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Sunderland’s startup factory: Meet the Leighton Group
To tie in with the event, we’re talking to a company from each city to find out why they’re based there.
Companies like Berlin’s Rocket Internet and New York’s Betaworks are celebrated for raising and nurturing numerous tech startups before spinning them off to make their own way in the world. You might not know that Sunderland has its own successful ‘startup factory’ that’s been following this formula for 24 years.
Founded in the early days of the World Wide Web, The Leighton Group spotted the potential for this new technology and registered several domain names. One of them was DomainNames.com, and in 1996 the company decided to build a business around registration and hosting. This was just as the general public were starting to pay attention to the internet.
This well-timed move paid off, as US giant Verisign acquired the DomainNames.com business in 2000. The same year, Leighton set up 4Projects, a company focused on building software for the construction industry. A private equity firm bought 4Projects in 2007 and later renamed it Viewpoint. Another Leighton firm, Communicator Corp, was acquired by Trinity Mirror in 2012.
The Leighton Group currently has behavioural marketing firm SaleCycle and webinar platform WorkCast under its wing. It also recently launched Footy.com, which is a price comparison site for football apparel and merchandise.
The Leighton Group was born in Sunderland because that’s where its founders, brothers Gerard and Paul Callaghan, were based. Given its successes to date, the company could have relocated anywhere but has stayed where it all began. Gerard Callaghan explains quite simply: “we’ve never felt a reason to leave.”
Gerard says that it’s easier to retain staff in Sunderland than in London as competition is so fierce for staff in the capital. And with five local universities in the North East area, Leighton has no problem with a supply of talent.
Not simply concerned with being able to hire a workforce, Gerard hopes that Leighton’s approach encourages more local people to start their own businesses. He’s proud that many of the group’s former companies have a strong presence in the North East of England to this day.
“It’s an aspirational environment. If staff see companies being developed and sold, it develops an entrepreneurial spirit. Hopefully it inspires people to go out to be ambitious and creative.”
As for Sunderland itself, Gerard says that it’s currently experiencing the start of a thriving digital economy. The city was once known for shipbuilding, coal mining and other heavy industries, and their decline took a toll on the community. Now, however, he says there’s a “positive vibe,” within a growing digital and creative sector. That’s thanks to the work of local businesses and organisations like Sunderland Software City.
“Local people and students aren’t just getting a degree and heading to London now. They’re seeing the opportunity here.”