Paul Lancaster, founder of Newcastle Startup Week and Plan Digital.
Jane Imrie

“Grit, determination, resilience and community spirit”: 'superconnector' Paul Lancaster on the North East's strength in the face of COVID-19

Newcastle Startup Week founder and ‘superconnector’ Paul Lancaster has always been a passionate advocate for the North East region.

His views now are no different, even in the face of the unprecedented coronavirus crisis that is affecting the entire world.

The founder of business development service Plan Digital UK, Paul is well known for his views on the importance of entrepreneurial spirit and innovation, and believes that now more than ever that both individuals and businesses must remain agile and adaptable.

Paul spoke to Bdaily about the region’s capacity to handle, thrive in and recover from the COVID-19 outbreak, as well as his own experience of the disruption and tips for maintaining mental resilience.

What strengths do you feel the North East as a community has that will be useful for navigating the uncertain times ahead?

“Throughout history, the North East has been a place of real innovation, invention and reinvention with the people having to show huge strength to overcome major challenges, like the decline of heavy industry in the 1980s which on the whole we have bounced back from and emerged stronger although there are some areas which have never recovered.

“Unfortunately despite the region having a fairly buoyant economy at the start of the year, I think the coronavirus crisis will take us right back to where we were in the 1980s, and maybe even to a worse state because the whole of the UK has been negatively impacted, not just our region.

“However, if anyone has the grit, determination, resilience and community spirit to get through this it’s the people in the North East of England!”

Has the pandemic highlighted any ’pressure points’ within the region, and if so what are they?

“It’s hard to know if our region is suffering more in any one area than anywhere else in the UK.

“Literally every type of business or organisation is affected but I guess the most obvious types of business that are suffering most are the leisure, hospitality, food, drink, retail, art, culture and tourism ones that make Newcastle and the wider North East such a great place to visit, live and work.

“These types of businesses and organisations are the ones that replaced heavy industry, and in one fell swoop they have pretty much all been destroyed. Sadly I think very few of them will survive.

“Many of these businesses and organisations are run independently and fuelled more by passion than profit, are at the greatest risk of being lost yet are arguably what provides most value to our regional economy and enriches our lives the most.

“I’d therefore like to see more of the [local funding] being channelled into keeping these businesses going, by giving them direct grants that cover their monthly overheads for the next six months at least.”

What are some of the best examples you have seen of companies being agile and pivoting to deal with the current situation?

“It’s been nice to hear and read about some of the local businesses who are changing their systems and processes to respond to the current situation via the Bdaily website and newsletter.

“Further afield, I’ve been most impressed by Scottish craft ale brewer BrewDog who have been working around the clock to provide free hand sanitiser to the NHS with 100,000 units shipped so far.”

How are you professionally and personally adapting to the current situation, and do you have any tips on how people can maintain a growth mindset during this difficult period?

“Professionally, I’ve adapted pretty well to the current situation because my business is basically just me plus a loose collective of collaborators and part-time freelancers or subcontractors that I bring in as and when I need them.

“I can basically work from anywhere where there’s an internet connection via my MacBook, iPhone and cloud-based software.

“I’m normally based in the Tuspark Eagle Lab co-working space on Grainger Street in Newcastle so I miss the buzz and excitement of being there, and all the people I see on a daily basis both in that space or in the many meetings or events I usually attend throughout the week.

“However, I am enjoying working from home; it’s given me a chance to re-evaluate my previous work habits, ditch some old things and try out some new ideas that have been on the backburner for months or even years.

“If there’s one positive to take from the situation it’s given me more time and breathing space to think, experiment and be more creative.

“On a personal level, I usually work well under pressure and under challenging circumstances, can almost always see the positives in the negatives and have faith in my entrepreneurial abilities and of those who are in my network to find innovative ways to get through this.

“A month before the coronavirus lockdown I started living in Newcastle city centre, so was really enjoying exploring more of the local independent cafes, restaurants, museums and galleries - so am extremely thankful for that.

“Since the lockdown, I’ve continued to enjoy city centre living by going out for early morning walks or skateboard rides around the empty streets and taking a closer look at the stunning old and new buildings, bridges and Quayside which I’ve been documenting on social media for my friends, colleagues and anyone else to see which people are saying they are enjoying as they’re not able to see it for themselves.

“It’s such a unique situation and moment in time so I’m enjoying feeling like I have the city to myself in the morning.

“With regards to a growth mindset, two books that have had a massive positive impact on me at the end of last year and beginning of this one are ‘Infinite Possibilities’ by Mike Dooley & ‘How To Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius’ by Donald Robertson.”

What advice would you give to the region’s SMEs and entrepreneurs who are struggling and feeling uncertain about their future?

“They need to accept that everything we know about life and work has changed!

“The old ways are gone and nobody knows what the future will be like. However, even when bad things happen in life, you are ultimately in control of how you react and whether you choose to let them affect you negatively or not.

“Two weeks after Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown in the UK, it’s now time to take control of your personal circumstances (if you haven’t already), review what local and national government support is out there (which isn’t suitable for everyone) and use this week and next to move forward with positivity and purpose.

“Although it might not seem it right now, this could be the greatest gift as it forces you to think long and hard about what is really important to you and how you want to live your life or run your business from this day forward.”

What do you think are going to be the positives that come out of this for the North East as a whole?

“Despite many businesses closing and people losing their jobs, I think there will be huge opportunities for new ones to emerge in online entertainment, digital communications, healthcare, gardening and home fitness.

“As we all come to terms with coronavirus, I’m also expecting to see an explosion of creativity and spirituality in some kind of ‘new awakening’. If you’re an artist, musician, dancer, writer, filmmaker or any other kind of creative at any level, now is your time to shine!

“Over the coming weeks and months I’d like the North East to emerge as a new hotbed of innovation, entrepreneurialism and creativity with our political leaders embracing and funding new ways of bringing communities together both online and offline that may have seemed ridiculous or far-fetched in the past but are now entirely possible.

“We have to go all-in or fall behind.”

Some answers have been amended for clarity and length.

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