ENTERPRISE HQ is a hub in Shrewsbury town centre, operated by Shropshire Enterprise Partnership. Its task is to support local home based businesses in making vital connections, establishing clear routes to market and accessing good business advice and support.
The centre is part-funded by the regional development agency Advantage West Midlands’ Rural Regeneration Zone. The Agency recognised that Shropshire had a high proportion of home businesses. 'We began to see that mainstream business support services were not appropriate for this group,' says Ian Edwards, Head of Rural Partnerships at AWM. 'There was a gap that needed to be filled and Enterprise HQ was an appropriate response.'
With 41% of all businesses now home based in the UK, according to surveys published by DBERR (formerly the DTI), this kind of facility looks to be long overdue.
There are some other similar initiatives, notably Digital Peninsula Network in Cornwall (case study here). But public sector business support premises are all too often stuck in a 1980s rut - soulless meeting spaces aimed at men in suits driving to out of town business parks.
The Enterprise HQ model is now being considered for a roll out across the more rural parts of the West Midlands. A number of market towns in the region could get their own hub facilities, some where live/work development is planned such as Ross-on-Wye.
Being based in market towns where otherwise 'under the radar' home based businesses already visit to shop/socialise is a key factor.
Modern, attractive and welcoming
'Accessibility is essential in every sense,' says project director Fay Easton. 'Enterprise HQ's look and feel is very different to traditional business park-type premises. Although we have furnished with meeting tables and chairs rather than sofas, we have made the seating very comfortable and high spec.'
There is a cappuccino machine, a large plasma screen with web connection, even an 'entrepreneur’s kitchen' where food-related members can show off their services to others at the centre.
There is a very attractive meeting room available for hire. And tables can be booked for meetings in the open space with wifi facilities (an access key is made available to enable people to go online with their laptops).
'There were at first some eyebrows raised at the kind of facilities we were asked to support here,' admits Ian Edwards of AWM. 'But now it is up and running we can all see that the environment created is in fact extremely conducive to enterprise.
'I think the female touch here has been important too. Enterprise HQ is not aimed only at women by any means, but this place feels very different to the rather male atmosphere of many business parks.'
The loo is a good example of the centre's 'special place' environment. More akin to what you would expect in a nightclub lounge or an expensive restaurant, it symbolises a completely different approach to enterprise that is much more appealing to home based businesses.
'We wanted a commercial centre that felt comfortable and modern as well as rather special,' says Fay Easton. 'Home based businesses often don't have the space at home to create professional work and meeting space. This environment allows them the luxury of coming here to work in a different environment when they want to. It also helps them to present themselves as more dynamic, more businesslike and more confident.'
The contemporary business-like surroundings help change the perception that home-based business operators are less professional than their commercial property based counterparts. This allows them to take on new opportunities.
Over 300 small businesses are members. Many display their cards on the wall as you walk in. They cover an incredibly wide range of sectors, from kitchen design to software, party equipment to personal finance.
'We want to publicise the vast array of businesses being operated from homes in this rural county,' explains Fay. 'We find that whatever the product or service, home based businesses have much in common with each other's way of working and share many challenging barriers to growth.'
One of the aims of Enterprise HQ is to connect potential collaborators who can either inter-trade or collectively undertake bigger projects. 'We are making all these businesses visible to one another for the first time,' she says. 'This helps them consider teaming up to offer more services to their clients by creating ad hoc teams.' A website designer might work with a photographer, e-commerce expert and a writer, for example.
Home based business, according to the Live Work Network report Under the Radar should be treated as a sector in its own right. This is a view fully supported by Enterprise HQ. 'You don't help home based businesses expand their turnover by just linking up groups of them doing the same thing!' says Fay. 'They need to extend their offer.'
Members are encouraged to run events at Enterprise HQ themselves. This provides promotion for the organising business and in return they have to provide genuinely useful information to attending members. It's a very effective way to get them networking and increasing sales.
Barter of services is encouraged informally, but tax restrictions mean a more formal system of in-kind trading is not on the agenda.
Usage of the centre by members is largely on a 'per event' or ‘organised meeting’ basis – except for those who live/work in the town or use the town centre regularly. There is a weekly Saturday workshop from 10am – 1pm.
There are a team of Front Desk Managers who also support member businesses in many other ways. One of Fay Easton's top tips for a hub is: 'Make sure you've got a top quality multi-skilled can-do team.'
The hub has had a number of inspirations. 'We were keen develop a hub concept here along the lines of overseas initiatives,' says Fay Easton. 'In Singapore I saw a business hub within a city centre mall bring together 800 artisan businesses to retail their products.'
Does she have any top tips? 'Yes. Listen to the businesses themselves. They have all the best ideas for the hubs! And in our case in Shropshire, the local newspaper partnership has been crucial. Without powerful media coverage, we would have been much slower making inroads into the home-based business community.
'The town centre location has worked in Shrewsbury as it allows rurally based businesses to access us by public transport. People also discover the venue by walking or driving past and by noticing what we are doing in the press. Having said that, there is also a place for a dedicated Enterprise HQ, located within specialised live/work developments which themselves will get noticed in a market town or city neighbourhood.'
One of the centre's main challenges is to address the number of its members that do not have their own domains or websites. 'Some don’t even have email yet,' Fay says. 'We want to get as many as possible to brand themselves online because that is the shop window for many home based businesses - and it can be a much more professional looking "place" than their spare room or kitchen table!'
Shropshire Enterprise Partnership are currently working with a local technology company to develop an e-commerce website for independent shops and this could provide a model for collectively putting the home based businesses on line. This new site also serves as a promotional tool for the area, with listings such as ‘50 best things about the county’.
There is little linkage with the Chamber of Commerce at present, but Fay is in discussions with the county Chamber to explore ideas about how this can be encouraged when appropriate.
'Effectively we are incubating potential new Chamber members. We would love to work with our local Chamber to look at joint events and seminars. But that's all to come. The priority now is to get the home based businesses linked up well with one another, out in the open and increasingly professionalised and energised.'
The centre sees itself as a contract delivery point for groups like Business Link. All funding is moving towards contract delivery not grant, so this should help hubs like this in the future. 'A combination of hub income and contract delivery of mainstream services seems to be the way ahead for this kind of service, ' says John Cowles of Live Work Network's Workhubs service.
'For Enterprise HQ to be successful in the long run, it needs to continue to make the case that there are gaps in service provision that only a project like this can address,' says Ian Edwards of AWM. 'It's a very modern solution and I would certainly encourage other Regional Development Agencies to consider how this approach could benefit their economy.'
Launched on National Work From Home Day in May 2007
Funded by Advantage West Midlands' rural regeneration zone, match business sponsorship and income from members
Membership target for three years (300) met in first six months
Collective economic activity generated by members: over £15 million
Members employ an additional 125 staff
£10 per month membership rate, £25,000 business sponsorships, £10,000 corporate /collective memberships (eg councils, chambers)
Three front desk managers total 40 hours per week
Home based contractors used provide marketing and telesales, health and safety advice, finances and accounts, membership development and copywriting
Up and coming projects include a book Entrepreneurs at home in Shropshire and a 'Millionaires in Training' Saturday workshop for members to explore new ideas