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“i’d love people who want to change the world to call manchester their home” — doug ward, forward manchester

“i’d love people who want to change the world to call manchester their home” — doug ward, forward manchester

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Doug Ward is a Mancunian tech entrepreneur who advises the government on how best to bring about the future, and who thinks a lot about Manchester’s past.

When he talks about what he’s doing to make Manchester a Top Five European Startup Destination, at TechHub, at SpaceportX, and soon at Forward, he likes to talk about the things that have been done in Manchester that make those things possible.

The abolition of slavery. The suffragette movement. The co-operative movement. The life and work of Alan Turing. Actually, Doug doesn’t just like to talk about these things. It’s essential that he does.

“A whole bunch of us love this city,” Doug tells us at one point during our talk in the SpaceportX kitchen, the words bursting from him. “I love this place so much, and I believe in its future so much that — sorry,” he says, remembering that he was actually talking about something else entirely. “Sorry, so, the story was…”

Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng • TCT Manchester: 02

Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng

He thinks a lot about his own history, too. It doesn’t fill as many shelves as Manchester’s, but it might one day be a story that is significant for the city. For now it’s significant for Doug.

“I feel like I’ve made an insane amount of mistakes. It’s like a huge mountain. It’s cost me my twenties. I’ve been going at it since I was eighteen, just doing nothing else, no real holiday. I’ve just been doing what I believe I should be doing.”

Like social change is part of Manchester’s heritage, his mistakes are part of Doug’s heritage. Doug failed, and lost everything; his own money, his family’s money, his family’s trust, people’s respect. “I was being cast by the society that I knew as a loser,” Doug told us. “I’d failed. I was in a lot of debt. And people had marked my card, that that was me finished.”

The burden of that failure hasn’t left Doug, and he wouldn’t want it to. It has become something he can carry wherever he goes, and when in late October 2015 he walked up the steps of Manchester’s Town Hall, gothically designed to remind you of your every frailty as you enter its hallowed halls, he carried it there.

“I’d never seen so much security in my life,” says Doug. “A historic moment in Manchester. And incredible that I was there.”

Doug was there for lunch. Lunch at the Town Hall, hosted by British Prime Minister David Cameron, in honour of his guest, the Chinese President, Xi Jinping. Doug has learned his Manchester history well, and he has learned his personal history hard, and at the Town Hall he carried them both with him a few more steps into the future.

“I was the youngster at the event,” says Doug. “Pretty much everyone else was a couple of decades older than me, barring Sean Anstee, the leader of Trafford Council, who’s just a year older.

“It was just some of the most powerful people in the world there. And me, scratching my head and thinking, I need to capitalise on this opportunity. People were trusting me to be in the room. I don’t take that lightly.

“The conversation was about the present and the future. The present was probably understood before the lunch, and it was about networking with other representatives that were with the President. I really want to make a mark with Forward. I believe that we have some amazing people involved in the project who I see as future leaders of our city. So it was about making relationships about future projects, about what will be happening ten years from now.

“What I love about it is that Manchester has had a deep relationship with China for 150 years; there’s a lot of history there, and they really appreciate that. Now everybody wants to be their best friend, and they really like the fact that we’ve been friends for a very long time, since before they were cool. That goes a long way in China, and I think rightly so.

“I think it signals great opportunity for Manchester and for the north. Of course China is not perfect, but I think they know that. And they are going to lead the world, so hopefully the best of the UK can add something to that. I think it’s probably one of those days that I won’t understand the significance of until maybe thirty or forty years from now.”

Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng • TCT Manchester: 02

Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng

The timeframes are key to understanding the point that Doug Ward is at, as he sits in a chair in the SpaceportX kitchen, listening attentively to our questions, humming quietly like an old dialup modem as he processes them, hunting within himself and within history and within the future for the right way to answer. His sign-on sound is an “Oh, wow,” as he realises how much he has to say about the question you’re asking.

Late November storms lash rain against the high Victorian windows at the back of the SpaceportX building on Lever Street, rain that, as we talk about sustainable future and the ecology, makes us think Manchester’s streets could be much greener than they are, if only there was room for grass and trees to grow. That’s one Doug Ward step into the future of Manchester: it might take fifty years. That’s one timeframe.

Another timeframe is three years. Three years ago Doug was on the dole, sleeping on his mum’s couch, trying to find a way to recover from losing everything. The price Doug was paying for following his heart was everything.

“I should have finished my law and French degree,” says Doug. “But I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t. My heart wouldn’t let me go back in the second year. I went back for a week and I just thought, this is not what I love. This is not what I want to do.”

And it wasn’t working. But the next thing Doug tried worked; a nightclub photography business, selling clubbers photo-keyrings of themselves in five cities across the north, with a staff of fifty, putting three or four thousand pounds a week in Doug’s back pocket, when he was only twenty; and it wasn’t making him happy. His heart told him there was more to do. To keep going, on to the next thing. That’s when he went to Sydney with his business partner Shaun Gibson, and went for broke, and went broke.

Doug recounted this time in a TEDx talk in Manchester in March 2014. “Can I just say,” he tells us, when we tell him we’ve watched it on YouTube. “I was an emotional wreck when I gave that. It was during the aftermath of my dad passing, and my family were still pretty bad; and me too, but I didn’t realise it. And the girl that I mention, she was sat in the front row, crying. And I couldn’t see anybody, which was really weird; there were a thousand people there, and all I could see was pitch black, and I’d never had that experience before.”

As Doug unfolds the story on stage, he captures an important detail about the failure in Sydney: that a lot of the money he lost had been borrowed from his family; that his family had in turn borrowed it from banks and building societies. Doug’s family suffered the ripple effect of a failed business that is more than financial, it’s human; it damages relationships and lives.

Doug had to pay them all back, financially, somehow. “I was probably lucky if I had £20 on me,” he says. And he had to pay people back for the hurt he had caused. But his first step looked like a step away from the realities he was facing with those people, into the unreality of a YouTube window and a Harvard course in coding, into the most opaque and inhuman part of an app like YouTube or Facebook, the numbers that make it work.

“This Place Has To Help Change The World For The Better”

There, for a year, on the dole in Salford, sleeping on his mum’s couch, while his family watched with disapproval and his health suffered, Doug learned to code. Online, for free, he got the same Harvard education as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg; and he learned about the people like Doug, all over the world, who were learning to code and learning about tech and having ideas about the future. And then he set out to travel around Britain with Shaun and film interviews with some of them, and his ideas about tech, about people, about failure, and about success, have been crucially intertwined ever since.

“Having money, and then having no money,” says Doug. “And then listening to a lot of information through the internet. Messages from people like Steve Jobs: ‘Remember you’re going to die, so tell those you love that you do love them, and act accordingly.’” This is painted in huge letters in the kitchen in SpaceportX, and Doug returns to it in conversation again and again, and he came to it when he was at his lowest point.

“How many people do you know that push themselves to think about dying?” he asks us. “It’s not a thought people like to have. I remember coming across messages like this when most people thought I was crazy to say, ‘I’m going to come back from this and be really successful one day.’

“But my version of success changed. I started to think about what’s important. A combination of that failure and my dad passing just made me think differently. I realised that I wasn’t happy chasing money and I wanted to do things I believed in. I asked myself, what is it I want to do? Why do I want to do what I do? Family, loved ones, are way more important than anything else, and I just want to do work that I believe in. And I’m trying to be true to that.”

Doug realised, as he set off with Shaun, a fistful of Megabus tickets, a shared £10 daily allowance, and a hopeful list of couches to surf, that he believed in the tech community, that he believed in entrepreneurs, and he believed in helping people to fail along their way to success, and in helping people, full stop.

What Doug and Shaun filmed weren’t stories about technological breakthroughs or people in dark rooms sitting in front of laptops. They interviewed people; people who had been helped, people who would help them, people who were forming a community around tech. TechBritain brought the tech community outside London to light, and brought Doug to the government’s attention for the advice he could provide; and what was illuminated was people.

“Learning to code changed my life,” he says. “Before that I was always a kind of quiet geek. I’d play computer games. I was secretly on the school chess team and didn’t want my friends to know about it. But I feel so lucky to know about the tech community and be part of the tech community.

“The last six weeks have been pretty mental for me. I’ve been to the tech communities of — yeah, this is weird — New York, Berlin, Eindhoven, Amsterdam and Tel Aviv; and London, but I’ve been in London quite a bit.”

It’s an echo of the initial TechBritain tour, the rings of the echo larger and louder with every Doug Ward reverb.

“Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes,” he tells us, when we ask what he’s found in these international communities of people gathered together by tech. The imagined shape of a tech hub is a silhouette of rows of open laptops, but there would be no reason for Doug to travel to Eindhoven and Tel Aviv only for that. “Some are real extroverts,” he says. “Some are real introverts. They come from all different backgrounds.

“Ultimately the common thread that I see is this kind of stupid, rebellious self-belief that they can create something better. A refusal to accept the rules. Everybody is choosing not to have a safer path.

“Working for a corporate might seem very stressful but you know you’re going to get paid every month, pretty much; and it takes a lot longer for big companies to die. Whereas a startup only has a certain amount of time, and you have to work a lot more.

“I find it therapeutic to meet other entrepreneurs; it helps me understand myself a bit better. I think the best entrepreneurs have had some kind of struggle. But I believe entrepreneurs are the best research and development a tool a city has, because they’re trying to find gaps in the market, and they can take risks that big business can not take, or government, or academia.

“The problem is, we’re a little bit quirky. We turn up to meetings dressed differently, or we’re not as politically correct, we can be quite controversial sometimes; and we’re pushing for change, so if people don’t feel comfortable with that, they probably don’t want to work with entrepreneurs. But if a city can create a feedback loop with entrepreneurs, the city will be more globally competitive.

“It’s a nice question. I like to think about what entrepreneurs are like, they make me smile. And a lot of the things we take for granted have come from somebody obsessively thinking about creating that product or service. It can be very lonely, and it can be hard to relate to other people sometimes. But I also couldn’t do anything else. I love what I’m doing.”

Technological change is the end, but it’s an end that has to change the world for people, to be worthwhile; and the means of bringing that change about is people. And that’s why when Doug talks about Forward he doesn’t mention broadband speeds or projected turnover or how many apps might be made in the 100,000 square feet of Federation House after Forward opens there in 2016. You could have those things anywhere.

Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng • TCT Manchester: 02

Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng

When Doug talks about Forward he talks about it being based in the city that abolished slavery and discovered graphene, about the people that will be based there, about what being based in Manchester will mean for a person setting out to change the world. He talks about SpaceportX, which he founded with Shaun Gibson and Martin Bryant, as a 1/16 scale prototype of Forward, about having the trust of the seventy tech startups who call SpaceportX their home, about those companies having a shared mission and goal of making Manchester a top five European startup destination; about those companies having a shared philosophy that revolves around good manners being really important, about karma and paying things forward, about mindfulness that you’re going to die and should do what you love, and about always being willing to help people.

“We expect the same from anybody here,” says Doug. “And as a result of that anybody in the room, and it’s a full crowded room, is willing to help you. Being an entrepreneur is quite lonely, so to have that kind of support network, being able to call on that shared experience, is incredibly powerful. This place becomes the smartest place to start your business, because it has this gravitational pull for investors, for press, for government, and for talent.

“Forward is a purposely designed campus, designed to put a big international flag in the ground. There will be a charity that will use the rent in the building to fly people from around the world into Manchester; to provide assisted software engineering education to anybody who comes to the building; you’ll be able to just rock up, grab a coffee and get a free desk. Hopefully the city will support our application for the first twenty-four hour coffee shop for the tech community. We’re hoping to have the first drop-in centre in the UK where you can come from anywhere and somebody will give you advice on first steps or help you with a problem.

“It’s based on collision theory. Having the power of a network condensed is really important for the power that has on jobs and learning. That attracts a lot of corporates who want to engage with entrepreneurs who are finding new and exciting software for the market, to work with them or buy them or figure out collaborations with them.

“And we want to take the opportunity to make technology more relatable and less scary to the general public, so we’ll have a garden rooftop and we’re hoping to have musicians up there; and we want our team to make it safe for people considering entering a career in the tech community.”

The words that resonate and revolve are people, community, manners and karma; ideals that Doug wants to capture from Manchester’s revolving, resonating history and put at the heart of its emerging tech community.

“I do see that there are strengths and weaknesses in the tech community,” says Doug. “One of the weaknesses is that it’s still very early days as an industry, relative to something like finance that is hundreds of years old. And tech communities can sometimes be at fault for being too exclusive, being an us and them culture, and that’s something I’d like to go some way towards helping.

“Helping people is addictive, right? It makes you feel great. If you can help somebody, that’s a hard feeling to beat. So we want to create the best place in Britain for you to start a business, but the focus is not on money. And I think that’s why we’ve been so successful so far: because our why, the reason why we’re doing this, isn’t about trying to make money.

“I don’t want people to be scared of technology. The tech community can be immature sometimes, and we want people who have families to be as comfortable as university dropouts like myself. I want people to find out about the great opportunities in the tech community, and I want our tech community in Manchester to behave in a sustainable and globally remarkable way, that considers the people and the planet as well as profit. Because at the end of the day a city is only a bunch of people, right? That’s all it is. We can build all these fancy buildings and tell each other how great we are, but ultimately we’re a bunch of people here that are going to die one day, so why wouldn’t we want to have the best environment and do things that we love?”

Loving something is not the same as admiring it. That’s just fancying something. With love comes considerations of honour and worth, and that’s something Doug discovered on his journey; that love for his family demands action, that love for his city demands work, that love for his community demands dedication. And it’s all underlined by sincerity.

Among the first things Doug said to us, when we thought we were still exchanging pleasantries, was: “This place has got to help change the world for the better, especially socially.” And Doug said that because he loves and believes in Manchester.

“I really believe in Manchester’s heritage, its social DNA. I’m a big believer in the youth of Manchester and its potential, and the potential of the tech community, and nurturing it and getting it to a level of maturity where it does things that are true to its culture.

“I feel that part of the responsibility of people living in Manchester is to help change the world in a socially better way. I think a lot about how to make the tech community here lead by example. It has a responsibility to society in general just because of how fast tech moves and how much wealth is generated by the tech community, and I don’t want Manchester to ever be in the situation of San Francisco, where local people can’t afford to live in their city. I don’t want that to happen here.

“We don’t want another Candy Crush. I’m sure there are cities around the world that would go the distance to try and attract that company to move to their city. But we want companies that are going to change the world for the better, companies that are going to push mankind forward.

“It’s about thinking, twenty years from now, what are the types of businesses that we would love to be leading the way in Manchester? And if they come from this type of culture, this type of environment, I think Manchester will be a great place. And it will have great influence on the north, the UK, Europe, and hopefully the world.”

Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng • TCT Manchester: 02

Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng

It hasn’t been invented yet, but Doug knows enough already about what that world, and that city, will look like, to want to work as hard as he can to make it happen.

“The thing I ask myself is how quickly change can come. If I could write Manchester right now, we wouldn’t have people driving through the city. As a techie, that’s old fashioned. We have self-driving cars now that are safer, and we’ll look back at the fact we used to have people drunk and driving cars as just a really old fashioned concept.

“If I’m lucky enough to have family, my kids will walk through a city that is incredibly green, where people understand that if you have a healthy holistic ecosystem then that benefits everybody. People are encouraged and made safe to pursue their interests and what they love. I’d love people who want to change the world to call Manchester their home or their second home, and for this to be a city that goes further than any other place on the planet to help you change the world.

“I don’t think Manchester is going to lose its friendliness. Northerners in general have got that, which I want us to keep. I think that’s the big next chapter now in Manchester’s history. There will be pressure to copy and paste London, and I do think there are some cool parts of London we can learn from. But I believe in Manchester’s soul, I believe in its heart. We like to do things differently. We are disrespectful to things we don’t believe in. We think there are more important things than money. And yeah, I think it’s time for Manchester to remind the world of its place in the world, which I think is going to be social, and it’s going to be about science and technology. And I’m going to enjoy it.”

The abolition of slavery. The suffragette movement. The co-operative movement. The life and work of Alan Turing. Becoming a top five European startup destination. It’s essential that Doug talks about these things. They’re the first and last things he spoke to us about. They’re the first and last things on his mind. A mind that is remarkably clear, and resolute, because it knows what it is to fail, and it has learned how important it is to understand your history, whatever your history is.

“I want to make history, right?” Doug says. “I don’t like the obsession with just money. It doesn’t resonate with me. I don’t believe in it. I think life is too precious and too valuable to spend just focusing on money. But I’ve also lived that life. And I understand that it’s easy to say that now, when I don’t have to think about money as much. But I also chose to think like that when I had nothing. While I’ve got air in my lungs, I am dedicated to making Manchester one of the best, if not the best tech community on the planet, and certainly in Europe. And I think if I can achieve that in my lifetime, and achieve maybe ten per cent of everything I’ve got in my head, I’ll die a happy man.”

••

Originally published in The City Talking: Manchester, issue 2


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