Richard Bearman is the Managing Director of Start Up Loans, a government-backed programme that launched in 2012 to provide loans to people who would traditionally find it difficult to secure finance. This November marks the fifth anniversary of the Start Up Loans’ national Ambassador Programme, created in 2016 to celebrate some of the exceptional small business owners who have received support from the scheme.
The Start Up Loans’ Ambassador Programme was set up in 2016 in recognition of the impressive small businesses that had launched with its assistance. It aims to inspire potential business owners from all regions and walks of life and celebrate the crucial contribution of small businesses to the UK economy.
The origins of the programme
The year-long programme selects standout entrepreneurs from across the UK and sees them take part in a series of local and national activities, where they offer advice and guidance to other aspiring business owners.
Traditionally launching at the Houses of Parliament with guests including MPs and senior figures at the British Business Bank, this November the fifth anniversary launch will follow a completely new format due to COVID-19 restrictions, taking place virtually and offering guests the opportunity to break out into smaller networking groups.
But despite the impact of the pandemic, Start Up Loans and small business owners across the country still have a lot to celebrate, with loan drawdowns from May to July this year increasing 39% to £31.9 million in funding compared to the same period in 2019. The scheme also recently passed the milestone of having delivered more than 75,000 of its low-interest, government-backed loans of up to £25,000, totalling more than £636m of funding.
Ambassadors selected over the years reflect the wide range of businesses that make up the UK’s thriving SME sector – from the mums who met at a maternity group and were inspired to launch a healthy lolly brand, to the dad who opened a children’s hair salon after witnessing his own children suffer the boredom of a traditional haircut.
In fact, Start Up Loans specifically aims to inspire entrepreneurs from all walks of life to start their own businesses, offering free mentoring and pre-loan business plan support to all applicants to guide them through the process. This means that since 2012, 40% of Start Up Loan recipients were formerly unemployed or economically inactive applicants, 40% were women and one in five (20%) came from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities (BAME).
Once a business owner has become a Start Up Loans Ambassador, they remain an important part of the overall programme and are used as a continual source of inspiration for the SME community in the media as their businesses develop.
One such business owner is David O’Neal, founder of ShortCuts and 2016 Start Up Loans ambassador. Since opening in 2015, David’s salons have made haircuts for children across the nation a positive experience, expanding quickly to 6 salons nationwide.
David O’Neal, Founder of ShortCuts, said: We’ve expanded significantly since 2016, and are proud to have built such a loyal customer base that when we reopened after lockdown we were inundated with bookings. I’ve always loved sharing business advice with my customers and think the Start Up Loans Ambassador Programme is a brilliant initiative to get small business owners across the UK talking to each other.
Another pair of successful past ambassadors are Lucy Woodhouse and Meriel Kehoe, founders of Claudi & Fin, a children’s frozen yoghurt ice lolly brand. After meeting at a mother and baby group in 2012, the pair started their business by entering a Pitchup with Sainsbury’s event and took out their loans to meet the demands of quickly supplying 250 of Sainsbury’s supermarkets. Eight years on, the team have continued to develop new products and just recently launched in Holland and Belgium.
Lucy Woodhouse, Co-Founder of Claudi & Fin: Our business has gone from strength to strength since we spent a year as Start Up Loans ambassadors. We’ve been incredibly lucky that our business has even continued to thrive during lockdown, with sales soaring as the nation ate at home and consumers searched for new, great tasting and healthy supermarket food to try.
And 2017 Start Up Loans Ambassador Kevin Bath, founder of JimJams, a business producing healthy alternatives to jam and chocolate spreads, has introduced several new products since being an ambassador and seen demand skyrocket during the pandemic from major supermarkets he supplies in both the UK and US.
Kevin Bath, Founder of JimJams, said: The additional brand awareness that came from being a brand ambassador helped us introduce new products to the market. My advice to other small business owners right now is that if you’re passionate about your business you must keep going, no matter how many knock backs you might suffer, as there will always be wins on the horizon.
And more recently, James Dawson, founder of TEA Plus Drinks, a range of vitamin-infused teas, was announced as a 2019 Start Up Loans Ambassador. A year on, the business has started exporting to stores in the Netherlands and Belgium and launched the UK’s first CBD-infused tea. While its high-street based business model took a knock during lockdown, James refused to sit still. He quickly adapted his e-commerce site and arranged for a license to sell on Amazon, meaning online sales quickly replaced any high-street losses.
James Dawson, Founder of TEA Plus Drinks, said: Lockdown hasn’t been easy for us but luckily as a small, nimble business we were able to be reactive and have now built more resilience and contingency into our business plan. My advice to other small business owners would be not to put your head in the sand when times get tough and hope it’ll get better, but instead to innovate your products and be as proactive as possible.
This year, the Ambassador Programme will be an especially important occasion, as its fifth anniversary falls at a time when it is more vital than ever that we celebrate, inspire and guide small businesses across the UK, who are having to work significantly harder to keep their businesses thriving.
Small businesses will be crucial to the UK’s economic recovery from the pandemic and at Start Up Loans, we have continued to support business owners through our network of delivery partners. Start Up Loans is part of the British Business Bank, the government’s economic development bank, and is widely seen as a driver of economic growth across communities in the UK.