Silicon Beach – welcome to Brighton, the UK’s thriving south-coast tech haven

Jon Norris 2013-04-25 5

Take a southbound train from London and, after watching the Sussex countryside fly past your window for about an hour, you will arrive in the seaside city of Brighton & Hove.

Jon Norris, Web Editor at online accountancy firm Crunch, tells the eloquent stories behind the prospering tech haven and which Brighton firms are making a name for themselves on the international stage…

Brighton

Home to one of the broadest political spectrums of any UK city, Brighton & Hove is bookended by polar ideological opposites.

On its eastern fringes sits Kemp Town and Hanover, home to Brighton’s famous gay scene and neighbourhood of choice for many socialists, anarchists and environmentalists. Over on the western edge of the city, you’ll find the upmarket regency-era squares and leafy boulevards of Hove, whose conservative occupants fought fiercely against the two towns being brought together in 2000 to obtain city status.

This dissonance continues 13 years later, with many locals proud of their citizenship of Brighton or Hove, not Brighton & Hove. All-too-frequent clarifications have led to the popular refrain “Hove, actually”, usually delivered down the nose of a wealthy First Avenue resident when asked whether they live in Brighton.

Despite the lively political discord, Brighton & Hove is a harmonious city, wry and depreciating where neighbours to the north are bolshy and self-important. There’s a different atmosphere by the coast, concerned with meaningful collaboration and community spirit. There’s less of a “scene”, too – the coffee shops may be just as trendy as those in Shoreditch, but you won’t find anyone in Brighton claiming to “work in a startup”.

Don’t let that fool you though – Brighton’s tech businesses are just as vibrant as anywhere else in Europe. Take a stroll along Orange Row in the centre of town – where Kemp Town’s creativity and Hove’s financial savvy collide – and you’ll see studio after studio buzzing with activity. Away from the bright lights and swooning press of London, Brighton’s tech companies are quietly doing shedloads of business.

Movers and shakers

For a city of less than 300,000 inhabitants, Brighton has been punching above its weight in startup terms for some years.

Brighton movers and shakers

Search firm Spannerworks, started in a Brighton bedroom, was bought by US marketers iCrossing – becoming their UK division – for over £10m a few years ago.

In 2011, social conference directory Lanyrd, built by two Brightonian freelancers on their honeymoon, raised $1.4m in investment. The following year, Brandwatch raised $6m in its fourth round of funding since being founded in 2007.

Meanwhile, social agency Content & Motion was subsumed by US digital consortium Beyond for an undisclosed sum. Additionally, at the tail end of 2012 a local e-learning firm Maths Doctor was snapped up by global publisher Macmillan.

Just last week, local journalist Bobbie Johnson’s Kickstarted long-form journalistic endeavour Matter was acquired by Ev Williams of Twitter fame – possibly the city’s most high-profile acquisition to date. As testament to Brighton’s community spirit, design agency Clearleft, – which had a small stake in Matter – are using proceeds from the sale to establish an incubator in their new headquarters.

Forget Tech City – welcome to the Brighton tech cluster

Back when the Tech City Investment Organisation was a mere twinkle in David Cameron’s eye, there was Wired Sussex down in Brighton.

This tiny outfit was established as an offshoot of the Sussex Enterprise Chamber of Commerce in 1997. Its remit was to support the burgeoning local technology sector and to lure new corporate inhabitants with the promise of a vibrant young workforce, nearby transport links to the capital and Europe, and a relaxed, flexible-work-friendly ethos. Basically, everything a startup could want.

After a decade of public sector toil, Wired Sussex did something unthinkable in today’s economy – they rebuffed further government funding and decided to move into the private sector.

What prompted such an audacious move? Wired Sussex felt they couldn’t effectively represent the changing priorities and values of Brighton tech cluster while shackled by the delivery of government strategies.

Wired Sussex acts as a hub of sorts – all local digital businesses are connected to it in some way. Rather than being regarded as a shifty quango misusing government funds, Wired Sussex has established itself as the trusted champion of local tech businesses. They offer help and support to those looking for funding, free workshops and community events for all members, and fight Brighton’s corner at government level.

Super+Super

Super+Super offers sleek desk spaces for creative professionals.

A raft of coworking spaces, such as The Skiff, The Werks and trendy newcomer Super+Super (right), house many startups as well as a growing self-employed population. The city has roughly twice as many freelancers per capita than rest of the country. The now-legendary weekly Farm meetups serve as a focal point for many digital freelancers, even though they may not remember them the morning after.

Community events such as BrightonSEO, dConstruct, and the Arts Council-funded Brighton Digital Festival continue to grow in popularity. WorldBlu, an organisation which promotes democracy in the workplace, recently released its 2013 list of most democratic workplaces that features no less than five Brighton companies – more than any other city worldwide.

Too much too soon?

It’s not all Cliff Richard’s-style Summer Holidays on the south coast though, the volume of new business activity in the city has made high quality office space incredibly difficult to come by. Clearleft recently secured new premises after hunting for two years, while Wired Sussex moved to a derelict button factory and secured an EU grant to renovate it.

Brighton’s telecoms infrastructure is also beginning to groan under the weight of web traffic coursing through its aging cabling. A cable internet build-out failed to alleviate the congestion, and complaining about connection speeds is a favourite pastime for locals. In response, local MPs launched a high-profile campaign to secure government funding for an ultra-high speed overhaul of the entire network, due to begin soon.

10 of the hottest Brighton businesses

Brighton

Some of Brighton’s established tech firms are making names for themselves on the international stage – here are some of the largest:

Brandwatch
Heavy-duty social media monitoring used by the likes of LateRooms.com and the animal welfare charity RSPCA. Brandwatch allows big companies to keep an eye on the conversation happening around their brand, and uses clever sentiment analysis to track how campaigns change the public mood.

Pure360
One of the earliest email marketing firms, Pure360 came about when an SMS marketing business – embarrassingly-named “Partytastic” – pivoted to email. Shortly afterwards, they landed Levis as a client, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Fresh Egg
One of the UK’s leading digital marketing firms, Fresh Egg is one of the few Brighton companies that have voluntarily expanded up to London with a small office in Victoria.

Nixon McInnes
Included on the 2013 WorldBlu list of most democratic workplaces, Nixon McInnes “helps large organisations to succeed in a world disrupted by the internet”.

Create
An all-in-one website design and hosting service for small businesses, Create provides a modern take on drag-and-drop web design. Recently, the company surpassed 10,000 hosted sites.

Madgex
You’ve likely stumbled across Madgex’s handiwork without even realising it – they provide modern job board software for the likes of Guardian Jobs, Future Publishing and Haymarket.

Realmac Software
A tiny studio that punches well above its weight, Realmac Software is the outfit behind minimalist iPhone productivity app Clear, as well as a host of Mac-based design software.

Crunch
Disclosure time – I work for Crunch. We’re an online accountancy firm set up by Darren Fell (the same entrepreneur who founded Pure360) and recently entered the UK top 100 accountancy firms by revenue just four years after launching.

Bloom
One of a number of new firms fusing PR, social media and business consultancy. Bloom is helping businesses worldwide understand and fine-tune its social media activity.

Ribot
A usability and interface design studio, Ribot is responsible for apps from Channel 4, Tesco, award-winning Android keyboard SwiftKey and Virgin Atlantic’s inflight entertainment system.

The Silicon Beach?

Those familiar with the fabrication process will know that you can’t make silicon without sand. Well, our beach is made of rocks and we like it that way.

Silicon beach

Comparisons with Silicon Valley and Silicon Roundabout are inevitable but overlook what makes Brighton so unique. The counterintuitive blend of hard capitalistic business practice with open collaboration and social responsibility breeds friendly, progressive businesses with a genuine interest in giving back to the community where they grew up – often at significant cost to their bottom line.

Skills swaps, hackathons and meetups happen every day of the week with knowledge and value passed around to benefit everyone. These community efforts extend well beyond the tech community. Many businesses in the city operate as cooperatives or non-profits and you’d struggle to find a Brighton company that doesn’t participate in some kind of not-for-profit activity on the side.

Any way you look at it, Brighton’s friendly jumble of tech firms are a noteworthy bunch. Jump on that train down from London and come for a drink with us. Don’t expect much startup talk though – there are much more important things going on down here.

Image credits:
featured image – flickr user Tabsinthe
Cafe outdoors – flickr user Dominic’s pics
Crossroads sign – flickr user Dominic’s pics
Brighton beach houses – flickr user KevCheng

For related posts, check out:

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A tale of two cities: Can startup schemes in Manchester and Liverpool help kickstart the British economy?
Startups, Swiss-style – the top 10 startups to watch in Switzerland

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