Fresh fields and pastures new?

By Jon Collins on July 16th, 2012

Britain is a great place to do business – or so we are told. But Government and media attention tends to focus on London – perhaps not surprisingly, given that, despite the relatively recent moves in the broadcasting industry to Cardiff, Salford and so on, a great deal of the Government and media is in London as well.

The regions have – or did have, as in the case of One North East – their own development agencies, and larger provincial cities such as Manchester and Leeds have made a reasonable stab at drawing non-manufacturing businesses to their metropolitan bosoms. But more rural areas have had only limited inward investment, and even less publicity. So just how realistic is it to set up a high-tech business in the hinterlands?

An example of a company bucking the trend is Cotswold-based mobile gaming company, Neon Play. Business success is never a given: clearly there is more to starting a company than setting up and pressing a big, fat “go” button, whatever the location. All the same, it seems we can learn something by teasing out the more geographical threads from the Neon Play story.

The first thing to note is that founders of Neon Play, Oli Christie and Mark Allen, were not in the area by accident. The disturbingly languid Cotswolds plays host to a sizeable creative and marketing community, much of which has been driven out of EHS Brann, now EHS 4D)=, a digital agency established 25 years ago that helped Tesco launch its Clubcard.

Cheltenham is another centre of creativity, illustrated by its recent design festival and the fact it is home to SuperGroup, best known for its Superdry brand. Other parts of the country have their own specialisms, built around similar success stories: for example, Bristol has animation (Aardman); Newcastle has software (Sage); Cambridge has silicon (ARM).

As concerns evolve and people leave their respective motherships, setting up as freelancers and forming alliances, an ecosystem of smaller firms can begin to grow organically, operating locally and often under the national radar. Like breweries on the Trent, Sheffield Steel or Kentish market gardens, it was ever thus.

An ecosystem is one thing, the logical extension of which took people into cities in the first place. But simply following the crowds to the epicentre creates its own challenges – not least, it can be the enemy of innovation. “Working independently from the big players gives us freedom and autonomy,” says Neon Play’s Oli Christie. “It enables us to come up with genuinely new ideas and drive the destination of our games.”

Deciding not to go with the pack comes with concomitant trade-offs, however, not least of which is attracting skilled staff. Ageism aside, it’s a fair bet that the designers, developers and other creatives at the heart of a gaming company will tend to come from a younger demographic – which won’t necessarily view the nightlife of a historic market town with untrammelled enthusiasm.

It’s not just the social challenges: larger centres come with a purpose-built community and work ethic. It’s impossible to walk through Soho or Shoreditch, for example, without getting a whiff of industriousness. “We knew that being in Cirencester wouldn’t be easy. Bristol would have been easier,” says Christie. “The culture is massively important. We had to think hard about making it stand out. We wanted to make it small, fun and passionate, a genuinely nice place to work.”

It’s not window dressing when the company offers “ten reasons to work with us” on its website, a list that covers everything from a quarterly bonus and extra days off to an inspiring office environment, no doubt taking a few leaves out of Google’s handbook. There’s beer on Fridays and “guaranteed posh bog roll”. (These things matter in the country.)

Another challenge is building the right relationships to both win business and maximise publicity – both important factors in the lottery-like mobile apps market, in which only about 1 per cent of apps make any decent money for their developers. To adapt the phase incorrectly ascribed to Willie Sutton, people do business in London because that’s where the money is.

While other developers have moved lock, stock and barrel into the smoke, Neon Play has settled on a compromise, involving frequent commutes for its more publicly-facing executives. “The new intermediary is the App Store,” says Oli. “It’s difficult to stand out against half a million other apps – we’re constantly trying to stand out on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, you name it.”

Indeed, while it may not be true for all businesses, it is difficult to imagine how a social gaming company could be successful today without an equally social online presence. The upside is, of course, that the provinces are not quite as disconnected as they used to be either, even at developer level. Employees can benefit from lower costs of living and genuinely reduced levels of stress, at the same time as interacting – at least virtually – with their city-bound peers.

Ultimately, the country idyll isn’t going to be suitable for everyone. But everyone has a choice, thinks Oli: “You have to decide where you want to work and start from there.” Neon Play and companies like it are more than bucking the trend: they offer stoneground proof that tech startups do not have to feel restricted to a few higher-rent and lower-air-quality patches of our green and pleasant land.