The creative industry sector is one of the largest wealth generators for Bristol, Bath and the surrounding area, with both cities having been recognised by NESTA as having established networks, and being ranked second out of the nine top creative cities outside London. Given the international success and reputation of some of the creative firms that reside in the south west of England, the SW LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership) and CBI (Confederation of British Industry) have placed growth in the creative sector at the heart of their economic development strategy.
Following the first part of this report, which covered the business dynamics of the sector, the second part focuses on discussion on the start-up scene in the south west.
Access to Talent:
1. Emerging From a Company
Many of the creative start-ups in the region have been set up by experienced individuals in search of autonomy. Some start with close partners – even married couples – with synergistic talents.
Paul Cross and Richard Godfrey (iPrinciples) left Microsoft to set up iPrinciples in 2003, having had a complete experience (including an entrepreneurship course at Cranfield) within the firm, whilst Saman Mansourpour (The Agency) moved from London. Nicky Robertson (Mendip Media) left the BBC having seen the opportunity in online alongside TV, seeing it as the way to break down the monopoly held by broadcasters.
Many creative start-ups open their doors with good business contacts and projects already in place. However, young entrepreneurs will sustain a low-risk lifestyle – often no mortgage, and savings in the bank. Nicky Robertson (Mendip Media) noted that the difference between freelancing and start-ups is the need for very sophisticated and authentic teamwork, and investing in the people.
Greg Ingham (Mediaclash) left Future Publishing once it had experienced significant growth, and set up in partnership with his wife. “I found myself getting a little institutionalised – I looked around the room and they were all really great people, but some were accountants, some lawyers, and I thought there’s no-one here that writes or designs or codes, and it’s time to move.”
Coming from big companies, both Greg Ingham (Mediaclash) & Saman Mansourpour (The Agency) said there’s a real danger in over-engineering your start-up, though this does provide a resilience when things get tough “Grit and hard work is essential – but you need a bit of luck as well, and at any point we take our eye off the ball, you can see it on the balance sheet.”
Saman Mansourpour (The Agency) says their plan was to get to critical mass as quickly as possible. Most will grow to 10-12 people some will “step-up” to a larger scale. But scale requires financial resilience, that often needs significant investment.
Small companies can still be very effective in this sector. Dave Kelly (Storm Consultancy) started up with “a healthy dose of naivety”, took advice from many people when starting up, and noted the power of operating “OODA Loop” to outmanoeuvre larger companies (Observe – Orientate – Decide – Act) with feedback at each stage.
The close relationship between the people in a creative start-up means questions can be more direct, and ideas-building agile and fast. They can be light on procedure, and need a little luck.
Simon Coles (The Keep) says a crucial point in his decision to set up was when he couldn’t realise the full potential income for his work, and realised clients were also becoming resentful of the charge out rates.
Being able to see a large-scale trend that creates a new opportunity is the key stimulus for people leaving a corporate environment to start up. Nicky Robertson (Mendip Media) saw the rise of non-broadcast video, and set up directly in response. The speed of change is often slower than the evangelists predict, but the change has been delivered.
2. Starting Up Straight From University
The south west is well-supplied with University incubators, business support etc., and increasing business-awareness in University media courses is a fundamental aim of the Skillset Tick accreditation.
Dave Jarman (Bristol University) noted that inside Bristol University the theme has moved from Education about Enterprise to Education through Enterprise – it’s intertwined, not an add-on.
“It’s different for different individuals – some have a huge amount of confidence and you don’t have to add much, you just have to put them in touch with the right people. Others resist the terms enterprise, entrepreneur, and don’t think of themselves as business people. It’s all about translating the terms, making them more palatable to the students.”
Dave also noted “Start-ups are essentially the whole of business in microcosm, so students can get used to the modelling tools like Business Model Canvas that they will use later – but they’re coming to us for future employability.”
Adam Powell (Bath Spa University) amplified this – they should start planning from the earliest opportunity. University is a safe place to try out ideas with business potential, and many students start up some commercial activity alongside their studies. It’s also the place where people hunt for talented peers, create good team working relationships, and can try things out – from playing a new sport to forming a band.
“A lot of students doing creative subjects don’t ever think they can become freelancers or run businesses, so there’s a behaviour change required to think about your creative practice in a commercial way – it’s not just about start-ups, it’s what employers are looking for in their graduates.”
Ben Trewhella (Opposable Games) stated that the key is to increase the porosity of the Universities – acknowledging the pace of change in the industry, getting students out to see working practices first-hand.
Although the seeds are planted at university, Dave Jarman (Bristol University) felt that “the companies actually develop when people are 24-35 years old, so there’s a challenge for Universities to maintain the relationship with late 20’s early 30’s alumni.”
Dave Jarman (Bristol University) identified that “there’s a problem with parents – they want their kids to get a job when they graduate – and also with the graduates in that they expect an idea could be the next Facebook. They have good ideas, but also a naivety that comes from a lack of first-hand experience within business.”
Adam Powell (Bath Spa University) pointed out that all regions lose graduates to London & the South East, but that the area has great graduate retention & employment – “over 90% of graduates are getting jobs, the biggest challenge is underemployment, where the jobs they get aren’t fully utilising their skills, because the opportunities don’t exist within local companies.”