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  • Writer's pictureDeb Hetherington

SME Business Support. It’s not a lack of support, it’s a lack of awareness

Updated: Jul 15, 2020

Thursday morning, I was in the line up for my usual double shot latte and my phone lit up with an unknown number. I rarely answer unknown numbers for fear of sales calls or scams. Today, for some reason, I did. A cautious voice on the end of the line asked if they were speaking to Deb Hetherington. I matched their caution in my response, ‘yes, who’s speaking’. Here begins a version of a conversation I have had a hundred times.

The unknown caller was an excitable entrepreneur from Newcastle who had seen a post of mine on Linkedin about business support and funding, and decided to get in touch. I started asking a few questions about the stage of their business, sector and customer base, ensuring to highlight that the support I promote tends to be regionally specific. Open to the idea of relocating to Leeds because of the ‘high quality business support and funding opportunities here’, we continued our conversation.

At the end of the call, I put the phone down and sat for a moment. How could a young entrepreneur, in this case from a different city, be capable of knowing the range of business support available to them. I have sat on enough panels, steers and focus groups to know that the business support community in Leeds has still not agreed (or found funding for) a one stop online platform to showcase this ever changing portfolio. Yet, as SME business advisors we’re all vaguely aware of the range of support that’s available to a startup at any one time.

I'll let you into a little secret, there's a lot of it! I list a non-exhaustive directory at the bottom of this article. The support available to pre-revenue, micro, startup and scaling businesses today is exceptional. I started this article with the intention of providing small businesses a source of information on all things business support. Whilst that is still true, there is perhaps a more impactful objective at play here.

When I work with young businesses, I tend to put them at the centre of my efforts, and build the support around them. Often this will mean that the services my institute can offer (whether public or private sector) aren’t right for them at the time. If this is the case, I will signpost to the correct source. The hope here is that, when the time is right, they understand my offer well enough to find their way back.

Let’s take Daryl as an example, Daryl is a doctor who has seen a gap in the market for online appointment services and has an idea for a business. Daryl doesn’t know where to start, having only ever worked in hospitals. They google ‘how to start a business in Leeds’ and come up with a range of results from Leeds Beckett University to the LEP via North Invest. Daryl decides to send a message to Leeds Beckett University’s general email address and awaits a reply.

Having worked at Leeds Beckett University as a business advisor, this kind of inquiry would have come to me. ‘Yes, we can potentially help you Daryl, let’s grab a coffee to discuss your requirements and if it’s not the University, I’ll point you in the right direction’. Nine times out of ten, we could help Daryl. Whether it was access to our funded business support programme, a student placement, a Knowledge Transfer Partnership or simply an introduction to a funder or alternative support provider. Even if the University could help Daryl, there was a high likelihood that they could also benefit from the Digital Enterprise programme for a connectivity voucher, or some free IP advice from Leeds Library, or some pro bono legal support from Ward Hadaway. They may have required some specific biotech requirements and needed to use the free 2 day facility access at the Biorenewables Testing Centre in York, or some guidance exporting their product from the Department of International Trade’s advisors.

Public sector support is notoriously modest in it’s marketing and engagement. Build it and they will come? The irony here is that, one of the primary strategies I help businesses to build is marketing and sales. The number of times I’ve said ‘you can have the best product or service in the world, but if no-one knows about it, no-one will buy it!’ I understand that we can’t spend millions of public money on fancy marketing campaigns, or sales people to swan around and not provide delivery. But I do believe that all business support providers should have a KPI attached around engagement and visibility. And the kicker here is, this visibility doesn’t even need to be directly with startups hiding out there in their garages or co-working spaces.

I believe that the onus is on us as business support providers to work more effectively together. Referring young companies at the correct time for the growth of their business. We have the knowledge that startups and scaleups who are navigating this space, often for the first time, simply do not. I understand that we are often fighting for the attention of the growing businesses, whilst working against conflicting output targets. Throw in the pro-bono lawyers and consultants looking to build a trusted relationship and you've got yourself an entrepreneur's nightmare. The journey of a startup is already difficult enough, let's take some of the burden. Leeds has one of the richest SME marketplaces in the country, it boasts a plethora of diverse, exciting and ambitious companies. A well rounded understanding of available support will ensure the genuine growth of our regions SMEs, which assists economic success and provides more jobs. A win-win.

But Deb, I hear you ask, how am I meant to keep up to date with all the available business support and funding available to businesses? Well, I have built and maintain an online innovation hub, which outlines a lot of this support and is a good place to start. I also outline the key providers below.

Leeds is renowned for its collaborative nature, particularly in the digital space, so read around the subject and start referring. I know a lot of our community already do this, particularly the likes of Daneile Moore from Ad:venture, who's marketing campaigns and sector knowledge is second to none. Natwest Accelerators Dan Burton, Leeds Beckett's Natalie Allen and many more. If you find yourself talking to an exciting SME who needs support and you still find yourself stuck, send them to one of us.


Business Support and match funded grants

2 day free use of centre facilities

Connectivity vouchers

Export support and funding

Innovation capacity building

Grant funding for innovation projects

Full range of SME support

Intellectual Property advice

Wide range of SME support

Range of support; online & offline options

Pre start, startup and scale acceleration

Local Mentoring network

Leeds Uni’s innovation centre

Angel investment and pitch readiness

Equipment grants

Tech incubator

Funded innovation support

Various online and offline support

Digital growth platform

If I have missed any business support from this list, please drop me a line and let me know

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