September 10, 2013 4:11 pm

The out-of-town founders

Go Ape

Country swing: Go Ape founders Tristram and Rebecca Mayhew say there are plenty of entrepreneurs in the country

Every day this summer, forests in the UK and the US have been ringing with ex­cited cries, and occasional screams, of adults and young people experiencing the thrill of clambering among the branches on rope bridges.

These pursuits are thanks to the entrepreneurial talents of husband-and-wife team Tristram and Rebecca Mayhew and their business Go Ape. The brand extends across 34 centres in the UK and the US and is a multimillion-pound business. They plan to open more sites and expand into Russia in the next year.

Received wisdom is that the city is the place for ambitious founders, while the countryside is for bumpkins and where city folk spend a pleasant holiday. But what if entrepreneurs could just as easily spend their working lives in bucolic bliss?

When the Mayhews hit upon their business idea 12 years ago, they were city- based. They had made home in the fashionable south-London area of Clapham, just as an influx of early-stage venture capital, networking clubs and general buzz about entrepreneurship was fuelling a boom in start-ups in the city.

However, rather than turn their spare room into an office and launch a web venture, the couple upped sticks to the Suffolk village of Hargrave, a 90-minute drive away, used a tent in the garden as their workspace and launched a treetop-climbing business on Forestry Commission land. “The countryside is full of ambitious people,” Ms Mayhew says, noting she now has a group of friends that she meets at the pub who are founders of high-growth companies.

Rural start-ups in other parts of the UK include eco-clothing brand Howies which was founded by Clare and David Hieatt in the west Wales town of Cardigan after they quit London to indulge their passion for surfing and the outdoor life. Similarly, Jack Wills, the youth clothing brand, began in the Devonshire sailing village of Salcombe. Dyson, maker of bagless vacuum cleaners and bladeless fans, is also still headquartered in the Wiltshire town of Malmesbury, and exports around the world.

The image of the city as the only place for fast-growth start-ups is a myth, according to Grant Thornton, a UK accountancy firm specialising in founder-led companies. It recently noted that 40 per cent of the companies on its GrowthAccelerator programme were based in rural locations.

Pros and cons of starting in the sticks

Advantages

Lower cost base. Whether it is rent, wages or support services, such as accountants and lawyers, the cost of doing business tends to be lower.

A stronger position when recruiting talent. The best people locally are likely to have fewer alternatives.

Networking. It can be easier to get candidates with personal recommendations when everyone in a community knows each other. Local suppliers are more likely to want to do a good job because they know that news about the quality of their service will travel fast in a small community.

Disadvantages

Lack of choice in certain services. There may be lawyers and accountants in the countryside, but the best ones are more often found in the cities.

Poor transport links. You may not miss the commute, but the lack of a decent rail service or fast roads will make it hard to get to clients and customers based a long way away.

Inadequate infrastructure. The countryside is usually the last place to receive the fastest broadband and mobile phone services. Getting a line connected to a remote location where there are no other buildings is expensive.

Networking. Chance encounters with people you might need are less likely when everyone lives a long way from one another.

The Kauffman Foundation, a US-based think-tank that res­earches ent­re­preneurship, found that Montana, which ranks 48th out of 50 states for population density, had the highest proportion of start-ups per capita. That may be because there are few other sources of employment. How­ever, second on Kauffman’s list is Vermont, home to one of the most famous US start-ups of recent years, ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s.

One of the fastest-growing companies in the US is the Greek-style yoghurt manufacturer Chobani, based in upstate New York. It started trading six years ago and is now the market leader, with more than $1bn of sales. It has been credited with saving and creating hundreds of rural jobs. The area is a lot like rural Turkey where Mr Ulukaya grew up, and this was important. “When I arrived it immediately felt like home,” he says. “When you are home you can do your best work.”

Even some of the benefits usually ascribed to busy city clusters are present in the countryside. It is often observed that one of the characteristics of Silicon Valley’s highly successful urban start-up cluster is the deg­ree to which people help each other out without expecting anything in return. Potential explanations include that many founders have backgrounds in the sciences, where collaboration is encouraged, or that entrepreneurs do not view their activity as a zero-sum game.

However, generosity of support is something Christian Jones, managing director of Gro Group, which makes baby sleeping bags and other nursery items, claims is a benefit of its location amid the farming communities of Devon. “People here are genuinely more willing to help without a need for you to do something reciprocal.”

Raised in the rural northwest of England, Mr Jones worked mostly in London before moving his family to Devon after his wife fell ill with lung disease. They also felt it would suit their two sons.

Mr Jones joined Gro Group as managing director before taking control through a management buyout, back­ed by the bank HSBC and London-based venture capital trust Mob­eus. Access to capital has not been an issue. “We had no shortage of offers when we did our last funding round at the end of last year.” he says.

But not everything is rosy for rural entrepreneurs. There is less choice of people for recruitment and transport links may be poor, making it hard to meet potential suppliers, clients and investors, and for staff to commute – although that can become a benefit.

“There is a real advantage, if you are going to do it, to moving to a place where it is not easy to commute daily [to the city],” Mr Mayhew says. “By doing so you instantly remove a lot of the competition for the best local talent because, for these people, moving to a city job is just not a realistic option.”

On the other hand, he admits that good transport links are desirable for getting to the city for meetings with backers or advisers.

The lack of broadband connections is another big frustration. “Increasingly, our business is digital with demand for online bookings and the need for faster communication with suppliers and customers, but we suffer a lot of power and broadband outages,” Mr Mayhew says.

Reliable broadband would enable Go Ape to accelerate its growth, but that would require paying out about £100,000 for a dedicated cable to the of­fice. Ironically, extra sales generated by a faster digital line would probably mean Go Ape having to move its headquarters to a location with a larger building.

Although the Mayhews are happy to have set up in business outside London, they do recognise that it has nevertheless helped them in their ambitions. By renting out their Clapham home, they were able to cover their living costs in Suffolk for 22 months when they did not draw a salary.

Even the most successful rural founders admit that they could not do without some city support.

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