In praise of being ambitiously small
When I speak about the cluster of great digital businesses that have grown up here in Brighton, I am often met by the same response. “That’s all well and good”, people say, “but don’t the digital businesses in Brighton just lack ambition?”.
It’s an interesting criticism. It seems to imply a lack of work ethic by local digital businesses and especially their founders and management. Perhaps it is felt that they are spending too much time on the beach and not enough time in the office? Perhaps an unwillingness to take on investment to accelerate growth?
To me, it suggests a pretty one-dimensional definition of ambition though. I wonder what exactly is wrong with an ambition that wants to run a business and find time to contribute to the community, to run a business and spend quality time with your family, and to run a business but also take advantage of everything else this city has to offer? After all, that is the reason so many in our sector moved here in the first place.
It feels as if they are saying that any time not committed to the pure pursuit of business growth is time wasted. But what is wrong, after all, with being ambitiously small? Small businesses (and by that is usually meant any business with less than 100 staff) can be incredibly impactful and valuable too. And, given the number of digital businesses in Brighton that regularly scoop ‘best workplaces awards’, they are also often some of the top places to work in the UK.
Small businesses can produce great work. They can often be more creative than larger ones and can chart their own direction more easily, especially when not managing the growth and exit expectations of Venture Capital and other investors. Certainly, that creative independence of spirit is why some digital businesses in Brighton defiantly refuse to grow and also why they are so good at attracting top quality clients from around the world.
When aggregated, the digital, media and tech sector in Brighton contributes well over £1bn per year to the economy. So, just because we are lots of small businesses, it hasn’t stopped us in total becoming very economically important to the city. You only have to look at the contortions US cities are going through to try and attract Amazon to be wary of the baggage that big businesses can demand of their locations.
Of course, if local digital businesses do want to scale up in the city, that needs to be accommodated too. But there is no indication that Brighton is any worse at doing that than anywhere else, and is actually better than many. According to the last Tech Nation report, 18.5% of Brighton digital businesses were classed as high growth, a greater proportion than Bristol, Cambridge or Manchester. And the last UK Innovation Index placed Brighton 5th– above Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol and Birmingham.
So, big or small, let’s support and celebrate the ambitions of all the digital businesses in our city, whatever those ambitions are.