LEAD INTERVIEW: JAMES ADAMS

Founder, Akcela and Tech Educators

Our lead interview in the TECH issue of Norfolk Director business magazine is James Adams, Founder of Akcela and Tech Educators.

Published in Norfolk Director Magazine Winter 2023

Tech: Transform, Expand and Connect 

“The whole economy is starting to have a digital element to it and while people are worried about it and unsure, we aren’t going to make the gains that this technology can unlock.”

Interview:  Sue Wilcock Pictures: Warren Page

James Adams talks to Norfolk Director

The UK has a shortfall of 1.5 million tech positions and while universities and institutional education establishments continue to develop excellent talent, demand is outstripping supply at an accelerated pace.

Step up James Adams, Founder of Tech Educators and Akcela, an incubator and coding bootcamp. Based at Fuel Studios in Norwich, he and his colleagues are working hard, not only supporting local small and start-up businesses to grow and achieve their full potential, but also offering students a new quicker route to develop the skills they need to build a rewarding career in tech.

“What we are doing here, is developing an economic community that encourages innovation and entrepreneurism. I think it has been in Norwich bubbling below the surface for a while, but being part of the spark that ignites this whole explosion of the start-up, scale-up ecosystem in the city, is exciting and what I live for.”

However, things could have been very different for James. Growing up in Newmarket, he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life; apart from the obvious choice of doing something in horseracing.

“I was born in 1987 and grew up in a little village outside Newmarket, which had one bus a day going into town, and one bus a day coming home.

“My childhood was OK. It was mainly me, Mum and my stepdad. I have three stepsisters who are a lot older than me, and there are 13 years between me and my younger sister.

“I had a group of friends that I would hang around with. We were a bit rebellious and as well as camping out a lot in farmers’ fields, we got into all sorts of mischief. It was never anything serious, but sometimes the local police were involved just telling us to stop mucking around – it brought a little excitement to the tedium.

“A particular memory I have is when my mates and I played a prank on all the villagers. One evening, we removed all the ornamental gnomes from people’s gardens. Then we stood them outside the local pub, The Plough. The landlord was very surprised in the morning when he opened up and found 100 gnomes waiting to come in for a drink. He took it in good jest though, holding a gnome amnesty to get them back to their rightful owners.

“No one knew who was behind it, until only recently, when I was in the pub with my family, and admitted it to the landlord.”

At Primary School, James was really good at Maths and was in the top stream, but as he grew older he lost interest. He tested well, but only just did enough to get by and he is the first to admit he didn’t really apply himself.

“A pivotal thing for me though, was when I went into sixth form. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and there were no ‘beacons’ around me to give me any direction. But a friend suggested, that rather than going to Newmarket Upper to do my A Levels, I went with him to Long Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge. I wanted a change of scene and somewhere different, so I decided that was the best thing to do.”

James took A Levels in Law, Politics, Economics and History. It didn’t really arm him with anything to follow a particular career path, unless he wanted to be a lawyer, or a lobbyist, which he didn’t, but sixth form did give him more time to consider what he wanted to do. Then a conversation with his law teacher, Sally Stanyer, and her subsequent help and encouragement, helped him to take the next step in his education, and go to university.

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“I was quite good at law, but I wasn’t putting the ‘hard yards’ into my studies. It got to the time when students who were wanting to go to university had to pay to register with UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. Money was very tight at home, and I had discounted going; I wasn’t particularly interested, and I had very real reservations about whether I could afford it.

“Sally took me aside and asked me which universities I was applying for. When I told her I wasn’t, she wasn’t having any of it!

“She sat me down and we talked about what subjects I liked studying, and which I were good at. I told her politics and economics were what interested me the most. She said that the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich ran a degree course, and she signed me up there and then, completing the UCAS application on my behalf. She even used her own credit card to pay for it.

“I look back at that now and think how important that moment was for my life. I thanked Sally a lot over the phone, and always promised to go back and thank her in person. Unfortunately she passed away before I had that chance.”

Starting at the UEA

“With the financial support in place via a student loan, I started at the UEA in September 2005. I lived on campus, and it was incredible.

“University isn’t for everyone, but it literally gave me an enormous sense of freedom and independence. It also meant I had another three years to decide what I wanted to do for a career.”

“I discovered who I was while at UEA, and I also made friends for life. The people I socialised and spent time with were all super ambitious and incredibly gifted. They have all ended up working at the top level of their careers, but despite the fact of how busy they are, I know they are there for me if I need them.”

“One thing I am truly grateful for is that I am so blessed with the people I have around me. No one has all the answers, especially me, but together we can always find a way.”

On leaving UEA in 2011 with his degree in politics and economics, James still had no idea what he wanted to do.

“I had met my wife Katie at university. She was studying a teaching degree and because of our relationship, the one thing I definitely did know, was that I wanted to stay in Norwich once I graduated.

“I took a job at Archant selling digital advertising for the Eastern Daily Press website. I did that for a few months and then towards the end of 2011, I applied for a business development role with a £120 million turnover business called Foster Refrigerators. Based in Kings Lynn, it was part of a very large American corporation that had a turnover of £22 billion globally.

“Internationally, the business was diverse, and they had a very aggressive acquisition strategy. But the brilliant thing about working for them was that they ran an advanced management programme, and I was enlisted on it.

“In total I was there for eight years, working my way up from Business Development to Account Manager, before becoming the Head of their Services and Spare Parts Division. I was responsible for a workforce of around 70 direct and 400 indirect staff members. It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed it.

“They invested in my professional development and as well as the management programme, they funded me taking an MBA at UEA.

“It was an incredible time and looking back I was very driven; always wanting to go faster and move quicker – that’s very much how I would describe my personality now. You have to have the right balance of people around you to make that work.”

Going out on his own

For James, the catalyst for change came in 2019, when he got to a point where he wanted to move up the ladder further, but his employer felt he wasn’t ready.

“I had learnt the skills of how to run a business properly through experience and my studies. I had also been in charge of a lot of digital transformation in the organisation, taking legacy systems and offline collateral such as reports, stock control, CRM records and any other processes done by hand, and moving it all over so it was combined on a digital platform.

“I decided to take a year out. I had married Katie in 2012 and we had a baby son who was six months old, and I wanted to spend some quality time with them.”

However, it wasn’t long before James got a phone call out of the blue. Someone that he had worked with previously was asking for his support with a digital transformation project.

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“I knew I didn’t want to work for anyone else, so I set up Akcela – which means accelerate in Esperanto – so I could provide consultancy on large-scale digital transformation projects. I had the experience as it was what I had done as Head of Services and Spares. I just had to lift what I knew, to help other organisations to do the same.”

“Everyone likes to think that digital is this big scary thing, but it’s all about the people. You need to talk to them, understand what they do and the process. You then map it out to a digital system that focuses on the end-user and the added value it creates.”

James was only three months into his consultancy work, when he started being approached by smaller companies who had big growth opportunities.

“The large scale work I was taking on was paying the bills and being in that space meant that clients were coming to me through word of mouth and recommendations asking for my help. A lot of these businesses were start-ups; all the challenges they had were the same as the larger organisations, the only difference was that they didn’t have the money to do what they needed to do.

“I had done okay out of my last job. I had saved a lot, and as I had decided to take time out, I didn’t need the income.  Also, importantly, I had come to a realisation that the corporate world wasn’t what drives me. I wanted to engage with, and work on, projects that are socially and ethically orientated, where you can make a real difference to someone’s life.

“I had found the thing that I wanted to do, so I went for it!”

However, no sooner had James started on this path, when Covid hit.

“When we went into lockdown, nothing really changed for me, except I couldn’t go out. I started giving more of my time to very small businesses that were around 10 years old, with one to five staff members – businesses that were really struggling.

“The commonality was that the business owners were working 24/7, doing everything that needed to be done to keep things running, the finance, the sales and marketing etc. They were absorbed in working in their business, rather than on their business. They didn’t have people they could delegate to, and they didn’t have the know-how on the technology that would make their job easier and less time consuming. They certainly didn’t have time to plan, strategise and implement, and this was stifling their growth.”

“No one trains you to be a business owner, or to prepare for a pandemic. Starting a company is hard lonely work. Sharing the wins is awesome, but sharing the challenges is also a great thing. So I stepped up to help, giving them 20 hours of my time a month for free.”

Establishing Akcela

With Covid going on, James recognised that there was a clear need for an incubator hub to support start-up and scale-up businesses.

“There was a need for something that was a step up from the backing already being provided by organisations in the county. There was also a need to create a dedicated and experienced support network in Norwich, so that you didn’t need to look to London.”

To ratify that there was definitely a need, James was joined by entrepreneurs: Martin Yapp, Kate Yarbo, Justin Day, Mark Merrywest, and Mark Lawley. They talked it through, did the research and the result was that the Akcela Incubator Hub opened in October 2021.

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“15 months on, we have 17 companies that use the incubator, and we have raised over £2 million of investment.

“Based at Fuel Studios in Norwich, our aim is to support start-ups and scale ups with growing their business faster and with less risk than if they did it on their own. We give them space, time, and access to external professionals. In return they give us an equity stake in their businesses.

“It’s a win-win and although we don’t specifically focus on tech businesses, we have developed a specialisation in this market area.

“Because we only have a finite amount of time that we can invest, we have to be super selective with companies that we align with, and who we believe can grow and get a good exit, that counterbalances the risk. The questions we ask are: ‘Can the founder achieve the level of growth and commit to it?’ And ‘Do we like the business?’

Things have gone so well, that Akcela is now needing more space to accommodate the growth of the companies they have in the incubator.

“They want to stay within and remain part of the community we have here.”

Establishing Tech Educators

As well as establishing an ecosystem that encourages innovation and entrepreneurism, there was a realisation that there was a massive skills gap in the area, with not enough tech developers.

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“Local universities and colleges are producing great tech talent, but they can’t keep up with demand. So, I started Tech Educators, to provide an on-ramp for people to undertake the training necessary to enable them to take up a career in tech.“

“We provide day and evening courses, so that for those looking to switch careers, they can still continue working. It revitalises people, giving them confidence. It’s hard work, but so worth it.

“We have two instructors, and it is a 1:10 ratio. For each course, we give away a fully funded scholarship. Otherwise it costs £5.5k for the 20 week course. But at the end of it, you have the skills to start as a junior software developer.”

One example of success is Drew. At 32, he was a digger driver and wanted to do something different. He invested in the course and now has the potential to earn around £50k a year as a developer.

“Also, Leanna was one of the people who we awarded a scholarship to. She originally applied for a job as a call handler, then took the scholarship instead. She now works for the same company in a tech job which pays her £10k a year more.

“Together with myself, Martin Yapp, Alex Scotten, Tim Smith, Kate Yarbo and Vatsavaye Priyatham Varma, make up the management team at Tech Educators.

“To date over 100 people have been trained. We have also been listed in Forbes for our Blockchain course, and we won ‘Digital Business of the Year’ in the Norfolk Business Awards 2022.”

“Ultimately, I look back on growing up in Newmarket. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, as I didn’t have the people around me to see the opportunities. We want to show people locally, you can start a business, and you can grow something super successful here in Norwich and Norfolk.

“It is scary, but the support network is here. Not everyone experiences success and sometimes businesses fail, but that’s okay – it’s more important that they have been given the opportunity to give it a go.”

Being among other business owners, James is not alone in admitting that the most challenging thing for him around running a business, is managing people.

“When you enter something into a computer, the result is always definite. When you speak to a person one day, and think everything is sorted, you walk away only to find out they have changed their mind the next day. My biggest weakness is showing emotional intelligence and empathy – revitalising and nurturing the team is a struggle for me. The strategic stuff I get, but the micromanagement eludes me, as it is a moveable object.

“Therefore, one of the things I have worked on, is gaining an understanding of other people as well as an acceptance that they are trying to do their best. You need to step back and coach them through it, and not just assume that they are like you.”

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Personally, James feels he now has the work life balance right.

“My weekends and being able to spend quality time with Katie and my son are super important to me. He is only three, but we already have our usual order when we visit Costa, which is orange juice and a packet of Pom-Bear crisps for him, and a black coffee and a cake for me.

“I am also a fan of Norwich City Football Club and have a season ticket. I find watching a game is a great de-stresser; all that shouting relieves the tension.

“Of course, I have micro stresses with what I do, but it’s true what they say; if you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life.”

For more information on Akcela, visit https://ukdlink.biz/ndmitec

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