority or NatWest or UWE or SETsquared, or there’s currently 14 incubators in the city, so I’m not going to list them all out, but there’s lots of tailored support. So don’t just take an idea and run with it.

Nic:
Yes, please. Yeah. So 9 year old Ben, did you always have a business mindset? Do you always want to work with startups or you want to do something completely different?

Ben Shorrock:
I’m not entirely sure. I’ve got a business mindset now. I think it’s difficult because until you do something you don’t know what it is and how much you enjoy it. So I very naively decided to go to university and I studied business because I assumed that by studying business I would have a job in business. And I suppose that sort of worked out. I do have a job in business, but the key thing and for a lot of advice that we give to younger people around careers is it’s not linear. Most people’s careers are about choosing to work for a big brand in a very specific role and getting there, it’s about doing a job, working out which bits of it you’ve got out, which bits you enjoy and trying to move your job and your career into those things, away from the things that you don’t enjoy. Because generally, if you don’t enjoy something, you’re no good at it either. And that’s what we should all be doing.

Nic:
Yeah. Hopefully. Any personal goals with this next year or this next decade?

Ben Shorrock:
So one of the things I’m trying to do more is switch off. So I’m really bad, like lots of founders for, I constantly have my phone with me. I constantly pick up emails, I respond to things all weekends. So I’m doing much more active switching off. So I’ve started doing gym stuff at lunch time and then I can’t actually do something for an hour and it doesn’t make an appreciable difference to my mental health.

Nic:
It does.

Ben Shorrock:
I’m not the type of person that ever like to exercise. I don’t think I ever will be the person that likes exercise, but I can see the benefits.

Nic:
It’s that moment when you don’t have, even if you have the urge of what’s going on in the office or whatever, you can because your phone is physically in the locker or we go into the habit now whether we respect the 100% of the time is questionable. But with Natalie, when we come home, we leave the phones by the entrance. Basically, we have a small thing where we leave the keys and what not. So they’re not, like the phone has never on arm reach. So we can actually, we do spend time with the kids, but we not like constantly, “Oh, the phone is vibrating. I’m going to double check.” It’s like, is over there. And for an hour or two hours, you completely forget the phone.

Ben Shorrock:
So you’re more evolved than me. The closest I get is switching my phone on to, “Do not disturb,” when I go to bed.

Nic:
Oh yeah, I’ve got the, “Do not disturb,” activated from 7:00 PM anyway, but yeah, it’s important.

Ben Shorrock:
It’s an important, everybody thinks they can be productive and actually, you’re not. So it’s better to do call hours and focus on them then than 14 hours a day and get from it.

Nic:
So if people want to learn more about you or TechSPARK, where do they go?

Ben Shorrock:
So ideally to our website. We have lots of news and events and jobs on the website, that’s techspark.com. We also have a weekly newsletter. So every Friday lunchtime we send a newsletter out and that tells you the five things we think everybody in the cluster needs to know this week. That could be jobs, it could be five pieces of news, it could be five events. So that’s a really easy snapshot, or you can just follow us on one of the thousands of social channels we seem to maintain.

Nic:
TikTok?

Ben Shorrock:
Not TikTok yet.

Nic:
We’re addicted to it. Thank you very much for today. I hope it’s the second recording, because the first one we failed at-

Ben Shorrock:
It was a good rehearsal.

Nic:
It was a good rehearsal, but yeah, we forgot at least the memory card. We have enough space, but thanks a lot for today. And then I’ll let you carry on with your day. Cheers Ben.

Ben Shorrock:
Cheers.

This podcast was brought to you by CookiesHQ, a Bristol-based software agency who builds Apps and websites for early-stage founders and growing startups. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, you can drop us a message @TheCookiesHQ on Twitter.

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