Anna Sutton decided to set up the Data Shed while she was eight months pregnant. The Leeds-based data consultancy is now working with big names, writes Ismail Mulla.
Anna Sutton’s journey into technology wasn’t atypical of the industry that she now not only occupies but is involved in its cutting edge work.
The CEO of Leeds-based Data Shed started off in marketing, working for the likes of Provident Financial and Hallmark.
However, she became frustrated at not being able to utilise data efficiently for marketing purposes.
Ms Sutton said: “I worked in marketing and had lots of data but I couldn’t actually use it properly. I wanted to be able to do something with it myself.”
That’s where the idea for the Data Refinery, a self-service data integration platform which provides a single view of a customer, came from.
To build this product out she and business partner Ed Thewlis launched the Data Shed as a consultancy back in 2014, helping the business self-fund the Data Refinery platform.
“I was made redundant when I was eight months pregnant with my second baby. We decided that would be the ideal time to set the business up,” Ms Sutton said.
Mr Thewlis would bring the data expertise, while she would bring her innate understanding of the application of data for the good of customers.
While on maternity leave she worked from home on the business. Today the Data Shed employs nearly 40 staff and has an entire team of data engineers.
Ms Sutton returned full-time to the business a year and a half ago, taking over as CEO. Prior to that she was running the project management while Mr Thewlis ran Data Shed.
Having come from a non-tech background, Ms Sutton admits that it was a steep learning curve for her.
She said: “There was quite a lot of responsibility involved in that. I was going to lead this team of very capable, very intelligent people and I can’t do what they do.
“Actually, I worked with a business coach on leadership. That’s really helped me work out the kind of leader I want to be and to work out how I’m going to lead the Data Shed with Ed through this scale-up phase.
“It’s been a really interesting learning curve but it has been very tough. It’s been quite an emotional journey. It’s a journey that I’m still on. I still work with a leadership coach now.
“It’s really important that you take the time out to work on yourself. You can get quite lost in running a business.”
Others might see a lack of technical background as a hindrance but that’s not been the case for Ms Sutton.
One of the key values of Data Shed is knowing their audience. Ms Sutton takes the technical capabilities her team has and applies it practically to clients’ needs.
She said: “A lot of our clients are not technical people. We have to give them an insight into what it is we’re doing so that they can take better decisions as to the direction that they’re taking their platforms in. It is helpful to have a non-technical translator.”
Data Shed works with the likes of parcel delivery company Hermes, the Tate Gallery and Australian airline Qantas.
Earlier this year, the firm also won a major contract with GAMSTOP, a central scheme that allows people to exclude themselves from online gambling websites.
Ms Sutton said: “We’re very proud of that project. It helps a lot of people. It’s really big for us. It’s nice to be working in the tech-for-good space and helping people.”
Tech is a force for change and people in the sector have to be supported to develop ideas that benefit society, says the Data Shed CEO.
She believes that there are many out there who are already doing pioneering work utilising the Internet of Things (IoT) to make life better for elderly and vulnerable people.
“I think the big challenge is whether or not these people have access to technology in the first place to be able to use it,” Ms Sutton says. “There’s so much that can be done.
“It all comes down to funding at the end of the day – working out how we fund those people to build those platforms and apps in the first place.”
Women are underrepresented in the tech sector and while Ms Sutton believes this is changing she says there is still a lot of progress to be made.
An emphasis on highlighting skill sets rather than focusing on the job itself, Ms Sutton says, would help attract more women to the sector.
Job adverts need to be written in a way that makes the roles sound more accessible. That would see people transferring across from other industries.
Diversity is important if the tech sector is going to produce solutions that work for the whole of society, says Ms Sutton.
She mentions a story about a “bunch of blokes” who built an app for menstruation, which ultimately failed.
Ms Sutton added: “There wasn’t a single woman working on that. You think how is that even possible. It’s completely crazy.”
At this year’s Leeds Digital Festival Awards, Ms Sutton was named entrepreneur of the year. Does she hope to act as a role model for women in technology?
Ms Sutton said: “What I really would like to demonstrate is that it’s possible to be an entrepreneur while being a mum.
“It was an idea that I was really passionate about and I was very fortunate to have a business partner that would help me bring that idea to fruition.”
Data has been one of the buzzwords in recent years. Business from all sectors are aware of its importance, says Ms Sutton.
There has also been the recent introduction of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to focus minds. “Everybody is aware that automation is coming but to automate you have to have access to good quality data,” Ms Sutton said.
People have also become more “data savvy” since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, according to Ms Sutton, and businesses are now more cautious of how they handle customer data.
If she ever does decide to exit from Data Shed, Ms Sutton would like to contribute to the growth of her home city of Leeds, She said: “I would love to do something to help the growth of Leeds and work out how I could have a role in that and support entrepreneurs in the city.”
“There’s a lot that can be done. The more of us that are out there speaking up for Leeds the better.”
Title: CEO and co-founder of Data Shed
Favourite holiday destination: Mallorca
Last book read: Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start-up
Favourite film: Margin Call
Favourite song: At the moment it’s Sabotage by the Beastie Boys – my boys love to roar along in the car.
Car driven: Jaguar Epace
Most proud of: Juggling kids and a business and still managing to fit a life in.
Education: Tranmere Park Primary, Bradford Girls Secondary, UMIST – BSc Management Science (marketing).