I started CL5, a digital consultancy specialising in search engine marketing, in April this year. To launch and then develop the business, I needed more capital than I could afford to invest personally. I’d been kicking at the doors of all the major banks for a good six months asking the questions, with only sore toes to show for it.
I was in the most frustrating position in my professional life, having to turn business away. I just could not get enough capital in one hit to enable me to hire the people and buy the equipment in order to service the contracts.
Armed with a solid business plan, an experienced management team, a growing order book and a background of owning and running a successful design group for nine years, I felt we couldn’t have presented a safer case for lending us the money.
I listened to the mantra of Gordon Brown telling me to go back to the banks, as their doors would be open again. All of the MPs were boasting lending was starting again, yet at ground level it was non-existent. The attitude of banks didn’t improve at all. Their doors remained 100 per cent shut. The computer said ‘no’. I was getting nowhere fast.
With a business screaming for investment and nowhere to go, I sceptically dipped my toe in the public sector pond for help. I expected to get my leg bitten off and nothing else. I anticipated a similar response to that of the banks, but that’s not how it turned out.
I have just received the first payment of a £50 000 high-growth business investment grant from public sector agency North West Vision & Media. I was awarded this because I demonstrated I had a viable business plan, I was able to employ up to seven extra people and my business was in a high-growth sector.
Within three days of making contact with the Northwest Regional Development Agency, I was assigned an industry expert. He had been employed from the private sector which was my first surprise. He was also a pretty big hitter in our industry, which I also wasn’t expecting.
Looking at the business plan, the order book and the banks’ attitude, he calmly took us through what the public sector could do to help. Within a week, I had two options to apply for the finance I needed: a £50 000 investment grant and a £150 000 business loan from an NWRDA scheme.
I was expecting the next steps to be less efficient – and a lot more painful. I prepared for many weeks of form-filling, weekly meetings with failed business owners (known as ‘consultants’) and after six months of being told we weren’t eligible because my auntie had blonde hair… you get the picture.
I was completely wrong. The process I have been through was relatively simple, logical and quick. Not something I had previously associated with quangos and regional development agencies.
We were taken seriously and treated with respect as the professionals we were. Our urgent circumstances were fully understood and the people we dealt with reacted at the speed we needed.
The first phase was completing a relatively simple application form to register our interest. Within a week we were asked to submit our business plan and forecast three-year financials. Our plan was then assessed by the board and its approval was given two weeks later.
The third and final stage was to attend a Dragons’ Den-type meeting where a panel of NWV&M representatives and independent advisers would quiz us over our business plan and give an answer that day. It was a tough meeting, but we had planned and prepared on that basis.
True to form, we got a telephone call the same day saying, ‘All systems go’.
From making the telephone call asking for help to the first £30 000 landing in our account was just six weeks.
What I found was a willingness to help. It wasn’t pretentious. It wasn’t full of people who couldn’t get a job in the private sector. The whole process has left me feeling that the creative industries are taken far more seriously by the public sector than I could have ever imagined. It’s actually been enlightening and a positive experience.
Do I feel guilty about using public sector-backed money to grow my business? Not at all. Even the banks can only lend us back our money again now, and, like any loan finance, I’ve got to pay the money back, and at a slightly higher rate of interest than the norm.
I would have been sunk without someone stepping in and helping. Now I’m generating real jobs and opportunities for people to develop within the business, and we’re growing, rather than floating or sinking.
- Seek help early
- Assemble a project team
- Do your market research thoroughly
- Evidence the business case
- Differentiate yourself from the competition
- Understand the wider stakeholder picture
- Focus on the investment criteria