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Chris White

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What it takes to be a successful startup or SME in Greater Manchester

When Ian Brown from The Stone Roses said that “Manchester has everything except a beach”, he wasn’t far wrong. Greater Manchester is one of the most rapidly expanding cities in the world let alone the United Kingdom with areas such as Salford and Trafford Park being regenerated to become highly desirable locations for businesses of all sizes.

The BBC and ITV have now moved significant chunks of their production to the purpose-built MediaCity UK by Salford Quays, while Trafford Park has become one of the biggest industrial areas in the country with links to the rest of the UK and ferry trips to Ireland are also easily accessible.

It’s not just the major corporations who have settled in Greater Manchester, however, as many smaller independent companies are spotting gaps in the market for goods and services; and this is encouraging more and more people to go it alone to turn their pipe dreams into a reality. Everywhere you look there are new offices being opened and, just taking the trendy Northern Quarter as an example, there are small spaces in relatively run-down areas being transformed into popular and thriving bars, restaurants and cafes.

Manchester is also set to become the home of Tech North, a government-backed organisation that has startups as its primary focus, and this is set to be located in the Northern Quarter, close to the city centre. A report compiled by the government said that cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Brighton and Belfast have all shown “strong growth” in the digital industry, and by announcing the plans for Tech North it looks set to encourage more startups in the industry to follow suit.

With a little bit of ambition and an end goal in your sites, anyone can make a successful business and Manchester is now filled with plenty of companies and individuals doing just that. It isn’t just the major sectors where you find this, it’s spread right across the board from the aforementioned cafes and restaurants right through to office-based companies and those jumping on ‘hot right now’ industries.

The definition of a startup, according to Investopedia, is a company that is in the first stage of its operations. These companies are often initially bank rolled by their entrepreneurial founders as they attempt to capitalize on developing a product or service for which they believe there is a demand. The fact is, however, that it’s just a relatively new business looking to grow into the market and make a success, essentially risking it all for the excitement associated with running and growing a business, regardless of whether they’ve been around for five months or five years.

Manchester-based accountants Alexander and Co, who work closely with a lot of startups and SMEs based in and around the Greater Manchester area, have taken a closer look at some of those industries and what the business owners have made of their experiences so far.

The technology sector is one in particular that is thriving. London has always been the go-to city for those in the tech industry, but in recent years more and more have been looking to stay out of the capital and forge their future in other parts of the UK like Birmingham, Leeds and, of course, Manchester.

FireCask, an SEO, WordPress Development and Content Creation agency on King Street in Manchester city centre, recently celebrated their first birthday and Director Alex Moss said that the original plan wasn’t even to start a business. Yet twelve months on they have eight full-time members of staff, a graduate starting in July and a tenth employee in the pipeline.

“Starting FireCask was instead a natural progression from being freelancers”, (with wife Anna). “We simply attracted more work that eventually gave us the freedom to do it full time. From there, the next progression to growing the business happened in exactly the same way.

“Most of our friends moved to London as that was the city where there was more possibility of career progression. Fortunately for us, being Manchester born and bred, the city is a hub for the digital industry and helped us form and develop a business without changing any other aspect of our lives.”

He went on to say that “The issues we encountered in the early days mainly focussed around efficiency. Project management within the online marketing world has lots of elements that can be lost within much larger projects. To deal with this we’ve been able to use a number of tools to help us with that, as well as handle collaboration much better. We use a range of platforms such as Google Drive, Trello, Wrike and GIT.”

As for advice for anybody looking to start a business in and around Greater Manchester, Alex has this advice: “Be passionate, and expect to work all the time. If you’re not 100% dedicated to the future of the business it will start to topple. Also ensure you hire a good accountant as, no matter how confident you are with figures, is something worth paying for. You have more important things to be doing!”

Independently owned insurance specialists Risk Box, located near to Newton Heath, was founded in 2012 and Director Michael Henderson told us his story about setting up in Manchester.

“The insurance industry has change ridiculously over the years” he said. In the past you would see smaller brokers offering personal and expert service. Now they’ve been swallowed up by large corporate “consolidators” who often will only survive by continual purchase of further brokers. I don’t feel its the right way to look after clients, so I decided to set my own brokerage up to do things my way and haven’t looked back since.

“I’ve spent most of my working life in the North West and wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else” he said. “The creative talent up here is amazing, and not just in Manchester, but also Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield. I just hope that over the next few years the communities get closer and work together as a collective north, as that would be a powerhouse.”

There were problems encountered the way, however as you might expect from all startups. “The two main problems I’ve found is the reputation and distrust of insurance itself” he said, “as there are so many misleading products and pitfalls in the fine print of certain insurance policies.

“The other problem is that people often see it as a tax bill - intangible and the pure driver is cost reduction - which is a false economy with insurance, and certainly not the way to truly protect a business.”

Michael also had two top tips for other prospective business owners looking to start out in Manchester. His advice is to “Keep costs low from the start to get into a stronger financial position before going live. It takes the pressure off so you can decide to go for the right clients rather than chasing numbers to keep afloat.

“Secondly, always give. Most people really do appreciate help and support, and you would be amazed how well its reciprocated, and often where you would least expect it (be nice).”

Manchester has always been known for its fashion with plenty of different styles around, and Dead Legacy joined the party in 2010 when Danny and Nick Costello founded the company on Oak Street in the Northern Quarter. Danny said that “We’re a clothing brand targeting 18 - 30 year old men and women, specialising in t-shirts, sweats and hoodies and in the coming years we hope to expand overseas trade from our current European stockists and target new territories such as Asia.”

Why Manchester? Well that was a pretty easy answer: “There are some high quality staff, it’s an internationally renowned city, and there’s a progressive entrepreneurial attitude” Danny said. For further newcomers to the Manchester scene - in the fashion industry and the wider business world - his recommendations were to “Work out your USP early on and stick to it so you can stay focussed. Then you can progress and hire staff who have the right attitude and care about the company. Also, do as much as you can in-house as this affords greater control than outsourcing to agencies who might not get it right.”

Salford-based Bearded Fellows who specialise in animation, video production for start ups and SMEs whilst also partnering with digital agencies; were founded in 2012 by four Manchester Metropolitan University graduates who studied various creative degrees and settled on one common career path - they didn’t want to work for anyone else! That approach seems to have worked pretty well for them so far as they were recently nominated for a Prolific North Award in the Best Newcomer category.

One of the four co-founders, Joe Gosling (aka Bearded Joe), said that they decided to stay in Manchester because “[the city] is open and welcoming due to such an interesting history and appreciation for creativity and attitude towards doing your own thing. From the moment we started working we have had nothing but positive attitudes towards becoming our own bosses.

“Manchester is a diverse city and a hub of creativity. It’s history as a powerhouse resonates through its centre, for industry, academia, football, music, regeneration and now the creative and digital sector. They even invented computers and split the atom here.”

Bearded Fellows also faced challenges in the early years, as Joe described: “Cash flow was the biggest problem. We were a startup company with no investment and we didn’t know what was available for new companies in terms of investment and growth acceleration. We were just happy to be creating again and having the freedom to work on something we loved, not calling shops to sell ice cream in the winter or waiting tables!

“During our first year, we only created animation and due to the process of getting a client from concept to delivery, we were struggling to maintain monthly wages due to late payments. We overcame these problems by securing recurring payments through our creative education programmes at our partnered schools and colleges. This allowed us to target animation and video projects that interested us instead of working only for the money.

“Since then this has become part of the ethos of our company, we work with clients we believe in and are happy to put our brand against.”

Joe went on to give his advice to others who want to open up in Manchester, saying that “If it was easy everyone would have their own business! Your first two years are you earning your stripes and if you get through it you can call yourself a business. Find a place that is affordable for you in your first year, build a reputation and produce some quality work.”

As you can see from some of these examples, Greater Manchester is thriving with new businesses across a wide range of sectors. From technology to fashion they are all starting out with a dream, pursuing it with a little help along the way from the right people and then taking that business forward. The city has everything they need from great facilities to access to high-end equipment and, most importantly, highly talented employees.

Manchester is now becoming one of the most important cities to live near in order to find jobs and businesses have made the bold decision to not only avoid London, but to use the fact that they’re not in the capital to their advantage. The North West has always been a popular location for industry and while the digital era may have come along and changed the way we look at business and startups, it has provided the ideal foundations for them to thrive.

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