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Greater Birmingham – the self-made region for start-ups

Saqib Bhatti, Director for Growing Businesses and Representing SMEs, Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP)

Travelling in and around Greater Birmingham, it is not hard to see the vibrant confidence exuding from the region. Whether it be the plethora of cranes spread across the landscape, excitement around the arrival of HS2 or the recent wins for the region to host the Commonwealth Games, it is safe to say that Greater Birmingham’s renaissance is in full flow and the journey is far from over.

An excellent litmus test for the economic vibrancy and confidence of a region is the number of start-ups that are choosing to setup in the region. Start-ups are vital to a thriving, economically successful city region. Part of the commerce lifecycle, they provide the new businesses and talent pipeline that a growing economy needs.

Greater Birmingham is a clear example of this, and has been leading the charge for start-up creation outside the capital for the last five years.

Research from thinktank the Centre of Entrepreneurs recently revealed 12,108 businesses were set up in Birmingham last year, topping the league of local authority areas outside London. How apt, that the city once dubbed as the ‘City of a Thousand Trades’ and the cradle of the first industrial revolution is now harnessing its industrial heritage to be a major global player in many sectors including tech, life sciences, professional services as well as of course, a manufacturing powerhouse.

This success is creating a thriving local economy, and attracting the talented people that start-ups rely on. More than 23,000 new private sector jobs were created across the Greater Birmingham and Solihull area during 2016, according to the Office for National Statistics. The region recorded 750,198 private sector jobs – a 3.2% rise on 2015, outperforming the average across England, which is 2.3%.

This success has not happened by accident. ‘Team Greater Birmingham’ as I often call them have successfully brought together their private, public and higher education sectors to create a comprehensive web of business support through organisations such as the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) and its Growth Hub.

As Director for Growing Businesses and Representing SMEs at GBSLEP and responsible for the Growth Hub, I have seen the region leverage its diversity and multi-sector expertise to give it the competitive edge – fostering a culture of enterprise where start-ups not only survive, but thrive. Simply put, if you are looking for somewhere to do business, then Greater Birmingham is the place to be.

As a business owner and a Chartered Accountant who deals with startups and SMEs, I also understand acutely the challenges entrepreneurs face. Where businesses are flourishing there are common threads. Entrepreneurs understand that growing a start-up is difficult and will, at times, stretch you to breaking point; force you to put in long hours; require a constant balance between retention of current clients and the new business pipeline; require backing and help – both financial and advisory. It is this final requirement for support and network access where Greater Birmingham is making the greatest difference.

GBSLEP and its Growth Hub, which operates from as far north as East Staffordshire, to Redditch in the south, and Wyre Forest in the west, is a one-stop shop for businesses. Part of a wider regional ecosystem, it helps businesses navigate all manner of growth issues and connects them to the advisors, peers, skills, funding and more that they need at any given time.

Start-up business owners also benefit from the open communication and collaboration of the city’s leading bodies, including councils, universities and Chambers of Commerce with the Growth Hub. This is collaboration and partnership-working at its best and most effective.

A great example of this collaboration is the recently launched Enterprise for Success programme for Greater Birmingham and Solihull. The programme provides access to a team of sector experts and tools to pave the way to success. Supported by multiple partners including local authorities, the Library of Birmingham and Birmingham City University, it connects businesses to advisers in areas ranging from finance management to talent sourcing and business structure.

In addition, the Growth Hub has recently started to work with Aston Business School’s Centre for Growth in offering free scale-up workshops. Events and support such as this cannot be underestimated in building a business that thrives. At the very least it brings together like-minded entrepreneurs who can discuss and exchange best practice and share experiences.

Up and down the country, talent is often an issue for growing business – finding, securing and retaining it can be one of the greatest challenges we face. Greater Birmingham however, is working hard to develop a strong funnel of invaluable talent for early-stage businesses with a 78,000-strong student population now attending its five forward thinking universities. The real strength of these institutions is in their approach – preparing current cohorts for the workplace they will enter. This can also be seen at the recently opened National College for High Speed Rail, which is set to deliver 1,200 newly skilled engineers each year, and received financial support from GBSLEP.

The final element in Greater Birmingham’s continued rise as a start-up hotspot is the rise of the region itself. As a location, there is a tangible feeling of forward momentum propelled by development, foreign direct investment (FDI), an influx of tourism and infrastructure regeneration.

Projects like HS2 are catalysing growth around the Interchange Station in Solihull and the central Curzon Street terminus in Birmingham, reinforcing the area as an attractive head office destination and a genuine London competitor. Cases in point are HSBC’s decision to locate the headquarters of its new ring-fenced retail bank in Birmingham, the Commonwealth Games 2022 host win, and the recent launch of a competitive bid to bring Channel 4 to the region.

Why is all this so important? Because start-ups have a better chance of survival if they exist in a thriving, successful economic ecosystem – after all, no business is an island. The region offers fantastic conditions for growth by not only offering funding, advice, talent and like-mindedness but by dreaming big itself and attracting and retaining big business players.

Greater Birmingham is a region fusing talent, inner belief and determination with a seamless structure of supportive organisations that nurture that acumen. It has carved a name for itself as the place for start-up creation and prolonged business success. Long may it continue.