“Like many small businesses, we were trying to be all things to all people, but it’s hard to manage and market such a scattergun approach,” says Dr Eddie Kirkby of The Making Rooms BwD CiC. “The Lancashire Forum enabled us to focus our activities and move forward.”
The Making Rooms exists to provide a space for creativity, technology and advanced manufacturing to come together. “Our objective is to help create new businesses, jobs and skills,” Eddie says. “But a lot of things go into that, from the free open access day at our Fab Lab (Fabrication Laboratory), to our incubator spaces and funded programmes like Tech Blackburn, our technology start-up accelerator. We also hire out time on equipment like laser cutters and CNC routers, and provide commercial design, 3D printing and prototyping services.”
Having set up the UK’s first Fab Lab in Manchester in 2009, Eddie was approached by Blackburn Borough Council to do the same in Blackburn, although the business plan quickly evolved and the intention was always for The Making Rooms to become independent, flexible and agile. “This was the first time I’d effectively had sole responsibility,” he says. “So I found myself thinking ‘I want to learn how to lead a business myself - and I want to learn from others in the same situation’. That’s where the Lancashire Forum came in.”
“I’ve had a relationship with Lancaster University for years, particularly with the product development unit. When I heard about this programme, there were two main drivers for me: gaining tools and techniques for growing a small business, and building a peer network.” The Forum, he says, delivered exactly what he wanted. “I came away from every session with something I could apply in the business, and it wouldn’t have been anything like as effective without the peer-to-peer learning. It really put me at ease that it wasn’t just me struggling with these issues. I gained lots of confidence - and support.”
Eddie explains how, with his business being so responsive, forecasting was difficult and a traditional business plan of limited value. “That’s why being introduced to a tool like the Business Model Canvas was so useful, because it’s much more adaptive. The key thing I took away was rationalisation of the business. I was able to cut all the services we were offering down to a few key revenue streams, so we could really focus on those.” He has since used the same methods for this year’s strategic review, he says. “We’ve been able to change the business model to a simpler one that really works and now we’re reaching our target of sustainability. That’s come directly from the programme.”
Since attending the Forum, his business has been growing dramatically, he says. “Without increasing costs, the growth in revenue has been phenomenal. In the latest report, income for commercial work had gone up by 53%. However, our strategy now is to deliver more grant-funded programmes (which we have increased by 141%), whilst maintaining growth of the commercial work. If we continue to focus on this more predictable side of the business, we should be recruiting new staff in the next six months.”
He is keen to highlight the ongoing one-to-one support he received, both from his peers and the experts delivering the workshops: “They didn’t just stand at the front and then disappear; they were really interested in helping you. Here in Blackburn and East Lancashire, it’s a close-knit, collaborative community, especially on the innovation side. You’ve got things like Boost and the Hive, which make building a business a much easier pathway. By putting those SMEs together in a room – and with all the people they know as well – the Lancashire Forum has created a wide-ranging network and a lasting impact.”
The Lancashire Forum, part of Boost; Lancashire’s business growth hub, is a four month programme designed to help owner-managers, MDs and senior decision makers of SMEs to grow their businesses. This programme is fully funded and available to European Regional Development Fund eligible businesses. Contact Jane Hunter on 01524 593712, email email@example.com or visit lancaster.ac.uk/lums/lancashireforum to find out more.
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