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The life of tech entrepreneur, Chris Leigh

Stuart Scott-Goldstone and I paid our last respects yesterday to fellow Manchester Business School (MBS) MBA Alum and Greater Manchester tech entrepreneur Chris Leigh, after he took his life just over a week before Christmas. The funeral was also attended by current and past Sci-Tech Daresbury community including John Leake, Paul Treloar, Robert Wakeling (Wadaro), Michael Thomas (Peak42), John McGuire (ex-FreshTL) and Angus Matheson (ex-FreshTL).

suicide statistics

According to Samaritans, men between 45 to 59 years are the most vulnerable to suicides in the UK and Republic of Ireland. When Chris took his life, he was 48 years old (same age as me). About an year ago, Andy Duxbury, then CEO of Aaron and Partners who help me develop tech ecosystem in Manchester took his life. Most of us know one or more persons within our personal networks who have taken their lives.

Mental illness classify as the number 1 reason for suicides, yet it remains a taboo subject hardly ever spoken, especially by men. In my opinion, the non intruding nature of (stiff upper lip) Britishness does not help when it comes to suicide.

Manchester Business School

I first came to know Chris and Stuart when I started my MBA at MBS from 2002 to 2005. Chris and Stuart undertook the Entrepreneurship MBA  whilst I undertook Executive MBA. Ironically, I joined the MBA with the idea of transitioning from Engineering Consultancy to Management Consultancy. Little did I know, I would eventually take the entrepreneurial path upon completion.

Sci-Tech Daresbury (then Daresbury Innovation Centre)

In Feb 2006, I moved my first tech company, ebdex to Daresbury Innovation Centre then managed by Paul Treloar (John Leake joined later on). Either in 2007 or 2008, Chris rented an office there for his tech startup. At the time, Daresbury Innovation Centre with grant funding from North West Development Agency (NWDA) was the hotspot in the North West for tech entrepreneurs and their fledgling tech startups.

Failure of my first tech startup at the end of 2006 led to creation of Techcelerate, which took the responsibility to build the tech ecosystem in Greater Manchester and the North West, which Chris became a part of including almost everyone else mentioned in this post.

Real Time Race

Chris founded Real Time Race with Stuart, with a technology that was perhaps 10 years ahead of its time. Just like many others with ground breaking technologies ahead of their times, lack of technology advancement elsewhere prevented its full commercialisation. Lack of venture capital probably hindered growth potentials further (not uncommon with many tech entrepreneurs in the North West).

 Later on Roderick Kennedy who had his own tech startup Simul and was based out of Daresbury Innovation Centre joined Chris to continue development by creating iFlex and vFit. By this time, Stuart had left the company. Whilst the company continued for few more years, it never found a way to commercialise the technology the way Chris wanted.

Life after Real Time Race

In 2012, Chris joined accountancy firm, Cowgill Holloway to help them modernise their IT infrastructure. During this period, Chris became a champion of cloud computing including becoming certified in Xero. I left Sci-Tech Daresbury in 2011 and met Chris occasionally at Techcelerate tech entrepreneur events until I stop running them in 2012/13.

Re-connecting with Chris

Chris reached out in September this year requesting a demo of UnifiedVU. I then met Chris and Susan for a chat and a demo at Venturefest in Manchester on 21st September 2016. This was the last time I met Chris. Whilst Chris was proposing UnifiedVU for Susan’s forthcoming Art Gallery, we continued to discuss Xero and cloud computing over the Autumn and Winter months, as he continued setting up his new business Execos based out of Sci-Tech Daresbury.

Mental illness and tech entrepreneurship

Whilst unknown to me, Chris has been suffering from bipolar, which led him to take his life leaving Susan and his son. Whilst the press and social media highlights the success of tech entrepreneurship and their companies, building a tech company from a simple thought to a living and breathing entity with customers and employees is never an easy task. It is a hard and a lonely world where you make daily sacrifices for your own happiness as well as your family’s.

Whilst I have not suffered from mental illness, there are a lot of similarities between my tech entrepreneur journey and Chris’s. Bootstrapping tech companies is never easy. For the last several years, my advice for any wantrapreneur has been to not start a tech startup. Not many people speak about the hardships and the devastation startups cause especially to family life.

Some of the well documented tech entrepreneur suicides include:

Stiff Upper Lip

When I first heard about Chris taking his life, I posted about the shock I felt on Facebook without disclosing his name. Over 700 out of 1,208 of my personal network saw it, and over 40 of them reacted to it by either liking the post and/or passing their sympathies. Yet only two people asked who it was. When I enquired why others did not ask who it was given that I mentioned MBA and Techcelerate in the post, which were prompts from me to get them to ask privately through direct messaging who it was, “was being respectful for the person” emerged as the main reason. If we are too polite to ask who it was, what chances do we have of stepping in when we notice signs of someone going through a really tough time?

What can be done?

Brad Feld has written extensively about fighting his own demons. Among locals, Vikas Shah has founded Life + Fit to bring awareness to mental illness. Sick Festival confronts mental challenges of life and death through an international arts programme.

As tech entrepreneurs, showing signs of weakness goes against our trade of continuously projecting how great we are doing, both individually and company wise.

In my own opinion, what we need is trusted and close networks where, as tech entrepreneurs, we can discuss our deep issues openly without being prejudged or having to pretend everything is honky dory.

This is something I’ve discussed with Paul and Stuart. Without knowing what it might lead to, I’ve setup a Facebook group, Last Resort, perhaps as a place to gather ideas on how we can tackle our deep unspoken problems.

Please leave your own thoughts on Chris, especially if you knew him, and any suggestions you might have of how we could help each other.


Published inTechcelerate