Business in Belfast: Bright and booming

The Virgin Media Business VOOM Tour bus continues its adventures on the emerald isle next week as it heads north to Belfast.

Population: 333,000

Pros: Good infrastructure, government support mechanisms and transport links to other cities.

Cons: Small city, people don’t realise what businesses in Belfast exist, traffic issues.

Costs: One of the most cost-efficient business environments in Europe.

What to expect: A tight knit, innovative business community that is willing to help each other out.

To discover more about business in Northern Ireland we spoke to two entrepreneurs based at Ulster Bank's Entrepreneurial Spark hub in Belfast, Emma Gribben, founder of Digital by Emma, and Abiola Sanusi, founder of Lola Sports.

What are the best things about doing business in Belfast?

Emma Gribben: I think some of the best things about doing business in Belfast are the networks that exist. We're very lucky that there's some fantastic thought leaders and individuals that have come together to share their expertise and skills. I started my business two years ago and was able to quickly join networks and groups to get to know people who understand the market and build connections. In one sense we're lucky because it's a big city, there are a lot of opportunities, but in another sense it's great that we're not absolutely massive so people know each other and you can get very quickly connected. It's easy to build a good reputation within the market too.

Abiola Sanusi: I think it's an up and coming market in regards to my business, which is a sports service company. It's not a common market, there's a lot of possibilities there to grow. It's less competitive than bigger cities but it just keeps growing. There's some really interesting businesses coming out of the city now. I think the interesting thing is that it's growing, which is positive.

What are the downsides?

EG: I don't think there are many downsides, probably for me the main thing is the traffic on the motorway in the morning on the way. I sat for over two hours in traffic this morning trying to get into the city. So probably, building transport links. We are lucky that we have daily flights to London and a lot of the major UK cities and I make use of that on an ongoing basis for work. But one of the main things for me is trying to get Belfast to be more recognised because there is phenomenal talent, there's some amazing start-up companies, some really really great businesses in Belfast that aren't given the profile they deserve. People don't know enough about what we're doing in Belfast.

AS: I think the downside would be the whole Brexit thing, a lot of businesses don't know what's going on and there's not a lot of clarity. I think that's a downside because obviously you don't know what it's going to be like trading with other European countries.

How would you describe the business culture of Belfast?

EG: The culture is very innovative, people are very forward-thinking and it's great to see that there are a lot of opportunities for younger people coming through. I'd say it's definitely a city to watch in terms of digital marketing and tech development. We're very lucky that there have been a number of programmes which have supported start-ups and young people. I can only see really great things coming out of Belfast in the future, I think that we will be globally recognised for the skills and talents that we have here.

AS: I think it's quite vibrant. I think it's up and coming. Everyone's doing so many different kind of things and I think there's a lot going on. Everyone's quite willing to help each other out - as they say, team work makes the dream work.

I'm from Dublin myself and I know it's a tougher market there. When I was in Dublin I wasn't getting a lot of doors opening. But I've lived in Belfast before and I just thought I'd come here and try it out. There's a lot more interest here than there was in Dublin. I think people are more openminded here.

What tips would you have for anyone thinking of starting a business in Belfast?

EG: I would say that if you're thinking about starting a business in Belfast you should research the market, dip your toe in the water and get informed. There's a lot of support out there so it's an opportunity to go off and investigate that and see what is available. I would advise you start finding the networks that are applicable to you and to go ahead and start talking to people. And coming from a digital marketing background, I would recommend making sure you've got your website and social media sorted and to capitalise on the opportunities that exist in digital marketing - for example, making sure that you're on page one on Google for your business. It's really about doing your homework and getting out there and getting started.

AS: Research about the city and about opportunities and what support you can get - there is support but you have to look for it. Even if you're looking for a mentor, just research a lot on the city and just go and meet people. There's a lot of things that go on for networking, so go and try to meet people. That's how I got where I am.

Virgin Media Business will be taking the VOOM Tour bus to DNA Digital in Belfast next week (June 6th and 7th). You don’t need tickets to get on the bus, but if you fancy checking out the rest of the event, head to Digital DNA and get 10 per cent off when you use the discount code: VOOM.

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