Community-based business support in London Lewisham
Brian Smith runs a small company called "Simple Business Solutions"(SBS). In the present economic climate many initiatives have been curtailed, but over the past 8 years, with some support from the municipality, SBS offered business advice, support and training to ethnic minority entrepreneurs in a particularly difficult situation: refugees, single parents, former convicts, or people with poor credit history. His approach has been to work with business advisers of different origins who are aware of the ways in which different cultures understand business relations. SBS advisors are always self-employed and therefore credible, being under the same market risks and constraints as the people they are advising.
Many aspiring entrepreneurs were single parents who could not afford to attend lengthy training courses. Workshops and seminars were therefore run at parent-friendly times and advisors were available to provide information when needed, in an accessible form and language. SBS encouraged refugees to set up businesses using their skills and talents, in spite of the lack of funding and the absence of role models operating in the official economy. Support from the municipality in the past made it possible under one project to offer simple things like a free package comprising a web site in their mother tongue and English, a leaflet, a letterhead, and a paypal account for online transactions, to facilitate first steps. In another initiative, SBS organised a couple of events incorporating a programme of seminars and advice sessions in different languages all held on the same day in one venue and with different types of business support on offer. These were particularly well-received.
In one highly innovative project aimed at formalising businesses operating in the grey economy, relationship development was as vital as the business support. A lot had to be done with reduced demand for information to help build trust at the outset. Innovative ways had to be found to account for the advice and ensure monitoring, but with trust, it then became possible to encourage the business to be formalised in order to become sustainable and grow. Once formalised, it was easier to get forms filled and signed!
Creating a way for people with poor credit history to start businesses from home, or in a market, where they would have to invest very little to start, meant for instance working closely with the housing department to make sure that these clients’ housing benefit was not automatically cut off as soon as they went into business. In some cases, by understanding the situation, clients and officials were able to manage the benefit in the early stages of the business. However, Brian pointed out that trust and friendly advice available when needed is often more important for these fragile businesses than money.
Many programmes for start-ups do not provide long-term support, or may insist on things like a business plan or an inflexible respect of rules which are too complicated for many new entrepreneurs. New entrepreneurs are very busy, and what works is when advisers can visit them or are easily accessible to provide advice when needed, and to explain in a simple way how they need to think through their pricing and manage expenses to be able to balance cash flow. The real achievement of SBS is that up to 60-70% of the businesses they have helped to start continue to exist after 2 years!
More information: www.sbsuk.eu