PLATFORM - Sunderland - June 2024

PLATFORM - Sunderland - June 2024

Insights Briefing

PLATFORM | UK Startup Week - Paul Lancaster

Paul thanked everyone for attending the first event in Sunderland with the Newcastle event getting around 70 to 80 people per month and will be running events in Sunderland every month too. Paul has been doing events for a long time including a startup week back in 2017 and for a few years after that but it will be back next week in Sunderland. Paul is from Gateshead and has been living and working in the North East but now lives in Sunderland with his girlfriend. The point of these events is to create a platform for people to be inspired and find out about businesses here in Sunderland and the North East and build a community and an entrepreneurial ecosystem and is supported by companies such as accountancy software company FreeAgent

Wubbleyou - Mark Renney

Wubbleyou sponsors this event as they feel we need more fast-growing businesses in the North East and they build products to help businesses scale, it is hard to grow a service based business by adding more people but if you can productise it then you can scale it. They also bring what they have learned by doing a free workshop and consultation at

True Potential - Mark Trodden

True Potential supports the event and they mentioned that to fill a room with as many people as were here, you'd have to contact thousands of people. True Potential took a few years to create and plan and are based in Newcastle and the drive behind the business is to reduce costs and communicating with clients and has been a leading thing within the business. The mission of the business is to give proper financial advice with exclusive investments based on technology where you can invest using an app from just a pound and see how things are going and runs its own pension scheme with auto enrolment and have thousands of people onboard with this. They have 500 people based in Newcastle and over a thousand advisors around the country and many companies use their systems for back office and compliance. The company has been winning awards the past few years and have onboarded over one hundred thousand clients and have 31 billion pounds under management. Their founder helps disadvantaged children to get in the workplace with the Harrison Foundation. They have several ways of communicating with clients including webinars and podcasts and their customers can log in and find a wide range of topics including daily contacts with fund managers, they have over half a million clients. It is access to app on your phone and you can add to your investments and is a low-cost way to do it and it is national firm with people all over the country with different people working in different areas. Paul uses them as puts in a bit of money into investments when he can and also uses them for his pension.

North East BIC - John Forth & Debbie Simpson

Debbie is a business advisor at North East BIC and John mentioned it was great to have an event in Sunderland and is Sunderland born and bred, they have had their own business for around thirty years. They talked about the benefits of getting on the internet originally and they cover startup growth and innovation.

North East Business & Innovation Centre which has been offering thirty years of business support and have been celebrating the impact they have had in the North East with an impact over 2.5 billion pounds and have started 4,000 businesses and is home to 140 businesses. In 2024 they have had a rebrand and refurbishment of the BIC itself with a new reception area that has just been finished. They have a lot of sustainable power with solar panels with over 90% occupancy which included during COVID. They provide start-up and business support and have funding through the shared prosperity fund and work closely with the council.

Innovation Grant is open to Sunderland businesses or who have customers in Sunderland and is for innovative growth for new to market or new to business for projects up to £40,000 with a 40% grant contribution and runs until March 2025. They have funded businesses such as tech platform company including when you have a wind turbine in the sea and you connect this to your substation isn't as simple as that you had to put information into software and do routing of cables took two weeks but they got this down to a matter of hours. They also have Data2Action which is a self-serve GDPR business. They have supported 179 businesses, 43 new to market products, 76 new to company products.

Startup support includes producing a business plan and going to growth phase and offer mentoring and have application to learn about starting a business with a wraparound service and help you get investor ready. They also have Growth Lab events to bring the business community together and network and do business together and include ones on Engineering and Manufacturing but focuses on recruitment and marketing so relevant to any business, they have business experts with real nuggets of information that come from experts, they also have customer service events for growth, a strategy masterclass which is an intensive masterclass on how to grow and scale a business along with marketing for growth including a keynote from domain experts with knowledge you can gain from these events which are truly inspiring.

BIC have a family feel who do like to help each other and the general feeling is they want to help and will wherever you can. They also have a social enterprise team for helping those who want to set up a social enterprise. BIC is funded by UK Government and Sunderland City Council. Paul has done a bit of work with the BIC, and they have an amazing team and Debbie is one of the most well-connected people in Sunderland with excellent facilities and you can just pop in to do a bit of co working or access to offices of different sizes.

NEL Fund Managers - Susan Snowdon

NEL has 35 years of experience supporting SME businesses in the region and have a relationship centred approach and have an office in Team Valley in Gateshead. They are an approachable and friendly bunch to support businesses and understand regional dynamics and work collaboratively with other partners and do a lot of sign posting, they can make local decisions quite swifty in the head office in Gateshead. They have been awarded funds that have been made available to support businesses looking to grow including NEL Debt Finance Fund which is loan amounts from £100,000 to £2,000,000 for up to five years and for SMEs across the whole North East and Tees Valley and can be alongside other funding. There is also the NEL Smaller Loans Fund for loads from £25,000 to £100,000 for up to five years for startups to established businesses for the North East and Tees Valley. North East Growth Capital Fund is £100,000 to £500,000 for up to five years for the North East Combined Authority only.

They have invested across over fifteen sectors and they are sector agnostic, the money can be used for growing SMEs such as funding expansion projects for new premises, bring on new staff or upskilling existing staff, purchasing assets for growth plans or something that adds efficiencies to other businesses can also be supported. They are people facing and make decisions based on information provided and due diligence and look at skill set and financial performance and financial markets and what are trying to achieve.

When getting investment think about what you need to get to where you need to get to and what will the investment be used for and can your business support that debt going forward and would equity investment be suitable where can get investment in return for shares. Investors will need to see a business plan or pitch deck, what management and staff you have and strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats along with contingency for worst case scenarios plus consider environmental, social and governance but there is a lot of support available, but think about reducing carbon footprint and how much water is being used etc. Also, for compliance do you have management team, shareholders etc.

Don't be frightened to speak to them, talk passionately about your business, know your numbers, convey knowledge in your market and sector in plain English, articulate your unique selling point including your value proposition and what problem you are solving. Understand your customers and explain what demand is and tell your past, current and future story plus be willing to engage with advisors and accept guidance around financials or intellectual property. Financials should include annual accounts, management accounts and forecasts and show if you were to secure investment how would you use it, show much money does the business have and overview of profit and loss. Support could range for securing funding for necessary equipment, business development marketing or other business needs. NFL give a designated team that will support you for the length of the loan and always welcome early conversations from businesses looking for support for their business. Find out more at

Show & Tell

MMC Research - Natasha McDonough

MMC is based in Sunderland and Natasha has been here for a few years, the business was founded in 2015 they had a long career in strategic marketing and had a successful career but were made redundant and went to job centre and got an enterprise loan and had an idea for their business and their business turns ten next year. They always wanted a team and have grown really fast and did strategic marketing and looking into doing market research but when COVID hit most of their business disappeared overnight, but they were able to keep the market research as they had an advocate and supporter of their business and in the last few months they have had more enquiries than the previous few years.

They have clients of all shapes and sizes including doing anti-social behaviour research for the Durham Police, a private equity software company in the Netherlands, or most people's research in Sunderland - they are paid to be nosy. They do a lot for the community and often do it because they want to.

Answers to the questions you dare not to ask for a voice of customer to find out what your clients think of you, may want to know if people are going to use your products more or less in the next year, experience of customer service or feedback about features in the products. Client may want to know if they want certain products and functionalities but also suggest add knowing about customer service and other elements of their business and provide back a SWOT analysis to the company. They still have that zest for the business and super excited for the opportunities and have supported many people including tenants who might not tell people directly but were able to speak to MMC and helped them introduce an event which wouldn't have been possible without that support.

A survey will tell you what people think but there is intelligence and science behind working out a survey, but when you do the deep dive and qualitive and focus groups this will tell you why people think the way they do about something. Can do surveys and then do a follow-up focus group and interviews to get real thoughts and opinions from potential or existing customers.

Desk Research is where you can get twelve hours of funded market research for those in Newcastle, Gateshead and Sunderland and allows you to do market size and scoping, grant finding, competitor analysis, find list of potential clients, population size or do trend spotting but Desk Researchers will use paid databases to find the information you need.

MMC is never just research for research's sake it is always research and recommendations, help to due diligence and speak to customers when acquiring a new software platform. They have people who represent MMC all over the country and have a model where they can work how they want and are remote and have an office and have supportive working where can work around commitments with a great working environment and donate over 6% of their profits to charity every year. They have helped found out what businesses and residents think in Sunderland but also help scaling businesses and do small pieces of work and then work with them more since then. Product launches can be helped by interviewing customers or do naming research for upcoming products or due acquisition due diligence for customers and have had clients introduce them to other companies around the world. If starting your business, you can get funded research and shows you can run a lifestyle business and grow it differently and make it about people and don't have to be huge and they have doubled since last year.

Tiger Energy Consultants - Phil Young

Phil is from Sunderland and Tiger Energy Consultants was set up last year, it is growing slowly and steadily. They work with individual on a consultancy basis, and they are a bespoke team of business energy and utility experts. They are offering a low-cost agile approach including a market monitor service by allowing their customers not to be caught out by movements in the market.

They help SMEs with their utility procurement as the wrong contract can cost companies a lot of money, they understand their customers business requirements and priorities and they always present customers with the full cost of all their options for gas and electricity and do quarterly updates, they also do water provider audits although this is a new sector.

Their approach is to develop long term growth through delivery of value and service to customers there are also new requirements for brokers the past couple of years. Their model is predicated on residual only revenue and renewal incentives for sales staff. They have key supply partners such as SSE, Utilita and Tomato which has amazing software that operates behind the scenes. They are supplier neutral and supply all options and many people just do one supplier as they probably have a commercial agreement with those suppliers, but they are agnostic to supplier.

They have routes to market such as their existing network, also have formal and informal relationships for affiliates and share the commission generated from any sales, they will also do direct marketing. They get paid by getting the wholesale price and then the cost of sale is substantially undercut compared to many competitors and do a best price guarantee, energy suppliers often will also have a commission that is paid.

Water sector for new supply contracts is tiny and meters aren't accurate so they do a review and if they find any issues they will do that on a no-win-no-fee basis. They have a dual compliance regime and have recently worked with an ethical supermarket and were able to save them over £20,000 in a year. They are also up for the North East FIRST Startup awards in June.

TwentyEight28 Property Group - Josh York

TwentyEight28 Property Group are an ethical property investment group and want to make sure high quality and affordable homes are brought into use. They want to enhance housing numbers and improve quality standards creating inclusion, diversity and thriving communities.

The business is relatively new, but Josh had experience in the construction industry but was made redundant due to global downturn and then moved into a big blue-chip company heading up supply management and then went on to a few other things. They are a member of the Chartered Institute of Credit Management and one of the few in the area who are.

They believe everyone deserves a safe and secure place to call home, they were born in Sunderland in a typical council estate but went through a lot of trauma and things that shouldn't have been happening. There are many people homeless in Sunderland including people from the military who find themselves in that position.

They are a business with a mission to expand access to quality homes for vulnerable families and individuals across our region. They started in 2024 and they have invested in a lot of knowledge and been speaking with Sunderland Council and housing associations, it is a promise for people to have a home where they can flourish and somewhere they can eat and sleep the following day. They aren't driven by monetary values, but they need to have returns to be able to provide sustained living conditions and they want to see vibrant ecosystems. North East is mostly white British and need to change the mindset when you bring in diversity that helps the community grow and brings economic development.

They are regulated, certified and fully accredited in property management. The challenge is there is high demand and low supply and tend to be of low quality, there are resource constraints and cost pressures. They work with clients and investors to identify the right properties in the right area and they enhance the conditions and quality of the properties to their own quality standards and testing which is basically would they put their own family in that house if not they won't put anyone there. They make properties available to vulnerable families and individuals to call their home through their social supportiveships.

They use their expert area and industry knowledge, where is there a need for diversity and where there is good rental demand to meet investor's needs, they need to see if it delivers to any needs. They provide a service to investors including a property portfolio service allows those who don't have the time to build a portfolio they can do this by investing £50,000 and possess a rental property to start with and 90% is totally passive, they also worked with angel investors who want to put their money to good use and get better returns from what banks provide with Fixed Investment Loans.

They improve property standards, sustainable and affordable rents by reducing these to around 80% of market rate, they increase property supply and expand capacity where 9% of homes are empty or derelict properties in Sunderland which they can bring back into use. They help create economic growth and community inclusion and diversity and uplifting everyone. They are looking for people to make ethical investments with bank-beating returns or for those looking to sell their property.

in Conversation With...

Oculus HR - Louise Kennedy

Louise is the managing director of Oculus HR, they have worked in various roles over the years. They started their business in 2013 as they were completing their role but were thinking about what to do next and looked into HR consultancy and thinking about going into businesses and giving advice and support. The reason it is call Oculus HR due to going the Pantheon in Rome which has an Oculus and things of the light that can be brought into a business and the added value they can provide. They worked with BIC to help get those first initial steps on what to do next, how to get your first client or what to do first and a lot of different things but the support was invaluable to be able to shape their initial stages.

They really wanted to do something but didn't know what it was, they wanted more flexibility and had a desire to do something and since they were good at HR they thought they could do a fantastic job and the next things that come along afterwards. They got support in those early days was stepping out from their job, they needed support with going out and networking, they didn't know what they didn't know. They needed to make it work so thought about what they were prepared to do to make it work, they also did things on an interim part-time basis, they went from there to Great Run company and gave them the money on the bank to take things forward. They did get some funding around getting help with the website but there are more resources and help available.

In their family they didn't know any business owners, but they have found people you can share situations with friends that can offer help, it is different from day-to-day chats with friends as can pick up the phone and talk about things and tell them about being shortlisted for awards and celebrating success with people is important. The North East is a very friendly place with a close knit community with so many people out there to champion other people and can get help from other people and can build connections and refer people to other people. Your network is important, if you don't have one find someone who has or attend events such as PLATFORM. Going out networking is important but can't be everywhere so can decide what is right or wrong for you.

Thinking about things like what do you charge for something like writing a letter. It was just Louise when starting out and they got work from their network and referrals but one of their first networking events resulted in work a few years later as remembered who they were and a lot of their work comes from referrals and are very consistent with how they use their platforms such as LinkedIn and marketing, this has been built from networking and getting that opportunity. Word of mouth is important, you never know where work will come from or what to expect, when talking to someone you don't know who they may know who may come to you. You build up that reputation as often people want to have things resolved quickly, they recently did some emotional intelligence training which resulted in doing some work for them in return. Reputation is what people are saying about you when you are not there.

Oculus HR does HR consultancy including day-to-day transactional HR, they do things for companies just starting up with their first employee with starter packs, or larger companies with hundreds of employees. They are able to support small businesses to put in a structure for managing their people, they do HR mentoring and coaching along with a whole host of things. They do master classes and training at management level to bring some consistency in and also do a Real World HR podcast including industry insights and real-life discussions and there's so much really great information and all sorts of people from all levels and for those who love podcasts there's plenty to listen to.

Challenges along the way, was told it was a lifestyle business before but is now a business going though fast growth and have 47% growth compared to the previous year and they are growing at pace and need to ensure that business structure grows at growth. You just have to have the right mindset, may have moments of what are you going to do here but can approach those challenges such as making sure people they bring in know what they are doing and know who the person is who would be a good fit in the business. Need to be prepared to take that risk to take the next steps, they have bootstrapped the business but did right things at the right times but will look at what it takes to grow the business but they love what they do and love to be able to deliver and be able to reach the right balance, every time you level up you learn more skills.

They have done programmes that have helped them, they also got a coach last year, but they didn't know what they needed so found someone who was good for that, they also found someone who does spiritual counselling and did a business coach but found they needed to have one on one rather than one of many support. You just want to find someone to offload onto and speak to, Louise has also focused on their own health and wellbeing, you need to be the best version of you enables the business to grow and enables a better lifestyle, just to be able to spend time with someone every couple of weeks helps and they are in a good headspace that helps the flow, need to take that moment to look after yourself including knowing how to decompress.

Future plans are to grow over the next few years, is a case of why we can't as they have the ability to do it and have right team in place and can put the right plans in place to make that growth happen. They love Sunderland and what they are doing in the whole area, the difference made on the seafront in Seaburn, engagement and new buildings in the city and the landscape in the next few years will be very different, people should be more involved in Sunderland and take another look. Think collectively of the North East and Sunderland is not far from Newcastle but senior business people don't seem to know what is going on in Sunderland and need to understand better what is going on there.

Pivot point to a more established business, but they did take those early stages seriously and treated as a business where they needed to cover their costs, they didn't like it being described as a lifestyle business but there are certain points such as three years ago where they wanted more and they had the freedom to be able to grow the business and brought in their husband to do more in the business at that point, the financial dependency is the driver of the business.

Going from one person to a team was just adding someone informally who did a bit of work here and there for them but now work full time for the business, can also work with people on a freelance basis including being able to manage your own costs and expenses. They recruited people working a few days a week then now full time. There is enough work for them to do but can start part-time and then take them on full time so they continuously look at people and will look for people who can make three times their salary.

Closing Remarks

You can visit for blogs every week, interviews, podcast and coaching programme from Paul and he is organising Sunderland Startup Week is 2nd June - 6th June 2025. Paul said it is such an exciting time and to bring everything together in one place. You get a ticket that allows you to go to all daytime or evening events starting The Fire Station which holds over 550 people, there is an inspiration day, funding and finance day for venture capital for all stages of business, day on growing and scaling including networking and partnerships plus day an keep going and pivot on how do you know you are successful and do what is working and know what is not.