Brighton: the pioneering city in how to do business

I wrote this piece for The Argus, Brighton’s local newspaper, a few weeks back.

It’s basically the belief that I (and others) have that Brighton, by nature of its vibe, its location, its size and most of all its values, has the opportunity to play a helpful role in showing how to do business better. 

We get used to drinking our own Kool-Aid in the Brighton business community. “Why, yes, we’re by the sea! Yes, we’re amazeballs at creative and digital and tourism and culture and stuff! Yes, everything is brilliant here – come and buy stuff from us! (Oh, and please tidy the beach before you leave).”

And to be fair, much of that is deserved. It is right that we are so well known for what we do: our mosaic of gorgeous North Laine boutiques, our cluster of world-class digital hothouses, our endless carnival of cultural & hedonistic experiences, and the rest.

But what would it be like if Brighton led the way in not only what its business community does but also how it did it? What if this brave, quirky city could stand up and show the world how to do business better in the 21st century? In how to organise groups, how to motivate people, in what leadership means and how rewards are distributed? What if we can create a new form of business operating system that can spread, but always have its roots in Brighton? I think that’d be pretty cool.

So where are the local pioneers already that we can learn from and build on? Here’s a few to get us started. Mooncup is a business that has both an innovative, disruptive product AND does business differently. Mooncup’s product is an alternative to traditional feminine hygiene products. A reusable medical-grade silicon ‘cup’ design (look it up, I can’t explain it elegantly), it is massively more sustainable, and in a way just operating in this area is pretty radical – the product demands quite a mindshift from customers. And yet customers are huge advocates and most women come to Mooncup after hearing positive clamour from a close friend. But as I say, we’re already good at the ‘what’ we do in Brighton, so how do they do business differently? At Mooncup decision-making is entirely flat – at the weekly team meeting anyone can influence up and coming decisions, ‘we all pitch in’ they say. In the team wages are entirely transparent and are calculated purely based on length of service to reward loyalty and create a clear and fair system.

Down the road, Infinity Foods shows that different business can still be great Business with a capital b: rammed every day with people picking up ethically sourced dried figs and super-sensitive handcream. Whether we’re shoppers or just observers I’m pretty sure we can see that this co-operative, owned by the people working in the business, the people actually creating the value, is doing pretty damn well. What would it be like if we could extend that, and nudge up the percentage of profits made in the city that stayed in the city?

And weirdly, perhaps controversially, I would say the attempt to reorganise our beloved Brighton & Hove City Council had a whiff of the positive, radical and progressive about it. I cannot say as an outsider whether it’s working or how it has been received internally (with resistance, I imagine, given that most of us resist change) but the goal of turning a classically introspective and static bureaucracy into an outward-facing, ‘customer-centric’ organisation should be lauded. If the council can successful evolve themselves into a better shape for the 21st century, they set the bar for the rest of us.

There are more: Big Lemon buses, Wired Sussex, Relentless Games, Robin Hood Pub, Cranks bike workshop, The Skiff co-working space, CityCamp, Moshi Moshi. And every year these ranks grow. Each organisation offers us something different to be inspired by – their purpose, their people-centric policies, the collaboration and openness at their core. This is a growing movement of businesses willing to do things differently, here, in our city.

In these examples, the change is already happening. But for every positive example there must be ten more local businesses doing things the bad old ways. A warning to those business people that believe it will be enough to be great just at what you do. It won’t. It can’t last. Just pick up a copy of the FT – old skool business is creaking, breaking, collapsing in on itself. The rules have changed. To win the best customers, the best team members, the best reputations, we must change. Change, change and change again. Not just our products, services and marketing, but our very core.

And this need for change presents our city and our organisations with a once in a lifetime opportunity: to lead the way, to get there first, and to bring the rest of the world with us. I believe we can do it.

That’s what I believe.

3 comments

  1. Pete Burden

    Nicely put Will.

    It reminds me of the important point that Barry Oshry makes distinguishing leadership and management: management is about strengthening the existing system, while leadership is about challenging it to create something new (and hopefully better).

    I wonder how often the voice of leadership in Brighton (or in the country, or the world) is drowned out by the voice of management – “we must face reality”, “we must pull in our horns”. “what can we do”?

    I think Brighton has a huge opportunity to lead the way and show others what can be achieved with the kind of innovation in organisational models that you describe.

    These kinds of models are also closely associated with more sustainable business models – those that last, by considering and engaging with the needs of all stakeholders.

    Together this makes a broad economic opportunity for Brighton – to lead the way into the future. It’s a strategy many will get behind. It will scare some too. But that is why we must remember what Oshry says – and engage and support all groups (including the nay-sayers) through that transition.

  2. Shona Campbell

    At risk of sounding like a sales pitch, The University of Brighton is well placed to support business change and business growth and is doing so already in partnership with several of the innovative companies you mention – look out for news from the Mooncup camp soon, we’ve recently finished a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (www.brighton.ac.uk/ktp) with them. Working with companies is mutually beneficial – companies benefit from access to knowledge and expertise they don’t have in-house and the University benefits from a commercial outlet for ideas which in turn improves our teaching and the employability of our graduates. There are lots of different ways to link up and we always do our best to sort out grant funding for you.

  3. Julian Preston-Powers

    Brighton is brilliant. And university KTPs can be beneficial if you want to avoid “hiring” new personelle and take on all the HR issues that follow-on with that responsibility. Note, however, that candidates need to be screened carefully as recent graduates are chameleons to your needs; as no real CV is available, you have to take a lot at face value. We landed one absolute fraud and it cost us greatly in many facets. NEVER provide your business plan to the KTP adminstrators (even if they ask for it) as it can “accidentally” land in the hands of the candidate and then you’ll be spoon-fed what you want to hear during the interview and hire on false pretenses. The KTP adminstrators should, of course, be sharp enough to see that something is amiss, but if one of them may is in on the fraud, you’re totally disadvantaged. Also note that the £1700/month ‘supervision fee’ they add to the cost of the programme off-sets any savings on salary – so you end up paying 90% of what it would cost to hire directly – but make sure you have a six month probationary period because most people can behave themselves for 3 months, but 6 is much harder. Any questions? Call us on 01273 704477. Regards, Julian Preston-Powers

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