A toast to Croydon Tech City and the year of the start-up

Pic: James Naylor by Neale Atkinson

2012 was the year that Croydon rebuilt itself.  The riots of August 2011 left plenty to put back together and, as most of Mayor Boris Johnson’s pledge of £23m is yet to materialise, residents and business owners are focusing on what they can do as a community to move forward in 2013.

In the Golden Chef café on London Road in November 2012, owner Ozzie told ELL that he was bored of hearing that Croydon was set to gain city status. “I’ve been hearing that for so many years, you can’t really take it seriously anymore,” he said.

That may be so, but there is a different type of city status which will certainly be chased by Croydon’s digital community in 2013. After a third public meeting in 2012, organisers are more certain than ever that the borough can become London’s second ‘Tech City’.

Local entrepreneurs and community figures say that Croydon has what it takes to tempt start-ups and digital companies away from the high rent offices of  Silicone Roundabout in Shoreditch and into the arms of a borough with cheap accommodation, easy transport and a burgeoning tech landscape.

Jonny Rose, Croydon Tech City organiser told Eastlondonlines: “There has very clearly been a lot of momentum building around Tech City, especially over the last few months.

“There is a resounding ‘yes’ from stakeholders in the community and this is no longer just an idea, it’s become a process now.”

There are plans to introduce ‘code clubs’ into schools across the borough. These are workshops run by expert volunteers to teach children basic computer coding, and the Croydon Tech City group aim to match five schools with local coders within the first half of 2013.

The borough’s potential for a digital start-up culture is also being prioritised by Croydon Council, who have released a mission statement pledging to become “London’s most enterprising city” by 2040. Although this is a longer term aim, a more immediate report was published in November 2012.

In the five year economic development plan, starting in 2013, Cllr Vidhi Mohan, Cabinet Member for Communities and Economic Development, cites the importance of “enabl[ing] new high growth businesses to flourish in Croydon”.

The report goes on to say: “Building on its long tradition of trade and enterprise, [Croydon] will have a highly deserved reputation as a desirable and competitive business destination, home to international companies and small start-up businesses.”

In spring 2013 construction is scheduled to begin on an Innovation Centre, costing almost £1.5m of the post-riot fund pledged by Mayor Boris Johnson and the GLA. Croydon will pair up with a leading university (which is yet to be chosen) and use the centre to offer expertise, networks and mentoring to local start-ups.

“The proposed Innovation Centre project will provide superior quality space supported by a skilled, exceptionally well-networked, professional support team,” said the council, in a report published in December: “The combination of flexible small business space, access to university facilities and the highest level advisors will provide the best platform for high growth businesses to develop in Croydon.”

For those wanting to get involved in their own start-up – digital or otherwise – Croydon Business Venture, a non-profit organisation established in cooperation with the council, are running three-day seminars in setting up a business in the borough in 2013.

“This is not going to happen overnight,” said Rose, “but there is now enough there to start really building. 2013 will be the year that we start laying the foundations of an economy and culture in Croydon that will be there for generations to come.”

There is no shortage of digital businesses already up and running in Croydon. Here are four of the movers and shakers who've made it in the borough....

Stephanie Darkes: The social media boss
Age: 36
Jobs: Owner of social media business Dot Social, writer for Croydon Citizen, freelance music journalist, music organiser for Purley Festival.

Self-styled "social media go-to girl" for Croydon, Stephanie Darkes has lived in the borough on and off since she was two. Having carved a name for herself in Croydon's alternative music scene, Stephanie discovered social media in 2002 and “fell in love”.
Known by over 2,000 people as @stephaniedarkes, she describes MySpace as "a long lost brother" and Facebook as her "Excalibur in the lake".  After a decade of courting the digital life, she committed fully and set up social media consultancy business Dot Social in 2012. Through this she trains companies in online marketing and promotes clients using blogs and social media platforms.
Stephanie now juggles her digital enterprise with working as a freelance journalist, blogger, events’ manager and having a new baby (by a real man, not a website). All this juggling takes place in Croydon where she lives and works.

Why Croydon? Croydon is going through some amazing changes at the moment and there are a lot of motivated people improving the business landscape.

Simon Bird: The Big Dog
Jobs:  Owner of online marketing company DotMailer

The man behind Croydon's biggest digital success story so far, Simon Bird started internet marketing enterprise DotMailer in 1999, and out of the £2k investment from his brother he now has a business that turned £12.8m in 2011.
With clients such as the BBC coming on board early to use the marketing system, it was a fast growing start-up and currently has 185 employees with plans to roll out internationally in the near future. But Simon still lives in Croydon, where 80 of his staff are based.
He says that in the beginning ambition came hand in hand with a resignation to live off cheese toasties and keep money in the business. But now he faces different culinary dilemmas: "I live in the outskirts of Croydon now – we used to live in south Croydon but I was getting fat eating at all the nice restaurants every night".

Why Croydon? Initiatives like Matthews Yard, Croydon Tech City and the Innovation Centre are all very positive things. Had they been around when we started they would have both made our lives easier and perhaps would have allowed us to grow quicker.


Saif Bonar: the entrepreneur
Age: 33
Jobs: UK manager of freelancer.co.uk, owner of Matthew’s Yard café and workspace, director of kgenie.com.

Born in Jordan and raised in Greece, Cyprus and then south London, Saif opened up a cyber-café in Brixton after selling shares on eBay to help fund its build. He studied Information and Knowledge Management at London Met before moving to Addiscombe five years ago.
He ran www.whichlance.com, a comparison website for freelancing websites, and is now the UK operations manager for freelancer.com, the world’s largest marketplace for outsourcing skills, which has its UK base in Croydon.
Saif opened work-hub cum meeting space cum café Matthews Yard in response to last year’s riots, because he wanted to help build community and progress in the borough.
He describes himself as: “A bit of a nerdy-nerd, but one that can still talk to humans” and is now working on www.kgenie.com - a start-up for users who want to: “Sift through the noise of social media and the inefficiency of search,” by monitoring changes to online content instantly, via a bespoke dashboard.

Why Croydon? “You can set up an office here and know you can still be here in fifteen years’ time”.


James  Naylor: The Media Mogul
Age: 26
Jobs: product manager at Recruit ID, director of Croydon Tours and owner and editor of Croydon Citizen.

James is a born-and-bred Croydon boy and apart from five years away in Oxford (where he studied theology, philosophy, and film aesthetics)

he’s been in the borough all his life. If there was an award for Croydon’s biggest fan James would win, hands down. Best known for setting up Croydon Tours just after last summer’s riots, he offers guided tours of the area with expertise on architecture and history. His heart lies with technology though, and his bread and butter is as a product manager for Recruit I-D, a recruitment software company in central London. But James is on a mission to bring Croydon into the digital age and has just launched Croydon Citizen – an online journalism and comment website for the borough.

Why Croydon? “We have the high-rise, city-like landscape and yet we’re small enough to bump into people you know when you’re out and about. There is brilliance in being able to live both those lives in one place. Croydon is full of potential.”

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