I’ve been thinking a lot this week about policy and support for creative and cultural industries. In Birmingham a lot of support for the sector, as well as for businesses generally and SMEs in particular, has come in the form of funded business interventions. A few weeks ago Nick Webber and I had a lively debate about these assists, which led us to wonder about the value that the sector and the region has had from all of these interventions in Birmingham.
Many of the assists offered to businesses in Birmingham and across the West Midlands across this decade came in the form of funding towards certain activities. The assists were typically given in small amounts of around £2,500 to £5,000. These were normally delivered by a consultant, sub-contracted to Business Link. Businesses within the CCI could often benefit from these assists in two ways: as recipients of the funded assists, and as suppliers of consultancy to Business Link.
Nick and I discussed the nature of these assists. As someone who had received and delivered assists, I explained to Nick that they were broadly split between three types:
- Training and development in key business skills e.g. cash flow, financial management, business planning, or sometimes sector specific skills such as software training.
- Consultancy and business advice e.g. a business and marketing plan.
- Tactical marketing material, most often a website (as the grants were not allowed to be spent on printing).
For me as both a former recipient and a deliverer of these assists, I have concerns about this process. I wonder how much value the end client got from “another website” and what the objective was behind “another business plan” beyond encouraging businesses to seek more funding for more growth. How is the agenda for growing all of our creative SMEs playing out now in a different set of economic circumstances?
This point led us to consider the value of these assists to SMEs: did these businesses get any real benefit from their funding? How has this made them more viable? What would businesses (in particular those in CCI) really value if they had any say in how this money could be spent? I put a simple question to my network on Twitter: “If I gave you £5k to spend on ANY business expense, what would you spend it on and why?“.
JohnColby: Macs to the creative people. Benefit – make their work SO much easier.
deplorableworld: sxsw, heating, drobo, books + training on things we all knew nothing about, value new ideas and smarter working
podnosh: Shared thinking space. Possible somewhere warm and very cheerful. Value – clarity.
bounder: 500 blogs for brum postcodes
djeglin: probably a new 15″ MBP (because my little MacBook is struggling, bless it), maybe a good collection of stock photography, too…
IanDice: Camera, sound and lighting equipment with some editing software with the change please
craigfots: £5k would cover an album release on my label. Manufacture, Press. Distro costs. Or 3 x album releases with Manuf. only.
leerobert: I‘d press our first vinyl record and take it from there.
This very unscientific survey suggests that the things that matter most to our existing CCI businesses are either much more tangible (and therefore not fundable under most schemes) or much less tangible but none the less valuable things. The responses also suggested that very few people wanted a marketing plan or a website. This raises some important questions:
- Is there a better way for us to help these businesses?
- Can we find a way to fund the things that matter to these businesses?
- Is the funding approach broadly correct?
- Is the problem instead with the businesses perceptions of what is needed?
- Should they accept that the funders know best and are giving them the correct assists in the most timely manner?
Interesting to note here that while Nick and I were having this debate AWM launched (and then promptly withdrew) an “emergency fund” for West Midlands Businesses to provide them with new business plans in the recession. The call for applications was publicised through Created in Birmingham and Media Talent Bank, but then withdrawn and the blog posts deleted. I’ll end on this point with a Twitter comment from Robert Sharl:
Sharl: There may be almost nothing of value for £5k, long term.