GUEST BLOG: Sebastian Weise, PlaceChangers

“I realised that entrepreneurship can be a powerful source of doing good and making a positive impact.”

Sebastian Weise, founder of PlaceChangers Ltd and former PhD Highwire student, received an Enterprise Award in November 2015. Here, he shares his experience.

This is a blog post about my business startup PlaceChangers, started in April 2015. If you are a student interested in starting a company and want to learn what it takes to start-up, this post is for you. In this post I want to touch on challenges and opportunities along the way and key motivations to keep going. Sure, your story will significantly differ as every decision to start-up is quite personal; and that’s OK. One of the key lessons to learn is to have good networks of support. In the case of PlaceChangers, the Enterprise Centre supported us financially towards our basic startup expenses. We are very thankful for their support and early encouragement.

Where did you get the idea for PlaceChangers?

PlaceChangers Ltd arose from research on the interface between the public and urban planners to make choices for Lancaster’s future development. In my research on public participation, many practices became apparent that involved some form of mapping (in the spatial but also conceptual sense), but that wasn’t much reflected in public engagement. As I analysed spatial distributions of participants and issues raised in official consultations, I found a lack of suitable software for large audiences to partake in the regulations for their neighbourhoods. Essentially that’s how the idea of a start-up at the intersection of mapping, data visualisation, and urban spaces grew on me. We started out in April 2015 and begun trading a year later in April 2016.

At the outset, I read a lot about entrepreneurship. I realised that entrepreneurship can be a powerful source of doing good and making a positive impact. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk’s biographies are an inspiration in terms of overcoming challenges and making a difference. In different ways, these entrepreneurs were passionate. For them, purpose was everything and played a key role in their entrepreneurial careers. Their personal challenges and successes encouraged me to try to set a mark, too, even though it may be a much smaller one.

What did your enterprise funding award contribute to and what lessons have you learned from this experience?

 I started in April 2015 while still working on my PhD. The company was registered in Lancaster, but physically I was located in Manchester, where many of my friends were. This was a challenging time, making income from freelancing for a public service consultancy, completing the PhD, and going to startup events. Eventually with a friend of mine, a developer, I started to work on PlaceChangers as a business. Both short on cash, I was very thankful when we were offered the Enterprise Fund to help us cover early start-up costs, such as essential software required to get going, to cover our hosting costs, but also help us towards financing user workshops. Alongside this we were fortunate to receive additional financial support from the EPSRC and I’d say that this helped us become finalists in a competition on “Innovating in Urban Spaces” in January 2016.

What would you say to inspire future students who want to make things happen by applying for an Enterprise Award?

The journey from starting up to finding a first customer and contract is an exciting learning curve, dotted with many challenges. It took PlaceChangers about a whole year to start trading. Throughout you learn a lot about yourself and other people, and that’s very important. When you get to understand somebody’s needs and manage to serve it with honesty and interest, that’s when great things happen. The Enterprise Award is great in helping cover the many smaller expenditures to help towards understanding user needs and confirm your business proposition. Initially, select carefully who you may want to involve in early market testing, assemble a contact list with preferences, and keep regular meaningful contact. Over time, you find out about needs, opportunities, built trust and make yourself known.

What does the future look like for PlaceChangers?

PlaceChangers is moving on. We have moved to new offices at Campus North, in the city centre of Newcastle. We have a software developed that fits the needs of one of our target audiences and we are working on expanding our product feature set to address other audiences at some point in the new year. With a bit of luck and good planning, we will emerge as a significant engagement consultancy for public and private sector clients.

Last but not least, if you are still hesitant to start. Back then, I might have been somewhat unsure, too. That’s normal. There were many who may not have believed it paying off, who failed to see the opportunity beyond the formalities of urban planning. I would not turn back, it’s a personal journal everybody starts on differently. For me, entrepreneurship is also about ‘doing good by doing business’ and so I’d recommend it to anyone who has a strong passion to fill another persons’ need.

We wish Sebastian and PlaceChangers the best of luck in Newcastle!

If you’d like to apply for an Enterprise Funding Award, get in touch and find out more here.

Image courtesy of Placechangers Ltd.