MikeWallThis month, we spoke to Mike Jackson, entrepreneur and founder of WebStart Bristol, the tech start-up incubator which aims to find, and fund, the next big things in web-based technology.

TechSPARK: Mike, tell us a little about your background…

Mike Jackson: After studying politics at the University of York, I moved to London and found myself working in the events industry. Not as part of some grand plan, it was more a case of somebody suggesting that I’d be good at it. Much to my surprise, I loved it.

I was working for a large firm, Spectrum Communications, organising conferences all over the world, but after a while I started thinking I could make more money by going it alone so, along with two colleagues, I set up a new company, Ultimate Events, in 1995.

Luckily, our first and only client happened to be Microsoft.

TS: That’s quite some client to get on board.

MJ: Absolutely. It exposed me to a lot of interesting things in the tech world. I ran conferences that ranged from Bill Gates and a dozen executives meeting in posh hotels, to 8,000 developers getting together for a week in Barcelona.

I’ve been interested in I.T. pretty much since it was invented, so I naturally got more and more involved with building websites and developing early apps for these events.

However, after a while you start to look for the exit point, and we sold the business in 2001. I stayed with the company for a further four years as a ‘lock-in’ period, but in 2005 I relocated to Bristol with my wife and two daughters.

I’d made what I call a ‘dangerous’ amount of money – not enough to live on forever, but enough to squander! Which is exactly what I proceeded to do.

TS: What happened?

MJ: I invested in another company, took it over, made it what I wanted it to be, but in hindsight I wouldn’t have done things the same way again. After two years I ended up quite a lot poorer, but also a lot wiser.

Then I had what I call the ‘wilderness years’, where I did various things. I worked with a green energy firm, dabbled in the events world again, organising some bits for Nokia, but I was always on the lookout for an opportunity to come back into the entrepreneurial tech space within Bristol. The catalyst for this came with the Engine Shed development.

“Over the last two years we have invested £400K in 25 startups”


TS: What do you like about Engine Shed?

MJ: It’s a dedicated space where tech people from Bristol and Bath can come together and share their experience, much like how creative people meet at the Watershed, with a real sense of serendipity.

When it opened, I finally had the place to house my idea, and through crowd funding I gathered the resources to launch WebStart Bristol, an incubator for early-stage web companies from the Bristol and Bath region. Over the last two years we have invested £400K in 25 startups of which 8 have closed down but the rest have raised an additional £1m between them and still moving forward.

We offer 10 weeks of mentoring, guidance and incubation services to give them the best possible chance to grow and succeed in the future. We invest in the person or team first, and the idea second.

We’re looking for great people with ideas for high-growth, web-enabled businesses. It’s a long-term game because it’ll take two-to-three years before we’re likely to see any return and, in harsh reality, it’s possible that a large number of these businesses will fail in what is an ultra-competitive market. But we’re hoping to have some valuable success stories too.

“To work with people who have the ambition to build billion dollar businesses from Bristol, without seeing the need to go to London or the States, because they’re confident they can find the expertise and finance to grow here is really exciting”


TS: What excites you about the South West’s tech community?

MJ: Another tech incubator, SETsquared, headed up by Nick Sturge, is also based at the Engine Shed but, whereas we’re resolutely web-tech, they do ‘things with plugs on the end’.

Between us, we’re working on various projects with around 60 different companies, so we complement each other very well.

To work with people who have the ambition to build billion dollar businesses from Bristol, without seeing the need to go to London or the States, because they’re confident they can find the expertise and finance to grow here is really exciting.

It’s quite a transformational thing, which has happened relatively recently, and we’re playing a small part in that.

TS: How can people get involved with WebStart Bristol?

MJ: We’re always looking for mentors to come on board and help, so it’d be great to hear from experienced entrepreneurs. Otherwise, applications are open for our next intake of startups via the website. We’ll be interviewing towards the end of the summer, and will be working with them from September.

Thanks to Mike for taking the time to speak to us. If you’d like to keep up to date with the WebStart news, give ’em a Twitter follow. And come and say hi to us while you’re there too, for all the South West tech happenings, including WebStart news.

You may also like: Funding in Bristol and Bath – Who’s got the cash?


Chris Cahill