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How the Digital Community is Driving the Tech Industry Forward in Leeds

· Ali Turner · Discussion

The tech community is about so much more than socialising – and here's why.

Glug

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It’s making headlines for all the right reasons, but what you might not realise is that the digital community is helping to drive the tech industry’s success.

The tech industry in Leeds has gone from strength to strength in recent years. It now has a turnover of £1 billion and there are over 34,000 tech jobs in the city – but while the numbers are impressive, the people behind the stats are even more so. Together, they’ve had incredible ideas, driven game-changing innovation and solved more problems than you can shake a stick at – which is why we’re convinced that community is key to the city’s success.

It’s propelling Leeds into a national arena

Hey Leeds Digital Festival

The digital community does an incredible job of showcasing what we do. It’s so vibrant and so active that the rest of the country has to stand up and take notice. We’re not just talking about tech meet-ups, although leeds.tech has over 1,500 digital events listed at last count, the community is playing a much more active role in the city’s digital transformation.

Take Leeds Digital Festival for example. It’s a celebration of the digital sector, a chance to showcase the amazing work we’re doing and the people who are doing it. When the festival was founded in 2016, it had just 56 events, but this year, they pulled together an awe-inspiring line-up of 170 seminars, panels, conferences and socials. It’s now the biggest digital festival in the North, and just to give you an idea of the scale of it, last year, there were more tech events in Leeds during the first week of the festival than there were in San Francisco.

Leeds Digital Festival

It’s helping to change perceptions, both locally and nationally. “There are a lot of brands here that are using agencies in London and Manchester, but we’ve given local companies the opportunity to show them they’re here and you don’t need to go down to London for that service,” Founder Stuart Clarke told us. “I think the digital festival is helping people in the rest of the country, and internationally, to understand what a strong digital economy we have in Leeds, and that in turn encourages companies to move in and set up operations here.”

It was at Leeds Digital Festival, all those years ago, that FinTech North launched its first event. Founded by White Label Crowdfunding and Whitecap Consulting, it shines a light on the city’s biggest strengths and spreads the word that you don’t have to go to the capital to get these services, they’re just as good up North. Their first event was organised in just two weeks, but they got 200 people through the door – and now they organise seminars everywhere from Manchester to Newcastle.

It’s creating a culture of collaboration

Leeds Digital Festival

“I always come back to the word collaboration, I think Leeds is a much more collaborative city than the rest of the places in the UK,” Clarke told us, and he’s not just talking about individuals. Leeds has a unique ethos of collaboration, so you’ll see companies who should be competitors working together for the greater good, sharing their knowledge and their skills to help the wider industry.

SearchLeeds is one such event. It’s now the biggest search marketing conference in the North, but it’s organised by a single agency – Branded3. They could very easily have filled all the slots with their own experts, but instead, they opened up the stage to speakers from other companies, so you can see a rich and varied programme of speakers talking about everything from how digital has changed traditional media to what mobile search means for your business.

Search Laboratory, Stickyeyes, Epiphany, Journey Further – they spend their days pitching against each other, but they’ve all stepped up onto the stage to share their insights with the digital community. Here, it’s less about getting a slice of the pie, and more about making the pie bigger – because if we can position Leeds as a market leader for search, there will be more business to go around.

That same spirit of collaboration can be seen in the many meet-ups and societies that take place across the city. From Hey!Stac to Girls That Code, this is your chance to share your ideas and get a new perspective. And they’re coupled with the physical ‘places’ designed to bring digital people together in the real world. Co-working spaces like Platform, Duke Studios and ODI bring freelancers and entrepreneurs together, all under one roof, while initiatives like Leeds Hackspace bring hands-on techies together in a space that makes anything possible – 3D printers, laser cutters, oscilloscopes, you name it, they’ve got it.

It’s fuelling our entrepreneurial spirit

Glug

Leeds has a true start-up culture – and it has done for a very long time. In fact, we now have a scale-up dominant ecosystem, which means we have more tech companies aged 5-10 than any other. Businesses aren’t just starting here, they’re succeeding, and the community has a huge role to play in that.

“I forget sometimes, when I go to other places, that other cities aren’t like this. They have a different sort of ethos where they go and get jobs at big companies. But there’s a real entrepreneurial spirit in Leeds. There are a lot more people here who want to start something completely new.” Hannah Hosanee, co-founder of the Leeds arm of Glug, told us.

Leeds Digital Festival

It’s one of the reasons they wanted to bring Glug here, to support the people on the cusp of making that leap and shine a light on the great things happening in the city. Their talks are designed to inspire, so you can get a glimpse into the mind of someone who’s accomplished something amazing. It’s not always tech-focused, they’ve covered everything from street food to culture, but it’s always insightful and the Leeds chapter attracts a lot more techies than any other city.

There’s Founders Friday too. It’s a monthly meet-up that offers practical advice from people who’ve been there and done that. At each event, they hand over the mic to one of the city’s founders and invite them to tell their story. It’s a usually a tale of the mistakes they’ve made and the things they’ve learned, so it’s invaluable for new entrepreneurs.

It’s bringing more people into the industry & helping them move up the ladder

Leeds Digital Career Fair

Credit: Sam Toolsie

One of the biggest challenges facing the tech industry right now is the lack of skilled professionals to fill the roles. According to Tech Nation, the number of digital tech jobs is Leeds has risen from 23,734 in 2016 to 34,742 in 2017 – that’s an increase of 46%. But people simply aren’t coming into the industry fast enough to fill them, so once again, the community has stepped in to help. After all, what better way to see if you want a career in tech than by dipping your toe in the water at one of the city’s many events?

Glug and Hey!Stac are both great for people who want to get a feel for the industry, as are the events put on by LightStart Apps, which include everything from coffee mornings to Show ’n’ Tells. But the one you really want to watch is Leeds Digital Drinks. It’s exactly what it says on the tin – after work drinks on a Friday night with a bunch of digital-minded people. You can chat, ask questions and pick people’s brains over a pint, but these events aren’t just good for newcomers, they’re also a great way to build up your network and advance your career.

Leeds Digital Drinks

Then there are the big players themselves. The skills gap has forced businesses out of their offices and into the community to find the talent they need. Earlier this year, Sky opened up their offices to parents, teachers and career changers to demystify the tech industry, while Sky Betting & Gaming invited people in to see what it’s really like to work at a tech unicorn. And they’re just two examples – in Leeds, community has become key to recruitment and it’s helping us to keep more graduates in the city.

Which brings us neatly on to one of the biggest additions to the city’s events calendar in recent years – Leeds Digital Job Fair. Aware of the growing need for digital talent in the city, Amy De-Balsi, founder of Herd, decided to launch an event that would bring businesses and candidates together under one roof. It was so successful that they had to move to First Direct Arena in their second year to make space for the 50 exhibitors and 2,000 job seekers who attended the fair. Now the event itself is drawing attention to Leeds, as more and more businesses outside the city want to get involved.

So you see, the digital community has an important role to play in the growth of the tech industry in Leeds. It’s shining a spotlight on Leeds, driving innovation and tempting more people into tech – three things that have helped us get down to the final three in Channel 4’s search for a new National HQ. And it’s not just here. The wider region is just as just as lively, so you can cast your net even wider. From Harrogate Digital to CodeUP Huddersfield and Creative Calderdale – the digital community is growing and you can be part of it.