Pushing ideas has taken Paul Smith to the other side of the world and to becoming an author and digital industry guru. John Hill met him.
EVERY now and then, an idea nudges you in the side of a head like a child bashing a toy drum.
Now you’ve got a choice. You can either congratulate yourself on being an ideas person and carry on with lunch, or stop what you’re doing and find a way to make it happen.
One of those moments happened to Paul Smith as he slowly lost the will to live in a Tesco superstore one day.
“It all came out of a moment of frustration, because I knew I’d rather be anywhere in the world than stuck in Tesco on a Saturday morning in the bread aisle.
“I got to thinking, ‘What could I do about that? Where could I go?’”
That’s how Smith developed his alter-ego the Twitchhiker. He decided to make the gruelling trip from Newcastle Central Station to an island just off New Zealand, using only offers of accommodation and transport provided by followers on Twitter.
The quest attracted worldwide Press and public attention, and the ensuing book has sold tens of thousands of copies. And it’s pretty much typical of a man who’s used to listening to his gut feeling.
“It’s not necessarily always a trait to be admired, but I’m reckless in the sense that if I want to do something, I tend to just get on and do it.
“It doesn’t always work – in fact, quite often it doesn’t work – but I’d rather do that than live with the regret of not trying.”
So far, Smith has embraced a love of radio, become a writer and author and is now a respected advocate for the growing North East tech scene.
He’s involved in app development, and is the programme manager for the celebrated digital accelerator programme Ignite100, which is drawing in teams from around the world to craft their businesses in Newcastle.
“I’m inspired by new ideas and innovation,” he says. “The tech scene excites me because I love the idea that a group of friends can come together and create something that changes the world.”
Paul Smith was born and raised in Darlington. His infants school teacher told him he’d be a comedian, and he originally wanted to become a pilot. However, his first real love was astronomy.
“My grandparents used to live in Barnard Castle. We’d travel home at night from visits, and my brother and I would put our heads back and look out of the back window at the stars.
“My mother knew enough about the stars to tell us which constellations were which, and tell us about the planets and the moon.”
Smith spent the mornings and evenings of his childhood under the stars, poised with a telescope his mother and father had saved up to buy him for his 11th birthday.
“I’d carry that telescope to a field about 300 yards away, even though it weighed a ton. I’d be up at daybreak to catch the planets and comets, and I’d be awake deep into the night.
“My parents would take me to my great aunt’s in the Lake District where there was no light pollution, so I could look at galaxies and nebula. It was my life.”
Smith took his GSCE in astronomy at 14 and even had a regular column in the local paper. He later enrolled in Leeds University to study astrophysics, but left after three months as he dealt with the breakdown of his parents’ marriage.
Back at home he took odd jobs, including newspaper delivery and record store work. However, the launch of a radio station in the area allowed him to pursue another one of his great loves.
“A1FM started up, and I offered to do any job for free. After three months, they gave me a job presenting the evening show, even though I’d never presented before.
“Radio was so intimate. I fell in love with being able to have a conversation with someone, even if there were several thousand people listening. It was a chance to express myself as well.
“It was a fun job, to the point that it wasn’t even a job. Those are the best jobs, the ones that don’t take any effort, not because you’re not putting any effort into it, but because you’re just enjoying yourself and it feels natural.”
This was the start of a 13-year career radio, which saw him move from A1FM to a copywriting role at Metro Radio, to head of creative services at TFM.
He then spent three years at the BBC, including a spell as executive producer at BBC7 (now Radio 4 Extra).
He started his last job in radio in 2006, as programme controller at Century Radio. But he’d started to feel stifled, and felt the desire to pursue more of his ideas.
“I got to the point where I felt suffocated. I’d worked under some amazing managers, but people were very keen I didn’t make many mistakes, and I prefer to learn by making mistakes. I think it’s important to try something.”
His radio career came to a halt in 2007, and Smith promptly started a career as a writer. He’d been blogging for a few years, and had written two underground newsletters called Radio Jam and Inside Radio while working in the industry.
He secured writing work with the Guardian newspaper, covering subjects from radio to travel and technology. He also worked in his first start-up environment, as a user tester at Newcastle’s amazingtunes.
“I learned very quickly that audiences online were very much like audiences on the radio. There are ways and means of getting an audience to do what you’d like them to do, and ways and means to alienate them.”
While at amazingtunes, he met a developer called Jon Nairn, and the two decided to try their hand at building websites. One of these sites was newcastlecentric, a hyperlocal news portal for Tyneside which used Twitter to add details on stories.
Smith says the approach allowed it to get stories to the public quicker than newspapers and radio.
When Apple’s App Store opened for business in 2008, Smith and Nairn started bringing out travel apps. As app development company Never Odd or Even, the two have since been responsible for titles ranging from the tongue- in-cheek David Hasselhoff tribute Ask The Hoff to the train timetable app Next Metro.
It also recently challenged smartphone users around the world with AppySnap, in which players were given a certain period of time to complete odd photo-based missions.
It was in 2009 that he headed off around the world as the Twitchhiker. It was a journey that saw him eat up the miles by boat, plane, car and bus, solely powered by the generosity of people using social media.
“What I took from Twitchhiker is that technology is still people-powered. It doesn’t matter how automated it is, how clever and complex it is. Unless there’s a community of flesh and blood behind it, technology doesn’t work.”
Last year, Smith was off again, travelling the four corners of mainland America on a train journey spanning 10,000 miles.
Tales From The Edge Of America is a book that collects stories from 33 states, from major metropolises to sleepy stops, from the New Mexican desert to the hurricane-hit communities of New Orleans. It’s due to be released in the autumn.
“The backbone of Twitchhiker was Twitter and the challenge, but the substance came from the stories. This book is very similar, in that it’s held together by a 10,000-mile train journey, but it’s about people I met and places I went.
“It was exhilarating. I adored that trip, as it was a chance to see America as few people, even Americans, have seen it.”
Smith’s new challenge is to manage the Ignite100 programme, an ambitious accelerator which gives promising startups a chance to develop their ideas with mentoring support.
The programme gives teams up to £15,000 each to start, puts them through a gruelling 13-week period of development, and gives them a chance to win further funds at the end.
The programme is backed by angel investors, plus funds from IP Group and Northstar Ventures taken from the £125m Finance for Business North East fund managed by North East Finance.
Last year’s crop included interactive art maps, chat platforms, a social giving platform and an online car rental idea. Applications for this year’s batch closed at the weekend.
“It forces the businesses to find validation,” he says. “With accelerators, the fact you’re exposed to 50 experienced mentors means business models get kicked to death, and if yours survives you’ve probably got a good business model.
“It also provides opportunity. Whatever you’re working on, the chances are there are several teams around the world working on a similar idea, so the difference is whether you find ways to gain traction, make partnerships, take it beyond your immediate surroundings and around the world. I think accelerators can provide that.”
Smith says a crucial lesson for start-ups is not to be afraid to fail, and to be open to change and adaptation. But, most of all, the important thing is to act.
“We’re living in a time where anyone can start a business in their bedroom and trade around the world.
“We’re in a time where there are tools online that help us build, and help us market. The internet is such a great leveller, and there’s never been an opportunity like this.
“There are ways to validate a business idea without having to build everything, so if you have an idea you should just get out there and do it.”
Smith believes that Ignite100 is just part of a groundswell that’s slowly putting the North East on the global tech map.
“I don’t think Ignite100 can take the credit. There are so many people who have put so much work into making the North East an exciting city for start-ups. That’s the substance of the North East as a whole. We’re a region that likes to party, but also gets its head down and makes things work.
“I’d like to see Ignite100 grow beyond an accelerator programme. We’ve already become a bit of an incubator space, with teams from other programmes, teams from the North East and freelancers building a community that supports itself and helps to build good businesses.
“My dream would be for Ignite100 to find its own premises and become a co-working space for start-ups across the North East, building something essential and relevant for the whole community.
“I’d like to see the councils support our efforts and the efforts of start-ups, as they have the potential to create jobs and plenty of them. But what it needs more than anything else is for it to keep going.
“We have so much potential to make something amazing happen, and we have the people to do it. In the next five years, I’d like us to build a community that retains our talent and also attracts talent in.
“We’re not there yet, but in five years we can reach that tipping point and create a community that’s among the best in the world for start-ups. I genuinely believe that.”