Nazir Associates Asian Business Support Programme
Discovering the marketing power of the internet - Asian Business Support Programme, Nazir Associates
Some of the poorest and run down parts of Birmingham are the areas of the highest Asian population. In these areas Asian business thrives, but it also has it problems. It is dominated by the retail sector and many businesses are ‘copy-cats’ – it is not uncommon to find several similar shops on the same street. Markets tend to be very limited, with little reach to other ethnic groups, or to outside the locality. Internet and IT capabilities tend to be low or non-existent.
The Nazir Associates Asian Business Support Programme (ABSP) aimed to address some of these problems by providing a 10-day package of support that could identify the needs of a business and help it access specialist support. ‘The major problem for Asian businesses is marketing,’ says Arshed Butt, Project Manager. ‘They set up shop, advertise and start their business. But when business falls they do not attempt to seek new markets. They need to break into mainstream markets, and that means updating their marketing materials and their marketing approach.’ Once of the most important ways to do this is through the internet. Traditionally Asian businesses have been slow to catch on to the internet revolution. In today’s internet world a website is an essential marketing tool.
The ABSP has helped over 80 businesses, over half its client group, set up websites. Most are simple brochure sites, with product information and contact details, though some have E-commerce facilities too. Ahmed of Autospec explains how his website has helped him improve his business. ‘I provide a specialist service in car window tinting and people are prepared to travel for quite away to get the service. The website has saved me a huge amount of time as I can point people to the information already there rather than explaining it each time on the phone. It has also helped me open up new business in the rest of Birmingham and the UK. I’ve even had an enquiry from the Gulf!’
The ABSP programme has also help businesses secure computer equipment at low cost. Most importantly it has installed it and trained staff in its use, often a major hurdle. The Asian Advisory Centre benefited from the implementation of a fully functional database to track enquiries and contacts. For 30 years the ACC had been manually filing over 5000 client cases. It has enabled staff to work more quickly and deal with more cases.
But IT solutions are not for all. ‘We believe that IT solutions are often not the primary constraint to growth in a small Asian business. Marketing is more likely to be the limit. The internet is a very important way to improve this, but new IT systems can provide more strain on a small business, once the training and down time have been factored in, though eventual productivity increases are usually guaranteed.’ The ABSP have found that when businesses really need IT solutions they will come looking for them. They are less likely to do this with marketing solutions.
While many Asian businesses are family concerns, often run by the older generation, with no IT background, the younger generation is increasingly taking over management. This new generation is gradually changing the face of Asian small business. The days of considering Asian businesses as IT-backwards is fast coming to an end.
Summary of Key Findings
• The 10-day business support package provides a useful, robust and replicable model of how to support existing small Asian businesses. The formula of 5-days needs analysis & business review from the project staff, followed by 5 days of more specialist consultancy input, allows support to be carefully budgeted, and professional inputs to be efficiently allocated. It also allows the client business to be clear about what they are going to receive and keeps them disciplined in how much support hey reach out for;
• While the 10 day package is not rigid, and has room for flexibility and follow-up it does create the impression of a more informal business support interface with less time for personal relationships and trust to develop. It might not be so appropriate for start-ups businesses where more mentoring and confidence building would be important;
• The model provides a good balance between a core project team with broad skills and a pool of consultants with more specialist skills. The core project team comprises of a marketing specialist an internet and database specialist. These skills and inputs have been central to improving growth and efficiency in the businesses.
• Asian clients appreciated being able to work with Asian project workers and consultants. This helped overcome language issues, but also allowed rapport to be built up more quickly;
• The ABSP has been particularly effective at helping small businesses manage consultancy inputs, by providing a bridge to a trusted expert and guiding them through the process of contracting, management and evaluation. Sourcing outside help can be core constraint to growth in a business.
• The project employed trainee ‘business consultants’. They helped provide business support under the 10-day package and, in some cases, were then able to graduate onto becoming successful freelance consultants. This has increased the pool of Asian consultants;
• There is a feeling among many Asian businesses that mainstream support has been too prescriptive and not responded to their needs. In some case clients have felt abused or conned and have invested considerable effort into completing reviews or plan that they do not feel have helped them;
• The most pressing need by Asian businesses has been to improve their image and spread better quality and more targeted information about their products. The main inputs have been support on branding and stationary design, producing catalogues and brochures, conducting telephone marketing and mailshots and launching brochure websites;
• This reflects the need that Asian businesses have to break out of traditional Asian and local markets and sell to a wider audience. More effective marketing, of which the web is one vehicle, is the main constraint to growth;
• IT support has been less in demand. Where it was applied it tended to be an additional asset that had positive impacts on productivity, once the system was set up and learnt, but was not the central constraint to growth. In some cases it drew energy out of the business and may not have been essential at its stage of growth. Generally when small businesses really need IT investment and support they tend to come looking for it or are able to source the hardware it themselves;
• The reflects the fact that many Asian businesses, although owned by older generations who are computer illiterate, tend to be run or at least supported by the younger generation who understand them well;
• The IT component of the project was based around supplying cheap computer systems with after sale support but once the cheap source of computers had been exhausted the initiative did not continue. Generally these packages had a positive impact on businesses, though did not always revolutionaries the way they worked and were not always used to full capacity; MORE HERE?
• NA itself also experimented with a sophisticated and comprehensive computer database to track enquiries, clients, project progress and provide reports and evaluations. This has been a useful resource, though a lot of information has been collected that does not seem to have been subsequently used on analysed and a full-time officer was employed almost fulltime in keeping the system up to date. There are question marks over whether such a detailed information system was the most effective use of resources. This reflects similar findings that suggest that lack of advanced IT systems are not the major constraint to small business growth;
• The innovations part of the programme, which aimed to help people turn ideas into patentable intellectual property was ambitious. Many ideas have already been patented plus the process to patent, product development and marketing is long, hard and expensive. Anyway, most business opportunities do not need to a unique business idea, simply good idea and a market niche. That said the programme had a high success rate compared to similar programmes;
• The innovations programme turned in an effective, but fairly standard, programme to support start-ups using an informal, personal one-to-one mentoring relationship with the Innovations Officer. This was appreciated by new business people;
• The PDF project gave the Project Director both the credibility and funding to get very involved in the policy agenda with respect to Asian business support in the region. This role and contribution should not be under-estimated;
• The PDF project has allowed NA to concentrate on small-scale business support to Asian clients in a way in IT would not otherwise have been able. It has developed core skills in these area and trained several Asian business support consultants. It is unclear, though, whether NA will in future continue to focus on practical business-support activities, with a more social focus, or move into engaging with wider issues of economic growth in the region and sector, with a more economic focus.
• Links to capital funding?
• NA focus on evaluation, and monitoring, and keeping excellent records
• Cultural sensitivity of advisors. Need for a larger base of Asaian / sensitive advisors
• Building a network of associate consultants who understand Asian business needs. Using trainees to build this base. Not relying only on core staff thus building capacity. Helping bridge the link with consultants.
• Consultants all had a high degree of repeat business, outside the scheme, indicating the success and demand for the services;
Personal Impressions of Visit, Organisation and Project
Nazir Associates is a small, slick, professional outfit. The ABSP is the main project of the organisation and its primary source of funding. PDF funding is supplemented with consultancy income, mainly through Mr Nazir’s high level networking and consultancy. The project has been implemented on a day-to-day basis by Butt, Majeed and Ogilvie. All have been with the project more or less since its inception. Their commitment, ownership, professionalism, initiative and ability are impressive. Mr Nazir takes a slightly more hands off role and is engaged in fulltime networking and representation with policy making bodies and government agencies, funded partly through the PDF project but also, probably, through his more mainstream business consultancy work. This means that while NA is a small organisation, it wields a lot of influence in the region and has contributed to significant policy change. It also means the project team are highly empowered and have been able to really steer the project’s course.
The project itself has been a success though its two most innovative streams – IT support and innovations (the reasons why the project was chosen for case study) - have not been so successful and the project evolved away from these after trying them. The team has a strong commitment to ethnic business support and understand the sector well. The director, Mr Nazir, is perhaps slightly more interested in broader economic goals, such as broader sub-sector support, and these could draw the organisation away from more purely social aims. This steer is one of the reasons the follow-up ‘building on the best’ project was rejected for follow-up funding.
One slightly ironic element of the project is that, although it invested a lot of resources into its own information systems and evaluations, it has been difficult to get data on the range of clients supported, or results of the evaluation and feedback from the services.
Where will follow up funding for NA come from now that PDF funding has finished?
Background to the Problem Tackled
Asian businesses form a significant proportion of SME businesses in Birmingham. Further, many are in the most run down parts of the city and are run by those in bottom income quartile of the population. Asian businesses have traditionally found it hard to access traditional mainstream business support because they are often micro enterprises (not catered for well by the mainstream) and are run by people whose first language and culture is often not English. Asian business also feel more comfortable with support that is culturally sensitive, which usually means it needs ot be provided by Asians. Further, traditional mainstream support has not been well publicised in Asian circles and there is generally scepticism about its use and appropriateness. NEED for client sensitive business support in ethnic languages. ADD problems of insensitive support. NEED for Improve innovation support to Asian entrepreneurs. Need for IT and E-commerce and internal systems.
Asian businesses face a variety of constraints to growth, but key among these are limited markets, usually within the Asian locality, and little use of IT systems. EXPAND
WHY IT IS INNOVATIVE?
This PDF project ran from January 2001 to January 2004, though a six month delay to start has given it an effective life of 2.5 years.
The project works across all sectors and specialises in Asian dominated regeneration areas: Saltley and Smallheath in Birmigham, with work in Sandwell near Birmingham too. The majority of businesses on these areas are Pakistani but there are also Kashmiri, Indian and Bangladeshi businesses. Most are between 1 and 4 employees. 70% are in the retail sector.
The project and was composed of three parts:
- The largest part and core was a programme of business support. This aimed to provide business support to small ethnic minority Asian businesses suffering social exclusion Support was provided through a 10-day package. This included a basic assessment of needs followed by more specialist consultancy inputs from Nazir Associate staff and external professionals. The programme was publicised and promoted widely, particularly through outreach walks by ‘recruitment officers’ who visited 100s of Asian businesses to win confidence and trust. During the course of the programme links were established with a number of existing consultants and specialists who NA knew could provide effective, and culturally sensitive, support to Asian businesses. Central to the approach were client-sensitive business support, in ethnic languages if required. The project also aimed to increase the base of Asian business consultants in the area and took on a number of trainees who later graduated to support businesses directly and independently.
- The second part of the programme, and about 25% of the PDF project costs, was a support programme for innovations and start-up enterprises. It aimed to work with Asians who had patentable ideas and support them in the process of developing and marketing them. It also worked extensively with new start-ups that did not include a patentable idea.
- The third part of the programme was an ICT and E-commerce support project which was incorporated into the support and outreach of the former two. It aimed to give Asian businesses cheap computer systems and help them set them up and lean how to sue them. It also aimed to improve internal systems and, particularly, to provide E-commerce and internet services. This component to did not extend beyond the first year.
The project also worked on access to finance and networking and influencing via regional policy and strategy boards.
Inputs and Staffing. The ABSP programme was run by a project manager working with 2-3 trainee business consultants. The innovation programme was staffed by one member (who changed half way through the project). The IT programme was incorporated into the previous two support programmes, but an IT officer was employed to support this, as well as keep the project database running, and handle the monitoring and evaluation.
Results information from QuestionnairesRs
500 businesses supported [define], 350 IT and internet 175 in-depth support 30 innovation and start-ups 5 business advisors trained and accredited
Y1 – 50 supported Y2 – 60 supported Y3 – 62 supported
Story & Evolution of the NA ABSP project to date, including its key actors
Nazir Associates was founded in 1995 and works in a range of business support and analysis including:
- Sales and marketing
- Product cost analysis and pricing policy
- Product development and process analysis
- Business services and management services
- Customer care and cultural awareness
- Business planning
- Manufacturing strategy
- Project management
- Small business and E-commerce policy
- Financial programmes and initiatives
- Human resources development
- Regeneration and government policy
The particular challenges to Asian Businesses
- Problems with mainstream business support
- Limited marketing knowledge and scope
- Limited knowledge of, or access to, IT
- Support to Innovations
- Support to start-ups
- How well did the model work?
Businesses in the areas tended to have suspicion even of free schemes, most asking ‘what’s the catch?’ or ‘how do I know this we will benefit me and not just waste my time?’ Often previous schemes had provided little of benefit or had promised things (particularly funding or loans) that did not materialise.
Businesses were recruited through a variety of methods:
- Cold calling and talking to business people during patch walks – 75%
- Word of mouth recommendations – 15%
- TV interviews - 5%
- Referrals from mainstream agencies – 1%
- Press releases – 1%
- Mailshots – 1%
- Newsletters and flyers (5000 dropped) – 1%
- Website – 1%
The figures next to each give an indication of what percentage were recruited through each method. Cold calling and building up an initial rapport was the most important, but was also the most time consuming. Word-of-mouth, as always in such schemes, was effective. Dropping flyers and newsletters, even though they included success stories and case studies from the locality, didn’t seem to have much impact. Over 500 were dropped and only 20 enquiries received of which a handful led to the business support package. The website also didn’t generate many enquiries, probably because few of the Asian businesses use the internet (before the project anyway). The few local TV interviews that were done did yield some results, perhaps because of the large audience they reached.
Personal meetings with the project staff, or recommendations about the project, tended to be the main way in which businesses would sign-up. The patch walks involved the project recruitment staff, particularly the project manager, visiting businesses and speaking directly to the business person about their business and the possible benefits of the scheme. Often these businesses were clustered along certain streets or retail areas. NA estimate that of 1500 eligible businesses in the two target areas over 500 businesses were visited or contacted in this way. For every 2-3 meetings with businesses, one signed up. About 180 businesses eventually received the business support package.
Overall, personal approaches worked best and reflect the distrust and nervousness people have around employing unknown entities to get involved in the deepest internal running of their businesses. Business to most Asian entrepreneurs is a private matter and those outside the family are rarely allowed to get involved.
10-day programme – Needs analysis & Business Report
If businesses agreed to join the scheme the officer filled out a recruitment form, either on the recruitment visit, or more likely on a follow-up. This gave basic information about the business and prepared the ground for the main package of support. The main package involved the recruitment officer or project manager filling in a more comprehensive questionnaire – on staff, products, turnover, marketing and sales - while talking through the business with the proprietor. This created a mini-business plan for the enterprise and allowed needs to be analysed. This meeting was useful in its own right but the main use was to define a further package of support from NA core staff and associated consultants. From this a contract of services was drawn up, in very plain terms, which told the client what to expect. Each enterprise received 10 days, the breakdown of which looked like this:
- 1 day – recruitment meeting and form, plus general administrative time
- 2 days – questionnaire to review business plan and needs analsyis
- 2 days – floater days from core NA / project staff, to be used at any point during the project
- 5 days – consultancy inputs as defined in the needs analysis
Clients said they valued the following elements of the programme:
- The personal manner in which a relationship with the business advisor was developed, built upon several introductory meeting and the knowledge that they could contact the business advisor at any time;
- The fact that business advisors came from their own cultural background, understand the nature of small Asian businesses and sole proprietorships, and the possibility to talk in their own ethnic language if they wished;
- The needs analysis, which did not require such a thorough and resource intensive (draining) as proper business planning, but which helped them think through the issues in their business and identify where they most needed support;
- The plain and simple terms in which the discussions and agreements were worded, in particular the lack of jargon or technical English. This inspired confidence and trust and meant they felt they could keep up with all element sof the discussions;
- The introduction to local consultants, and the support and mentorship given by NA in overseeing and managing the consultant contract (see below);
- The quality and effectiveness of the consultant services which all had major productivity and growth impacts on their business (see below);
10-day programme – Consultancy support
A central simple but innovative part of the Business Support package was the introduction to local, ethnically sensitive business consultancy services. While many businesses already had relationships with traditional consultants, particularly accountants, many had not brought in other skills and advice because:
- They did not know who to contact;
- They had concerns about working with non-Asian consultants;
- They did not have experience in managing, or understanding the wording of, the contractual relationship and feared they would be over charged or given poor service [issues to do with not understanding rights?];
The ABSP drew on about 12 associated consultants during the lifetime of the project, though the majority of cases went through 6 core consultants, mainly providing forms of marketing support, with whom NA had built up strong working relationships. Almost all were of Asian origin and understood the needs of Asian businesses well, in particular the need to communicate in jargon-free plain ethnic language and to keep costs down. Only one was white, but he was a tele-marketer and this was important because he was involved in helping client break into new, mainly white, markets.
The six were made up of:
• Three in web design, hosting and E-commerce, sometimes with ICT inputs [see example of E-for-knowledge]; • Two in graphic design, stationery and printing [see example of X-press]; • Two in tele-marketing.
While these made up the most part of the inputs received, computer training, product design, fashion design, basic accountancy, health and safety and business plan were all provided too in individual cases.
Asian Business Needs & Advice Given
In Asian business people’s own words, many Asian business operate in a ‘desi’, or ‘like home’ style. Often shops will be open 9-12 rather than 9-5, businesses start-ups will copy-cat existing businesses that are doing well (such as opening agrocer stors next to an existing one) and will be poor at breaking into new, non-Asian or mainstream markets.
Asian businesses tended to require marketing support first and foremost. There was a tendency for businesses to some limited advertising early on in the business, enjoy some growth, but then wonder why growth then tailed off or dipped. Some of the common advice given to all businesses was to reinvest a proportion of profits into advertising and marketing so that the business could keep growing.
[Non-Asian businesses tended to require other types of assistance such as advice on customer service or staff development.]
Evaluation [include under Organisation]
Monitoring included recruitment form, business report, activity sheets, evaluation feedback forms. Evaluation forms completed after 6 months – mainly assessing how effective they found the consultancy, not how their business had been improved.
SRB Saltley and Small Heath. 600 businesses supported with business growth across major sectors
Food Manufacturing Sector Development. 60 businesses in-depth support.
Impact on and lessons for Mainstream
Many clients indicated that they didn’t want anything to do with mainstream business support services. Asian businesses said they needed services that were more suited to their needs, and less packaged to larger businesses, or the advisors concept of what their business needed. They said they appreciated a more flexible service, one that was prepared to fit into their busy time schedules. NA emphasised that persistence was often key and it wasn’t uncommon to have to re-visit or re-schedule if a client was too busy on the day agreed for the meeting. Clients also emphasised the need for value in the service, and the feel that were being given more than they were paying for, perhaps not being charged for providing a specification, or for follow-up services.
Clients and project staff explained that language and cultural barriers were some of the main reasons for this disinterest in the services, but indicated other issues too. They felt that large ethnic and language barriers existed too. There was innate nervousness about meeting a white man in a suit, almost a disease or mild sense of intimidation, which did make them feel comfortable or easily able to absorb information. They said that Asian advisors gave them a sense ease, and a greater sense of trust, which was important for building rapport and a food sense of mutual understanding. Finally being able to speak in their own language, in a jargon free manner, was particularly important for helping meetings go well and for helping them understand the information being put across.
All this said, some Asian businesses had received some useful services. The services were considered to be rather specific, and not always useful to smaller businesses.
Itinerary of visit
Wednesday 29th October 2003 Daniel Start
10.00 – 11.00 Introduction to Project Officers
Introduction to the project and its team, excluding Mr Nazir (Project Director):
- Arshed Butt (Project Manager)
- Abdul Majeed (Innovation Officer)
- Angus Ogilvie (Operational Manager)
- Asif Ikbal (Recruitment Officer and trainee business support consultant)
11.00 – 12.30 Presentation on ABSP from Arshed Butt, Project Manager
Arshed’s training is in marketing and he manages the main part (the 10 day support package) of the ABSP and thus the main part of the PDF project. Arshed has been involved with recruitment of most of the businesses (about 150) who have signed up to the support programme and been the in-house expert providing advice and support on marketing copy and materials, branding, logos, and telesales strategies.
12.30 – 1.30 Presentation from Abdul Majeed, Innovations Officer
Abdul was a business support officer in Pakistan and has all round experience of helping start-ups. He managed the innovation and new start-ups part of the ABSP, working with approximately 50 clients.
2.30 – 3.30 Presentation from Angus Ogilvie, Operational Manager
Angus developed and manages the IT support systems for this project. He also provided the core IT support skills for the business support packages helping clients with basic databases and basic websites.
3.30 – 5.00 Mr Nazir, Project Director
Mr Nazir conceived the project and has worked supporting Asian businesses most of his career. He spends much of his time networking and supporting new regional initiatives that can take the lesson from the project into the mainstream and influence policy.
Thursday 30th October 2003
9.00 - 10.00 Scrapbook time
Time spent with individual case files, project promotional materials, progress report.
10.00 – 11.00 Client visit to Kashmir Press
The Kashmir Press is a new start-up publishing a free newspaper for the extensive Kasmir community in Birmingham. It received support to develop its business plan and has subsequently received some capital funding from the Halal fund. It wishes to expand to nationwide coverage.
11.00 – 12.00 Client visit to Panache Picture Frames
Panache have set-up a picture frame importing business and received assistance in creating its marketing materials and brochures
12.00 – 1.00 Client visit to Autospec
Using a marketing advice and a website, supplied by the ABSP, Autospec has been able to promote itself more effectively as a niche supplier of tinted glass and gearbox overhauls.
2.00 – 3.00 Consultant visit to X-press Graphic Design
X-press are one of the consultant the ABSP recommends and refers to. It has helped several clients with their marketing needs.
3.00 – 4.00 Consultant visit to E-for-knowledge
E-for-knowledge are one of the consultants ABSP recommends and refers to. It has helped several clients produce brochure websites. Some have gone on to develop more sophisticated sites as well.
4.00 – 5.00 Final meeting with Mr Nazir possibilities to take the project lessons forward
Notes and references
NAZIR ASSOCIATES Address : 11 Crown Road Bordesley Green Birmingham B9 4TT Description : Business support Providing Business Development support and practical assistance to businesses seeking growth/ development. Contact : Mr Mohammed Nazir, Managing Director
Telephone :0976 272801