Business Support Programmes: What They Are, How They Work and Where To Find Them.
Every year, Enterprise Nation’s StartUp conference provides support, insights and inspiration to 1,000s of ambitious business founders across the UK. It’s a rich, information packed event and this year, a new digital format meant the opportunities to hear insights and learnings were even more broad.
Some great speakers took to the stage including Minister for Small Business, MP Paul Scully, and Founder of the fast growth unicorn digital platform, Hopin.
The team at Plus X were invited to share their knowledge about business support programmes, addressing key questions such as who runs them, how do they work and why businesses should join one!
We gathered our programme leaders together: Anneza Pitsialis, who runs our Accelerator Programme for hardware pioneers and product makers at the Central Research Laboratory and Samantha Harland who runs our BRITE innovation programme for ambitious scaling businesses in the Brighton and Hove area.
We were also delighted to have Marc Convey on the panel – one of our BRITE business members from 23Digital, for a truly honest perspective on what to expect from a business support programme and more importantly, how to get the best out of them!
What are business support programmes?
Let’s start with this most basic of questions – what exactly are business support programmes and how did they start?
The first and possibly most famous startup accelerator is Y Combinator in the US, kick-started by Paul Graham in 2005. It still continues to be one of the most successful accelerator programmes in the world with famous brand name graduates a testament to its success. Y Combinator has accelerated the growth of Dropbox, Airbnb, Instacart, Stripe, Twitch, Coinbase and Reddit.
The good news is that there are now 1,000s of programmes worldwide, supporting most business sectors from arts to AI, helping business at most stages and all sizes.
Startup incubators, accelerators and other similar hybrid models are often all lumped together. Yet, they can be quite different in support and execution.
In general terms, most business support programmes take an average of 3 -6 months. Some provide generic support for early stage startups through mentorship and learning whilst others offer funding and/or take equity in exchange for support.
In the case of Plus X business support programmes, our member benefits are wide ranging. As well as access to our inspiring work space in London and Brighton, they include funded expert guidance including HR, finances, marketing, the use of world class product prototyping facilities, access to university innovation teams and the opportunity to be part of the amazing Plus X community of members.
Most business programmes are intense and the Plus X programmes are no exception. Members are expected to dedicate a significant time commitment to get the best results.
Some accelerator programmes end with a ‘demo day’ or graduation. It’s an important end stage milestone, enabling the business to present itself in public. The experience encourages founders and teams to refine their narrative, develop story assets and convince future investors, partners or customers that they are a serious, compelling business with significant validation of their innovation and the potential to scale.
So, How Do They Work?
Business support programmes normally start with an application process. According to Anneza Pitsialis, who leads our CRL accelerator programme, “the right fit is so important. Startups should assess whether the programme is right for them during the application process. It’s important that applicants do their research and ask lots of questions”. Anneza breaks down some of the main features and benefits;
- Group workshops to increase knowledge and up-skill founders.
- Access to an expert network including 1-1 mentorship and support to advise or guide founders in specific areas of the business or help address specific challenges.
- A peer group of startups going through the same journey .who understand and support each other along the way.
- Access to a wider community of startups and business experts who are partnered by the programme operator.
- Work space, facilities and services for your business and team.
- Time outside of the scheduled programme to absorb and implement learnings.
Marc Convey from 23Digital adds “I’ve considered a few programmes over the years but all of them seemed too rigid. We would have had to fit into it as best we could. BRITE flipped that around and created a bespoke programme for each member so they get the most out of it. Right now, for 23D, it’s about making the most of the opportunities around the rapid digitalisation of content(video) as a tool in the corporate space, and to do this, we need to collaborate and create key strategic partnerships to be able to service the ever-evolving needs of current and future clients. We’ve already found two of those key partners in other BRITE members”.
The benefit of being ‘co-horted’ is a good example of how programmes work well too. Aside from the natural social aspects that create a valuable sense of belonging, there are real opportunities to help and support each other through collaboration and networking.
Marc continues “as a fledging business you under-estimate the support you need (and the cost – every penny counts!) around a good product or service. We’ve already had great support to find and facilitate the partnerships I mentioned but who’s going to help you with marketing, financial planning, culture, mental wellbeing? Founders are often brilliant entrepreneurs with fantastic ideas but fail due to the day-to-day pressures”.
When Programmes Don’t Work
Sometimes programmes don’t work for founders and visa versa. The Plus X panel felt it was important to create transparency about this too. As Samantha Harland, our BRITE innovation programme leader shares “its important to go in with the right mindset. Programmes cannot do the work for you. You will get challenged and asked questions and you will be given access to mentors and signposted to other support – but you are the expert in your business and you will be the ones expected to drive it forward, fuelled by a huge range of support around you”.
Anneza adds that programmes sometimes fail “when expectations don’t match up. It could be about time and commitment. Some people under-estimate the time it takes to be part of a programme. Of course, the value in the programme is attending all the available workshops and coaching sessions but the real value is reflecting on how you will put that into action day to day”.
Sometimes its also about the endurance of the co-founders’ relationship and whether their visions are aligned. “ The customer discovery process can be really challenging for founders. A lack of confidence can lead to action-paralysis during the ‘testing’ phase. New founders can feel uncomfortable presenting their prototype for customer feedback but running quick, rough and messy tests are the first stage of validating a product and ensuring a product meets a need in the market” adds Anneza. “Founders can find that going out and speaking to customers difficult but pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is vital – something you will need to do throughout your growth journey”.
What To Expect from a Programme?
“Expect to be grilled” says Marc Convey from 23Digital – “But in a good way. Your idea for your business has to be strong and the right time for market. The people who run these programmes are usually great at digging deep with you and reflecting the findings back at you. Get past that stage and then throw yourself into to the programme. There’s an incredible amount of support and resource to tap into (and you are one of the chosen few) but it’s up to you to make the most it. No one’s going to hold your hand in the wider world, so those running these programmes would be doing you a disservice by doing so. Sometimes a (figurative) kick up the bum is needed!”.
“I wasn’t expecting the amount of support around the human side of business, culture, well-being etc and just how inspired I’ve been by other members. Not only the ones we’re collaborating with but all other members of Plus X Brighton. The level of innovation that surrounds us is a joy to see and greatly spurs me on”.
So, if you think you’d be a great fit for a business support programme – here’s more information about our Plus X programmes and other useful links.
Located at the Central Research Laboratory in Hayes, Middlesex, the Plus X CRL Accelerator Programme commences again in May 2021 and runs through to November 2021. It is the UK’s leading programme for product makers and hardware pioneers and offers unrivalled support for early stage businesses developing hardware products. The 7 month programme supports members with a £5,000 grant, product development, commercial strategy, engineer support, manufacturing support (including a trip to China) and desk space too.
The Brighton Research Innovation Technology Exchange (BRITE) located and led by Plus X Brighton is a business innovation programme for ambitious and established businesses led by a highly experienced and dedicated team from Plus X in partnership with the University of Brighton, renowned for world-class research innovation expertise.
BRITE members occupy dedicated space at Plus X Brighton, which has seven floors of flexible work space, collaborative meeting rooms, specialist innovation workshops for prototyping and state of the art media suites. BRITE is ideal for business who are looking for innovation expertise and funding, research and development, unlocking new routes to market and learning from peers.
Useful links to information and other business support programmes:
Information and connection platform that links startups, programmes and investors.
General business support programmes with work space for all stage businesses.
The above two organisations tend to focus on support for tech based businesses.