David Barker was one of the UK’s first internet entrepreneurs in 1994 and spent ten years working with global corporations including Intel, Cisco and Microsoft. David decided to exit in 2004 and became a social entrepreneur to tackle some of the issues facing society – mainly around social mobility, unemployment and poverty.
Since 2005 David has been innovating new social enterprise start-ups using Tech for Good. To increase capacity and scalability, in 2015 he founded Techcentre, The Social Innovation Agency, to work in partnership with clients to innovate new tech-enabled social enterprise start-ups.
Early Life and Education
David Barker was born in Manchester in 1971. He grew up in a working-class background in the Moston area of Manchester with his father who was a window cleaner, his mother who was a care nurse and his brother.
David went to Lily Lane Primary School and then on to North Manchester High School for Boys where he was the first cohort to take GCSEs in the transition from O levels. At school David enjoyed sports and learning about commerce and technology. He gained GCSEs in English, maths, German, technology, and commerce, among others.
He opted to leave school after his exams. He explains: “When I was fifteen, I didn’t feel going to college and university was for me. … I went to my careers teacher and said, ‘Look, I don’t think I want to go to college or university, I think I’d like to leave school at sixteen and go into work’ and that was my decision, to seek help at school to transition from school at sixteen into a workplace. … I told him that my aspiration was to get into technology, I felt my future was technology – I didn’t know what, I just knew it was technology.”
David’s desire to get into technology started when he was thirteen, when he received a ZX Spectrum, the first proper home computer, as a Christmas present. He says: “As soon as I played a game on it, I was like wow, this is amazing. The game wasn’t necessarily great but just the idea of it, and then I just taught myself … because the school wasn’t really teaching coding, so I taught myself, got a book that you could kind of learn how to code on a ZX Spectrum. That was my aspiration so from that point onwards, whenever anyone would say to me, ‘what does your future look like?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, but it’s technology’.”
Despite the advice his teacher gave that he would not be able to develop a career in technology without going to college, David was determined to try. He adds: “I know from my own experience of being in the technology industry that you don’t actually need to have academic qualifications to be amazing at technology, but I know now, through wisdom and experience. Back at sixteen, I just felt, I’m still going to try because it’s what I really want to do, on a belief I can find a way, not that I know I can. It was rather try and fail than never try, which has always been my philosophy.”
After school David started on an apprenticeship scheme through Youth Training Scheme (YTS) that the government of the time established. He saw two opportunities; one with Shell Oil as an accountant and one was with a small business in Stockport which did educational software for children. He says: “My philosophy has also been, don’t just look at one option so I decided to go to both those interviews.” He was offered both roles and against everyone’s advice decided to go for the role with the small business in Stockport, he adds: “For me there was only one option that tied with my technology wishes and that’s the small business. My aspiration was technology, it wasn’t accountancy.”
In 1987 David started his two- year apprenticeship at 3T Productions in Stockport. The scheme included a day a week in college and four days in the business. Initially he found himself doing some basic office work but after a few months he got the opportunity to prove himself which he says was the moment his career started to blossom.
He explains: “Although I was stuck doing basic office work, I was taking the books off the shelves and reading and learning and using my time myself to develop my skills, watching the professionals, asking could I attend the meetings, showing my interest. I was kind of investing in my own development even if the company wasn’t necessarily developing me in the way I wanted to.”
It was while he was in a meeting where two developers were struggling with a problem on a critical project, that David saw the answer and his opportunity. He says: “It’s like everything in your life, you listen at something and you believe you know the answer, so I went over to them and said, ‘Excuse me, but I’ve been listening to you and I think I can give you the answer that you’re looking for’.” The developers did not think David could provide a solution when they could not with their Oxford and Cambridge education. David continues: “It was quite disturbing really, at sixteen especially. Thankfully I didn’t get angry and storm off , I said, ‘Look, I think I do know the answer, here it is’ so I wrote it down and gave them the information. An hour later, they then said to me, ‘Actually, you’re right, it was the right answer, it solved the puzzle and we’re really, really sorry we treated you so badly’.”
After the two developers left the project, David asked the Managing Director if he could take it on, he adds: “I took the computer, went home, solidly worked on it, went back and pitched it to the client. They looked at it and that was enough to keep the project alive and the money kept coming in and they finished the contract.”
As a result of proving himself and his abilities, David was taken off the apprenticeship scheme by the Managing Director, given a pay rise and continued to work there for seven years until he was twenty-three.
When the Internet arrived, David realised that this was the future. He says: “I had a real vision of its potential.” However, 3T had no plans to embrace the new technology and David took the decision to start a business with three colleagues. He adds: “My new vision was the Internet, and in 1994 there was no one really doing Internet, so you couldn’t leave and be employed by someone else, you had to leave to become an entrepreneur and create a business.”
David and his three colleagues established Moonfish, a digital marketing company in 1994. The company grew through word of mouth after David and his colleagues made a video about the future of the Internet for Microsoft’s office in Reading, for which they received £15,000. After the success of the video, Microsoft recommended them to Intel, who in turn recommended them to SCO Unix (Santa Cruz Operations of America) and then onto Unilever. David says: “It’s like any start-up, you need that break, you’ve got to prove what you can do and then you get referrals. I think a lot of the work we got, a lot of our income came from people just telling other people about us, at a time when it was a greenfield site. There was no one doing digital marketing, it hadn’t been invented yet and we just started creating things, then moved into email marketing and online advertising. We were very agile, it was about technology, it was about the Internet.”
He adds: “It was a team of four, Kate was the creative director, Bob was the graphic designer, visualiser. I was the technologist, innovating and developing new technology approaches to do what we wanted to do and Roberto was more commercial with project management type skills. I would say, when you create a company, create it on your own if you’ve got all the skills, but typically you don’t so make sure you start it with a team of different skills so that you can then become a team, deliver your first project and then scale out from there.”
He adds: “In the early days of growth we were running it more like a co-operative, so we were very much a company limited by shares and we had a board, but we were running it more collaboratively.” As the company grew, they realised that they needed to establish a more formal structure and bought in an external adviser to give them advice. The company had grown over ten years to be among the top 20 in the UK and thoughts turned towards selling the company, while David found that he wanted different things, he says: “That was probably the first major crack for me; I wasn’t necessarily driven to do that. I was seeing a lot more than just the Internet in running a business, I was going back to my own youth a little bit and seeing issues in society such as homelessness, youth crime, youth unemployment. I was changing as a person and by 2004, I thought this just isn’t me anymore. I was so excited with what we did for many years … I lost the excitement in that world. I decided I’d rather leave.”
David didn’t sell and kept his twenty-five per cent of his shares, leaving his former colleagues to run the business and in 2007, the company was declared bankrupt.
David says: “It’s a shame, but actually one thing that it taught me was, every business is here today gone tomorrow, no one’s ever going to be here forever. Sometimes bankruptcy is important because it’s time to move on and release the resources and energy. I learned that myself actually, a few years later, but it’s interesting to see why certain businesses go bankrupt.”
Social Enterprise learning and White Box Digital
Having left Moonfish, David knew that he wanted to focus on the social issues in society that he was witnessing, but not how to do that, he says: “I didn’t want to leave to create a new tech company to do it in a different way, I thought I needed a complete change of direction.”
He decided to take nine months off to help him understand what to do next and do research into social issues. As part of his research David volunteered at soup kitchens, talked to gangs and travelled extensively listening to people’s stories. He also started to learn about charity work, charities and social enterprise. He says: “What inspired me was social enterprise; the idea of creating businesses with social purpose was something I engaged with. … Like everything in life, you can talk about it or you can start doing it, so at the end of my research project I came up with an innovation and I started to innovate a new social enterprise.”
Having observed that many charities struggle with technology, David came up with two ideas. He decided to innovate a social enterprise to bring the next generation of cloud technology to charities and to introduce pop-up training academies to help people get the skills they need to find employment. He says: “This wasn’t about technical skills; we need people that are technically gifted but also emotionally intelligent, soft skills, we need political intelligence. So, the idea was not just that of a technical training programme, it was to provide wrap around emotional skills, development and soft skills development.”
David didn’t have the money to develop the business and having decided against using private investors, he went out to work. David earned the money in the corporate sector to then invest in his social enterprise. He explains: “Rather than kill the dream I actually came up with the idea of why not go back to the corporate sector to do corporate work, make the money I needed to develop the social enterprise with small charities and pop-up academies, which is the model I ended up doing.”
In 2005, David created White Box Digital which did corporate digital projects to make corporate money which David then used to develop the technology for small charities and pop-up academies. He adds: “It wasn’t an easy model; it was quite hair-raising actually. People thought I was loaded because they saw how much money I was making on the corporate side but I wasn’t keeping it, I was developing the social enterprise with it. It was quite an interesting hybrid, one company actually doing these multiple things.”
David aimed to develop the model, the processes, the technology and then launch it and find funding. He says: “I work in that mindset of this faith, especially with innovation. The problem with innovation is, you have a new idea that’s never been done before and if you can’t find someone to fund it the idea dies. So, my philosophy has always been, ‘well I can’t let it die because it’s a good idea’ so I launched the corporate business to develop it further to a point I could sell the academy idea and then hope I could find someone to buy it.”
In 2009 the government launched the Future Jobs Fund which allowed employers to give a young unemployed person a chance for six months. David says: “To me, that was the YTS, it’s the same model, it’s amazing, so I said to 3SC, ‘Look, I’ve innovated this pop-up academy model, tell me where your gaps are in delivering national contracts and we can fill them.’ Basically, we were contracted to deliver our innovative academies under this national contract in Newcastle, London, Worcester, Guildford, Eastbourne and Skelmersdale; we popped up in six cities. I realised a dream … that money basically gave me a chance to pilot these new academies in six cities, and it was working; they were changing lives.” David went on to provide pop up academies for South Lanarkshire Council in Glasgow which helped sixty-four long-term unemployed Glaswegians.
The contracts ran successfully for two out of the planned three years, but with a change of government, the funding was cut and David declared bankruptcy in 2013. David says: “For two years I struggled to find a way to ride the deficit of not receiving all the funding we expected, I therefore had a debt from that, but in 2013, I knew when you’re only operating to service a debt it was time to close the business. Most of the debt was to government in tax, it was a weird paradox of government cutting contracts with one hand and then asking for the tax with the other. So, I shut it down in 2013 which wasn’t an easy thing to do.”
While the experience was very hard, David used it as a learning curve; learning that ‘no contract is sovereign’ and not to take all the risk as an individual but rather find investment earlier in the process.
Techcentre – The Social Innovation Agency
After a period of recovery David felt ready to start another company in 2015. He says: “I did get back to create a new company, but I did need a break, because I think it’s important just to recover from difficulties like that. Don’t ‘never get back on the horse’ but time when you’re ready to get back on it.”
“I came up with the idea of doing something new that no one’s ever done before. … I thought, why not create a social innovation agency – Techcentre. What I realised is, what we need is more innovation to tackle social problems. … A social innovation agency that could be contracted by a charity – primarily, it doesn’t have to be a charity – but to become their innovation agency and, together, re-understand the problems, re-understand how it’s being tackled, can we now find a new innovation that’s never been done before and spin it out as a social enterprise that’s investable, scalable, for the future.”
As a result, David has been able to spin out three new social innovations to-date with more in the pipeline.. He explains: “I was blessed to get three clients straight away, the National Centre for University and Business where we’re now tackling graduate unemployment with an App driving work experience. Another innovation is mobilising more people from industry into schools to inspire kids, to go back to that problem of teachers struggling to give careers advice, to more or less empower them with people from industry to help them by going into the classrooms, from all industries, that’s another platform.”
For the third project, Techcentre was also involved in helping out with a project with limited funding that was trying to get more volunteers into charities for IT advice. He says: “The client only had £7.5K when they really needed £75K for a prototype and pilot to prove the service was needed. With the revenue on my other clients coming in, I was able to heavily subsidise the work on this particular project otherwise it wouldn’t have happened.
This project became CITA – the Charity IT Association with one of the seed funders the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, a Livery Company in the City of London of which David was invited to join as a member. “The Livery especially like members who have a heart for society and giving back. For me, the Livery was like coming home.”.
What’s exciting for Techcentre is, you’ve got three good clients and they’re all in the piloting/scaling phase proving the social innovation agency model is working, which gave me the confidence to rebrand Techcentre and relaunch now. So Techcentre being here is now revealing itself as a social innovation agency and has this stable of three projects and growing interest from new clients.”
David has been very successful at gaining funding for Techcentre, he believes this funding success comes down to “doing your homework, doing your research, having a credible innovation, and knowing what you’re doing to move it to the next phase.”
David says: “When I left the corporate sector my vision and the mission was to create a better world. Creating Techcentre, the social innovation agency to innovate new social enterprises, is just a vehicle towards changing the world for everyone, and it’s about social mobility, everything we’re creating is linked to that mission and vision.”
David believes that part of the solution to social mobility is to break it down into the different reasons for different people’s lack of social mobility. He adds: “That’s what I think I learned when I travelled the world. For example; the reason you’re not socially mobile is you don’t have the right training; we just need to get you the right training and you can be socially mobile, whereas over here, you may be being oppressed by policies that are just not designed well enough for that community to flourish, so then it becomes a government policy issue rather than your own issue about access to training.”
He goes on to add; “There’s no magic bullet, I think we need to be smarter with understanding everyone’s different reasons which could be individual, community, national or international, and then get to work at innovating to reverse those issues.”
David hopes to continue growing Techcentre and finding funding to create new innovations, prototype them, pilot them, go on to scale out and help more people. He says: “The good news for me is that I don’t have to be a politician to change society, I can be a social entrepreneur to do that, hence why I can use social enterprise to tackle problems in society whilst I still work on becoming elected to then influence policy.”
Having stood as councillor in the City of London, in Portsoken Ward and an MP in Tower Hamlets, David will be standing in Farringdon Within in 2021, working his way towards his ambition of becoming Lord Mayor. He says: “It’s interesting. I had a conversation with somebody and mentioned about becoming Lord Mayor and they laughed at me, like, ‘how are you ever going to be Lord Mayor?’ and for me, it’s always been, ‘surely everyone should have the opportunity to become the Lord Mayor’.”
David adds: “For me, becoming Lord Mayor is a great demonstration of social mobility. It shows that if you do live in a meritocracy society, the only reason I became Lord Mayor was the hard work I’ve put in, right through to the genuine relationships I’ve made that’s got me to that position.” It wasn’t, ‘oh let’s find a poor person who can become Lord Mayor’, it’s ‘No, you were the right person because you’ve actually done everything you needed to do to get to that position, therefore you can achieve that position.’ So, it’s proving that you can achieve it.”
Advice to someone considering their future career
David says: “I give a lot of talks in schools and I always end with ‘you’re empowered to change your own life’, you don’t have to wait to be educated, so the great thing about the Internet today is you can train yourself with skills without education.”
David encourages young people to look at their passion, to continue to learn for themselves and to get work experience. He says: “It’s really important to get work experience and look out for yourself and work with the school. … It’s about what else do you do, because people hire people. The problem today for an employer is that every job they advertise there’s 300 to 3,000 CVs on their desks. It’s not just about who’s got a 2:1 or GCSEs, it’s about who are you; the person. If you can’t describe you as a person it’s very hard to compete today, so extracurricular activities, work experience, teach yourself stuff to show you’re proactive. Take ownership of your life, don’t blame someone else if you don’t deliver because actually a lot is down to what you’re doing and not what the school does for you.”
Challenges for technology in the future
David says: “If the tech entrepreneurs of tomorrow are just working on the normal entrepreneur model of innovating for the sake of innovating, doing it because we can and we can make money from it, regardless of the impact socially, then I think we’re in a really dangerous place. I think we need to recalibrate our entrepreneurs’ mindset to ‘we should innovate but we still need to evaluate whether we should, even though we can’ and look at the negative social impact of innovation. Even though we can do amazing things technically, I think we need to re-check, to say, ‘Look, society should be configured to prosper humanity.’ Technology is an enabler of that, not the owner of that. I think we must be innovating for the sake of society. … I think it’s got to balance tech innovation with government, society and use it to enable better humanity and a better world, not kind of like to make more money. Innovation with purpose.”
David says that on a personal level, he’s learned a lot, he says: “I think, too often, people create businesses, they grow, they get wealthy and then they start to help society. For me now, I think, as a person can we all take a step forward in society and be trying to help others come forward. Don’t wait ‘til we get here and then try and help people. I think I learned that we can do pay as you go philanthropy and pay as you go support, not wait ‘til you get rich before you start helping people.”
In business, David says he has learned to balance urgency and patience. He says: “You’ve always got the sense, ‘I’ve got to do it now’ and actually, even if you have to wait another year before you do what you want to do, it might be better to wait that year. I think that being patient on the innovation journey but being urgent about it at the same time. Urgency with patience is something else I’ve learned.”
Entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship
David describes the difference between a traditional entrepreneur and a social entrepreneur. He says: “The traditional entrepreneur is looking for an opportunity in a market to create a business that can primarily grow to generate shareholder profit and make money and sell it and move on. Whereas the social entrepreneur is seeing opportunity in issues in society that need to be tackled and use entrepreneurship and innovation to develop products and services that tackle a social problem. You’re not driven to how much money can we make out of the market; it’s how can we use business models and growth to tackle social problems.”
David goes on to compare how it differs from a charity. “On the charity model, you get given a load of money, you create jobs, people get paid, and you tackle a problem, and if there’s no more money coming in you shut it down. Whereas a social entrepreneur still needs the seed capital that’s required to create anything new, but then beyond that you need to be looking for a revenue model in your social enterprise, that somebody’s paying to then keep you scaling and growing. So, you’re looking for sustainability and growth through income, whereas the charity model is to keep asking for money until it runs out.”
On the moral dilemma of how much money is it reasonable for a social entrepreneur to make out of the business as opposed to how much good you do to society through the business, David says: “It’s a difficult one but the main challenge actually is, how do you unlock investment and pay a return that’s acceptable.”
David is Chair of the Education and Training Committee, WCIT, and Director of Livery Schools Link.
Interviewed By: Tom Abram at the WCIT on the 7th August 2019
Transcribed By: Donna Coulon
Abstracted By: Lynda Feeley