Blog: What is Business Support?
Dan Carins - Policy Manager (Business) for the West Midlands Combined Authority
Published: 07 September 2023
Is a shovel a shovel, and other business support questions
Being a simple soul, I often get confused by people who profess that they call a spade a shovel. Aren’t they the same thing? There’s an offshoot of the same problem involving kettles and pots, but my aim here is to point out that people call different things the same thing, and they also call the same thing different things.
The relevance to businesses and to my job is that “business support” is so nebulous that it would make Doctor Spock scratch his head were he to beam down for work experience. There’s a universe that includes advice, guidance, mentoring, coaching, consultancy, training, grant funding – and not forgetting the signposting along the way. All of these get lumped together as business support.
To me this explains the fact that around 50% of all enquiries we receive at Business Growth West Midlands are for grant funding.
Given the confusion around what business support is, this isn’t surprising. I suspect most business owners simply don’t know what “business support” is, but they do know what free cash is – so that’s what they ask for. I don’t blame them.
To ease the journey of businesses who enquire for help via our Business Growth West Midlands service by helping them ask better questions, it may help to split business support into some main categories:
1. Extra resource
An organisation provides expert help to a business to produce a piece of work, such as a marketing strategy. Sometimes this is provided “fully funded”, where there’s no cost to the business; sometimes grants are provided to recover the costs in arrears.
There are variations, such as internships or placement schemes such as Knowledge Transfer Partnerships. These are usually for a more intensive piece of work or project, such as exploring how to implement a new process into a business.
2. Advice and guidance
An organisation provides one-to-one guidance. Sometimes this is ad hoc, such as the Business Advice Service to find an accountant. If this service is paid for without public subsidy, it stops being “business support” and becomes advisory services provided by the private sector.
Sometimes experienced individuals volunteer their time to provide mentoring, often free of charge, to small businesses over a period, such as the Be the Business programmes. Mentors provide general guidance, encouragement and a space to share ideas, rather than specific advice on a particular topic, or to provide additional resource to a business. Sometimes they are sector or audience-specific.
Employees (including Directors, managers) attend courses of workshops or seminars given by trainers to learn a new skill, sometimes leading to a qualification. Many of these are funded through the WMCA’s Adult Education Budget and delivered by recognised training providers. Where the audience is business owner/managers in small groups, it’s often called leadership and management development – and occasionally are free of charge, such as the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Programme.
According to research prepared by the British Business Bank, only 34% of small and medium-sized enterprises in the West Midlands are prepared to use finance from a bank or another lender to grow their business – compared to 43% in London. These figures are likely to drop now that interest rates are rising rather than at the historic lows we saw in the 2010s.
Where the public sector intervenes in finance is less around the direct delivery, and more around creating the opportunities behind the scenes. Therefore, businesses are most likely to interact directly with lenders from the private sector to secure a loan, or an overdraft or maybe even equity investment.
Trying to improve access to information about finance so business owners can make informed decisions, and then boosting their chances of securing finance through better financial forecasts and other information, are examples of relevant business support. The Finance Hub, and our Investor Readiness programme are examples.
Over the many years I’ve been working in business support, time and time again I speak to businesses who expect to be able to access free money up front, with no questions asked, paid directly into their accounts for them to use on their very honourable ideas.
Time and time again I must boil down all those expectations to get to the bare bones – which usually involves one of the bullet points above: they need additional capability or capacity, or they need access to customers.
There’s usually an option available for them, but it often takes time to properly understand the business, their challenges, and then match the solution to meet their expectations, timescales and budget. This is the final piece of the jigsaw: what we call “signposting”.
Our Business Growth West Midlands service is to signpost businesses to the vast range of business support covered by the categories above and identifying the most relevant solution. Understanding the needs of a business takes time, through several conversations, visits and meetings. The investment in time is well worth the outcomes for the businesses.
Dan is Policy Manager (Business) at the West Midlands Combined Authority. He has over 20 years’ experience in various business-facing roles across the West Midlands, including managing the Black Country Growth Hub, and was the Access to Finance Manager for the Black Country LEP.