There has never been a greater need to promote the great work produced by British tech businesses. In this interview Mark Birchall, MD of TradeFair, explains why.
As Brexit continues to rumble on, you would be forgiven for being concerned for the future of British businesses.
But although chaos that engulfs Westminster, walking around Mobile World Congress, it’s hard to ignore the ‘Technology is Great’ branding promoting over 200 IT companies from the UK in Barcelona thanks, in part, to TradeFair.
Although you may not have heard of it before, TradeFair has been promoting the best of the British technology sector, providing them with opportunities to get branding seen by thousands of executives, directors and investors at just shy of 20 trade shows and events around the world.
TradeFair works on behalf of TechUK, the main trade association for the technology sector in the UK supporting over 900 members spread out across start-ups, SMEs and FTSE100 members, as well as the Department of International Trade.
“Our role as trade challenge partners is to raise awareness of opportunities for UK companies in International markets” started TradeFair Managing Director Mark Birchall,
“We identify the right events for our industry and help companies prepare for the events, offer contacts and useful information and we are there on site to make sure everything is in place for them.”
Tradefair marks its 30th year in operation this year. Created in 1989 by Jolyon Potter, a former foreign office worker in Egypt and Eastern Europe assisting UK companies to grow exports, TradeFair Support LTD was formed and managed the program of government supported events from the Computing Software Association, now known as Tech UK.
Six years later Birchall joined and has been managing director since 1999, he says that the appeal of the job was the travel, but his job satisfaction comes from the success of the UK tech sector.
“The appeal of TradeFair for me really was seeing different parts of the world, but also it was the great satisfaction in seeing these small companies grow in various markets around the world.
It’s also great to see the respect that a lot of British companies, the British industry and certainly the British tech sector, receive around the globe because of the quality of our products and services.”
Success stories for TradeFair include SwiftKey, who were acquired by Microsoft for a reported $250 million in 2016, Stream, acquired by ARM last year, and Imagination technologies who turned over just shy of £80 million in 2017.
As part of the package, TradeFair offer the aforementioned ‘Technology is Great’ branding on the stands of exhibiting companies which, according to Birchall has helped the UK tech sector stand out at each show.
“I think people respond well to the banners and I think it needs to be done.
We have a lot of competition from other countries, the French tech always has a significant presence at shows, as do the Germans and if you go to the Middle East you will see the Bahrain pavilion is very well branded.
So it is important that we are visible at these events and to show that the UK is open for business. If we are not there, we are not visible, and businesses go to someone else to buy from.”
However, Birchall insists that the tech sector is one of the strongest markets in the UK and even in the world.
“I think the UK IT sector can compete with the best. It is a fast moving and dynamic sector and we are seen as the world leaders in many areas of tech.
If you can use MWC as an example, the size of the UK presence at Mobile World Congress reflects the strength of the UK tech sector. I reckon there was over 200 UK companies participating across MWC and four years from now (4FYN) this year which is a great reflection of the UK tech sector.
Reputation is very important, and we are well respected by international buyers. They know the quality of products and services the UK has to offer, there are 30 significant tech clusters in the UK and the tech start up scene is one of the fastest growing in the world.”
“The UK Tech sector remains more upbeat than the rest of the UK economy and is expected to remain that way throughout 2019 "MARK BIRCHALL, Managing director, tradefair
Birchall believes that the UK Tech sector has the ability to dictate the success of the British economy in the aftermath of Brexit.
“The tech sector is one of the main sectors in the UK and will continue to be one of the biggest industries in the UK in the future.
I was looking at the KPMG tech monitor which said the UK tech sector experienced a difficult end to 2018 and I guess that is due to the uncertainty of Brexit. But as a sector it still remains more upbeat than the rest of the UK economy and is expected to remain more upbeat than the rest of the UK economy throughout 2019.”
According to Birchall, the future is in the industry’s hands and certain companies do stand to profit from the Brexit fallout. Other companies have decided to be more aggressive in the face of what Birchall describes as “uncertainty”.
“The main issue that we have at the moment is the uncertainty of not really knowing whether there is a deal or no deal.
Obviously, the weakness of Sterling affects some companies but that can also be a positive because UK products will be more competitive than they otherwise would be.
For our clients, yes, they are concerned, but I wouldn’t say that I have experienced companies coming to me and say that they are not going to exhibit at a show because of Brexit. I think a lot of companies are actually being more aggressive in how they promote themselves through trade shows and their marketing because of Brexit.”
The TradeFair Managing Director was quick to emphasise the nerves around the industry and criticised the government for cutting important grants and funding schemes.
60 of the 200 British companies that went to MWC through TradeFair this year received a grant from the Department for International Trade though the tradeshow access program. Birchall said that start ups and SMEs need the most support.
“Start-ups and SMEs can’t just stand back and wait to find out whether it’s a deal or no deal, they have to keep going until they know what hurdles and what challenges will be in place once the decision is made.
Most of the discussions I have with SMEs and smart ups is it’s business as usual, they are putting some contingencies in place, but the challenge is that, until it’s made clear what the situation is, it’s difficult for them to plan ahead.
Supporting UK SMEs and start-ups when they are at the right stage is going to be important, across all sectors, not just the tech sector because these are the next generation of big corporates.
I would like to see more funding and more support offered to businesses, especially when they are using international trade fairs to grow their business and to gain new contacts. I’ve seen the trade show access program cut by 21 per cent since we voted to leave the EU and I just think that, at a time when we are being told by the government we need to export more, it makes more sense to commit more budget to allow more UK companies to start exploring those options.”
Despite his despair at the government, Birchall said he is confident that the UK Tech industry will continue to thrive.
“There are a lot of UK companies out there that have got so much potential, and you would have seen a lot of those at MWC.
Given the right guidance, given the right support from the likes of myself and government we will see UK businesses amongst the best in the technology world in the next few years.”