Thinking global: lessons from a North East tech success story

Newcastle-based ZeroLight is revolutionising how people purchase cars, developing advanced digital vehicle configurators and a CGI content production platform that personalise the car-buying experience and allow people to customise and explore vehicles in true-to-life detail. Founded in 2014, the business now employs more than 140 people globally and works with some of the biggest car manufacturers including VW, Cadillac, Lucid Motors and Mitsubishi.

ZeroLight CEO, Darren Jobling, shares what he’s learnt from being at the helm of a fast-growing tech business.

What advice would you give other entrepreneurs looking to start a new, high growth digital/tech business?

It’s a big world, and you need to think on a global scale. Don’t just think about how you’re going to sell in the UK, think about how you’re going to sell in China, in Japan, in the USA…

In terms of your product, you need to be very focused. Think you have a good idea? Then stick with it. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take customer feedback on board, but I’d recommend that you watch what people do, not just listen to what they say.

As a start-up, if you don’t stay focused on your plan, you risk being pulled in all directions in pursuit of small deals and potentially missing out on something much bigger. With ZeroLight, we started out with a clear focus on the automotive industry and a specific criteria on the SaaS deals we were willing to entertain.

Also, surround yourself with optimism and you’ll do well.

What are the unique challenges in starting a digital/tech business, compared with other business startups? What makes a digital/tech startup different?

Your team is everything and you’re only as good as the people around you, so you have to be merciless in pursuing, rewarding, and developing the best talent.

We’ve developed strong relationships with the five universities in the region and work with them to deliver external lectures, shape the syllabus, and let students and graduates know that you can work for a world-leading tech company, based right here in the North East.

What support did you receive when starting your business?

These days, new tech enterprises have a tremendous number of options when it comes to finance, largely due to the JEREMIE fund. In the case of ZeroLight, we were supported right from the start by Alasdair Greig and the team at Northstar Ventures, and we also took part in the Department of Trade and Industry’s ‘Passport to Export’ scheme, which helped us break into new markets.

Why is the North East a good place to start or grow a digital/tech business?

The North East has a rich heritage in world-leading engineering – and that’s essentially what coding is. The bridges over the Tyne I can see outside my window inspire me every day.

There’s also an optimism about the North East and it’s a great place to live and work. Not only is there a good work/life balance but it’s amazing the number of global companies that will come to you if what you offer is compelling enough – if you’re good, then Silicon Valley will come to you, regardless of where you’re based.

What help and support is available in the region for new digital/tech startups?

There’s a whole network of funds you can access and I’d encourage people to get out there and meet people, get to know the different funders and what they’re looking for, as it’s all about being a good fit. And you have to get on well with people – never take money from someone you don’t gel with, as the relationship will be what you’re left with long after the money has been invested!

What are your ambitions for your business?

We’re on an aggressive expansion plan: 2019 was all about expanding into North America; 2020 was about Japan; and in 2021 we’re focused on China. We intend to be a key player in how cars are marketed and sold globally.

We’re actively recruiting in the North East and we’ve already taken on 50 people just during lockdown, so if you’re interested in working with a world-leading business, then get in touch.

The High Potential Startups accelerator programme is supporting the next generation of North East digital and tech startups. So if, like Darren was, you’re an entrepreneur with a big idea, find out how High Potential Startups could help you make your idea into a reality: www.highpotentialstartups.co.uk