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Start-up life beyond London: Can Folkestone successfully re-brand?

A London-based entrepreneur, Charlotte Hogg goes in search of something completely different on Kent’s east coast

What do Josh De Haan, Chris Addison and Matt Rowe have in common? Josh is a successful tech entrepreneur having founded View, the nationwide network of online city guides, with his brother in 2000. Chris Addison, a co-founder and creative director of ARC offering consultancy, design and production of specialist products for the tourism, heritage and environmental sectors. And Matt Rowe is an independent artist who bases his work on vernacular symbols, language and folklore.

Apart from having entrepreneurial drive, creativity and huge ambition these individuals are united by one other factor. They are all based in the Creative Quarter, a unique, start-up hub, which represents an important symbol in the campaign for change and regeneration in the Old Town area of Folkestone.

The Creative Quarter has been developed by TheCreativeFoundation, an arts charity chaired by the former Saga CEO, Roger De Haan and led by Alistair Upton who previously saw Liverpool’s Bluecoat through one of its greatest phases of growth and led the £14.5m multi-award winning redevelopment there.

The foundation has claimed over 200,000 square feet of land in the Old Town which comprises 80 buildings. This space is being used as offices, studios and retail outlets, occupied so far by 60 artists, 20 retailers and 40 residents. In addition, there are plans afoot to build another 1,000 homes around the harbour with 17% residential space available in the Quarter. The foundation is encouraging creative enterprise as a part of a much bigger regeneration programme which aims to make Folkestone a better place to live, work and play.

Changing Folkestone

As an area this part of the Old Town feels vibrant and exciting, yet strangely calm and peaceful too. The creative community has united and you can almost smell opportunity, limitless possibility and change. These entrepreneurs are here to make their mark, to make an impact and create significant and positive change from a destination outside of London.

The old seaside town has traditionally been appreciated for its harbour, Channel corridor and more recently, its quick access to town on the new high speed link. House prices are incomparable to London with four bedroom houses on the market for under £150,000. And yet, with a 57 minute journey into Kings Cross, commuting times are similar to living just outside of the City.

The area has recently been awarded £35m by central government as part of its Regional Growth Fund which is designed to be distributed in the form of interest free loans. Kent County Council, specifically, will be offering these loans in three key areas.

Applicants will be fully appraised before funds are granted and will need to demonstrate job creation and good value. In some instances, the applicants will also need to match-fund the investment themselves.

It cannot be disputed that with additional funds, a new faster connection to London and a more affordable cost of living, Folkestone can provide a family home by the sea offering a serene quality of life many of start-up entrepreneurs simply don’t consider to be an option when we are leading a business.

The Creative Quarter

The Creative Quarter also provides entrepreneurs, artists and retailers a unique opportunity to be inspired, be ignited and be involved in an innovative, forward thinking and revolutionary community.

Just imagine, I thought, how this town will buzz once the incubator for tech start-ups is in full swing. Just imagine, a rabble of young entrepreneurs plotting and planning on the seafront. Imagine trains whizzing from the overcrowded streets of London’s Tech City around Old Street to the peace and serenity Folkestone has to offer.

I imagine, like many other entrepreneurs my drive and motivation does not come from financial success, from home comforts or flash cars; I want to be part of something. I want to deliver something meaningful and have a dramatic and irreversible impact on, ideally the world, but realistically just the community of which I consider myself a part.

Folkestone seems to have offered every one of the businesses working in the Creative Quarter something different. For the French Patisserie owners, you can see that having a bustling shop near the sea has simply made their dreams come true.

For Andrew Park, who is the managing director of Cognitive Media, The Creative Quarter has allowed him to scale his business. He has been able to expand his business to a team of 10 and has been able to retain the talent he has attracted in an engaged manner and at a significantly lower cost than he would be able to in London.

The team are still able to work on global projects, have worked with industry leaders including TED and The RSA yet are surrounded by the sea, beautiful countryside and a community who are keen to talk about art, engage in entrepreneurship and support one another through growth and development. Many of the entrepreneurs in the area simply wouldn’t be in business if they were operating from London.

Beyond Folkestone

Although Folkestone may have the unique harbour view, it is one of many regions across the UK to benefit from the Regional Growth Fund. The fund, which aims to create thousands of jobs by supporting 130 projects has distributed £700m to private firms and £358m to local authorities and enterprise partnerships. The scheme is designed to create jobs where they are most needed, helping small businesses and local partnerships expand their opportunities and facilitate growth.

Other areas benefiting from the fund include Cumbria, Tees Valley, Cambridge, Sheffield, Bristol and Bath. In the west of England, the Regional Growth Fund is being used to create an apprenticeship hub, support graduate talent and encourage green skills and jobs.

Business networks will be improved and metro and rail projects undertaken with a view to see 3.4% annual growth by 2020 and an additional 95,000 jobs in the region by 2030. In Cumbria, the Local Enterprise Partnership is championing the economic interests of the area, driving enterprise, innovation and growth and helping the area transition from public to private dependency by understanding, sharing and addressing the barriers to development and evolution.

A more practical approach is being taken in Tees Valley where a lending pot, ‘the Contract Catalyst Fund’ has been created to provide small businesses with capital to finance the performance bonds that are required in most construction projects.

As the Regional Growth Funds begins to catalyse economic growth outside of London, you may consider where the right place would be for you to make your mark and question whether the culture of London’s creative and technology start-up hubs could be created in a venue outside of the city centre.

Charlotte Hogg is the founder and CEO of business consultancy The Change Gang .

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