'Tech city' plan for Croydon could revive the borough, say dotDigital Group founders
IN THE wake of Nestle and Allders leaving town, taking hundreds of jobs with them, theories for the future direction of Croydon's economy abound. But one pair of online entrepreneurs, who grew their business from a Selsdon dining room to a £12 million-a-year company with offices in New York, say the answer to the town's future stability and prosperity is embracing the digital revolution. David Churchill reports...
WHAT – you are rightly thinking – is the link between Silicon Valley and Croydon?
Two high-profile entrepreneurs – dubbed the Mark Zuckerbergs of Croydon – do not think it odd to utter the contrasting locations in the same breath.
Simon Bird and Tink Taylor, who have grown their dotDigital Group from a start-up in the dining room of Mr Bird's parents' home in Selsdon, to a web phenomenon turning over £12 million a year, think Croydon has the potential to become the UK equivalent of the next Silicon Valley.
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Croydon becoming a "tech city", they say, is crucial to boosting employment, bridging the void created by Nestle and Allders' departures, filling empty office space and becoming less dependent on retail.
Mr Taylor, 40, said: "Croydon can be a tech city. When you look at the technical hubs like Silicon Valley that have blossomed round the world, Croydon has so much going for it.
"When you think of the office space, that is what people need, then give them some cheap funding and people can start businesses."
"I really think we can get behind it as a town, and let's have Silicon Croydon, where we have a hub of digital businesses.
The recession-proof pair, who grew up in Croydon and attended St Andrew's High School in Waddon, are certainly no strangers to success. They started the business barely more than ten years ago, have since moved into 20th floor office space at No. 1 Croydon, gone from five to 170 employees worldwide and are celebrating opening an office in New York.
The company, which turned over £3 million more this year than last, generating £2.9 million profit, floated on the stock market in 2009, has City brokers trading its stock daily and also has offices in central London, Edinburgh, Manchester and New York.
"I think we were always determined to create something big," said Mr Bird, "but we weren't sure things would turn out like this"
The 37-year-old added: "The first time we got together was in my parents' dining room on an old wooden dining table. Everybody based their computers there and we linked them all up. That is when we built our first website."
More than 600 technical and digital marketing companies are already operating across the borough, and a new innovation centre in partnership with Sussex University could be established as early as April next year where entrepreneurs will be able to pitch ideas and battle for funding.
But why stay in Croydon, and how can Croydon become a digital hub? Mr Taylor said: "There is talent here and I think about how many people get on the train at East Croydon and go up to London.
"But if we can start a community and have people want to come here, and persuade people to stay in Croydon, then I think we can really become a hub.
"I don't feel the council and local politicians are doing enough. We have had very little help from local government in terms of our growth, they are light years behind the technology.
"Right now if I was a start-up I would be thinking Croydon is the worst place to set up. We need to be saying, we have this office space, let's get people using it, let's give them access to funding.
"Croydon is always described as on the cusp, but the breakthrough hasn't happened yet."
One product at the centre of the entrepreneurs’ success is dotMailer – a marketing automation tool which allows companies and individuals to market their products more effectively.
More than two billion e-mails are sent out every year across the company’s 6,500 clients.
The system sets up triggers which when activated send out marketing e-mails at moments judged the most effective time for seeking returns.
For one client, this trigger could be linked to sales, or for another, it could be with the appointment of a new employee.
"Effectively, what we do is help people market themselves more effectively through e-mail," said Mr Bird. The method is more cost-effective than conventional marketing methods.
That does not amount to junk mail or spam, assure the pair, because dotMailer only uses e-mail addresses already used by clients.
The company encourages contact-building rather than buying data, which effectively amounts to spamming.
Walking around the office at No. 1 Croydon, it is obvious dotDigital does not follow the conventional approach of most offices.
A Nintendo Wii is linked up to a widescreen within a play area which also boasts two table football tables and a punching machine.
"Our business is reliant on people being creative," says Mr Bird.
"We need people to be creative and innovative in our industry. It is not about being regimented and making sure people are behind desks at certain times.
"When you look around Croydon it’s mostly insurance companies and other offices. This industry is about ideas and being different."
So flexible are the entrepreneurs with their staff, there is also a group of woman in the office known as the dotMums, who are allowed flexible part-time and full-time hours in order to aid creativity which fits around family life.
Mr Bird said: "The dotMums are great. We realise that we need to allow people to be flexible while we’re asking people to be creative and come up with ideas. It’s what our company relies on.
"I think that is definitely perhaps one thing that sets this industry apart from the rest."