Enterprising minds: Surge of interest in courses for budding entrepreneurs

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The Independent Online

With the repercussions of the global credit crunch no longer confined to the Square Mile and ordinary households tightening the purse strings amid fears for their jobs and pensions, it may seem perverse to call this a time of opportunity. Yet a period of upheaval can also be a time of renewal, with new business ideas arising from the ashes of the old.

Workers shaken from their corporate rut by lay-offs may take time out to review their options and move in a new direction, perhaps turning freelance or investing their redundancy package in a long-harboured business idea. Meanwhile, those already out of work and feeling the pinch – stay-at-home mums or the retired for example – may decide to bolster their income by setting up a web-based business that fits around school hours or turning a hobby into a cash-generating business.

In an effort to assist such people in these – and existing self-employment ventures – colleges are increasingly offering support, both in the form of formal qualifications or as a gateway to new business resources in the area.

The City of Wolverhampton College, for instance, is set to launch a new course aimed specifically at helping the jobless set up their own businesses. "When people lose their job, it can be an opportunity to look at where they are going in life and maybe take a different direction, particularly if they've got a redundancy package they can use to put towards setting up the new business," says Angela Hoyle of the college's employability service. "Once the initial shock of redundancy has passed, people look at their entire set of transferable skills, including their hobbies, and they can be really enterprising."

The new course will look at business planning, running an enterprise, producing a product and managing accounts. "We'll be bringing people in from Business Link to provide more support, so the course isn't just a quick fix to get a business set up but will provide ongoing training and mentoring as the business grows," says Hoyle.

But the college is also aware of the painful realities of the current economic malaise: the new business course was due to launch in late 2008 but was postponed until March 2009 while the institution's redundancy response service was fired up.

But, despite the rumblings of economic discontent, it seems there is no shortage of aspiring entrepreneurs among students. Odette Carew of South Thames College in Wandsworth reports that more than half the students on her BTEC business courses, which include modules on business planning, company structure and raising finance, plan to set up their own businesses. "By the time they have completed Level 3, they have a business plan they can take into an institution," says Carew.

Wolverhampton also reports a continued interest in business start-ups. Last year, The Learning Partnership organised a two-week project to encourage entrepreneurship in the city, attracting 180 people to an event that hosted speakers from Business Link and The Prince's Trust as well as local entrepreneurs who shared about their start-up experiences. And those 180 people weren't just there for the free lunch, says Jim Baker of The Learning Partnership, which is hosted and backed by Wolverhampton College. "We have just completed the follow-up to see whether people accessed the support that was offered and we've found that five new businesses have been set up since then, which is really pleasing."

Demand for the business incubator service run by Park Lane College in Leeds is also holding up in the face of the recession. "We are getting enquiries from people who have lost their jobs and are looking at self-employment and also from small start-ups that have the low overheads and flexibility to find a niche and be really competitive during these difficult times," says Park Lane's incubator manager Jennie Williams.

The college opened the incubator, known as The Unit, in March 2007. Since then it has supported 58 different start-ups across a wide range of sectors, including graphic design, film production and recruitment. Businesses can either be based in The Unit's affordable office "pods" or access the mentoring and training facilities on a virtual basis.

Colleges are not just there for budding Richard Bransons. As increasing numbers of people find themselves on short-term contracts or turn freelance, particularly those working in the arts and media, there are many small businesses that are one-man-bands. Here again, local colleges can help equip people with the skills to survive.

Northampton College, for example, has joined forces with leading digital instrument maker to become a Roland Academy of Music giving music students access to specialist equipment worth more than £70,000 as well as the chance to access world-class technical support and presentations from famous artists. In addition to developing their musical and technical skills, students at the college will work towards a Certificate in Entrepreneurship, accredited by Rockschool Exams.

"You might be a very good player but survival in the music industry requires more than that," says David Barnard, head of education at Roland UK, who points out that most people working in the music industry are self-employed. "The most successful people in the music industry tend to be switched-on in terms of business. We want our students to be street-savvy so they can turn their music skills into a career."

The Certificate in Entrepreneurship has four main components: the freelance practitioner; event management; creating a music website; and developing a business plan.

"Many practitioners are portfolio musicians: they play, teach, produce, work in studios or do some music journalism," says Barnard. "This course is about helping students challenge their assumptions about a career in music and to give them the wider skill base so they can turn their dream into a reality."

No matter what your entrepreneurial spark or creative talent is, there is no escaping the need for some solid business skills, support and contacts – and this is where your local college can make the difference between your new business surviving and thriving.

'I'd recommend grabbing these opportunities'

Former teacher Lorraine Moore started Lavenders in Camborne, Cornwall after inheriting a nursery from her father-in-law five years ago. She found a SMART Women course at Cornwall College boosted her business acumen and confidence

"After we inherited the nursery, we had to work out a way to regenerate the site and the idea of growing lavender just seemed to come to us. I gave up teaching because it was a full-time job trying to clear the site, regenerate it and learn more about lavender. We did lots of market research and visited Norfolk Lavender. We don't have enough acreage for the oil yield so we got a grant to build a traditional oak and red cedar barn, which is where we dry the lavender on Victorian clothes hangers. The business has blossomed but it has been hard work.

I joined the SMART Women business course after receiving an invitation from Cornwall College. If you work on your own, you can stagnate, so it's important to seek out fresh inspiration and ideas. In the mornings we covered all the groundwork stuff about running your own business – things like marketing, financing and all the horrible bits of paperwork that take a lot of discipline. Then in the afternoons we did 'soft skills' sessions, which I found really motivating and uplifting.

It was also wonderful to be mixing with all these ladies from different walks of life. All these different experiences enrich your understanding of business. Doing this course helped me open up a new Cornish line for the business, promoting Cornishness.

I'd recommend grabbing these kinds of opportunities with both hands. You never know where it might lead."