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‘I think people would be shocked at what we’ve got here’: Inside the thriving Boho zone

A world-renowned, thriving digital and creative sector is right on our doorstep - and it's only getting bigger and better

The Boho zone has been described as Middlesbrough’s hidden gem.

But in reality, the breakout success of companies in the town’s thriving digital sector shows the secret has been out for some time.

“I would describe it as an eco-system of creativity,” says Dan Watson, Middlesbrough Council’s Digital Manager.

“What goes on down here – not everyone in Middlesbrough is aware of it, and I think some people would be quite shocked if they knew.”

Big success stories include Double Eleven, who work on some of the world’s biggest video games, and Big Bite, who build web platforms for huge media organisations like the New York Post.

Whether it’s those global operators, or the smallest start-ups, the Boho Zone has grown into its own community, with a culture of support and co-operation which raises everyone up.

Dan’s role is at the heart of that community, providing practical advice, support and problem solving.

He runs networking and social events – many hosted at the burgeoning group of venues offering something a little bit different ‘over the border’, like Base Camp, The Zetland, Hit the Bar.

He links up with established business networks, and world-leading conferences like Animex at Teesside University.

Then there’s the sporting get-togethers at football, basketball and running clubs,

“My job was to help build something – Boho isn’t just a bunch of offices with companies in them that never speak to each other.

“It’s almost like a university campus. It’s really inclusive and welcoming, and it provides something extra – an incentive for companies to be based here.”

Even during the Covid pandemic, when employees reverted to home working, all the benefits of Boho’s campus community helped it emerge stronger.

“At the start of the pandemic there was a thought that office working might have changed. It is going in absolutely the opposite way. Companies want double the space. They want to social distance and they are very creative,” continued Dan.

“They’re sticking to guidelines but delivering things they want.”

Bringing in new tenants – and working with resources for start-ups like Studio 109 and the Teesside University Incubator – is key to finding new talent to keep the Boho zone vibrant.

“The over-arching thing is getting businesses to stay in Middlesbrough,” continued Dan.

“Historically, we have seen businesses growing to a certain size and then moving to maybe Newcastle or Leeds. Now 95% of businesses stay, that’s one of our main goals.

“And we’re actually seeing businesses coming the other way, setting up satellite offices here.”

There’s an ethos and culture of co-operation, not necessarily competition, says Dan – meaning that companies collaborate and share opportunities.

“People are very open to sharing ideas. You can ask other successful people – ‘how did you solve this?’

“Yes, there are companies that do similar things and are competing for the same customers. But it’s like Baker and Bedford Street, people go for a pub-crawl, they don’t only go to one pub. Having them together creates more business.

“External companies are now saying – let’s go to Boho when we need something.

“One company in Boho might be working with a customer who are also looking for two or three other services. The advantage they have, and the advantage of the way they work, is that company can recommend businesses from our cluster because they know them, trust them and can recommend them.”

There’s big plans for the future too – cranes and diggers are on site to build Boho X, a huge new addition to the skyline which in the words of Mayor Andy Preston will be the “best office space between Glasgow and Leeds”.

More expansion plans are in sight, with council proposals to build hundreds of houses around the old Town Hall – effectively reinvigorating what was once a thriving community at St Hilda’s.

“I had family that lived in St Hilda’s so it’s nice to see that come round,” continued Dan, 32, who grew up in Eston and now lives in Marton.

“It’s grown to a point where it has a life of its own. We are not corralling or telling people.

“I don’t think there’s a limit on the potential we have here.”

That potential creates opportunities – with Dan saying there’s regularly up to 200 live jobs on offer in the sector as firms rapidly expand.

The sense of community helps those arriving from outside of the area or even abroad – with social and business support constantly on hand.

But getting local youngsters into those jobs is something that’s of huge importance to Dan and everyone in Middlesbrough’s digital and tech sector.

“People might come from a family who worked in a traditional industry. That’s what Middlesbrough was, that’s what Teesside was,” he continued.

“Maybe the video games industry was in the US or London, somewhere far away. Now it’s here.

“Teesside was one of the first universities offering digital degrees, and they’re leading the way in producing graduates that can start those innovative new companies or be employable straight away.

“We do a lot of outreach work – especially through places like Middlesbrough College – to make sure that young people in Middlesbrough know that our industry is for them as well, even if they haven’t done IT at school.

“There’s no reason why kids from Thorntree to Nunthorpe shouldn’t aspire to these jobs.

“It’s our responsibility to shout about it so people in Middlesbrough can see what is going on here, and how it’s a huge benefit to the town.”

We are words: Mike Brown

We are photographs: Dave Charnley

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