Starting up: does Birmingham beat London?

The second city proved to be a hive of entrepreneurial activity on last week’s Voom Tour stop, with more spectators and applications to take part than any other city so far - even London. But is it really the best place to start a business in the UK?

Alongside the pitching competitions, presentations and free one-to-one advice sessions on offer at each of the Voom Tour stops, Virgin Media Business have been convening some rather lively debates.

Each panel discussion hones in on a topic or question closely linked to the city in which its taking place, with last week in Birmingham being not different. With the bus located in one of the more dramatic settings so far on the Voom Tour, right under the railway arches beside the renowned entrepreneurial hub The Custard Factory, the talk turned to that of a long-running rivalry.

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The need for more risk

London versus Birmingham - which city is best for starting up? To answer the question the Voom team invited David Francis (Paint 360 Technical Director and previous Voom winner), Angela Middleton (Middleton Murray Founder) and Dave Peebles (Custard Factory Sales Manager) up on the stage, three business leaders who all have their own experience of starting up in the city.

"I’ve been working here, at The Custard Factory, for 25 years," explained Dave, as he kicked off the conversation. "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.

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The Birmingham talent pool

"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."

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The best of both worlds

One point that Dave was keen to impress on many of the younger entrepreneurs in the audience was that it wasn’t a straight choice between London or Birmingham - you can take something from both.

"I wouldn’t say it’s over the other, both are fantastic cities and great places to do business, both have strengths and weaknesses," noted Dave. "For businesses based in Birmingham, we need to keep our eye on London. It’s only one hour and twenty minutes on the train, it’s not difficult to travel between the two. If you have a great idea then why not take advantage of the cheaper rents and start-up costs here, while still getting the benefits of going down to London."

They didn’t know it at the time as the pitching competition was about to take place but the eventual winners, who were watching on in the audience, are a perfect example of how this relationship between the two cities can work. The couple behind Project Jackfruit, Abi and Jordan, decided to move to Birmingham in order to start their business, having struggled to find the time and resources to do so in London. They still regularly travel back down to enter competitions and attend meetings, but attribute much of their success to the start-up environment which people like Dave have been busy cultivating in Birmingham.

So there you have it, don’t have one or the other, have both.

The next stop on the Voom Tour sees the big red bus pull into Hampshire on October 19th, to find out more head over to the Virgin Media Business website.

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