Tech in the sticks: Building a business outside big cities

1 Jun, 2017

There’s one view that you need to be in London to run a successful tech business, but we in the North prove that’s wrong. Others believe a specialist hub in a city centre is the best place to nurture your enterprise. The following three businesses have quashed that opinion too.

Meet three companies that have found success in rural areas, without the need for similarly tech-focused neighbours.

The Bigger Boat (Mirfield, West Yorkshire)

A converted water mill surrounded by woods for lunchtime walks is the base of choice for digital marketing agency The Bigger Boat. When the seven-year-old business looked for new premises 18 months ago, it decided against the bustling centres of Leeds or Huddersfield. Instead, the trio of directors chose to move from Brighouse in West Yorkshire to the picturesque town of Mirfield.

Some may believe a tech business needs to be close to like-minded organisations to thrive. But Director Andy McCaul, whose clients include toy brand Little Tikes, says there have been huge benefits from going rural.

“We’re in a nice modern office in a converted watermill not far from the train station and local town centre. We have staff who cycle in to work because it’s a nice rural location,” he says. “Some go for rides or walks in the woods at dinner time. We can offer a very different lifestyle for staff than we would be able to in a city centre.”

Andy McCaul of The Bigger Boat
Andy McCaul of The Bigger Boat

The move coincided with a recruitment drive to grow the team to 11. Six months earlier, they had looked at options in neighbouring towns and cities.

“We looked around a few places and we never really felt like you got a lot for your money, so we were disappointed with what we saw,” he says. “We’d walk in somewhere and lots of work would need doing or there would be a drawback like no parking. We also looked at business parks but they seemed very uniform and didn’t seem to lend themselves to being creative spaces.”

That led them to their current home. It offers more space for their money, parking space for employees and clients, and a more relaxed environment.

The ‘wow’ factor

“We’ve got an office that is much better than we’d have got in the city centre for the same money and twice as big as we were looking for. It was too good to pass up,” McCaul says. “When we’ve been recruiting people who aren’t familiar with the area it’s really had the ‘wow’ factor. That’s come across as a nice little incentive or them that they wouldn’t be working in a miserable office somewhere.”

Recruitment can be a concern, especially in tech, where developers are sought after and tend to gravitate towards cities, McCaul says. To tackle this the business has changed the way it recruits, forging closer ties with universities to bring graduates to the area.

Directors attend events such as Leeds Digital Festival to ensure they don’t miss out on networking opportunities. Converse to popular opinion, McCaul says they don’t miss out by not being based within a hub. “If you’re around other businesses, where there are meet-ups organised by the larger businesses, there’s the chance your staff will get pinched,” he says. “There are pros and cons to everything but for us this was the place to be, and we’ve room to expand in the future.”

Yboo (Holmfirth, West Yorkshire)

Mobile phone rates app Yboo was born in the Leeds branch of Entrepreneurial Spark – but has planted its feet firmly in Holmfirth.

Co-founder Martyn Gould, who launched the app in April (see our previous coverage), is a fan of bringing tech to rural areas. He has big plans for the community in the Holme Valley.

“Every single industry is gone from here so everyone has to travel miles to go to work,” says Gould, who lives in Holmfirth. “Our long-term objective is to grow Yboo as something that’s essential to the area and build a tech accelerator in the valley.”

Martyn Gould of Yboo
Martyn Gould of Yboo

Gould, an entrepreneur and technology consultant for 20 years, came up with the idea for Yboo in 2015. He was inspired by Ofcom figures that showed mobile phone users were overpaying their bills by £159 a year. His solution is an app that operates in the background, accurately counting data usage, voice minutes and texts. It then recommends the most suitable mobile phone plans for that particular user.

Though he and co-founder Paul Doyle started their venture in Leeds, Gould spends most of his time working from home. He has planned two rounds of fundraising to grow the business and move into a new home.

“I travel to Leeds occasionally but that’s not productive. The aim was always to build something here on the doorstep that provides jobs,” he says. “There are lots of beautiful buildings in the valley that are empty and would be ideal for a tech incubator or a hub for small digital businesses.”

Acting local

While attracting staff may be a concern for rural businesses, Gould says he has the perfect solution. His aim is not to bring more people in to Holmfirth but to upskill the residents already there and looking for work.

“We don’t just want to take people that already know everything, we want to drive money into the economy by providing training and jobs,” he says. “I’m not going to advertise for specific roles, I’d rather take an 18-year-old who’s clever and willing and allow them to work on their doorstep – that’s my vision.”

Gould says the mass exodus from rural areas every morning should be a thing of the past with technology enabling people to work remotely. “Work is a thing you do, it’s not somewhere you go,” he says. “Everyone talks about the digital economy but the only people benefiting are the massive corporate organisations, not the rural economies. There are people who have the skills, money and time to create something amazing in our rural areas but nobody is doing it.”

The duo have a building in mind to become their new base. It would enable employees to work in an exciting tech business while taking advantage of the rural lifestyle. This could also lead to more restaurants and shops opening in the area to serve the employees who no longer need to leave during the day.

“I’d hate to think of my daughter, when she’s old enough, having to travel to work in a car for the rest of her life,” Gould adds. “I have big dreams and I will deliver on them.”

Dream Agility (Ramsbottom, Greater Manchester)

Better work-life balance was the aim of Elizabeth Clark and Glyn Powditch when they set up Dream Agility in 2015. It’s a view clearly shared by their workforce, most of whom have upped sticks and relocated to pretty Ramsbottom, on the northern edge of Greater Manchester.

Elizabeth Clark and Glyn Powditch of Dream Agility
Elizabeth Clark and Glyn Powditch of Dream Agility

“We have lovely restaurants and cafes on our doorstep, lovely countryside and a gym two minutes from our office where we all walk to for a yoga session on a Friday afternoon,” Clark says.

The pair set up the adtech business, one of Tech North’s 2016 Northern Stars, after successful technology careers working for other people. While they considered city centre bases, nothing seemed the right fit until they looked closer to home. “With a startup you need to spend all your time and energy on the business and not sitting in a car,” Clark says. “At the time a lot of the tech hubs didn’t have parking, or it was limited, which might have been a put-off when we were hiring staff telling them they’d have to pay to park somewhere else.”

Then there was the fact that bringing people into a city centre put them in close proximity to rivals.

“By the time you’ve got people coming into Manchester they’re in the throng so you end up with people being pinched,” Clark says. “If they’re travelling in to work for you then they might end up moving up the road for a few thousand pounds more every so often. Being based in a rural area means you also attract people with the same kind of values as you – people who want to work in the sticks because they don’t want to spend time in a car and like quirky places.”

Pros and cons

Its location means Dream Agility can pull in staff from the likes of Blackburn and Burnley, right down to Manchester. The only downside for Clark is that nearby educational establishments have often not caught up with the needs of tech businesses. That means when a tech business wants to recruit an apprentice it must work with a Manchester-based college instead of its most local one. This means apprentices have to travel out of the area for the classroom-based parts of their role.

Then there is an issue with space. There are not always buildings available in Ramsbottom for companies that expand beyond 20 staff. That’s partly why Dream Agility has expanded internationally. It’s opened up offices in Paris and Atlanta, with the possibility of further growth to Australia. Clark is also working with Bury Council to look at options for the area’s small businesses.

“Things are moving fast for us but Ramsbottom will always be home,” she says. “Being here has meant we can drop the kids at school easily and not have to sit in a car for hours every day when we could be working. We’ve shown you can grow a successful tech business in a rural area.”

Featured image credit: The Bigger Boat

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