Have you considered joining up the dots?

Steve Jobs said:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

RAISE is the only private startup accelerator in the province but we have a distinguished lineage with Start VI (the first accelerator in Belfast, full stop), Digital Circle (the digital sector trade association in NI and the largest lobby group in the IT and digital sector) and the individuals who have made things happen in NI. Start VI was the programme that eventually led to the development of accelerators in NI and Digital Circle was a catalyst of a lot of good stuff – not least the “herding” of the digital sector (while at the same time trying not to bag and tag them). The problem with programmes funded by government is that they end. They’re certainly unstable in an environment where we haven’t had a government in almost 3 years (at the time of writing, it’s 151 days until the three year anniversary of the collapse of the NI Assembly. I expect we will have a party…)

Over the last couple of years, we’ve been talking to people about the problems in the local industry – especially the digital-focused industry. These are a lack of investment capital, difficulties in accessing markets and a diminishing available talent pool. Remarkably, these were the red lines which led to the creation of Digital Circle as the implementation vehicle of the NI Digital Content Strategy. So, in more than a decade, we’ve not solved things and, frankly, things may be worse. The amount of capital available has not increased, Brexit looks like it will limit a market that was still developing and the access to developer talent has decreased as prices for developer talent has gone through the roof.

We’ve spoken to some big employers and some small. We’ve spent a lot of time (and money) investigating the challenges and the solutions as we see them. And we’ve assessed the state of play in the sector and what a difference we can make. We’ve looked at the rise and fall of Digital Circle (which was funding dependent on government – though the funding was never for Digital Circle in the end – it was for delivery of certain milestones and sector-related deliverables – the fact that we also ran a trade association in our “spare time” wasn’t always appreciated by either Momentum or InvestNI (the project managers and funders for the programme)) and the later collapse of Momentum (the ICT Federation of Northern Ireland). We’ve looked at the emergence of sector-specific single-issue groups which focus on a problem instance but not the holistic picture. We’ve been in the room and listened at the NI Digital Skills Summit. We’ve been involved with the NI Digital Catapult steering committee in the past.

“Sometimes changing the game is as simple as finding a few people who play by the same rules as you.”

Our specific interest is start-ups. It has to be. But we are running many of the same types of events that I used to organise as Digital Circle. And the problems start-ups have are much the same as the problems that digital sector companies have – raising finance, validating ideas, hiring talent, accessing markets. Like the quote above, we realise that much of the work we have been doing over the last two decades has been leading up to this. But the dots only make sense looking backwards, not forwards.

The solution we have come to is that the Northern Ireland digital sector really needs a lobby group. Even when there isn’t a government organisation to lobby per se. And also it’s a lot of work and that means a considerable investment; an investment we have decided to make. We’ll be working at risk, but isn’t that the sort of thing we do every single day?

“One note does not make a symphony; one artist does not make an orchestra.”

Doing this independently, with a view to sustainability, has to be the basis. We are doing our best to encourage collaboration across the sector, to embrace and promote efforts from our peers and to step in and put our shoulder to efforts where we see the need. But it has to be a coalition of the willing.

The steps you take today are maybe not going to seem like much. They’re the drawing of a line in the sand, a stake in the ground, planting a flag on new territory. But, looking backwards from some point in the future, you’ll see that the dots join up.

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