Andy Budd runs the award-winning Clearleft digital agency and the pioneering D-Construct web conference. He also once outsold Harry Potter with his guide to CSS code and has just rescued one of the city’s prime buildings. Through his agency he has incubated and promoted more digital talent than the town ever knew it had and at one point the entire Twitter design team in the UK was made up of Clearleft alumni.
How did you get started in the digital industry? Was it something you always wanted to do?
Not really. I had been travelling for about six years around Asia and India and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. But a few people had described this world of ‘web design’ and how it was really easy, you didn’t need to know a lot about the technology and could work for six months and travel for six months. I spent some time looking at where was best to get involved and Brighton had this mailing list with like 800 people on it all sharing information freely so I came here. That was 1999. Oh, and there was a girl!
Did it take you long to get established in the field?
Had I been jumping into that world now it would have been much more difficult because the level of quality and expectation for new entrants into the field is huge, but back then you could kind of blag it. I used to volunteer at The Peace Centre. They had a little computer and printer in the basement so people could come and get help with flyers or websites or magazines, so I sort of taught myself the basics of design. I replied to a job advert and managed to get an interview. I had a month to sit in Waterstones and read all the books I could, download a crack copy of Flash and teach myself.
How did you end up starting your own agency?
This sounds more impressive than it was, but at one stage I had one of the top ten most trafficked blogs in the UK. But blogging then was only about technology. I had built one of the first CSS websites. The other guy who had done that in the UK before me was Jeremy Keith so we sparked up a friendship because we were both local. Another person was Richard Rutter so the three of us became friends.
What was your first project?
We got invited to go and speak at the South-by-Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin; back then it was really small, like 200 people. Everyone knew about the music side but just three or four rooms were dedicated to the interactive stuff. I thought, “Well, if I’m going to fund this trip myself then I’m going to hand in my notice and get the benefit myself”. So we went and launched the company to that crowd and it meant by the time we got back we had quite a lot of work on our hands, with people saying, “We love what you do”, even though we hadn’t done anything yet.
Do you think being in Brighton has contributed to your success?
Brighton is small enough that it is easy to bump into people, which means that it generates a community, which means that you can walk around and you can sit in a coffee shop and be next to people who are doing similar things to you, or different things, that there is a willingness to share. I think Brighton is growing up and becoming more middle-class, but when I moved down here it was toward the end of the rave culture and a lot of people sort of found Brighton as their spiritual home. The network we had meant this was a really good place to be. Brighton New Media mailing list was one of those things and Wired Sussex was another. I helped set up Skillswap which ran for 8-10 years. When we set up D-Construct people came down from London and saw what the community was like here.
Are we a very British kind of San Francisco?
Yes! Lot’s of my friends from San Francisco come here and remark on the similarities. But in some ways the people remind me more of, say, Brooklyn. Lots of creative people following their passion and joy.
Is Brighton still the digital capital of the UK?
When you look at the research, the digital sector in many ways is more important to Brighton than tourism. Unfortunately Bristol has caught up and arguably overtaken us as the digital powerhouse of the UK because they are investing in things like city-wide wifi networks and low business rates for small companies. It’s one of the reasons why we opened up 68 Middle Street: to provide co-working and start up space that is so desperately needed here. I think Brighton as an entity and the council kind of missed the boat. The money that is going on the i360, £48 million, could have achieved something more meaningful for the economy of Brighton than just attracting more visitors. I’d rather see them supporting events like Brighton Digital Festival, affordable office space, or a modern arts gallery like the Watershed in Bristol that would bring creative people into the town.
So would you still recommend Brighton as a destination for anyone aiming to start out in the digital sector?
If you are good at what you do, if you have got a passion for what you do, then Brighton I think is a really good place to be. You will probably find that most of your work is coming from outside of the city but in the digital space you can work with companies all over the world. Ask questions, seek mentorship, and go to networking events. I would like to see some of the really really talented people in Brighton jump to the next level and start working with bigger companies and bigger brands.
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