Getting ahead in business happens through all sorts of avenues but there are some business people who just don’t seem to get the breaks…until now. In Maidstone we are lucky that there are several schemes supporting business start- ups and entrepreneurs but the newest idea to give business people a break comes from the ‘Enterprise Foundation’ situated in Medvale House, Mote Road.
Set up in February, ‘Enterprise Foundation’ focuses on giving disadvantaged business people low cost business accommodation, business advice and general business support. The initiative has already been set up in other towns and cities to great effect and now it is Maidstone’s turn. I met Roy Laming, General Manager for the South East, who comes from a community background having previously been the manager of Switch Café. When I arrived at the Medvale House hub there is a lot of commotion – builders and decorators are to-ing and fro-ing and the offices are light and bright with an atmosphere of expectation. Soon this will be a busy business hub with people relying on the space to build their businesses and connections.
Roy showed me around the well thought out layout – individual offices, medium sized offices, boardroom and kitchen facilities. One level of this ex-government building has been taken over by ‘Enterprise Foundation’ gutted, redesigned and planned to create an efficient working space. Anyone can apply to use the facilities and the potential list of disadvantaged people they can help includes the unemployed, under 30’s, over 50’s, disabled, ex-servicemen, ex-offenders and craftspeople.
“We have an 8 year lease and carried out a £50K refurbishment to create a vibrant environment” Roy tells me, “people using the ‘Enterprise Foundation’ don’t have to worry about property leases, they gain free advice, free wifi, printer access and become part of our mentor programme and workshops. Really it’s a start up resource centre complimenting other people like the Invicta Chamber of Commerce and New Enterprise Allowance” Roy is positive about the idea having seen the success stories which have blossomed in other centres such as Birmingham and Leeds.
“This is perfect for a number of reasons, small businesses [under 10 people] make up 95% of the economy, plumbers, electricians, decorators etc and they are the life blood of the economy which has always been the case. Austerity measures and downsizing has forced people out of this sector. More unemployment also means more people are looking for their own employment option and there isn’t much support in Maidstone because of the proximity to London.
The point Roy makes is an interesting one because although having London on the doorstep is fantastic for the growth of the South East, it does mean that people hone in on London and view us as a whole. Roy points out that Maidstone is fortunate enough to have the Prince’s Trust and Kent Foundation for young entrepreneurs along-side other business support networks but ‘Enterprise Foundation’ can potentially offer help to a spectrum of people instead of only certain demographics.
“People can progress here from a single work station through to having their own office” Roy continued, and that will be the key to ‘Enterprise Foundation’s’ success. The plan is for the charities, businesses and entrepreneurs using the facilities to eventually move on after the ‘Enterprise Foundation’ has given them the opportunity they needed to spread their wings.
Enterprise Foundation was the idea of businessman George Cook. It is a registered charity and their Head Quarters are in Aylesford. In 1993 Cook has the idea to support business start-ups but it wasn’t until he met Dr. Wayne Wright ([W] Sq Solutions) who shared his passion for business that the idea started to take shape. Ensuring the charity has a business model leaning towards self-sustainability seems to be an important part of the businesses building blocks. Although The Cook Foundation and grant funding covered the capital cost and the initial start-up, Maidstone Enterprise Foundation should be self-sustaining within 18 months from when the first start up business takes residence in April. The idea has been so popular centres in Ashford, Chatham, Folkestone and Southend are all planned in the future.
The pace and drive of the charity really depends on the funding received as every centre has a large start up refurbishment cost but there is no doubting that there is demand for their services. The market research carried out by ‘Enterprise Foundation’ showed that 50% of small businesses cease trading (80-85% of them within the first year) due to a lack of good foundations. They also found out that charities are suffering needing to downsize or reinvent themselves. ‘Enterprise Foundation’ as an ethical business want to ensure that there is support out there for new businesses and charities that need their help.
For someone to rent a workstation for a month the cost would be £120 but Enterprise Foundation also offer a grant of up to 50% for the first six months and on top of using the facilities, there are weekly reports. For example, one week Leeds hosted a ‘Pop up Business School’ which helped people start up their own business there and then. Advice and guidance is always available from helping people with their business plans and business models to conversations surrounding cashflow – they provide informal ‘wrap around’ business support.
Getting ‘Enterprise Foundation’ Maidstone up and running has required a lot of organisation and since Roy joined the team he has found that no work day is ever the same: “My days are extremely varied – they can range from the practical side of things like getting the printers working, arranging for wireless connection to organising contractors, showing people around the centre, dealing with PR, getting people in to use the meeting room and going to meetings myself with the bank, council, commerce, breakfast meetings, networking meetings and I am in liaison with the job Centre Plus. I welcome people to Enterprise Foundation and tell people about our ethos – the way we are working with the community and contributing to the area with regeneration.”
The team at each Enterprise Foundation centre comprises of a Centre Manager, receptionist, and volunteer mentors as well as any work experience they feel they can provide. It’s an ambitious project for such a small team but there is proof it works. Roy loves the concept and is clearly passionate about the work he will be doing with start-up businesses and giving back to the community is part of why he enjoys his job, but he hasn’t always been in the community sector.
Roy told me a little of his career: “When I left school I had no idea of what to do, I liked geography and discovered cartography and spent 28 years in that industry introducing Graphic Information Systems with BP, ESRI, Kent County Council and back to ESRI working my way up to Marketing Director.”
In 2007 Roy changed the direction of his career: “I wanted something local and community based. I discovered ‘New Philanthropist’ to create social enterprises and it inspired me to set up a community café and I heard about Switch Café where young people had raised £100,000 and renovated a building and so I became the manager and started there in February 2010. I loved the community space and my vision of a community café had come about but I felt that I needed to stretch myself” so Roy became part of the ‘Enterprise Foundation’ team and in his spare time still gives back to the community by running a community café in Staplehurst Free Church on a Saturday morning.”
Roy is a dedicated member of the team and explained his passion for the job “I love it – the brand and passion and sense of community within the group of charities will inspire people who come here.”
I am not surprised that this initiative has been welcomed in Maidstone. As a town ‘on the up’ we are already making headlines in business growth and hopefully with Enterprise Foundation’s help, Maidstone will buck the trend and build many more robust businesses for the future.