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Why tech has always been part of the furniture in Nottingham

 

BakerBaird Communications is based in Accelerate Places Nottingham, part of the tech venture builder Blenheim Chalcot.

One thing you tend to notice when you visit Accelerate Places is the furniture. It’s different, it’s interesting. And oddly enough, furniture is where Nottingham’s story starts when it comes to tech.

Go back to the 1960s (the decade when football really did come home) and there was a super-successful home furnishings business called Cavendish Woodhouse. It sold sofas on HP (that’s credit in old money). Everytime it sold a sofa, forms got filled in and over the years it built up its own little forest of paperwork.

Consumer insight driven businesses

By the late 1960s, it was wondering what to do with all this information. Surely there had to be a better way of recording, storing and accessing all this information? So Cavendish Woodhouse sat round a table with some clever people from IBM who said there was – they could transfer all these records on to what was then a new-fangled computer database. 

You can see where this was leading: large amounts of information about people’s financial behaviour available from a single, central source. The potential was huge, the value obvious…and 20 odd years later it turned into the business we now know as Experian.

Experian’s presence in Nottingham meant the city became a focus for not just credit checking but for data analytics and fintech expertise. The presence of people with these skills made it a more attractive place for other businesses operating in similar fields and towards the end of the 1990s the US bank Capital One decided it made sense to base its European headquarters in the city.

Cap One’s entrepreneurial culture would see its own people regularly trial new ideas, and one of them centred on the management of large-scale debt portfolios. While it wasn’t in the end a priority for Cap One, the team behind it decided the opportunity had enough potential for them to go it alone. That opportunity was launched in Nottingham in 2004 as a business called The Debt Exchange.

As the more snappily-titled TDX Group, it would be sold to Equifax for a tidy £200m in 2014. By then, its shareholders included the London-based venture builder Blenheim Chalcot, whose partners included TDX founder (and former Cap One director of risk) Mark Onyett.

Onyett himself would be an investor in another fintech start-up in Nottingham, HD Decisions. It had developed tech and tools which delivered better results for price comparison websites, it secured investment from Moneysupermarket and was eventually sold to…Experian.

Blenheim Chalcot is now a substantial investor in Nottingham itself. It has a number of scale-up businesses (among them Oakbrook, Liberis and OpenWrks) and they’re based in the Accelerate Places hub – itself, part of a BC-owned network spreading out across the country.

Nottingham: the future

So what does this all tell us? Firstly, don’t diss cheap goods which sell in volume: they generate data that has value. Secondly, Nottingham has had no need to invent a me-too tech story: it’s actually a heritage industry here with a story that stretches back 40 years.

Where does it go from here? If you talk to people like Mark Onyett or Geoff Love from Commify (the growing business messaging group which includes Esendex), they’ll tell you that the best way to feed the birth and growth of technology-led businesses is to make sure there’s enough talent to go round. So tech’s potential needs to be visible in schools, colleges, universities across the region.

Most of all, it needs to be visible to early and mid-career techies as they’re the ones in a position to help the city’s businesses scale-up and grow. That’s where we went with Invest in Nottingham to spread the gospel to an audience at Google’s Campus London.

Let’s keep telling that story so that Nottingham becomes part of the furniture in the capital. Nottingham isn’t London. That may be its best selling point.

Richard Baker set up BakerBaird Communications with Stuart Baird in 2015. It’s a  Nottingham-based public relations consultancy, developing and delivering strategic communications, stakeholder engagement and public affairs solutions for its clients.

A former daily newsroom Assistant Editor and Business Editor, Richard combines long experience of journalism with an in-depth knowledge of business and the economy.He works with businesses in tech, data analytics, design engineering, infrastructure project management and with universities in science, innovation and manufacturing.

He has undertaken trade missions to Germany, India and China.

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