If you can’t find what you’re looking for locally – start something new
How many business events have you been to in London? Each year, the capital hosts tens of thousands of conferences, exhibitions and trade fairs, contributing to a UK business events sector worth £31bn in 2018. Clearly, events do exist outside of London, but the city takes more than its fair share of the limelight – in a heavily skewed arrangement which harms the country as a whole. A failure to develop the business events sector outside of the capital stilts growth in these areas, with a lack of much needed investment, ecosystems, and opportunities for collaboration.
One man seeking to change this is Yiannis Maos, founder of Birmingham Tech Week. Within just a few months in 2019, Maos managed to get this event concept off the ground, in an important step for the Birmingham business community and its surrounding areas. DisruptionHub spoke to him to find out more.
Making the move
Like most business leaders, Maos – whilst not a resident of London – is regularly called to the capital for events. An invitation to host the customer experience conference at London Tech Week a few years ago therefore left him feeling disappointed that similar opportunities didn’t exist in his local area.
“I was thrilled to be asked and very privileged to have taken on that role, but equally frustrated,” Maos says. “Frustrated that again I had to go down to London to take part in a conference around tech. We set up our business in Birmingham and we are very proud to be a Birmingham tech company. But we haven’t got yet – I believe – the ecosystem, the community to really help companies like ours flourish.”
A lack of investment – both in financial terms and in the talent, infrastructure and general ecosystem needed to set up successful tech businesses – leads to a vicious circle for regional industry development. Maos realised that either things could stay as they were, which would lead to an inevitable dependence on London in the future, or he could do something about it.
“From a selfish point of view for my business,” he says, “because the ecosystem didn’t exist I thought, well I can do one of two things here… I can look over my shoulder in three or four years and realise that we have to go to London to get the talent, to get the investment. Or I can change things.”
“So I started investigating a little bit more into why Birmingham didn’t have a tech scene. It had small pockets, but nothing that really put us on a par with the likes of London.”
Birmingham Tech Week
Interestingly, Maos identified that what the Birmingham area was lacking was a form of community around the technology industry. Whilst successful tech companies existed in the area, there was no sense of overall cohesion – a fact which was seriously hampering its development.
“There are two reasons why I think this hasn’t happened up to this point,” he says. “One – a lack of collaboration. People in Birmingham talk a lot about collaboration, but it’s very rarely seen. At worst, there’s a silo mentality, and people are competitive for the sake of it even though they are striving to achieve the same things and help the same people. The other area is a cultural problem. Brummies don’t like to shout about their success. We need to shout louder, we need to celebrate our achievements.”
This led to the idea for Birmingham Tech Week, a dedicated series of events for technology professionals all hosted in Birmingham and its surrounding areas. While initially envisaging a select number of companies and events, Maos quickly realised that there was a keen appetite for the tech week as a whole.
“I created the Birmingham Tech Week website and brand on a whim,” he says, “thinking if we can get five to ten events in the first year with a few organisations that are like minded that’s a great starting point.”
“Fast forward to where we are now, after the first Tech Week – we had over 60 events taking place over 40 different locations, with various levels of government backing, and great exposure. We had almost every single tech hub and partner in Birmingham coming together, even though most of those organisations wouldn’t have been in the same room before.”
Develop the industry, develop the region
Birmingham Tech Week hosted a range of events from the 7th-13th October 2019, including subject specific seminars on different technical fields such as the IoT, AI and microservices, workshops on raising investment, and information sessions on managing the local talent landscape.
For Maos, the opening session of the week was testament to the event’s overall aims, and its achievements so far.
“We heard the Mayor of the West Midlands talk about why tech is so important to Birmingham,” he says. “SCC was the sponsor for the opening event – a business that was made in Birmingham. Companies like this show what can be done, but we need to come together.”
Overall, Maos is confident that Birmingham Tech Week achieved its founding principles: to celebrate the success of the city, encourage investment to the area, and create a collaborative network of technology professionals and businesses.
Another reason, he adds, was to inspire the next generation.
“When I was starting out on my career, tech gave me a lifeline,” he says. “But I see too many people being let down that have that ability to go into a career in tech because they think differently. That doesn’t just mean in jobs like development, it applies to the other non technical roles the industry offers too. It’s people like that who I also want to inspire along this journey.”
A northern feeling
Individual cities – and initiatives like Birmingham Tech Week – aside, there’s an argument that the whole of the North needs to come together if it is to contend with the draw of London. Does Maos agree?
“I do,” he says, “But I think it’s important that we all have our own individual identities first and foremost. I don’t think that we should try and create a universal identity as a collective. On the other hand, we need to share knowledge and insight, and we need to create the pathways for businesses into different cities.”
“Some cities are stronger than others in certain areas. Take the Midlands. There’s some fantastic advanced manufacturing going on in the likes of Coventry – so I absolutely think that’s a necessity to make this work and make us competitive against the likes of London.”
It is clear that there is a strong demand for innovation in northern English cities, as well as tech specific events and communities.
This goes against the grain of popular opinion, but Maos’s personal experience – with Birmingham Tech Week and elsewhere – provides the evidence.
“I spent two years as the chair of the UK Customer Experience Professionals Association,” he says. “We actually brought Customer Experience Day from London to Birmingham for the first time, and doubled the size of it. That was my first event with Birmingham, where even though I was told “don’t move it out of London, you won’t get the audience” actually they were wrong.”
For our northern cities, it seems, the only way is up.
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