Business support network

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Business Link Birmingham set up the he Business Support Network in Birmingham. they found that by helping develop local trade associations and community-based information services, it was able to help small businesses from deprived and ethnic minority communities gain the support that they needed.

"We found that trying to target some of the inner-city businesses directly just didn't work;' says Paul Hanna, senior operations manager at Birmingham Business Link, the organisation that runs the Business Support Network. "They didn't know who we were, and couldn't see where we fitted in with their priorities. Trying to go in and preach marketing and business techniques was useless:'

Instead, the team concentrated on developing relationships with local trade associations, which were often run by just one or two local business people. They were trying to provide a communal focus point for a group of traders or businesses in one particular community, where a trusting relationship existed and the issues were common, often in their own time and at their own cost. Sometimes it's better not to get rid of the middlemen, especially where they add value. The Network worked to put these associations on a more formal footing, helping them to become registered companies and to access funding for members of staff.

By doing so, the project was able to help them really get to grips with the issues facing small businesses.

"We found that a lot of inner-city enterprises needed help sorting out their problems with security or other environmental concerns such as rubbish collections or access for their customers and staff;' says Mr Hanna. "At that point they simply weren't interested in talking to us. Yet once we helped the trade associations address their immediate concerns, this started to change:'

The project organised meetings between associations and local businesses to build relationships that would help business owners voice their concerns and talk through any problems they might be facing.

"They could act as a bridge between service providers and inner city business owners." By attending these meetings, the Business Support Network was also able to offer assistance with financial planning, and advice on how to take their product or services to mainstream audiences. The project also started distributing a newsletter with details of available training opportunities and seminars on particular issues, such as finance, taxation or employment law.

By working in this way, a network of 30 business groups has been created, which has brought together over 4,000 small businesses and key service providers. This would have been impossible before the start of the scheme.

"Empowering the middle-person to develop a trusting and mutual relationship with local traders and enterprises meant that they could act as a bridge between service providers and inner city business owners;' says Paul. "We were then able to respond to the particular issues facing these small businesses by reworking our programmes to meet their different demands, which would have been impossible before:'

Birmingham Business Link Contact Paul Hanna