Welcome to Silicon Beach

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The Independent Online

By Roger Trapp

By Roger Trapp

03 November 1999

FOR JOHN Worth, the decision to move to Brighton wasa case of simple economics. In 1993, his first child had just been born and hewanted to set up his own business. But the cost of family life in London isdaunting.

He saw abandoning the south-west London suburb of Putney for thesouth coast as a natural move because "Brighton always had an interactivecommunity", just the right place for an independent producer moving from film andtelevision to then-embryonic interactive publishing.

The media has longloomed large in the seaside town's life. Some of the earliest British films weremade in Hove, and its proximity to London has made it a popular haven forwriters, journalists and television and film specialists.

Once, much of thatknowledge got on the train to Victoria. Now it is walking, cycling or driving towork in one of the cottage industries peppering the side streets of Brighton andnearby towns.

One of the first companies of the "new economy" was VictoriaReal, an Emmy award-winning production firm also active in e-commerce and webdesign. Now there are 300 companies in various branches of media - fromtelevision production and CD-Rom publishing to website design - employing3,000 people with total revenues of £300m.

Such figures do not put it ona par with the collection of more than 1,000 high-tech industries employing about37,000 people that has made Cambridgeshire "Silicon Fen", or Britain's answer toCalifornia's Silicon Valley. But "Silicon Beach" is a significant enough clusterto have attracted the attention of the Department of Trade and Industry when itwas preparing the competitiveness White Paper early in the Government's life.

Anna Pedroza, of Wired Sussex, the economic development agency subsidiary ofSussex Enterprise that has played an important role in developing thismini-industry, says coastal towns as far away as Littlehampton and Chichesteralso have pockets of new-media activity. There is also a concentration inCrawley.

A recent study for the South East Media Forum concluded that theSussex cluster sat at the heart of a powerful media industry covering a greatswathe of the south and south-east outside London. This industry was said to beworth just under £4bn, employ 32,000 people and to have grown nearly 20 percent in the past year.

But there is no denying Brighton is the centre of itall. The influx of talent and money has transformed what just a few years ago wasa decaying resort into a bustling and self-confident commercial district.

MrWorth's JWM Creative, a company that has grown in six years to become a leader indeveloping training materials for the health sector, houses its 12 full-timeemployees in anondescript building that forms half of the Brighton Media Centre.It houses 30 similarly-sized companies in various aspects of media, frommultimedia training to website design and video production. And in the samestreet between the sea and the increasingly booming shopping centre is the officeof DJ/pop star Fatboy Slim's record company, and many other televisionpersonalities are reportedly on the look-out for properties.

But it is notjust outsiders moving in. Many people begin their careers in the area afterleaving Brighton or Sussex University or one of the colleges of further educationclose by. These academic institutions have either directly or through the SussexInnovation Centre often provided the seeds for entrepreneurial businesses.

That is what happened with Maxim Training, at 22 years old, one of thelonger-established businesses and, with 56 people and turnover of £3m, oneof the bigger ones. The founders Terry Walker and Chris Brand originallydeveloped business games and other simulations while teaching management atBrighton University and saw a market for these and materials aimed at teachingbusiness people "soft skills".

It gradually moved to offering this sort oftraining via CD-Roms and other forms of technology. Now the company is trying tostretch the technology to the limit to satisfy the demands of its blue-chipclient base for up-to-the-minute training materials.

"We had to get adifferent sort of people," says Geri Lambert, the company's sales and marketingdirector. The Brighton location suddenly acquired a new significance because ofthe great numbers of suitably qualified job candidates emerging from the localeducational establishments.

"We have a pool of labour here," says Ms Lambert.The combination of the development of the cluster and the trend to shorteremployment contracts is creating a shifting group of skilled personnel who cantake their expertise from company to company.

Another business with littletrouble attracting the people it needs is Communicopia, a multimedia company thathas a contract to supply a financial channel for digital television. They have toestablish a studio on the edge of the City of London and increase the workforcefrom 24 to more than 100. But the leadership of the company set up six years agosees no reason to move from Hove.

Gavin McWhirter, the business developmentmanager, swapped a hour-each-way commute in London for a 12-minute walk from hometo office when he joined the company a year ago. He says clients, who can get toBrighton by train in less time than it takes to cross London, like visiting them.Debi Jones, the account director, says: "It's half the price of sitting in Sohoand we can have fish and chips on the beach."

A key challenge for some ofthese businesses is to achieve sufficient scale to compete nationally andinternationally. One that looks set to do that is RealCall, in nearby Shorehamwhich is attracting attention because of their development that makes it easierfor companies to respond to callers to their Internet advertisements.

The newmedia market is highly fragmented. Companies of the size of JWM are typical, andmany are little more than one-man bands.

Wired Sussex is given a lotof the credit for assisting with marketing and promotion. It helps to organisetrade fairs, arranges seminars, and helps with recruitment. Earlier this year itset up a meeting between entrepreneurs and financiers, ranging from businessangels to fully-fledged venture capitalists.

Wired's Ms Pedroza is proud ofthe role her organisation played in bringing Maxim and two rival interactivetraining providers, Epic and Futuremedia, together in a new partnership calledthe Strata Consortium to bid for large contracts.

But much of Brighton'snew-found success is down to hard-to-quantify factors such as the feel of theplace and what Ms Pedroza calls the "sticky factor", that makes talented peoplewant to stay.

As far as John Worth and his family are concerned they havemade the right move. But not all of the big city life is quite so bad -that's probably why Mr Worth smiles when he says Brighton has the potential to beSoho-by-the-Sea.