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Way out west

Written by Josh Russell on Wednesday, 04 September 2013. Posted in Communities, Analysis

Bristol quite deservedly has a reputation as being something of a radical spirit. And this has made the south-western city a natural home for enterprises looking to go against the grain

Way out west

Culturally, Bristol has already stamped itself on the map. It has given us the music of Massive Attack and Portishead, television shows such as Casualty, Teachers, Sherlock and Being Human to name but a few, not to mention the epitome of counter-culture turned mainstream success, the celebrated graffiti artist Banksy. The city has always championed innovation and thinking a little outside the box. But this unique mindset isn’t restricted merely to the arts; when it comes to business, Bristol isn’t afraid of wearing its rebel heart on its sleeve.

“Bristol has a very strong, independent culture and, over the centuries, both professionally and politically, it’s been a hot bed of people with quite strong views,” explains James Durie, executive director of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, a part of the wider enterprise network Business West. This is no exaggeration; the design for the Clifton Suspension Bridge – arguably the most significant work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel – was initially taken on by Thomas Telford after his committee judged all submitted designs to be unfit for purpose. Public objection was fierce enough that Telford’s committee was forced to reopen the competition, eventually giving Brunel a chance to create Bristol’s most iconic landmark.

“The city as a whole has a unique independent spirit about it,” says Dan Martin, editor of business content channel businesszone.co.uk and founder of The Pitch, one of Britain’s largest annual competitions for small business. And this doesn’t just apply to creativity and the arts; its approach to business is heavily focused on championing independents and characterful businesses. Martin makes reference to Gloucester Road, which is recognised as being one of the most concentrated collection of independent stores in the UK. “Entrepreneurs and start-ups do quite well here because there is this atmosphere of independence.”

It’s not hard to think of myriad examples of businesses that have cut their teeth in the area, across a whole range of sectors. Not only are there obvious examples such as Rob Law’s ride-on luggage for children Trunki, but the city has also given us deals site vouchercloud.com, online movie database IMDB and business crowdfunding platform Crowdcube. Evidently, a reputation for being able to stand apart has made Bristol an attractive option for many a business.

Bristol has more to offer start-ups than just its maverick status though. “One of the big advantages of the city is it’s got two really good universities,” comments Richard Wilson, director of app developer Mobile Pie. The academic standard of the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England has long been recognised, not just drawing plenty of talent into the area but actively keeping it there. “I’ve always been told that it’s got one of the highest retention rates for students. Myself, my business partner and a lot of our friends who came to university here 13 years ago are still here.”

Bristol Pound images courtesy of Mark Simmons  

That’s not to say there haven’t been struggles along the way for some businesses looking to grow. “We do a barrier-to-growth survey for the Local Enterprise Partnership and access to finance continues to be one of the main considerations,” says Durie. Perhaps historically relying more on debt finance and the big banks, Bristol is facing the same challenge as many parts of the country, having to adjust its attitude to finance and seek new sources of growth capital.

Fortunately, the local business community is responding to these needs. Paid for by the Regional Growth Fund, Business West has committed to helping local enterprise with its scheme Ready for Growth. “We’ve helped with the creation of 135 new businesses, plus 28 additional new jobs across Bristol and the south west,” explains Durie. “I think that demonstrates the kind of entrepreneurial spirit in the area.”

And this isn’t the only source of support. Provider of business-management software for retailers Brightpearl is an active member of business community SETsquared, an incubator helping many a local start-up navigate the rocky route to market. The scheme not only helped Brightpearl gain access to mentorship, advice and guidance but also helped them and others obtain significant seed funding. “In the last six years, they’ve had 150 tech companies start there; 650 jobs have been created and £87m has been raised,” says Andrew Mulvenna, co-founder and general manager of the company’s operations stateside. “None of those companies have failed.”

Rather impressive stuff. But Bristol also has bolder and braver initiatives to bolster the local economy, as evinced by one of the most striking examples of the city’s abject refusal to play by the rules. At a time when the health of the European single currency was dominating the headlines and Bitcoin, the global digital currency, was just beginning to garner media attention, Bristol made a conscious decision to swim against the current and, rather than thinking global, Bristolian citizens decided it was time to act local. They launched their own currency: the Bristol Pound.

Bristol Pound images courtesy of Mark Simmons  

Confronted by ailing high streets across the UK, the city found a novel solution to championing and stimulating interest in local business. Introducing a local currency is the sort of idea that many policy-makers would balk at but Bristol wouldn’t be the city it is if it were too worried about flouting convention.

It would be easy to dismiss this as little more than a clever PR gimmick if it weren’t for the committed manner in which the city implemented the currency. Bristol’s first elected mayor is paid entirely in Bristol Pounds, showing that the city sees its moolah as being much more than just a faddy solution to a cause célèbre. “That’s quite reflective of Bristol; I don’t think that would work in all cities, to be honest,” explains Martin. “But I think already over £B100,000 has been spent.”

Another signpost of Bristol’s innovative success is Martin’s own The Pitch, initially grown when parent company Sift Media sponsored the local Bristol Design Festival. “Sift is quite keen to support local things,” he comments. “The festival had a small entrepreneurial prize, a sort of ‘entrepreneur of the show’, but it wasn’t particularly engaging – it was your standard ‘here’s the winner; here’s a bit of plastic’ kind of award. So we wanted to do something a bit different.”

With a tight deadline of six weeks, Martin’s team had to find a venue, come up with a name and entice entrants. Eventually attracting some 30 contestants through social media and local student talent, the first Pitch prize went to Nicki Stewart, founder of luxury gourmet-gift enterprise Diverse Hampers. “It seemed to work and I think one of the reasons it worked very well probably was because of Bristol; it was in the middle of all of this crazy creative design that was going on,” comments Martin.

Growing the show with the help of corporate sponsors Yell, Sift took its show on the road, helping to attract and champion businesses all over the UK. Martin says: “We’ve taken it all over Britain, taken it to the Edinburgh festival and been an official part of that; we’ve done it in the opera house in Belfast.” Since its inception, the festival has helped to celebrate innovators and pioneers, including Ross Dickinson with his pipe repair system Kibosh, and Naomi Kibble and Helen McAvoy, the founders of frozen cocktails Rocktails, who went on to secure funding from Peter Jones and Duncan Bannatyne on Dragons’ Den.

But after years of roaming, Martin has decided it’s time for a change and the wheels are in motion to bring the celebration of entrepreneurial talent back to its rightful home at the close of September. “The event will showcase Bristol in all its glory,” he comments. “We’ve got a Bristol pop-up shop, with Bristol retailers. We’ve got speakers like Rob Law from Trunki.” Additionally, the £10 ticket price will be refunded to attendants in the form of £B10, further stimulating interest in Bristol’s thriving entrepreneurial scene.

However, while festivals can travel and innovations can be translated, there is something about Bristol that cannot be replicated. And that is the lifestyle that comes as part and parcel of living in the unique city. “Bristol is a great place to live; you’re a stone’s throw from the great outdoors, so, actually, with that you do find a different kind of person as well, who is more settled,” says Mulvenna.

Wingman’s founder Stu Jolley agrees there’s something about the city that attracts young and dynamic entrepreneurs to the area. “With Bristol, you definitely get a feel that there is a buzz in the city and there’s an energy there,” he remarks. “In all aspects, from festivals, stuff going on at weekends, there’s plenty to do, and, for a young start-up business, it feels like a good place to be.”

Looking at the nature and quality of the various enterprises operating out of the south west, it’s easy to see just how strong the business community in the region is and how much it has to offer start-ups. Jolley concludes: “It makes you realise you don’t have to be based in London all your life; go where makes you happy.”

 

Taking flight

Wingman

Wingman is a unique brand, serving time-poor men with their three-in-one shampoo, shower and shave gel. And, given it’s a product built around making life easier, it’s hardly surprising that life choices are recognised as going hand-in-hand with business plans. “My decision to relocate the business to Bristol was partly business, but partly personal,” comments founder Stu Jolley. “When you come to Bristol, first of all you find there’s a lot more space and that gives you more space to think. And it’s just a really vibrant community.”

Accessing talent in the area hasn’t been a Sisyphean task for Wingman, which it attributes to the wealth of resources available in the area. Based in Temple Meads Studio, a part of a development around the mainline station, the brand has had first-hand access. “Temple Meads Studio is a creative hub, there will be opportunities to work with designers, people who have got industry knowledge,” says Jolley. “There are some really great start-up brands there, as well.”

And Wingman is strongly committed to engaging with and giving something back to the region. Unsurprisingly, with its high-octane brand identity, the enterprise has been involved in their scheme the Wingman Academy Project, championing some of the high-adrenalin talent in the area by backing some of the extreme sports stars it is producing. “For us, it’s about supporting the scene,” says Jolley. “We love to represent youths from the local skate park; we send them out stickers and a welcome pack to say thanks for supporting us.”

 

The life of pie

Mobile Pie

 

The journey taken by award-winning app developers Mobile Pie could really have only begun in Bristol. “We’re very proud that we’re in Bristol; we love the city and we feel it’s a good fit,” says its founder and director Richard Wilson. Invaluable to the company’s success has been the renowned cultural centre The Watershed, as the outlet provided office space and the chance to meet and greet those in the know. “The Watershed has been vitally important,” Wilson adds. “In certain ways, it’s the heart of the cultural side of Bristol. If you just go into the cafe, you will see somebody you know in media.”

In some ways, the smaller scale of the city has proven to be one of its strongest assets, making it easier to forge professional connections. One of Mobile Pie’s highest profile apps was a Shaun the Sheep tie-in with local animation studio Aardman. “People we know got jobs at Aardman and are senior in the digital team. So we had their ear,” says Wilson. Their proximity to the studio also makes intimate working relationships easier to form. “It’s a wonderful site, I can pop across to Aardman for a coffee and it takes me 15 minutes.”

Having grown its profile significantly and netted work for high-profile outlets such as Orange, Channel 4 and the BBC, Mobile Pie is certainly making waves and has attracted its fair share of accolades, including a BAFTA Television Craft nomination in 2012, showing just how well-regarded Bristol’s businesses are. “One of the first awards we won was a south-west-only Media Innovation award, which really helped,” comments Wilson. “That was a stepping stone, and now we’re obviously looking at national and international awards.” Fingers crossed they will be garnering yet more well-deserved recognition for themselves and for the region. 

About the Author

Josh Russell

Josh Russell

Our former editor, Russell was the man in charge of properly apostrophising our publication and ensuring Oxford commas are mercilessly excised. Our former digital doyen, he’s also a Photoshop pro, a dab hand with InDesign and the man to go to if you need a four-hour soliloquy about the UK's best silicon startups.

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