One week after accepting an offer to come to Sheffield to study for my degree, I was pretty concerned. I’d mentioned it to a couple of locals in the pub I worked at and the jury was in. Sheffield was dirty, grey, industrial, and rough.
“You’ll lose that lovely accent,” they said. Apparently a semi-Suffolk accent is what qualifies as a ‘lovely accent’ in a Wakefield public house. “What do you want to go to Sheffield for?”
Was I making the right decision? Frankly, if I wasn’t, I couldn’t be bothered to make the right one. I had a three month trip to Australia to plan, and if Sheffield was really as bad as they said, I’d let ‘future me’ deal with it. So, I shrugged my shoulders, packed my rucksack and bummed around Oz for a quarter of a year until I was full and ready to come back, get my teeth into my degree, and find out for myself what Sheffield was like.
I needn’t have worried. It took me all of two and a half days, a misguided fence-climbing expedition, a trip to A&E (another story), and an incredibly downhill walk to the Students’ Union (walking back up was interesting) to realise there was something about Sheffield. Something good.
Three years later and I felt the same. Despite a real lack of graduate jobs in Sheffield in 2009, I was determined to stay. I wasn’t interested (and couldn’t afford) to go and find an opportunity in a London media organisation. Sheffield was my home now. I had the Peak District on my doorstep, my family less than an hour away, and a bunch of great friends. There was that niggly job issue though. Pretty much needed to earn some money. That’s the drawback of having to eat.
Setting up a company was less of a decision I made, and more something that just happened. I’d picked up some web design skills as part of my Journalism degree and I’d been freelancing for the last year of uni anyway. Social Media for business was just becoming a thing and I’d been doing some copywriting for an SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) Company to earn a bit of extra cash as well. Here’s a handy tip – writing ten 800 word articles about various kitchen appliances every week may not seem all that transferable, but I know exactly what cooker I want when I buy my house. It’s the Britannia SI-10T6-L-G Freestanding Dual Fuel Range Cooker – Graphite. Thankfully, content marketing has changed somewhat since then.
So, I had the foundations of a basic understanding of web code, web design and web marketing. All it took was a more experienced business partner to come along and take me under his wing and I had my first startup - Digtheweb. Over the next few years, I continued to run this company, having a fairly steady flow of clients, earning enough to feed me and pay my rent, and even finding time to dabble in a second E-Commerce startup along the way. But as often happens with me, I became bored. SEO was becoming tainted by black-hat practitioners and it was becoming increasingly hard to gain trust from new customers as big PR companies got wind of the opportunity. When a fairly well-paid permanent job came up at The University of Sheffield’s enterprise and entrepreneurship unit, I applied, was successful and slowly began to wind down the self-employed section of my life so far.
That’s when the fun really started.
Autumn 2012 was my first exposure to the highly addictive but completely legal drug that is Startup Weekend . I can’t even clearly remember being offered it, the 54 hours that followed are a little hazy, but I knew I’d never be the same again. Things just made so much sense now. My eyes were open. I was enlightened! And what was so amazing was that everyone else who attended felt the same. This was something truly awesome.
For those of you getting a bit uncomfortable with my extended metaphor right about now, you probably don’t know what Startup Weekend is. It’s basically a very high intensity, high impact hackathon-style event, where you pose problems, vote for your favourites, form teams, validate assumptions, build solutions, and present to a panel of judges… all in one weekend.
I ran the first Startup Weekend Sheffield that November and it would set in motion a wealth of grassroots startup events and meetups in the city. All fuelled by and for the startup community.
As with any addictive substance, you can’t help but want more (there’s that pesky metaphor again. I can’t help myself). I teamed up with Sheffield software company, epiGenesys, and we ran a second Startup Weekend the following July. As we saw some familiar faces returning from the first one we ran, we realised: ‘wow, we really missed these guys.’ Turns out, they really missed us too. At the (always epic) after-party, somebody must have shouted ‘MONTHLY MEETUP,’ ‘STARTUP PEOPLE ROCK,’ ‘I LIKE PUBS’ or something because the next thing we knew we were organising a monthly meetup for startup people in a pub. And so it was aptly named: Startup in the Pub .
Suddenly Startup Weekend had become a springboard for something we could never have anticipated. A community was beginning to grow – a creative community, an energetic community, a community full of people I actually don’t mind spending my spare time with. Which is lucky. I see these guys a lot. Seriously, stop nominating me for ice bucket challenges.
Startup in the Pub has run every month apart from Christmas for a whole year now. In fact, I think September might be our first birthday! I suppose it makes sense that we’d celebrate with a cocktail edition .
They’re great for promoting and contributing to the startup ecosystem in Sheffield as they bring everyone together in an informal environment for conversations, drinks, catchups. And lasting relationships have been nurtured by these events.
More importantly for me though, as somebody who has become increasingly obsessed with helping create a cohesive startup community in the city, they give me an opportunity to listen to all the whining. No really, I’m not being sarcastic. It’s great. I’m also not just a really nasty person who loves to hear everyone’s problems because it makes me feel better. But when you’ve been exposed to the Customer Development Process, suddenly all the “but I’m just finding it so hard to find a co-founder”s and the “I just don’t know what to do next”s aren’t just whiney, annoying complaints. They’re a plentiful supply of problems and pains to solve. A veritable orchard of opportunities!
And it’s made all the better if your employer actively encourages you to follow your passions, to fill some of the gaps you see and try and solve some of the problems you hear.
After just a year of monthly Startup in the Pub meetups, we’ve launched a new series of Co-Founder Dating events, run ad hoc workshops on raising capital through VCs and crowdfunding , and launched a brand new Pre-Start and Incubation Programme . We’ve also run two more Startup Weekends and are planning our next. And the best thing is they’re all open to anybody, regardless of whether you’re a student, graduate, or member of the public - another first for University of Sheffield Enterprise (USE).
So what a difference a year makes. Or more accurately, what a difference a year and 10 months makes. Two years ago I had never even heard of Startup Weekend, now it’s a pillar of the Sheffield Startup Community and we have a bunch of other events and meetups to show for it.
So, if I had a glass of champagne - I don’t – I’m sitting at my desk with a GiveMeTap water bottle and an empty mug of organic decaf coffee. But if I did…I would raise a toast to Startup Weekend for being a freaking awesome non-profit organisation (you can apply to run an event in your city here) , to The University of Sheffield for tolerating me and indulging me when I have another overly excitable and often barmy idea, and to Sheffield and its startup community – not just the entrepreneurs, the founders, the enthusiasts, but the movers and shakers, the awesome people in the community who are running tech events , creative meetups , designing coworking spaces , running accelerator programmes .
Together, we’re making Sheffield an awesome place for startups. Clink, clink, glug, glug.
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If you would like to give us your tuppence worth on anything related to the Sheffield startup scene, or would like to share your self-starter story with our community then drop us an email to [email protected] for a chat. We are also giving away a free media pass to this year's MADE2014 festival! Here's the details of how to apply (before midnight Thursday 11th September)
Samantha Deakin, Startup Weekend Organiser and Global Facilitator, and Technology Entrepreneurship and Media Officer at University of Sheffield Enterprise- Follow here @SamanthaJDeakin