There are 4,695 digital businesses in Birmingham

Now you know me, always interested in stats. Particularly creative/digital economy stats about Birmingham. Being interested in such stats isn’t as much part of my job as it used to be, but I think anyone teaching the media and preparing students for a life in ‘the industry’ should have a fair grasp of the size and scope of said ‘industry’.

Mapping the UK’s Digital Economy
A new report is out. It argues that the way the UK usually counts digital businesses (using SIC codes) may not give us the whole picture. Using a model called ‘Growth Intelligence’  it says there are 270,000 digital companies in the UK rather than the 167,000 previously thought. They are responsible for 11% of jobs in the UK. ‘Growth Intelligence’ is a ‘big data’ approach that uses Companies House info along with other sources to create a more nuanced set of classification for companies and thereby seems better able to identify which are or aren’t digital. It results in a list of 1.868m companies but that will still be an underestimate (20% of companies fail to put themselves against any SIC code).

What’s a Digital Company?
One whose outputs, the product or service they offer, are digital. So if you use a computer system to help you sell bananas, that doesn’t make you digital: “we restrict ‘digital content’ to sectors where the only or principal outputs are digital products or services. For example, we exclude large parts of the architecture sector, but include firms specialising in CAD and technical drawing. By the same token, we exclude supermarkets, but include retailers whose principle offering is digital (such as digital music stores)” (p: 9)

What about Birmingham?
I’ll cut to the chase. Via the SIC code system, Birmingham had 3,116 companies regarded as digital. This new method says there are 4,695 companies. These companies are actually located in the wider Birmingham TTWA (Travel to Work Area) which goes up to Tamworth and down to Redditch. In this area are about 600,000 people of employment age. By contrast, Manchester’s TTWA has about 700,000 in it and has more digital firms in it also (7,324).

Is this good news?
Yes. There’s a section in the report that says that other areas have more ‘clustering’ of digital firms but a city like Birmingham has too diverse an economy for digital to show up as a distinct cluster (though there are clearly significant local clusters in areas like Eastside and Jewellery Quarter).

What the report does and doesn’t tell us.
The report doesn’t tell us much at a local level other than the number of firms. However the information about a typical  UK digital firm is interesting.  Digital firms are slightly younger than other firms (about 9 years old rather than 10). There’s the same number of start-ups as in any other sector. They tend to employ more people on average. They tend to have lower revenues.

Will the number of digital companies grow?
Yes, says the report. Largely because of the number of firms ‘inflowing’. That is, more existing firms are becoming digital firms – moving from analogue to digital as such. However, data suggests that digital firms are as susceptible to the ups and downs of the economy as any other sector.

Not just London.
What’s really useful about the report is that it goes some way to correct the view that ‘digital’ is just something cool firms in East London do. It’s clearly not. Although there’s definitely a concentration in the South East,  Birmingham and other regional cities are very much playing their part.

Making my job more difficult

In case you don’t know what I do for a living I’m a kind of champion for use of digital stuff by businesses in Birmingham. And the easiest, no-cost, digital stuff to get your head round is Social Media. I’m always hunting down examples. I love the fact that Herefordshire-based Wiggly Wigglers have bloggedpodcasted and Youtubed their way out of tough economic times. I love that they dumped their expensive bought-in customer lists and built a customer base around their facebook group and twitter followers. Those are loyal, repeating customers, helping each other get the best from this company’s products. No expensive helpline needed – they help each other.

I work in partnership in my job. Trying to slip my thinking into other people’s strategies. That £17m support package for businesses announced yesterday? In amongst those big fat projects to be delivered through Business Link and the Universities is some of my thinking – there’s a sprinkling of digital stuff. I sit on the sub-group of the Birmingham Economic Development Partnership that helped draft them. I can play an influencing role there, those people in the group know me as that guy who thinks social media is useful. None of them are great users of social media themselves but they aren’t dismissive, they understand there’s a change happening, a change that might be useful for all businesses to understand and take note of.

So it’s kind of crushing to see a representative of the partner who most connects to businesses castigate social media out of hand. John Lamb’s piece in the Post is atrocious. At the end of the piece it says: “John Lamb’s views are not necessarily those of Birmingham Chamber of Commerce.” As I say on my own About page, I use the same head for work as I do everywhere else. My personal views are wrapped up in my work views. If I’m expressing a disappointment here on my personal blog then that’s how I’ll be feeling next time I go to a meeting with Birmingham Chamber.

Actually, I know the Chamber is taking an active interest in new digital tools, which is great but having a key representative take such umbrage to their use just makes my job that much more difficult and that much more disheartening.

*Sighs*

West Midlands IT Solutions Showcase

clicking mad nurses

There was an interesting clash of events today. Over at the Orange Studio was the Screen West Midlands/Creative Republic Crunch Time Event. Screen WM’s Sarah Arnesen has a useful report on it – sounds very positive and it certainly had an good choice of keynote in James Medway (update: Ruth Ward has put up the notes from her session).

I took a punt on the West Midlands IT Solutions Showcase event over at Millennium Point (having spotted the ad for it on the train of all places – the cross-city line is covered in Business Link ads). I enjoyed it. There was a decent amount of stands from both the big boys (Microsoft were there), universities and plenty of SMEs. The team of doctors and nurses above were from Clicking Mad. Gimmicky maybe but they were there to sell services and in a room full of suits they stood out a treat. I chatted a little to Alexis (to the right of the doctor in the pic) who was keen to tell me all about the company and it was pleasing to here that business seems to be holding up well despite the tough times.

Of course they were there to sell because surprisingly, the room was full of customers. I say surprisingly because I often go to events where the only people there are people like me with nothing to buy. This on the other hand had plenty of SMEs from all areas of the economy eager to lap up ‘IT solutions’. I went to a couple of seminars, one on web marketing on a shoestring (by IT-Futures) and another on social media (by iCentrum). Plenty of crossover of course and both pitched at an introductory level but both full of SMEs with basic questions that needed answering. If I was tweeting at the moment I’d be tempted to say ‘IT is in your space – chatting up your customers’

So the event was refreshingly can-do. It’s linked to the launch of a new advisory service on IT from Business Link (more to come on that I think) and the place was SWARMING with Business Link people. Easily 30, maybe more. Uptake of IT by businesses in the region is apparently amongst the lowest in the UK (so we learnt from a presidential-style TV address by Business Link West Midlands’ chief exec), presumably that’s the case for investment and for the scale of the event.

I’d be eager to hear more about the Crunch time event but it’s safe to say that over in the IT Solutions world we had a small army of business advisors, some nurses, and crucially, punters-a-plenty. I have a feeling that whether you think of yourself as IT, Creative, Digital or whatever, today maybe you needed to be in two places at once.

Hanging about on the wrong side of the curve

Just thought I’d get this down as it’s an issue raised in the meeting I’m sitting in as I type this now:

“Are the city’s creative industries too far on the other side of the social media curve that they’ve forgotten how to engage with everybody else?”

The meeting is generally made up of representatives from businesses (big and small), support agencies, funding agencies and the like. I gave a brief presentation on social media and how the wider business sector might make more use of it (much like the one I gave at Aston Science Park in January).

One of the points made after my bit was that although the Creative sector is well ahead of the game, and ahead of the curve, in taking up social media technologies they’re in danger of cutting themselves off. Specifically, cut off to those seeking to enter the sector. The argument being that creatives have become harder to find and communicate with, particularly to those who lack developed digital literacy skills or indeed access to the internet. It was clear behind the query there was concern about the diversity of the creative sector.

Does this ring true? Or is it actually easier now in that once you’ve found the way in you get opened up to a very wide range of contacts much quicker than previously? Thoughts welcome.

Social Media ‘Seminar for Success’

I did a presentation at one of Aston Science Park’s ‘Seminars for Success’ this week – I don’t do many 7.30am starts so that’s almost worth a post in itself. All I want to do here is say thanks to those that sent me positive feedback afterwards and a general hello to some new followers on Twitter and LinkedIn. All the speakers’ presentations are posted up on the Science Park website and for reference mine is below also. It looks a bit brief without the arm-waving and additional anecdotes but you get the general point. Any questions please get in touch (in the comments or dave [at] daveharte.com):

Writing about worms & business

I’ll avoid cross-posting in future but my first posting at the Digital Birmingham blog is about a useful example of how social media can be used by small businesses:

I’m always looking for examples of how social media can support small businesses. I’ve raised the question before using the local builder as an example. Why on earth would the bloke who knocked a hole in my wall have a reason to use any kind of social media tool?

Well I found a partial answer to that in a video from Herefordshire firm, Wiggly Wigglers (amongst other things they sell worms for composting). Founder Heather Gorringe explains how a shift to social media over tradititional media helped cut her advertising costs without cutting her customer base.

What’s clear is that Heather knows her customer extremely well: “we sell stuff that gardeners may not know they want”. Of course Heather’s firm have had an e-commerce presence for quite a while but they’ve embraced social media in a big way.

She has a blog, a facebook group, uses podcasts and is all over Youtube. I can’t help wonder why Wiggly Wigglers aren’t on twitter (there’s certainly plently of chat about them). Social Media is ideal for building a community around your products, for ensuring customers value the advice you give them and the knowledge-sharing that comes from connecting to each other. Increasing value-added rather than cutting prices sounds like a good strategy in an economic downturn. Previously Wiggly Wigglers had bought in customer lists, now in effect they create their own customer lists for free through word-of-mouth on social media.

For her efforts Heather has won a global award for Small Business Excellence – that’s right, a worm seller from Hereford beat off international competition. Well done to her. We need more local and regional social media champions from the wider business community. Here in Birmingham I think we’re certainly adept at knowing how to make a buck by playing the local card – but maybe we could take tip or two from a rural worm-grower about how to build a global community who care enough to come back again and again.

Getting Birmingham Businesses online

 blogs
(pic Dr Craig)

This is part crowdsourcing, part just setting my stall out.

One of the aspects of my new job that I’m wrestling with is the notion that no matter what kind of business you are you need to have an online presence. In Digital Birmingham we have a target for increasing the amount of businesses trading online but ‘trading’ needn’t necessarily imply buying or selling online. It might mean getting customers interested enough to talk to you about a contract over a rival. It might mean increasing your business contacts by using any number of social media networking tools. It might simply mean getting yourself listed in online directories enough times so that you come up high in google when a new customer is fishing around. 

But how do you develop a strategy to get Birmingham businesses online? Here’s my take on it as a series of questions that I’d welcome responses on:

What are we measuring?
Pete Ashton has a specific target in mind for Custard Factory clients. He wants 50% of them blogging by next year and at the moment 18 of them are. Anything with content that can be subscribed to counts. So Pete has a baseline to work on, it’s measurable and specific. What’s the appropriate measure for the city as a whole? There are some EU benchmarks which are worth considering and tell us lots about the national picture for e-commerce (UK is 2nd in the EU for enterprises selling goods online) but they only cover part of the story.
So my first question is really: What’s the measurable? Is it an E-commerce one or a ‘subscribable content’ one or something else? 
  

Why should Dean the Builder care?
Dean is knocking a hole in the wall of my living room on Friday (it’s okay, I asked him to). He comes recommended by a neighbour. But Dean is just a phone number and a cheery smile – he’s legit and everything but works alone or in a small team and picks up work based on personal contacts. He’s got tons of work so what’s being online got to do with Dean? There’s plenty of places you can see a generic rationale for getting businesses online but little tailored to specific sectors. Dean is reasonably priced, in fact I think I’m getting a bargain for the work he’s doing. He doesn’t need to advertise for more work but I wonder if there’s a place online where he could pitch for higher value work? Same effort, more reward should maybe be his goal.
So the real question here is: Do we need a sector-specific approach or a wider there’s-something-for-everyone approach?
  

How do we make change happen?
I like the Social Media Surgery approach. Get some keen people in a room and give away your knowledge for the greater good. Is that scaleable across the city? Seems a tough task if it is. Are there enough online experts to go around? Perhaps instead there’s a staged approach to take. Business leaders could start to use the tools themselves and hope that others follow. Perhaps identify and support a specific business on its digital media journey (no I’m not asking Dean, he’s got a hole to create). I’m unsure a ‘let’s-do-workshops’ approach will work at this scale. It’s a ‘heart-and-minds’ thing isn’t it?
So: what are the specific actions we need to take? On the ground working with businesses or a big fat PR campaign? 
  

Who’s on board?
Which businesses in the city are already doing this stuff? The media/creative industries ones certainly are and they should really be demonstrating to others the benefits of working online. I suspect the business sector as a whole is still very firmly of the belief that websites are brochures. At best they can show off stock. Perhaps you might sell stuff through it. But online as a way to build customer networks, social media as a tool to position yourself as the supplier of choice, as a way to continue the conversation started at the golf course – that thinking seems a way off yet. But there are useful corporate examples out there and maybe a public/private coalition could help drive this forward.
Which brings me to: Who is the ‘we’ that need to make change happen? Digital Birmingham + Chamber of Commerce? + Universities? + Tech firms? + a network of leading bloggers/social media types?

Any thoughts on all this are welcome.