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Boosting Oxfordshire’s SMEs with support that is priceless

Small businesses are a huge part of Oxfordshire’s economy. 93% of jobs are in SMEs. ELEVATE, a programme run by OxLEP Business with £2 million of funding from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) is helping small businesses to prosper and grow. Rod Macrae has been hearing how businesses are making the most of it.

Written by: Rod Macrae

It is no surprise that business news headlines are dominated by large companies with big workforces. They matter to the local economy and their success brings huge benefits. However, that coverage overlooks the importance of small businesses, an unsung people’s army working in small enterprises and micro businesses which is vital to the county’s future. Oxfordshire has already seen strong growth in the number of small businesses – with over 40,000 new jobs being created over the past five years. Between 2014 and 2016, Oxfordshire has seen the number of VAT-registered businesses in the county go up by 8.5%.

Behind the statistics, there is a need for practical support. For the last year OxLEP Business has been promoting its ELEVATE programme aimed at helping people looking to set up a new enterprise or grow their existing business.

According to Helen Brind, who manages the programme of grants, free workshops and support, the package is making a real difference. “We have had 600 people engaging with Elevate since it launched last June.” She says there has been real enthusiasm about the workshops: “There is a special series for growing businesses because their needs are different to people setting up for the first time.

We also have a tailor-made series for people starting a new venture. All of them are delivering the kinds of tools, insights and skills needed to be successful in business. Backing this up is a team of Network Navigators, all experienced in business themselves, who are on hand to provide one-to-one support, really to point people to find the right resources and contacts.”

Andrew Colwell, runs Abingdon-based company Sunflower Windows. He says his approach to business planning has been transformed after attending an Elevate growth workshop:

“The planning workshop was a revelation to me. I have run businesses for a long time, but only ever produced a business plan if I needed it to secure funding. In other words, to keep other people happy. Now my attitude has changed completely. I have a plan which is a kind of road map for the company. I have completely changed my approach.”

Human resources company, SYLO Associates, has also made a significant step after recognising it could not just rely on organic growth. Co-director Sarah Stevens comments: “We attended the Elevate digital marketing and sales for growth workshops. In fact, the half-day session on launching a new product really captured our imagination. It prompted us to change our approach to digital marketing and encouraged us to focus much more on marketing and sales.”

Following on from that they were amongst the first businesses to be awarded a grant. They successfully applied for £3,000 in match-funding to launch a new service for retained clients after identifying a market opportunity to offer outsourced legal services alongside HR, health and safety bringing it all together under “one roof”. After speaking with OxLEP Business, Sally White applied for funds to launch the new service: “It’s a significantly new proposition. Getting an Elevate grant award is a competitive process, but there is good advice available about making a successful application.”

Up to £3,000 is available for start-up businesses and up to £9,000 for more established, growing enterprises. Over £60,000 has been awarded in two competitive rounds of applications for ELEVATE grants so far.

Helen Brind, the Growth Hub Manager at OxLEP, says “These grants are important because they can help small businesses to grow more quickly and to create jobs. We have four more opportunities to apply for grants before Summer 2019. The quality of applications so far has been excellent, and we are on hand to help companies thinking of applying, so it is easy to submit an application. We can provide the extra incentive with our injection of match-funding grants for new skills, new products or professional support for a new business, then Oxfordshire SME sector is going to really benefit.”

To find out about the ELEVATE programme of workshops, grants and one-to-one support visit us.