Monday, May 14, 2007

Venturing into Burslem

A few months ago, readers may remember, I helped organised a trip for several Londoners to Burslem to find out all about the exciting opportunities on offer in the town for creative young professionals. I had no idea that the trip would so convince me of my own hype that I would be handing in my notice a few weeks later.

Now I find myself just about to welcome the new production manager of The Friend and handing over my job in order that I can start my new venture in Stoke. Call me superstitious, but I am hesistant to put the full details online until I have the company all set up and am absolutely sure I won't be going cap-in-hand for a job at some big Northern newspaper group, but the project is a real one and has already received an enormous amount of encouraging support.

I have been experiencing many of the support systems for businesses that I extolled on the Londoners' trip. It has been an interesting experience. I would still certainly say that if ever there was a time and a place for starting a business, Burslem provides a really attractive option, especially to anybody used to London prices.

It's a bit of a turbulent economy. Locals are having to get used to paying the same prices as everyone else for food in pubs - because energy costs are the same anywhere in the country - but we still have buildings selling for far under the national average and a lot of empty space. I'm not very worried about leaving London permanently because I assume I can still get a train back easily enough, but have been a bit perturbed to discover that the price of a railcard-less open return is the same as four-and-a-half weeks rent in a starter unit. Some article I read last night said that the West Midlands economy would have 10 billion pounds more if it only grew to the national average, which I didn't understand but seemed pretty monumental. Although I'm obviously one of those taking the route of 'if there aren't any jobs for you, create your own', it troubles me a little to wonder if the scope for start-ups is really quite as big as is implied. After all, you might get 1000 new ideas for startups employing five poeple each but are the next 1000 also going to have fresh ideas or will they compete with the first wave? And even on those employment levels, you're still not matching the massive employers that used to surround Burslem. But I'll leave such troubles in this cage for now as these are exciting times.

Writing as a form-phobic, the application processes for funding and business admin has been difficult but not impossible. One real problem is that while there are hundreds of grant and loan schemes out there, the vast majority of them have some exclusion in the small print that makes ploughing through many of them largely a waste of time. A genuinely transparent, useful and open system would see all the money pooled together and managed by organisations who would get to know your idea and then match you up to funding. A decent panel could make sure this wasn't abused. This approach - without the funding - is roughly equivalent to that taken by Bizfizz, whose coach Carolyn I say without a hint of hesitation has made it possible for me and many others to actually take the leap into business. Without frightening me with a single form, Carolyn's approach lured me into writing my own business plan *because I wanted to*.

So in a month, all being well, my project will be a real thing. I discussed giving up White Llama with Riaz, partly because it seemed so linked with the long distance commuting, and also because I was starting to fear the director and managing editor of the new company might start to see the blogger as a loose cannon. And that could lead to schizophrenia.

But Riaz convinced me to carry on, arguing that people would be interested in the adventures of a new media social enterprising entrepeuneur cutting its way through the edge of Britain's most exciting region. Well, I doubt that. But since another regular visitor, Jess gave me a little award, upon which I haven't even had the time to reflect and glow but intend to do so in another post, I will try to continue bringing you the new chapters of White Llama's adventures. Just remind me, if I start to rant too much about councillors, mayors and regeneration, that while the journalist without opinion may be a mythical beast, the quiet Llama is perhaps more likely to make friends.