Opening doors to new ideas
If the buzz around the Business Gateway stand was a measure of success then it would appear that Susan Harkins has nailed it.
The StartUp Summit at Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms drew a big attendance of hopefuls keen to pick up some vital advice, and a team of ten advisers from the Gateway service were buried somewhere among the throng oozing into the exhibition area.
It has to be said that the business advice network has also drawn its critics over the years, accused just recently of too much box-ticking and little depth in what it offers.
Harkins, head of Business Gateway’s Edinburgh office, shakes her head and raises her eyebrows. “No, not at all. Just look at the people here. We’re seeing more and more people and extending what we do,” she says, pointing to her network of advisers and 300 annual workshops it stages on everything from employing staff to marketing.
“We provide these people with guidance on what steps they need to take and help them grow. I’d say we’re seen as providing a vital service.”
The network sees between 3,000 and 4,000 people a year, of which about a third will go on to set up a business. Among those who’ve used its services are Leah Hutcheon who runs Appointedd, Erica Moore of Eteaket and the guys who set up Morphsuits. Bruce Walker, who runs the StartUp Summit, is another who went through the programme.
Business Gateway is one of the government’s flagship support services and has sponsored the StartUp Summit for seven years. This year’s event was headlined by speakers such as the tyres and online fashion tycoon Mike Welch and John Peebles, creator of management training firm Administrate.
“It is a good fit for us because it gives us direct access to young entrepreneurs and an indication about the sort of businesses that are out there,” she says.
The service has been around since the 1990s though the decision a decade ago to carve it out of Scottish Enterprise and put it under the management of local authorities was not universally popular.
SE insiders at the time said the government made a wrong move that fragmented the service, but the SNP had promised to reward the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) when the party came to power. As it turned out, Cosla got less than it expected with the Business Gateway service handed a lower budget than some felt it had been promised. The split left neither Cosla nor SE happy. Jack Perry, SE’s chief executive at the time, fought the decision, but was prepared to let go in order to preserve the rest of his budget.
The row is now water under the bridge and for the past 15 years Harkins has overseen Business Gateway’s operations in the Edinburgh and its administrative link to the service in the neighbouring Lothians.
It is funded by the Scottish Government and Harkins says it has maintained its level of service despite the budget being unchanged for most of the time she has been in the job. Some additional resource has come from the European Regional Development Fund and Digital Boost, which encourages companies to adopt new digital ways of working.
“We now do a lot with growth companies, looking at things like internationalisation and raising finance,” she says.
The summit comes in the middle of a week-long celebration of entrepreneurship which features a number of free events culminating in a networking breakfast at the City Arts Centre.
In the new year, Harkins will be turning her attention to a new programme to support women who, she says, still need more encouragement and support. She says that while 80% of men who use the service are likely to go on to grow their business, that figure falls to 20% for women.
“Women tell us they feel more comfortable with other women, they feel put off by some of the language around the business world,” she says. A growth programme for women will be set up in January.
Harkins also worked in the Craigmillar area for a short time and she says there are plans to extend the service into local communities, working with other organisations.
“Taking the service to these communities is a big help in engaging with people who might otherwise never use it,” she says. “You don’t need to be academic to start a business, you just need someone to provide some guidance.”
So what is it that most of those using the service are most likely to need?
“I’d say many of them don’t understand just how complex it can be to build a business, and how they can’t just start selling whatever it is they make or do.
“We advise them to properly research their market. The more they plan and the more information they have means they have more chance of success.”
Education: MBA at Edinburgh University
Career: civil servant in the Procurator Fiscal’s Office; business lettings at Zonal; Business Gateway
What gets on your nerves?
Bad customer service
A good night out?
A gin tonic with friends
If you could invite three people, past or present, to dinner who would you choose?
Emily Pankhurst and Michelle Obama, for their inspiration, and George Michael. I was a huge Wham fan.