Laugh all you want: Croydon is emerging as a micro-hub of innovation. Local start-up advocate Jonathan Rose explains what’s going on in this much-maligned borough of London.
For far too long, Croydon has been the stuff of both popular and private disdain. This is of no surprise. Arguably, our most notable cultural exports have been that bastion of erudition, Kate Moss, and a follicle-stretching hairstyle known as the Croydon facelift. If recent media coverage is to be believed, Croydon has yet to recover from the wake of the riots last year. This is not the case.
Whatever the prevailing view of our fair borough elsewhere in the country, the fact is that Croydon has risen from the ashes – in spirit, at least. There is a new sense of public conscience – one of collaboration, inspiration and activism – which is serving to create something of a renaissance for South London.
For the denizens of Croydon, there is a palpable frisson of excitement and expectation as new initiatives spring up and novel ideas are floated. Nowhere is this better exemplified than by the Croydon Tech City movement.
They say those who can, teach; those who can’t, teach PE. A less popular aphorism – one I completely made up – is” “Those who can, found a start-up; those who can’t, found a start-up ecosystem.”
Well, I am not the founder of a start-up, but I do see Croydon as a town that needs to start again. Croydon’s own Tech City emerged in late 2012 to fill the conspicuous vacuum of leadership and lack of credible vision from Croydon’s largely indolent policy-makers.
For too long, the borough has been allowed to sink into cultural and economic malaise in which the only lifeline pursued by the Council and private investors has been the siren call of yet more retail units. As a reaction to this, I have sought to pursue an alternative vision: one that is inspired by what I’ve seen in East London and further afield.
Quite simply, I believe Croydon has everything in place to become the Second ‘Tech City’. Or the ‘Silicon Valley of South London’, if you will.
Fashioning Croydon into a home for early-stage digital and technical start-ups is not as fanciful as it might initially seem. All the ingredients are already here.
Firstly, and most encouragingly, Croydon is already a “tech city”. At last count, there were just over 600 registered businesses in the borough that are operating in a tech, digital or creative capacity.
This cluster provides a rich commercial and organisational backdrop upon which to build a unifying movement. The talent is already here: it just needs to be consolidated.
Secondly, Croydon is home to a robust community of software developers and tech founders in the shape of the Croydon Creatives, who meet monthly and whose socials draw crowds from around London and beyond.
Even Croydon Council is getting in on the act, albeit late in the day. Part of Croydon Council’s “roadmap to borough-wide innovation” is fostering stronger connections between Croydon College and the University of Sussex, specifically with the intention of making Croydon the site of a Sussex’s second ‘innovation centre’.
Getting to client meetings need not be a saga of epic proportions: transport links from East and West Croydon to London terminals are, as many commuters will attest, often faster than travelling across London within Zone 1, with journey times from as little as 14 minutes.
East Croydon is also impeccably placed for developers who want to escape the city for Brighton, Gatwick or the greener, more affluent areas of Surrey.
Furthermore, Croydon has some of the most competitive office rents in London, and owing to the legacy of the 1960s is filled with light, airy, purpose-built office structures, rather than cramped, converted space. Most importantly, office space costs should be increasingly attractive to London companies which are feeling the rise in office space costs since Tech City’s rise to prominence.
The epicentre of the Croydon Tech City movement is Matthews Yard, a cafe and workspace established earlier this year that is attracting a strong following amongst Croydon’s musos, creatives and thinkers. Owned by software entrepreneur Saif Bonar, it has everything in place to emulate the successes of Shoreditch co-working spaces.
Those still sceptical of doing business in the borough need only look to locals Tink Taylor and Simon Bird, who founded DotMailer, a best-in-class email service provider, in their parents’ dining room. The company has now gone public and become a full services agency group with over 150 staff.
So if you’re looking for a rags-to-rriches story of Croydoners who have taken on the enterprise software landscape and won, whilst still trading from within the borough, then yes: they do exist.
Remind me: which was the last Shoreditch start-up to go public?
That said, Croydon Tech City is still very much in its embryonic stages. Hyperbole and bluster, great for PR and headlines, must be supported by tangible change and achievements. As such, there is much planned for the next twelve months, including Code Club rollouts across Croydon’s primary schools, private tours for speculative VCs, and perhaps even a Croydon Startup Weekend.
Hopefully, by this time next year, Croydon will no longer be seen as a cruel joke, but instead have regained its historic legacy as a place of innovation and ingenuity.
Jonny Rose is product evangelist for idio, a content recommendation platform, and founder of Croydon Tech City. On Thursday 22 November, Rose will be speaking at Matthews Yard, Croydon at 7.30 p.m. on “Croydon – The Second Tech City”, to make the cultural, economic and social case for Croydon as a credible home for early-stage digital businesses.