Blog: Helping local digital businesses to grow

Our digital strategy series continues with ideas for unlocking talent, funding and premises

Angel investor presentation by Cyclr

This blog post is the second in a series thinking about a digital strategy for a seaside town. We’re based in Eastbourne, East Sussex, and it draws from conversations with local digital firms.

Back in January 2015, we won significant funding from the Coastal Communities Fund. It enabled me to spend more time with local firms, talking to them about their needs. Later we hired a new part time member of the team to expand our work.

We met many great local firms, and did a lot of good over a couple of years. Sadly, our funding dried up and we were unable to continue. It was great to see Chalk Eastbourne take this on.

What we learned

When we asked businesses about barriers to growth, the same 3 challenges came up. Recruiting the right people was always top of the list, followed by finding the right kind of premises, and suitable funding.

Occasionally, there was a fourth issue. Some businesses felt that Eastbourne didn’t feel like a place where digital businesses grow. Business owners had never met their peers, and there was no established digital community. They also talked about “putting Eastbourne on the digital map” and that feeling persists today.

Understanding barriers to growth is important. Right now, recruitment is getting harder as people feel able to work remotely following the Covid-19 pandemic. They’re commanding higher salaries, and local firms are struggling to keep up. This currently feels like the biggest blocker to growth.

What we tried

The TechResort of 2015 was much less experienced than today, but we were still able to make inroads. Our Coastal Communities work led to the creation of 20 new jobs and more besides.

Recruitment

Our work involved a mix of projects, delivering short and long term value:

  • launching a free jobs board for local firms to post their opportunities
  • surveying businesses annually about their skills and recruitment needs to build up a useful picture for local educators
  • encouraging businesses and the local FE college to get together and talk about needs
  • matching students with real world projects provided by employers
  • introducing older students and adults to employers who may wish to hire them (we still do this informally today)
  • offering biz dev help so local firms can earn more and afford higher salaries

Alongside this, we continued with our digital skills clubs for young people. We encouraged employers to take a 10 year view, supporting skills development of young people so that everyone would benefit in the future. Now that pandemic restrictions are removed, we’re scaling up our after school clubs and inviting employers to join in.

The right kind of premises

We need to update our research here, as the pandemic and a switch to remote working may change our approach.

Between 2015 and 2017, the employers we spoke to were struggling to find suitable office space. They were mostly SMEs and micro-businesses, offering a variety of digital services, but the ask was always the same. Their ideal was decent spec space in the centre of Eastbourne, close to nearby shops, Little Chelsea and the railway station. They were looking for a ‘Brighton Lanes‘ type vibe, with a good choice of independent shops and cafes. At the time, Yummy Noodle was doing a roaring trade, thanks in part to the Cohub co-working space next door.

Some of these businesses had looked at premises, notably Pacific House, and decided against a move. They cited location and a lack of local amenities.

We teamed up with a handful of larger firms and decided to buy a building. After assessing needs and local properties, we made an offer on the former Eastbourne Fire and Rescue building. With financial pledges from the business, and support from the council, we managed a fair offer, but were sadly outbid. The building now houses funky flats.

These premises would have provided space for TechResort to expand, offering more digital skills sessions, and a fully equipped makerspace. The upper floors would have provided offices for our partner firms, with housing on the top few floors to cover the cost of refurbishing the rest.

It’s a shame this didn’t work out, but we’re happy to say these conversations led to one of the firms getting a state of the art office in town. We were able to connect them with a local property owner, and the rest was history.

We’d like to survey local businesses again about their premises needs. There are several vacant properties in the centre of town that could be repurposed, and would breathe new life into our High Street.

The right kind of finance

We had many conversations with local digital firms between 2015 and 2017 about access to finance. There wasn’t a great need to raise money, but we noticed a lack of angel and VC funding in Eastbourne, and wondered about the impact.

We worked closely with one firm and ran an angel investment evening. Small amounts of money were raised, but not enough. We also introduced them to Creative England, and they raised significant seed capital.

During this time, we looked at angel and VC offers in other places. Two examples stood out. Charleston in the USA had an impressive slate of funders which continues to this day.

Closer to home, the London Mayor teamed up with six tech investors to launch the London Co-Investment Fund. It was targeted at science, technology and digital startups looking to raise between £250k and £1m. By 2017, the fund invested in 88 companies. It would be worthwhile reviewing the impact of the fund to see if there are lessons for East Sussex.

The closest we have is East Sussex Invest, which offers grants up to £25k with match funding of 60%. Loans are also available. Could some of this money be repackaged to grow a culture of angel and VC investment?

Putting Eastbourne on the digital map

TechResort would like to do more on this. We share our work far and wide, and encourage other local enterprises to do the same.

One starting point could be to establish regular show and tells for digital businesses and students to share their work. Depending on the budget, this would turn into blog posts, videos, and social media marketing.

Eastbourne is seen by some as a “retirement capital”. My view is this isn’t anything to apologise for – we live in a great place, and it’s no wonder so many people choose here. I think we should instead share the innovative work we’re all doing, and explain how this part of the world supports us.

It’s also worth looking at a map or directory of local businesses, together with their jobs. We’ve previously done both, and Charleston (again) has a great example.

Thoughts are welcome

We’d love to hear what you think about these posts, and also team up to explore further work.

More thoughts are coming. A digital strategy for a seaside town also needs to address digital exclusion, climate change and more besides. Stay tuned!

Who we helped

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *