We talk to Plus X Brighton

In this month’s SBT Cover Story we talk with Co-Founders Mat Hunter and Paul Rostas about Plus X Brighton, why here in Moulsecoomb, what the innovation hub brings to a county like Sussex and how the pandemic has changed the way people work.

Please introduce yourselves to our readers tell us about Plus X and you.

Mat:  My name is Mat Hunter and my background is very much from the world of design and innovation.  I went to two top art schools and then started my career in San Francisco, and spent 15 years consulting around the world for startups and corporations. Then I became chief design officer working with the government at the Design Council and became involved in a property group called U+I creating a startup accelerator program for startups.  So my world is absolutely around innovations for businesses big and small. 

Paul: I started out as brand manager for Unilever and then Johnson & Johnson.  I spent 20 years in the capital finance world in the city, focused on analysing companies and their investment propositions.  I then worked in real estate before I created a brand new property derivatives business for a big company bringing me into contact with the largest property owners in the country.  I had a little midlife crisis about 10 years ago and decided to leave and try something much more entrepreneurial, starting with angel investing into startups and then helping startups directly.  I then started to raise money for my own little tech startup.  I started to understand the excitement over being an entrepreneur did some consulting work for U+I where Mat and I met.  Together we came up with a strategy which was the genesis of Plus X.   

Had you always thought about running your own business?

Paul:  I remember interviewing for Johnson & Johnson telling the guy who interviewed me I wanted to be sitting in his seat in five years!  When I worked for ICAP, they sponsored me to build a business in the market, and that made me realise that actually I wanted to run my own business.  Then it was just about finding a great idea.

Mat: Personally, I don’t think I envisioned myself running a business like my own consultancy.  What we do here is to help people have the confidence to take an idea forward. Entrepreneurship is a necessary requirement to make their idea real. 

Paul: Some of the best entrepreneurs say, “I’m going to start this business and get it going, I want to stay involved, but I might not run it.”  Usually it requires a catalyst.  If you look at the post global financial crisis of 2008, the biggest number of startups created through 2008-2011.  Post COVID it is happening again, because people are saying well it’s now or never, or I haven’t got a choice, or I’ve got a bit of redundancy money to invest.    

Paul: Luci Keaton from RumaTech has worked this out.  It’s about working out your skillset, what you’re good at, and what you are not.   Part of our mission is to help you identify that and then find the other party.  Then it’s about how you collaborate together.  Sharing something, even with a competitor, might make things better.  It’s about mindset.

Mat:  I think there is a journey of confidence building so more people can say why not, let’s give it a go.

So, why Moulsecoomb? Why here?

Paul: We worked at Hayes in Middlesex, which was severely affected by the manufacturing recession in the 1980’s.  It left huge empty office space and the landlord of this building discovered this opportunity and believed it could become a fantastic new neighbourhood.  But the problem is, nobody wanted to go to Hayes.  The idea was to give businesses so much value that the only place they could get it was in Hayes, which would attract other businesses to be part of that community.  And on the back of that, companies like GoDaddy took space in the same building. So that was the genesis.  Moulsecoomb is in the top 10% deprived wards in the country.  It needs economic changing, confidence-building and regenerating.  We know how to create jobs and we have all this transferable experience, and believe we can change the dynamic of Moulsecoomb.  In Hayes we were doing it in 10,000 square feet, let’s call it 100 people, and in Brighton, we’re doing it at 50,000 square feet and 600 people.  We decided to design great rapid prototyping workshops and make sure the space is designed to promote connectivity. 

Mat:  It’s about creating a community.  You might think everyone’s got to be some tech coder, but you need the graphic designers, the video makers, the accountants who can all collaborate.

You opened in July 2020, during a global pandemic, tell us about that experience?

Mat:  We had a short golden period between the two lockdowns but last winter got much tougher.  We were working with people who made physical things and the government guidance allowed us to stay open.  In fact, during the first lockdown we were making PPE for the NHS.  So when we came to open this place, we had a lot of experience of operating during the pandemic.  Month on month people continued to come and said psychologically and practically, they needed that.  And here we are towards the end of lockdown with 300 people in the building. 

Paul: There are inspirational entrepreneurs like Jack from Nords, the GPS company, and Martin the AV guy, who are raising money and thriving during the pandemic, so it is possible.   

Mat: The lockdown has really exposed people’s approach to risk.  We found that the small businesses just get on with it and move forward but bigger businesses find it very hard. 

Paul:  People like being around other people.  Not everybody has the luxury of a private space, some people are working on their beds.  It is better physically and mentally.  You can have a cup of tea or a chat.

Mat: It might be efficient to work from home, with no commute and no distractions, but there is a mental health and exercise issue. Being efficient isn’t the same thing as being effective.  People are able to be more innovative, creative and energized by being in a space like this. That goes for startups, but also big businesses as well, the corporate teams that need to be just as innovative. 

Paul: Probably more so because bigger companies will typically process risk-averse decisions.  If you’re an entrepreneur, you can make a decision to take five desks or take the entire floor.  We want them to be complementary, we want them to contribute to the community but also benefit the community. It’s got to be a two-way street.

What type of companies has Plus X Brighton welcomed to date? And what does success look like for both Plus X and your community of members?

Mat:  I think one of the key things that we discussed was diversity.  You really do need multiple skill sets to come together.  Some things unify everyone, like health and well-being or environmental sustainability.  Brighton in particular believes hugely in environmental sustainability and social justice.  It’s amazing having the Universities of Brighton and Sussex very close by with rich seams of skill and competence.

Paul:  We tried to listen to the challenges that Brighton has faced.  There is a national issue which is the government addressing through trying to level up. Brighton has a great deal to offer yet a lot of the town doesn’t stay, or it does stay but it commutes. It’s because there aren’t a lot of those exciting career opportunities, partly due to space and partly lack of support. We’d like to keep people in Brighton and attract opportunity and facilitate a solution. 

Has the pandemic changed how people work in the innovation hub?

Mat:  Aside from the masks, people are getting on with it.  I suspect there will be businesses considering flexible offices because they need to deal with that uncertainty. 

Paul:  During the pandemic, the death of the office is exaggerated.  How you use an office and how much space you need might change, but there’s still a need to come together. 

Mat:  Its flexibility in time but also in space.  We have collaboration spaces that can take twenty or thirty people.  Utilization is the core. So that’s the whole idea behind our shared spaces.

Paul:  You might use a podcast studio once a week.   You might afford to choose to spend thousands on it or choose to become a member of this space and use the money to hire more people and grow the business much more quickly.  The video conferencing has become more hybrid, using the bulletproof Wi-Fi as well as the infrastructure and big displays.  For example, our event space downstairs was always wired to be able to live stream.  The hybrid nature will be required, and you wouldn’t necessarily want to pay for that yourself. 

Mat:  I think ultimately, we want the best of both worlds. We talked about the energy in the room but also the incredible efficiency of pulling people in electronically. So of course, we can bring in world class innovators based in China or San Francisco together into Brighton.  It’s the most important thing to be both local and global.  

You run an innovation project called BRITE, tell us about that and why should Sussex businesses apply?

Mat:  BRITE is a collaboration between us and the University of Brighton. We are using the knowledge that they’ve got from the business school to understand what the proven models are.  Academics can prove scientifically that particular ways of working are very powerful.  So, one of the things that we do here is to support peer groups in that peer-to-peer learning, bringing together businesses at a similar stage of evolution to share knowledge.  You can get some time with the researchers at the University of Brighton to work on problems and fix something maybe deeply technological.  BRITE offers a great menu of different types of business intervention and we work with The University of Brighton and each business to find what’s right for them.  It’s about trying to make it the most effective business in a finite amount of time. It is only available to members of Plus X.  

Paul:  It has helped businesses see things from an external viewpoint. The academics will tell you these support programs help businesses retest all the basic assumptions they made when they were putting their business together.  In Sussex we are great with supporting startups, but not so good at helping them sell.  They get to a certain point where they hit a wall and they have to get over that hump.  We have the track record of understanding the challenges and applying solutions to that particular problem. 

Mat:  The pandemic has revealed we all have challenges juggling with life.  It is possible for a hub like this to be much more honest, so people collaborate and indicate that they have a need and someone has the ability to help them.  Unlike networking events, people can be less in sales mode and hopefully help understand people’s needs and collaborate more. 

Paul:  We need a safe space to do risky things, like in Silicon Valley.  If a startup fails, you can jump to another startup.  It is safe to learn and collaborate but also to re-think and collaborate and start up something else. 

What’s the future of innovative business in a region like Sussex?

Mat:  We hope to help more businesses scale and get more BrandWatches.  Also to help some of the bigger businesses become engaging and innovative, as well as drawing them from Central London to a better quality of life, to be part of innovative communities like this.

Paul: London offices could have a satellite space and maybe take fifty spaces there.  Some of the bigger corporations have tens of thousands of people all around the country.  Taking some space at Plus X would be more convenient and also allow for working with lots of other complimentary businesses.  

Mat:  We want to see the truly world-class stunning business ideas starting in Brighton.  There are many people in Brighton who are making purposeful businesses as well, doing something good for the world and society.  Why shouldn’t it be global?  It is not always about a sense of power. 

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