The big red Voom Tour bus rolled into Birmingham yesterday, as hundreds of the city’s finest entrepreneurial minds and fledgling founders convened for a day of talks, free business advice and a pitching competition like no other.
The Custard Factory, one of the city’s oldest start-up hubs and currently home to around 400 businesses, played host for the day and offered one of the more dramatic settings so far on the 2017 Voom Tour.
Kicking things off on the mic was Crowdfunder’s Su Johnston, who gave a fine whistle-stop tour of the crowdfunding options available for businesses looking to take things to the next level. During her time on stage Su was also able to highlight the great work being undertaken by forward-thinking local authorities, who have embraced the concept.
"I’m happy to say that we already partner with Birmingham City Council, who will ‘match-fund’ great ideas from this city - as long as they have been proven to ‘have legs’ and can get the backing of others. Crowdfund Birmingham, which has a pot of £470,000, is proving to be a really effective way of the city supporting ideas that celebrate the rich mix of people, community and enterprise that exists here."
After her talk Su, along with representatives from ICAEW, JCDecaux, LondonMedia and LinkedIn, was on hand for free one-to-one advice sessions. With local entrepreneurs coming along to get some succinct advice on everything from PR to accounting.
After the free lunch (yes, there is such a thing!) Voom MC, Chris Reed, introduced a lively panel discussion - Starting Up: Does London Beat Birmingham?
The panel of David Francis (Paint 360 Technical Director and previous Voom winner), Angela Middleton (Middleton Murray Founder) and Dave Peebles (Custard Factory Sales Manager) entered into a passionate discussion on the ups and downs of living and working in the second city.
"I’ve been working here, at The Custard Factory, for 25 years," explained Dave. "This is a great city for business, it has the heritage. Birmingham is also the least pretentious city I know. It’s honest and down to earth but if there’s one thing I could change it’s the approach to risk, it needs to be more open to taking risks as it’s a place of great opportunity."
Meanwhile Angela, who had clearly been doing her homework on the train journey up from London, had some statistics to share that she believed proved that now was the time to invest or start-up in the city.
"18,000 small businesses were started here last year, per head that’s more than any other city in the country. 10 years ago I tried to start a business here and it didn’t work, the timing wasn’t right - the same cannot be said now," she explained. "The conditions are very different here now, for a start you have a big population - 40 per cent of which are under the age of 25, that’s a big potential talent pool to find new recruits from."
While the general consensus seemed to be that conditions are currently favourable for entrepreneurs in the city, things are only going to change if businesses choose to invest in the local people. Which is exactly what Paint 360 are doing, with helping people who have struggled find employment and been let down by the education system a big part of their overall mission. However despite their massive success to date, it hasn’t always gone according to plan.
"It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster, very and up and down, we’ve had quite a bit of fun along the way," noted David, whose company takes waste paint and recycles it - ensuring not a drop is wasted. "We once supplied red paint for a bridge in Birmingham which eventually turned bright pink in the sunshine! That was a lesson learnt."
After the pleasantries it was down to business - the pitching competition. £5,000 was on offer to the best pitch, with six local entrepreneurs having two minutes of pitching and three minutes of questions to convince our panel of judges. Not only that, the winner of the competition will join Richard Branson for brunch in London next month. The current appetite for entrepreneurship in the second city was probably best summed up by the fact that this leg of the Voom Tour received more applications to be a part of the pitching competition than any other - not even Manchester or London were a match for Birmingham.
Something which the judging panel were quick to pick up on was the strength of each of the businesses pitching, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. Start-ups such as Hot Tug, Buckt and Magic Candy managed to put a smile on the faces of the hefty crowd of spectators, while BrightLet.com and Flora & Curl offered up seriously smart solutions to problems being faced by people in their respective sectors. But there could only be one winner and this time the hard cash, as well as the opportunity to have brunch with Branson, went to Project Jackfruit.
For those not in the know, jackfruits are rather large fruits often found on trees in India. What Abi and Jordan, the couple behind Project Jackfruit, discovered is that when you cook them before they're ripe the fruit looks and tastes like pulled pork - making it a fantastic meat substitute for vegans such as themselves. So, what was the secret behind their success in the pitching competition?
"We recently did another pitching competition in London, in the chartered accountants hall, which was really nerve-wracking, but it gave us some experience which is good,” explained Jordan.
"This time around we tried to keep it more conversational and relaxed," noted Abi. "After all, we know what we’re talking about. When you overthink what you’re doing it can take away from the natural passion you have for the business."
If you’re keen to get along to the next leg of the Voom Tour then the good news is there’s not long to wait, next week sees the bus head to Cardiff, before stops in Hampshire, Glasgow and Dundee. You can find information on all the stops over on the Virgin Media Business website, including how to register for one of the upcoming pitching competitions.
For those not able to make it to one of the remaining stops, you can keep up to date on all the latest from the tour via the Voom Podcast - available on Apple podcasts, Acast and any other podcast app you could dare to name.
If you'd like to back the latest Voom Pitch competition winners then you can do so by supporting the Project Jackfruit crowdfund campaign.