Tech Talk

Digital is the future of big business, say York’s tech entrepreneurs

This June, the ever-gentrifying borough of Shoreditch welcomed York grads  to the Alumni Association’s latest ‘technology for SMEs’ event. The  chic and trendy Jones Family Project restaurant provided a setting  to complement  the evening’s forward-looking focus.

The main event included a Q&A session with a tech-savvy panel of York alumni and industry experts. The panel of five was chaired by Umesh Kumar, founder and advisor for Pi Labs (Europe’s first property focused accelerator), and included two current York undergraduate students.

The first undergrad was Alexandros Kontos, founder of Waterfox, a new variant on popular browser Firefox. Alexandros was accompanied by fellow bachelor, Alexander Wooley, co-founder of social media analytics company Hashtrack.

Also contributing their expertise were Charlie Perrins, technical director for design agency DARE; law graduate Megan Hanney, who now coaches entrepreneurs under the lifestyle brand “Generation 2.0”; and Madeline Parra, co-founder and CEO of restaurant reviews app Twizoo.

The panel (left to right: Umesh Kumar, Alexander Wooley, Alexandros Kontos, Madeline Parra, Megan Hanney, Charlie Perrins)
The panel (left to right: Umesh Kumar, Alexander Wooley, Alexandros Kontos, Madeline Parra, Megan Hanney, Charlie Perrins)

The debate

The panel began by discussing where they saw their respective sectors going in the near future. All agreed that technology would play a big role within companies from across sectors. Alexander Wooley said: “One in 4 people where I work, work in technology. Technology is now at the forefront of how big business makes money now.”

Charlie Perrins added: “Everyone is now talking about digital transformation”.

Parra’s focus, meanwhile, was more on the influence of social media. “Less than 1% of visitors leave a restaurant review on Tripadvisor, yet people naturally share their opinions through social media. The sector needs to be tapping into that social noise,” she said.

Drawing on her own experience working at pharmaceutical giant GSK, Parra continued: “The pharmaceutical industry was massively behind. Any tweet we wrote had to be approved six weeks prior, meaning we couldn’t engage with our audience in real time.”

Innovation

The panel’s attention next turned to the subject of innovation. Wooley said: “The finance industry is regulated to such an extent that innovation is non-existent. There is just too much risk.”

The panel agreed, each recounting the detrimental effects of regulations on innovation imposed within their respective sectors.

panel 2

This raised the topic of the now global – and highly innovative – transport company Uber. Wooley said: “The value behind the product is not the technology innovation – there are enough people out there who can produce the technology involved.

“Uber is taking a real physical problem and then finding a solution utilising technology and thus transforming the industry.”

Yet, as Parra points out, Uber is a tech-enabled start-up, and not a purely technological start-up like Google. This makes the two fundamentally different. Practically speaking, technological start-ups take more time to create – and worse, are unattractive to the media since they’re “fundamentally unsexy”.

Cracking the industry

Perrins went on to warn of the wider perils involved in failing to comprehensively understand technology. His advice to prospective tech entrepreneurs was: “Learn to code. Learn the basics of the Internet. Once you have gathered the fundamental knowledge of how to go from 0 to 10,000 users then you can fully understand how to crack the industry.”

But sometimes “cracking the industry” can only come down to luck and timing. “Even the most successful stories have a hell of a lot of pain behind them,” Parra said.

The take-home message of the panel was that tech start-ups would do well to learn from small, non-virtual businesses and build that all-important face-to-face network. “Not being a faceless corporation is now a source of major strength,” said Wooley.

Panel 3

It is not merely enough to be a good programmer – after all, business is business no matter what form it takes. Kontos stated that a “solid business and psychological understanding” of the market and the customer is now also vital to separate oneself from the endless supply of start-up founders with true tech fluency.

Charlie Perrins concluded the discussion on a bittersweet note: “The industry is a constant arms race. We have to adapt for the future. Technology won’t go away.”