Bootstrap enterprises

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Estate based enterprise support

When the project was dreamt up amid the turn of-Millennium dotcom frenzy, its goal - helping unemployed youngsters living on six of Hackney's most deprived estates to set up in business as IT entrepreneurs - must have sounded like a sure fire winner. But the post-September 11 downturn in the City, together with the post-Millennium Bug retrenchment, soon combined to make the idea of setting up in business as a dotcom entrepreneur a far less appetising prospect.

Social enterprises, like their private sector counterparts, are never immune from the vagaries of the market, as Bootstrap Enterprises' project discovered to its cost.

"It was not working and we were not getting people through," says Bootstrap's community enterprise Manager, Mark Reedman. The company, which was providing services to tackle social inclusion and promote neighbourhood renewal long before they became Whitehall buzzwords, realised that it had to tweak its services to adjust to changed economic circumstances. Many aspects of the programme remain in place, including the provision of business start-up advice and support to micro and social enterprises in Hackney and surrounding London boroughs. And some of the micro-businesses still operate in IT, offering hardware set-up and software support services.

With Phoenix Fund backing, Bootstrap has been able to take business support into hitherto uncharted territory on some of east London's toughest council estates. Many of the project's clients have been from ethnic minority backgrounds by default, Mr Reedman says, because they tend to be living in the most deprived areas.

"We tended to get lower skilled, more challenging clients who have an idea, but didn't have a bank account," he says. "They may have a fantastic idea but may not have written anything down." The lack of a bank account meant many were unable to get help from local single regeneration budget projects. Bootstrap has been able to help such clients progress to a stage where other agencies will then take them on and make further progress with them.

The Sarpong twins represent one of the project's success stories. Joseph and Patrick have set up the design2winz graphic design business. Recently they were working flat out producing a full colour brochure and an international conference presentation for an important local charity.

Despite its slow start, the project has exceeded its targeted outcomes. Around 400 people have been assisted, 300 of those in the last 12 months of the programme. More than 50 businesses have been established and a business network is up and running.

Mr Reedman says Bootstrap's experience underlines the importance of flexibility. Instead of continuing with the original plan, Bootstrap was able to hold up its hands, admit that what it wanted to do was not working, and start afresh. "If we hadn't done that, we would still be flogging a dead horse, helping with IT," he says.

The flexible nature of the Phoenix Fund meant that it was possible to shift the focus of the programme, he adds. But he argues that there is an important lesson for too many projects that are scared to change tack because of restrictions imposed by the funding regimes within which they operate. He says: "If it's not achieving the results, then it's a waste of public money."