The changing face of Britain’s tech economyFrom the bursting of the dotcom bubble to the rise of the smartphone, the Tech Track 100 has helped to provide a barometer for this country’s changing high-tech sector, writes Hamish Stevenson, its founder

The first 12 years of The Sunday Times Tech Track 100, ranking the UK’s 100 private tech companies with the fastest-growing sales, offers a fascinating insight into how far Britain’s technology sector has changed.

In 2001, more than a third (36) of the companies in our first top 100 ranking were software developers. They were riding the tailwinds created by the dotcom boom, but that boom abruptly turned to bust later that year. Only half that number of software developers (19) made it into this year’s league table, whereas new sectors, such as digital media and online consumer services, feature prominently.

The size of this year’s fastest-growing technology businesses is also markedly different. They achieved significantly higher sales and employ more people than their 2001 counterparts. The class of 2012 had combined sales of £2.7bn, compared to £414m in 2001, and employ 11,200 people, more than double the number (5,300) in 2001. The qualifying criteria used for the ranking have changed, meaning slightly bigger firms are now included, but I think it could also reflect the UK technology sector’s growing maturity and how the services its firms offer have become part of the mainstream economy.

There have certainly been dramatic changes in the use of technology over the last decade, driven primarily by the explosive growth of the Internet. Most shoppers don’t think twice now about buying goods or services online: UK consumers spent more than £50bn online last year. It’s no surprise that this year’s ranking included 14 online consumer services firms, including retail website operator The Hut Group, auction website MadBid.com, and takeaway service Just Eat.

With the rise of the web, online marketing has become a very hot sector. Facebook and Twitter were not invented when the first Tech Track 100 appeared, but now businesses cannot ignore them. This year’s table features 18 digital media firms such as Unruly Media, a viral marketer that won Hiscox’s digital innovation prize at the Tech Track 100 awards. Unruly’s software has helped video adverts to achieve more than 1.7billion views online.

Smartphones have also had a major impact on the Tech Track ranking. One fifth of this year’s top 100 companies either develop apps, use apps to boost sales, or help telecoms firms to provide mobile data. AlertMe, whose app lets people monitor energy use in their homes, is on this year’s list, as is Ubiquisys, which helps mobile phone operators boost their data capacity in places such as airports.

Green technology is another sector whose presence on the league table has grown in recent years. Nine firms on this year’s table develop eco-friendly technology, tapping into the growing concern over climate change and energy conservation. They include CamSemi, which designs low-energy microchips, and ECO Plastics, which has developed plastic recycling technology.

Cloud-computing businesses, data management and security firms are also thriving, which is reflected by the inclusion on this year’s table of Belcom247, which installs and maintains data centres, and Mimecast, which provides email management services.

Do the businesses that make it into the Tech Track 100 share any qualities, other than their top lines growing in leaps and bounds?

Innovation is a common trait. Several of the class of 2012 have developed technology that could dramatically alter the way certain industries operate. For example, ZBD Solutions has developed ultra-thin LCD screens that supermarket operators in mainland Europe are now using instead of paper pricing labels.

Nimbleness is another characteristic linking many of this year’s companies. With their fingers on the pulse of consumer and business trends, they have recognised major changes in the world and responded swiftly by launching products and services that become popular very quickly.

These attributes help set apart the fast-growth private companies in the Tech Track 100 from their rivals, and have allowed them to shrug off the wider economic gloom. What they show is that, despite the tough economy, tech businesses with a great idea and a burning ambition can achieve stellar growth.

The top 100 also shows how Britain’s top-performing technology companies are able to compete with rivals around the world. Over the years the Tech Track ranking has recorded some notable tech success stories including Lovefilm, the online DVD rental service, Sophos, the IT security software developer, and ARM Holdings, which is now the biggest microchip designer in the world.

This year’s number one company is Essence, which has grown by 284% a year over the last three years. It has expanded from its base in London’s Soho to open an office in New York in 2011, and has made a US acquisition. It numbers Google and eBay among its clients. A UK firm that’s making a name for itself in Silicon Valley – I don’t think you could get a better example of this country’s vibrant tech economy.

Hamish Stevenson is founder and CEO of Fast Track.

He founded Fast Track in 1997 after securing cornerstone sponsorship from Richard Branson.

He has built Fast Track into the UK’s leading networking events company focusing on top-performing private companies and entrepreneurs, and ranking them in annual league tables published with The Sunday Times, ranging from the Tech Track 100 fastest-growing tech companies to the Top Track 100 biggest companies.