Bournemouth: From retirement capital to digital beach – the story of Britain’s fastest-growing tech hub

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A new generation of ultra-digital, highly entrepreneurial creatives, developers and designers are emerging in Bournemouth. The city’s seaside-specific working culture is a crucial ingredient in enticing talent.

In early February 2015, at a slick launch attended by both Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne, the first ever detailed study of Britain’s digital industry was released.

“Tech Nation” had been a fiendishly complex project, drawing on multiple data sources and scraping the websites of more than one million UK companies to determine whether they met the definition of a ‘digital’ company.

One of the main purposes of the project was to identify clusters of digital expertise. The idea was that, armed with this insight, local government, planners, universities and inward-investors would be able to make better informed decisions about where to locate operations and deploy resources.

In quango land, there was much anticipation about Tech Nation. Local authorities fretted about whether their town or region would be highlighted. Would new clusters be identified, wondered the National Cluster Alliance. In the run-up to the General Election, the results might be nationally significant, reinforcing (potentially) the government’s core message that Britain’s economy had turned a corner and that it would be foolish to jeopardise the Conservative legacy.

So come launch day, the report attracted a great deal of media attention, and a lot of this centred around the identity of the fastest-growing digital region.

And the big winner, the fastest-growing, densest concentration of digital companies in Britain was, Tech Nation declared, in… Bournemouth.

Even in Bournemouth, jaws dropped in surprise. Locals knew that Bournemouth is Britain’s largest seaside conurbation, a place where affluent pensioners on generous final salary schemes have long since settled. But a tech hub?!

Among the town’s tech community, however, the accolade was no surprise. For some time, Bournemouth’s digerati and supporting cast had realised that something special was taking place. This close-knit group knew that the town was spawning top-quality companies – mainly agencies specialising in providing a range of digital services – and that these companies were growing in confidence and significance.

A few years earlier, while stuck at home over Christmas with young children, Matt Desmier had started mapping Bournemouth’s digital community. Desmier had formerly run the Enterprise Pavilion incubator at Arts University Bournemouth, assisting 75 new businesses during his time there. Now working as a freelance media adviser and counsel to startup companies, he was convinced there was a critical mass of tech companies that could start lobbying local government.

Desmier is like an exuberant bumble bee, buzzing usefully between ventures. And his instincts about the scale of Bournemouth’s creative hub were right. Desmier discovered that there were 454 active, trading creative and digital agencies in Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole. Most operated in advertising, design, marketing and PR. Digging deeper, he worked out that, on average, each employed eight people – a higher than average headcount among digital agencies.

What Desmier unearthed, and Tech Nation later brought to national attention, was a south-west coastal agency culture, and one with deep roots: David Ford’s Bright Blue Day, Andrew Henning’s RedWeb, Emerge Group, RLA, the Walker Agency… some of Britain’s most admired digital agencies were founded and still run out of Bournemouth.

Some of these agencies fed off other high-profile Bournemouth and Poole-born companies such as the luxury boat business Sunseeker, or Merlin Entertainments, or the retailer Lush; others grew on the back of financial services giants such as Barclays and JPMorgan, which have had large bases in the town for many years.

Bournemouth’s agencies have been able to draw on a pipeline of talented graduates coming through Bournemouth’s renowned Arts University Bournemouth, whose visionary principal Stuart Bartholomew has led it to become one of Britain’s best universities for creative skills. Likewise, Bournemouth University’s National Centre for Computer Animation has long been a world-class centre; and then there is Bournemouth & Poole College which provides apprentices to 2,000+ employers.

And today the legwork of those established local agencies and educational establishments is yielding rich fruit, with a new generation of ultra-digital, highly entrepreneurial creatives, developers and designers coming through to set up new ventures.

Marc Biles went to school on the Isle of Purbeck, the beautiful though misleadingly named peninsula that stretches from Poole Harbour on the east to Worbarrow Bay and the eerie deserted village of Tyneham to the west. As a child, he wanted to be a pop star and even had a crack at it as a teenager, before realising it would be easier to make a living in business.

In 2003, Biles joined the Richmond Group, the online loans company started by entrepreneur and future ‘Secret Millionaire’ James Bennamor. In ten years with Richmond, Biles helped launch 12 new companies that today have collective revenues of around £500m.

After launching the 13th, Ratio, Biles realised that it was time for the apprentice to become his own master, so in October 2013 he bought out Ratio from Bennamor’s group and set out on his own.

Ratio, just up the road from Bournemouth’s Aquarium, is a software company “dedicated to inventing smart products that help make people’s lives better and easier.” Biles, co-founder Tara Flynn and team have already created the choose-wisely.co.uk price comparison website, the “intent-marketing platform” remora.so and men’s monthly underwear subscription club briefd.co.uk.

“In a seaside town, you have to work bloody hard to recruit anyone,” says Biles. “There’s probably a 50-60km radius that people are prepared to travel to come to work, and half of that is sea.” He says that local companies will often fight it out for the relatively small group of ‘A players’ coming out of local universities and colleges. He has made a couple of hires from Poland and the Philippines, but reckons his business is still too small to recruit many people from overseas. Over time, and as Ratio diversifies into fields such as artificial intelligence, Biles believes it will become easier to attract high-calibre digital talent.

So for now, Ratio and other successful Bournemouth agencies lead on their working culture when trying to lure top talent. Their main message is that this is not London agency land where tiny flats, long hours and uncomfortable commutes are the norm. No, here on the balmy south coast, 9-5 is typical, as are barbecues and parties on the beach. When wind conditions are right, alarms start beeping in Bournemouth’s agencies, and developers can morph into surfers.

Tom Quay faced such a challenge to recruit four top-notch developers that he put on his own conference, re:develop. “We thought, let’s put on the kind of event that we’d want to go to,” says Quay, a serious-minded young entrepreneur who came through the Enterprise Pavilion accelerator at Bournemouth & Poole College. His father ran a small firm of accountants in the Dorset market town of Blandford, doing the books for local small businesses.

Quay’s business, Base, illustrates a growing confidence among Bournemouth’s digital entrepreneurs. Up until 2013, the agency was doing well providing digital services, mainly to advertising agencies who were outsourcing more and more work to him. But Quay wasn’t satisfied. “I started to wonder why, when we were doing such great work, we were so far down the food chain.” So he bravely ditched his major client and repositioned his business as a digital product studio that would fight for its own clients. “We have not looked back since,” smiles Quay.

As well as doing quality work, the company’s Westbourne office also houses the largest open device lab in the world – or, as Base’s project director Sam Westlake puts it, “the largest lab in the universe”. Here, testers and developers from anywhere in the world can come and test their latest apps and responsive websites for free on almost 500 devices. It’s another smart way of attracting talent – and potential clients – to town and to Base.

Right now, the tale you hear most in Bournemouth digital circles is about the tiny creative agency, Make Studio. In 2012 the agency, founded by Chris Bainbridge, snatched the account for the publicly quoted US company Garmin, off M&C Saatchi in a blind pitch process. To make matters worse for their acclaimed London rival, Make was only a four-person agency at the time. Make has since expanded its work for Garmin, the world leader in GPS technology with 2014 revenues of $2.8bn. The whole episode breathed fire into the Bournemouth agency scene. There is a growing confidence that they really can compete with their big-city agency competitors.

Actually, it’s not just the town’s agencies that are buzzing. A new £60m Hilton hotel is under construction. Several Bournemouth University graduates were on stage at the 2015 Oscars, picking up an award for their visual effects work on the film, Interstellar. Southampton University’s Professor Gerry Stoker says Bournemouth could become “the Greater Manchester of the South” were it to join up with Christchurch and Poole under one local authority.

A bewildering number of initiatives are under way in the area: Silicon Beach is a large, growing digital gathering and network; the BFX Visual Effects, Animation and Games Festival draws superstar tech and creative talent from around the world; the Arts by the Sea Festival also blends seaside and agency cultures. Local officials talked openly, albeit cautiously, about whether the town should build its own major film studio to compete against the likes of Shepperton and Pinewood. “Bournemouth is a collision point between digital and other sectors,” says David Ford, chief executive of Bright Blue Day.

The town has its own Internet Service Provider, C4L, which provides internet connections for many of Bournemouth’s startups and established firms. The Bournemouth Community Finance initiative – “please don’t call us ‘Bournemouth Bank”, pleads senior account manager Ian Nance – is making loans to companies in the Bournemouth area that bring “economic benefit” to the borough. “There’s a growing sense of unity, of purpose”, observes Base’s Sam Westlake.

Many of the economic indicators are positive. According to the Centre for Cities, Bournemouth scores highly on patents granted (per head of population) and for its proportion of “knowledge-intensive” businesses. Calling it “Britain’s San Francisco”, as one local cheerleader puts it, may be going a bit too far. But Bournemouth and Poole and the nearby Dorset coast, have a lot going for them in this era of remote working and where work-life balance is a crucial ingredient in the talent enticement mix.

Tom Quay and Sam Westlake recently went to the South by Southwest film and technology festival in Austin, Texas. They loved it, and in particular were struck by how everyone in the city – from cabbies to baristas to waitresses – all talked up the town, repeating the same slogans and messages. “It was awesome” recalls Westlake, “it just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Go on, Bournemouth, make it so!