Starting Sunderland Digital

Sunderland is a city synonymous with making things. Once dubbed the largest shipbuilding town in the world, the city is most famous for its heritage in shipbuilding in the 19th century.

It’s now almost 30 years since the last of the shipyards closed, and Sunderland is perhaps now best known for its role in the car manufacturing industry, with over 400,000 vehicles being built annually at Nissan’s plant in Washington.

But it isn’t just advanced manufacturing where the production line continues to thrive. A recent report by Tech Nation showed that Sunderland had the highest digital tech business birth rate in the UK.

Starting a meetup in Sunderland for the digital sector initially came to me a couple of years previous. I’d registered the Twitter account, mocked up a logo, even bought the domain, but ultimately parked the idea as I was unsure where to begin, let alone if there was even interest.

As a regular face at other meetups in Newcastle, I always had that itch to start something that little closer to home. There’s quite a lot of people working in tech in Sunderland — over 5700 in fact—but there was nowhere for those people to meetup over a beer unless you hopped on the Metro.

It wasn’t until a few years later that that same itch needed scratching. The domain was due for renewal. Should I let it lapse or revisit the idea? It was then that I decided to sit down with Adam, Cameron and Kevin to see if Sunderland Digital was something we could get off the ground together.

Discovering who we are

As touched on above, Sunderland has a proud history in the heavy industries. A giant of the steam age, the River Wear was the birth place of thousands of ships from as early as 1346, exporting the city’s coal and glass across the continent.

In fact, an extraordinary 27% of merchant ships built in Britain during the Second World War were built at Sunderland.

It was this prowess that we wanted to pay homage to when it came to producing Sunderland Digital’s brand. Sure, we could have (and did) produce some early concepts that were inline with what you would expect from a tech meetup, but Sunderland Digital needed strong character and an unmistakeable identity from our neighbouring meetups in Tyneside.

Concept A: Use of gradient and rounded typography for a modern, simplistic look
Concept B: Exploring Sunderland’s history in glass-making
Concept C: Drawing inspiration from Sunderland’s shipbuilding heritage
The Sunderland Digital colour palette is made up from off-black and coffee primary colours, with accents picked out in teal and salmon

During the discovery process, it was clear that we all felt passionate that Sunderland Digital should not only reflect our home but the people behind it. What type of meetup would appeal to us?

Now that the brand direction had been set, we carried that right through to the tone of our communications and style of writing. By injecting a little local dialect and humour, we were keen to promote Sunderland Digital as an informal and relaxed meetup. One that would appeal to designers, developers and creators. The makers.

Brand done. Speakers approached. The date and venue had been agreed—Sunderland Software Centre would host us every third Wednesday of the month. Sunderland Digital was ready to roll.

The first six months

It’s safe to say that the first six months of Sunderland Digital have blown our expectations. We were cautiously optimistic of attracting a decent turnout each month — anything over 15 would be considered a bonus, but in what was only our second event we welcomed over 40 people through the doors.

The feedback and support we’ve received from the community, not only here in Sunderland but also across the North East has been both heart-warming and encouraging. We even received some coverage in the local press which was pretty bonkers.

We’ve also been fortunate enough to welcome a great calibre of speaker to date — from some of the region’s biggest agencies to the brightest minds, we’ve covered topics from Virtual Reality to Artificial Intelligence.

Sunderland Digital — February 2017

Challenges we face

Of course, as great as the first six months have gone, there is much to learn.

Diversity is one of the biggest issues facing the tech sector right now, and speaking with organisers of other meetups here in the North East, it’s not a challenge unique to us, but one we must attempt to overcome together.

Of all speakers we’ve welcomed to Sunderland Digital thus far, everyone of those has been male. On paper that doesn’t read great, but behind the scenes efforts have and continue to be made to tip the balance.

Unfortunately, our efforts so far have been unsuccessful, but a more honest assessment of the situation would be that we don’t exactly have a queue of speakers kicking down the door either.

Where possible we try to plan ahead as far as we can, but ultimately tying speakers down has been more difficult than we perhaps gave credit for. Originally our aim was to have at least 2 or 3 speakers per event, and where possible, some level of local representation to ensure that we support and shine a spotlight on tech companies and individuals here in Sunderland.

That hasn’t been easy. If you’ve come along to Sunderland Digital, you’ve probably noticed that we can’t stress how important it is for people to get in touch if you would like to blow the minds of our audience — we’re ready and waiting to give you these opportunities.

As I say, we’ve been fortunate so far to have 11 awesome people prepared to give their time on an evening, but we’ve had a few close scares along the way from late cancellations to illness on the day of the event.

Finally — not so much a challenge, but something we’d like to steady the ship on—is turnout. Now granted when you run a recurring event where the theme for each month varies, you’re obviously going to garner different levels of interest. Our average attendance so far is 27, with a high of 41 and a low of 19. As I mentioned earlier, while this is still above our expectations, we would love to see that rise beyond 30.

Right now we’re still discussing how to tackle this; do we continue with our current approach of having specific themes each month or introduce a more varied lineup of talks that interest a wider segment of people? This is something we’ll be looking for your feedback on in the near future.

Where do we go from here?

Our immediate aims are to continue on our current path. Each month we learn from our mistakes and tinker things to improve on the following month (thanks to your feedback and our super-duper sponsors, we’ve been able to expand our drinks selection and offer more food options suitable for veggies and vegans).

Beyond that, who knows? We have a few ideas that we’d love to share when the time feels right.

Sunderland Digital takes place at Sunderland Software Centre every third Wednesday of the month. Join our mailing list or follow us on Twitter for the latest info on upcoming events.