How to get your start-up off the ground

The creation of informal enterprise communities and regional hubs to incubate talent is helping a number of start-ups become fully fledged businesses

The BBC's plan to move several key departments and 1,700 employees from London to Manchester is seen as a huge boost to the North-west's digital and media industries.

The move will see Manchester become the BBC's second largest broadcasting and production centre from 2010 and Radio Five Live will become the first national channel to be broadcast permanently from outside London.

The Northwest Regional Development Agency (NWDA), charged with overseeing the economic development of the region, is confident that the move will act as a major spur for the development of the whole creative sector. It is carrying out a feasibility study into the potential effects of the BBC move, together with a number of ancillary studies on the likely development of the creative industries cluster. These include a feasibility study into a Media Enterprise Centre, to be located close to the BBC.

The aim is to turn Manchester into a digital media hub, with the largest concentration of digital and media professionals and companies outside London. The NWDA is already talking to regional education institutions and training providers about relevant skills provision, and to other public sector bodies about supporting existing and start-up companies, to capitalise on the predicted boom in the media industry.

This focus on developing Manchester as a digital and media industries hub, complete with Media Enterprise Centre, is typical of the industry-specific strategies increasingly preferred by business support agencies.

It is a recognition that although general business advice is always welcome, through the likes of Business Link and chambers of commerce, it is often specific industry advice that can make the biggest difference and which is usually lacking.

"A company can get business advice on marketing, recruitment or strategy from any number of sources. But only rarely do those advisers understand the nitty-gritty of the company's industry," says Jody Chatterjee, a director at the East of England Development Agency (EEDA).

Having in-depth expertise covering a range of different industries in every town is unrealistic. Instead, the focus of regional providers such as the NWDA and EEDA, and other regional development agencies, is on creating industry hubs.

The hubs generally combine all-inclusive managed work space with on-site business and research support tailored to a specific industry sector.

The EEDA, for example, is funding a high-tech engineering hub at Hethel, in Norfolk, in partnership with Norfolk County Council, the Lotus Group, South Norfolk Council and Business Link.

Due to open in February 2006, the Centre for Engineering Excellence is focused on supporting new and early-stage businesses in motor sports and electronic engineering. It includes workshops, office units, flexible start-up accommodation and training facilities.

But hubs aren't just about formal business support. There is an emphasis on building informal communities and networks of businesses in similar sectors, often facing similar challenges, in order to exchange ideas and experiences.

There is also a focus on enabling businesses outside the immediate area of the hub to access the support and expertise that is available, no matter where they are located.

"We look at it in a plural way. We can provide general business incubation units in most parts of the region, where businesses can access general advice on accounting or marketing and so forth. Where appropriate, we also help those business connect into the more specialist expertise available at centres like Hethel," says Chatterjee.

Another EEDA-supported initiative is the BioConcepts incubator at Babraham Research Campus outside Cambridge.

Launched in 2003, it now occupies 32,000 square metres and hosts 18 companies in its incubator units, ranging from one-person start-ups to some which employ 15 to 20 people.

Matthew Baker set up biotechnology company Antitope at BioConcepts in 2004. The company, which specialises in protein engineering and immunity evaluation, now employs 10 people.

As well as the physical benefits of cost-effective premises and access to expensive scientific equipment, which can be leased from the operators of BioConcepts, Babraham Bioscience Technologies, Baker says that a key advantage is the mentor support available on site.

"It's hard setting up any business, but there's expertise on site that just wouldn't be available elsewhere. There are mentors on hand to advise and guide you through the process. It's also invaluable to be able to talk to other businesses facing similar issues, whether it's how to set up your IT network or who to do your accounts," says Baker.

In north London, the focus is not on high-tech industries such as biotechnology or advanced engineering, but on creative industries. An old sweet factory in Wood Green, Haringey, has been transformed into the Chocolate Factory, a hub for the area's creative industries.

Originally converted in 1996 by Collage Arts, formerly Haringey Arts Council, the Chocolate Factory started off as a small project to develop artists' studios. Such was its success it has since expanded into the adjacent building, Chocolate Factory 2, and is now home to 200 local artists, film, photography, music, theatre and visual arts-based companies.

Although managed by Collage Arts, from November 2005 the Chocolate Factory is being brought under the auspices of Creative London North, a partnership between eight existing organisations working in the cultural, arts and creative industries. As well as studio space, it offers advice, networking and support services for cultural businesses in north London. There is even professional accounting and legal advice on the premises.

The aim is that businesses working in the creative and cultural industries will be able to access specialist expertise, supporting the creation of new jobs, nurturing new talent and assisting the continued growth of the sector, which already generates £21bn per year for London's economy.

Manoj Ambrasna, director of Collage Arts, says that, "the difference with the Chocolate Factory and the new Creative London North programme is that it creates a business environment that is very specific to the various sectors within he creative industries. At the Chocolate Factory, that includes film, performing arts, music production, artists, writers, jewellery designers and more."

Fifty of the studios are reserved for new businesses. New tenants benefit from a 50 per cent reduction in rental fees as part of a three-year incubation programme. To qualify, they must first go through a five-day business support assessment, during which time they receive expert advice on their ideas and business plan.

New businesses are assigned a creative industry mentor to advise them throughout their incubation period and they can access a programme of on-going training and support, from how to access venture capital funding to specialised training on music production software or painting techniques.

There is also a business club at the Chocolate Factory. "For people who have ideas that they want to chuck around and get feedback from like-minded people. We also bring in specialists from the industry for surgery sessions," says Ambrasna.

With so many people from the creative industries sector working at such close quarters, Ambrasna says that one of the most valuable qualities of the Chocolate Factory is perhaps the simplest. "It's the cross-fertilisation of ideas, of swapping skills, discussing plans, working together, says Ambrasna. "It's a hugely important part of developing a business and one which only a hub is really capable of delivering."

At a gallery open day, Abraham sold 30 pieces in three hours

Working in a chocolate factory sounds like a school-boy dream, but if it wasn't for the creative industries hub at the Chocolate Factory in North London, Alexandra Abraham would still be struggling to run her business from her kitchen table.

Abraham is a glass painter. She has exhibited her work in London, New York, Salt Lake City and Japan. A graduate in woven textile design, she's been based at the Chocolate Factory for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in high fashion and as a secretary.

After taking time out to start a family, she says she realised that she needed to find a new means of self-expression. She attended a course at Hampstead School of Art and studied decorative painting techniques, learning to gild and create effects such as marbling, graining and lapis lazuli.

She then spent several years teaching and set up her own art techniques training company, Special Effects, with an interior design colleague.

But by 1998 she was teaching so much that she had no time for her own work. She closed Special Effects and began to look for studio space in which to concentrate on creating her own paintings.

"I'd read about the Chocolate Factory about 18 months previously, but there was a long waiting list. In the meantime, I put up notices in local shops and galleries. By coincidence, a girl at the Chocolate Factory was looking for someone to share her studio and she saw my notice, so I moved in, " recalls Abraham.

Her intention was to focus on painting on canvas. But at a gallery open day two months later, Abraham sold 30 pieces of glasswork in three hours. She had only created the glasswork because she hadn't had enough time to produce any paintings. Seeing its popularity, she decided to stick with glass.

She says one of the benefits of the Chocolate Factory is the tailored support that it offers tenants and the exchange of ideas with other artists. In addition, tenants do not have to pay rates or bills as they are covered by the rent.

The site's owners, Collage Arts, also offers a programme of business support which Abraham has been able to tap into. Courses include marketing, legal advice and ICT training. She was also paired with a mentor, artist Trevor Burgess, to help her develop the commercial side of the business.

More specifically, she says that the rolling programme of training enables her to acquire new skills that are outside the scope of other types of business support.

"We have been asked what courses we would like next year. The usual scenario is that funders decide what artists need without necessarily asking the artists, so it was fantastic to be consulted," she says. " We've asked for oil painting, observational and life drawing and canvas preparation, as well as web design and marketing courses. They are very receptive, so maybe I can finally make a start at painting on canvas."

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