Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Brighton Fuse


Last night I attended the launch of The Brighton Fuse report. This is the result of a two year research project into Brighton’s Creative, Digital and IT (CDIT) sector. It’s one of the most detailed investigations into a tech cluster ever carried out in the UK and makes fascinating reading. I was involved as one of the interviewees, so I’ve got a personal interest in the findings.

The research found 1,485 firms which fit the CDIT label operating in the city. Of these they sampled 485. For me the most surprising results are the size and rate of growth of the CDIT sector. As someone who’s lived and worked in Brighton over the last 18 years, I’ve certainly been aware of it, but had no idea of the scale. The numbers from the survey are very impressive. Brighton is of course famous as a resort town, ‘London on sea’, but the CDIT sector is now equivalent to the tourist industry, with both generating around £700 million in sales. Around 9000 people work in the sector, that’s 10% of Brighton’s workforce. The rate of growth is phenomenal: 14% annually, and that’s in the context of recession conditions in the UK as  whole. It accounts for all the job growth in Brighton, and makes the city one of the fastest growing in the UK.

Why Brighton? Why should such a dynamic cluster of companies spring up here, rather than in any of the tens of other medium sized cities in the UK? According to the report, it’s not because of any government initiative, or the presence of any large leading companies in the sector, or even because entrepreneurs made a conscious decision to start companies here. No, it seems to simply to be that it’s a very attractive place to live. People come here (85% of founders are from outside Brighton) because they want to live here, not for economic opportunity. The kinds of people who are attracted to Brighton also seem to be the kinds of people who have a tendency to start creative digital businesses. It even seems to be that some of the economic disadvantages of Brighton, the lack of large established employers, leaves many with little alternative to becoming entrepreneurs.

So what makes Brighton so attractive? There are the obvious geographic advantages: London, Europe’s, if not the world’s, capital city, is only an hour’s train ride away; Gatwick, one of London’s three main airports, is just up the A23. It’s truly beautiful. Sussex has a world class landscape with the South Downs national park rolling down to the white cliffs; and of course there’s the sea. If you are at all interested in history, it’s a constant delight; I can take a 20 minute walk from my house in Lewes, past a Norman castle, the 15th century half-timbered home of a Tudor queen and an Elizabethan mansion.  But it’s the cultural side of Brighton that is probably its main attraction. It has a strong identity as the bohemian capital of the UK, with the largest gay population outside London and the biggest arts festival in England. Almost every weekend there’s some event or festival going on. We have the UK’s only green MP and the only Green controlled council. It’s also the least religious place in the UK, but conversely has the highest number of Jedi Knights (2.6% of the population indeed).

To sum up the findings of the report: (warning: personal tongue-in-cheek, not-to-be-taken-seriously interpretation follows)

In order to create a successful CDIT cluster, do the following:

  1. Find somewhere pretty with good transport links and access to London.
  2. Throw in a couple of universities.
  3. Add an arts festival.
  4. Avoid big government or commercial institutions.
  5. Discourage conservatives and Christians.
  6. Make it a playground for bohemians, gays and artists.
  7. Leave to simmer.

My personal anecdotal experience of living in Brighton over the last 18 years chimes nicely with the report’s findings. I arrived in Brighton in 1995, after two years living in Japan, to attend an Information Systems MSc at Brighton University. I immediately fell in love with the place, but after graduating I moved to London for work since there were few programming jobs available in the city. But I couldn’t stay away and came back and bought a flat here in 1997. I commuted for the first year or so, but then got a job as a junior programmer at American Express, one of Brighton’s few large corporate employers. By then the dot-com boom was raging and I left after six months to double my income as a freelancer. I haven’t looked back. Up until around 2007 I rarely found clients in Brighton, but would travel to work at client sites throughout the South East. Since 2007, with the growth of the CDIT sector, the opposite has been the case; I haven’t worked more than half a mile from Brighton station.

Three of my local clients have been exactly the kinds of businesses covered in the report: Cubeworks, a digital agency; Madgex, a product company selling SaaS jobsites; and 15below, my current clients, who build airline integration systems. All started around 10 years ago as small 2, 3, or 4 man operations, and all have grown rapidly since. 15below, for example, now has close to 70 employees and a multi-million pound annual turnover. Cubeworks grew rapidly into a successful agency brand and has since been acquired, and Madgex has grown to around 40 employees. All show huge growth rates and not only provide employment, but also clients for a large pool of freelancers like me.

Despite the recession in the rest of the UK, it’s now an incredibly exciting time to be working as a freelancer in Brighton. There’s a real buzz about the place, and you can’t turn a corner without bumping into somebody who’s about to start a new indie-game company or launch their kickstarter. Of course there’s a certain amount of pretention and froth that inevitably goes with it, but there’s enough genuine success to feel like we’re in the midst of something rather wonderful.

Download and read the report, I’ll think you’ll be impressed too.

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