Look Beyond London: Running a business in Cambridge

13 min read

01 November 2017

Former deputy editor

It’s known for its university, grand architecture and river tours – yes, we’ve moved into Cambridge for our latest Look Beyond London feature.

From Leeds to Bristol to Birmingham, our Look Beyond London series speaks with those running a business in Cambridge, as we continue to find out how entrepreneurs outside the capital rate the towns and cities where they’re based.

An individual with a good oversight on locations if Ciaron Dunne, CEO of office space finder Office Genie, explained to Real Business why the company has thrived with headquarters in Cambridge.

“We launched the business in Cambridge because I lived here, naturally! I considered whether we should launch in (or move to) London, but Cambridge was cheaper – an important consideration when you’re starting and I had a good existing network of contacts to support me,” Dunne explained.

“In retrospect, it was totally the right decision, we would have been swallowed up in London.”

He went on to describe Cambridge as a natural environment for business growth because of the many startups and SMEs that inhabit the city.

“There is a culture of innovation and of people doing extraordinary things. A huge part of this related to the university and the related high-tech and bioscience industries that have grown here,” said Dunne.

“The compact size of the city means that, despite the diversity of businesses, there’s a real community spirit. It would be even better for us if there was more retail and ecommerce in Cambridge, but it’s a genuinely inspiring business community.

That said, he added that there are downsides to doing business in Cambridge. These include a shortage of office space and a high cost involved. Recruitment can also be an issue, as running the business in Cambridge means a lack of similar ecommerce companies to connect with and recruit from.

On a more positive note, he insisted there are positives too – and they outweigh the negatives. “The upsides include the general wonderfulness of the location and the high quality of life, which are also big draws for potential recruits, and the fact that you can be in central London in 45 mins, but don’t actually have to live there!”

With London in mind, he said that doing business in Cambridge offers its own status that the capital can’t offer, as well as high reputation.

“Cambridge has an incredible reputation for technology innovation that is unrivalled pretty much across the world. When we describe ourselves as a Cambridge tech company, people sit up and listen,” Dunne detailed.

“London has an incredible reputation, of course, for commercial and financial business. However, Cambridge stands alone for technology.

“Another specific advantage we’ve found is the chance to create a genuinely well-known employer brand even as a relatively small business; we have the kind of staff retention rates that would be unheard of in Soho or Shoreditch.”

Business in Cambridge

In Cambridge, there’s that exciting opportunity – if it doesn’t exist, you can create it”

Operating a business in Cambridge has allowed Dunne to see the changes that need to be made – specifically, calling for local companies to be more vocal.

“Cambridge businesses, as a rule, are amazing at achieving and terrible at promoting themselves,” he said.

“This is endearing, but also frustrating. I don’t know how to fix this, but I wish more people could hear about the amazing stuff I see at startup and business exhibitions. Oh, and please stop knocking down all the office space for student accommodation!”

Next, we heard from Alex Ruczaj, a local serial entrepreneur with plenty of experience of business in Cambridge.

Interestingly, Ruczaj originally opened a PR agency called Spark Communications in London back in 2000, but parenthood prompted a move to Cambridge, which is where new business ventures were launched to offer a better work-life balance.

“There were clear gaps in the market. In Cambridge, there’s that exciting opportunity – if it doesn’t exist, you can create it,” she said.

The Early Night Club was a business launched in 2009 and the business is still thriving eight years later. It offers a clubbing experience that ends at 11.30pm, giving those that miss nights out the chance to party without staying out to the small hours.

And in 2016, Ruczaj introduced another venture called My Little Festival, creating offbeat London-style events for Cambridge.

So how does business in Cambridge compare to London for her? There’s far more opportunity, according to Ruczaj. Continue reading on the next page for the rest of Ruczaj’s thoughts on the city, including a common problem, which all of the Cambridge business leaders we’ve heard from highlight.

“In London, almost everything has been done, and although the market is physically larger and more varied, it can be hard to be heard above the noise and to stand out,” she explained.

“Cambridge is on an upward curve, particularly in the hospitality sector, where we are seeing great independent businesses starting to establish themselves – The Pint Shop, Aromi, Wildwood Disco, Food Park.

“Because we’re a small city, we can use local media and networks very effectively, to reach and target the right audience for products or services. Word spreads fast if you have something good to offer.”

Ruczaj explained that the city is becoming more sophisticated and in tune with cities worldwide, which is ideal for those running a business in Cambridge.

Despite this, echoing the thoughts of Dunne, finding property can be an issue for leaders.

“There are still parts of the city that are stuck in the past. The university owns a lot of property, so finding venues or even affordable office space is tough,” she said.

Being stuck in the past is also a problem when it comes to driving new ideas at pace.

“Audiences are perhaps slower to embrace the new, it can take longer to establish new ideas here, but this is improving,” she added.

Business in Cambridge

“There is so much of the city that is unavailable to the businesses that are trying to improve it”

Believing that those with a business in Cambridge are generally supportive of each other, Ruczaj noted organisations including Cam Creatives and Independent Cambridge as those creating a connection between entrepreneurs.

Explaining changes that would help drive business in Cambridge further, she said: “I would make those groups or organisations that are still quite closed to new ways of working more forward thinking and open to new businesses.

“The council and its associated organisations are trying to be more accessible – but it is still far too complicated and difficult and sometimes one feels like, unless you’re a long-established business or a college, you have no power.

“A subsidised co-working space would be on my wish list too, there is so much of the city that is unavailable to the businesses that are trying to improve it, either because of high rents or college-only access.”

Offering his experiences of doing business in Cambridge next is Tim Fowler, head of the wireless & digital services division at Cambridge Consultants, which launched back in 1960.

“Cambridge Consultants is one of the founding businesses in what has since been called ‘The Cambridge Phenomenon’,” he explained.

“Our original mission was ‘to put the brains of Cambridge at the disposal of British industry’. Today we’re a global business with 800 people around the world, but Cambridge remains our home, not least because of the huge talent pool that we can access here.

“As a fee for service business, we’re fundamentally selling the expertise of our people, so it’s vital to be based in areas with a large talent pool. Cambridge is unrivalled in that regard.”

When growing a business in Cambridge, leaders have “more or less” everything that’s needed, according to Fowler, from academia, a business scene and innovation.

“The local investment community supports startups and scale-ups, though the huge investments inevitably arrive from further afield. The fundamental strength of Cambridge is of course the talent pool, and we’re all competing for the best talent,” said Fowler.

Business in Cambridge

“You’ll meet tech leaders in the pub, on the school run or in the street”

Meanwhile, he pointed to the Cambridge Network, Cambridge Wireless, Cambridge Angels and the city’s meet-up communities that encourage community spirit.

But how does Cambridge measure up against the capital in his eyes? “London has the entire technology ecosystem, but you’re unlikely to actually meet others within that ecosystem by accident.

“In Cambridge, we also house the full tech ecosystem and you’ll meet tech leaders in the pub, on the school run or in the street.”

He added that there’s a confidence in the city to drive itself forward too. “Look at the way Cambridge is driving forward into new industries, including machine learning and synthetic biology, without any top down government stimulus or ‘Silicon Roundabout’ style marketing.”

So what would he change about the beloved city? It seems abundantly clear that the key issue is property, as Fowler repeated what both Dunne and Ruczaj had to say.

“There are infrastructure challenges here: property prices are high, making it difficult for more junior staff to own property in Cambridge itself, and congestion is a problem on the main commuter roads,” he detailed.

“Cambridge could be a great option for Londoners looking to work in tech and to own their own home, but with processes as they are, such people are more likely to buy in the London commuter belt and continue to work in London than attempt to buy in Cambridge.”