May 04, 2015

Doing Business Support Right

There are a lot of business support organisations in Liverpool. I'm not sure if there are really more than I encountered in Cambridge - whether it's a result of the area needing to "be regenerated" or if it's just because it's a bigger city or if I'm just noticing it more now. If it wasn't for the fact that pastries and coffee don't make a balanced diet, you could probably close the food banks by giving people a business suit to wear and signing them up to the right mailing lists.

The projects are all well meaning, and there is definitely room for more people doing interesting things in the city, including running more businesses.

However, lots of the "business support" falls short of making any real difference to things. I'm sure they'll have the survey results to prove different, but no-one gathers any figures for the amount of time lost by businesses trying to work out if this latest networking event is worth attending...

For the past five years or so the best - by a good margin, although that's partly to do with the quality of the competition - support for the tech community in Liverpool has been from LJMU's Open Labs.

Sadly, it looks like their funding is coming to an end and with it the support. I'm writing the blog post partly to thank them for what they've done for the city, and partly to try to capture why they were so helpful, in the hope that those following in their wake can raise their game.

So, a non-exhaustive list of ways to do business support properly...

  • Be part of the community. Get out of the building. Go and find the businesses you're supporting. Get to know them. Get to a point where they know you, and what you can help with. Then they'll start to refer people to you. Seek people out, as the most interesting ones will probably be too busy to come looking for you. This is the most important point in the entire list, as it makes the rest of your job much easier. It also means that at times you'll have to give up evenings or weekends, as some of the community's activities take place then.
  • Experiment. Try new things out and be creative in thinking of ways to support people. Jelly Liverpool started as a fairly low-key experiment to bring the Work at Jelly concept to Liverpool, yet it brought together all manner of freelancers and more into a community, and spawned groups on the Wirral and in Crosby.
  • Look for win-win solutions. Open Labs were keen to find ways that their support would bring benefit beyond what was immediately being funded. For example, as part of the support for OggCamp the Open Hardware Jam included building a 3d printer from scratch during the event. That meant that once the weekend was over, there was a 3d printer which could live at DoES Liverpool and enhance its workshop.
  • Make connections. Part of getting out and meeting the community means that you get to know lots of people and what they do. Use that knowledge to put people in touch with each other where there could be synergies or similar interests.
  • Get out of the way. If you can't help people, don't waste their time even if it would tick off one of your "outputs". Take Open Lab's Andy Goodwin's phrase "I get paid to have meetings, you don't." to heart and remember that the time you take up from businesses comes out of their pocket. Make sure it's worth it.
  • Work with everybody. Open Labs were always happy, and keen, to work with anyone in the city, if they were doing something good. Looking beyond petty rivalries to the bigger picture is something that I struggle with at times, and Open Labs were always a reminder to me that I should do better.
  • Do the hard work to work out what support is needed. The real support that businesses need isn't the generic support you wrote about in your funding application. And while everybody likes free money, there are often better options than doling that out. Combine the first two points on this list and you'll have much greater impact. The most valuable support that DoES Liverpool has had was when Open Labs bought a laser-cutter and installed it in our workshop. We've bought another one ourselves since, but Sophia the smaller laser-cutter has helped no end of businesses, artists, architects and more over the past three years. Other initiatives - such as the "how to film a product video" course or lean startup workshops were only useful for a few dozen companies, but provided far more value to them than a hundred networking events.
  • Amplify what's already going on. Use your time and funding to boost what the community is already doing. I've lost count of the number of times that discussions about an event or project have resulted in a quiet "we can help with that if you want" from Open Labs. Sometimes it's the tiny bit of cash that means the event can happen at all - such as them paying for the building to be open on a Sunday so Liverpool Girl Geeks could hold their International Women's Day event at DoES Liverpool; and other times it's a combination of sponsorship and the more important organising skills to arrange catering, navigate the university hierarchies to book a venue, etc. that take events like OggCamp or NHS Hackday to the next level.

It's not complicated, but it is hard.

Posted by Adrian at May 4, 2015 02:27 PM | TrackBack

This blog post is on the personal blog of Adrian McEwen. If you want to explore the site a bit further, it might be worth having a look at the most recent entries or look through the archives or categories over on the left.

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