What's it like to do business in Birmingham?

The next stop of the Virgin Media Business Voom Tour will see the big red bus heading to Birmingham with its business advice and pitching competition. But what’s it like to do business in Britain’s second city full-time?

Population: 1.1 million

Pros: Strong start-up community, good transport links, affordability.

Cons: Can be hard to recruit talent, lack of support for independent businesses in the city.

What to expect: A creative, welcoming community who champion and encourage one another.

We spoke to four entrepreneurs in Birmingham to find out more about doing business in the city. Client enrolment strategist Petra Foster, Sheryl Miller, founder of Soup to Nuts, Barnaby Lashbrooke, founder of Time etc, and Sukh Hayre, co-founder of L3 share their thoughts…

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What are the best things about doing business in Birmingham?

Petra Foster: The best things about business in Birmingham is the sense of community. Birmingham on the whole feels like a city within a city, so there is a lot of networking. Another good thing about doing business in Birmingham is the commuter links to other cities. It's easy to hop on a train or a plane which is useful for me, as I run an international consultancy and travel a lot.

Sheryl Miller: The city centre itself is a very compact hub that attracts all sorts in very close proximity – so in five to 10 minutes you can be in a coffee shop in the Custard Factory and find super cool creative businesses, or just up the road at Fazeley studio where there are media and marketing companies, and in another five minutes in Colmore Row with the suits. So it’s great for developing brilliant ideas and making them happen. 

I was born in the heart of Birmingham and still find the city very inspiring – it’s my muse. Soup to Nuts rents a couple of hot desks in the Innovation Hub but I often sit in Marco Pierre White's on the top floor of the Cube where I can watch the city go by and get some inspiration, or in a quiet corner of the Hotel Du Vin pub if I need to get my head down.

Barnaby Lashbrooke: The people and affordability. Birmingham people are some of the nicest, most down-to-earth anywhere and I love working here because of that. It's also an affordable city to live and work in, which is good for business and quality of life when compared to other major cities.

Sukh Hayre: Location is a great advantage, we’re in the centre of a large populous region with some great universities and a large diversity of talent. Transport links are also very good within two hours you can be within most of England’s major cities, a growing international airport also helps.

What are the downsides?

PF: For me, there are not really any downsides. I run an online business, so technically, I can work anywhere in the world. This means that I am not restricted in any way, and I have purposely designed my business in this manor so that I am not dictated to by external factors. I have lived in Birmingham all of my life, and I am very happy here. I think businesses should think beyond where they are based, and create an entity that has cultural roots, but can be exported anywhere.

SM: I have two main gripes: 1) More air routes please! The recent tram developments are great for the public transport network, but for such a prominent city in the UK we could definitely do with a more air routes to/from Birmingham airport. This could really open up investment and export opportunities.

2) Not enough schemes for independent businesses. Like many other major cities in the UK, parts of Birmingham are becoming very cookie cutter - the shops, restaurants and bars all look the same and offer the same things. If someone could crack that conundrum, so that we could see the creation of the next San Carlo success story right here in Brum, that would be great.

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BL: The size of the talent pool here is smaller than London which can make hiring a challenge. Also, the professional services infrastructure – legal, financial, consultancy – is less developed.

Disruptive, global companies can be slower to reach us. WeWork is an example of that - it's a business doing great things in transforming workplace culture for SMEs, but hasn't made it to Birmingham yet. But there's a flourishing startup scene here, and we're the second biggest UK city, so it's their loss!

SH: For a new technology company such as ourselves it can sometimes be difficult for traditional business owners to embrace and adopt inevitable changes in business and customer relationship.

How would you describe the business culture of Birmingham?

PF: There are a lot of creative businesses based in Birmingham, so we have a nice mix of traditional and modern. On the whole, it's a lot less stuck up and stuff than some cities. We know how to get things done, we are professional in doing so, but we do it in our own unique way.

It's a nice balance, and the whole evolution of technology has made it exciting too, as there are no boundaries. There are also more live events happening in Birmingham which is great, because it means we no longer need to travel to London for big business events.

SM: Like the people, the business culture of Birmingham is very down to earth and honest. People are fairly straight with you and you’re left in no doubt as to whether or not they want to do business with you - in my experience, there’s very little game-playing or pretence. There has been an awful lot of investment and coming together of people and initiatives that want businesses to thrive and this is really starting to pay dividends.

BL: Friendly, down-to-earth, straight-talking and eager to prove ourselves. There is a culture of championing other businesses here, and we all encourage each other on.

SH: We think Birmingham has a long standing business culture that dates back to the industrial revolution, (which Birmingham was the centre of). Moving through the decades this innate culture has been enhanced by the cities large black, Asian and minority ethnic communities who have brought their own entrepreneurial spirit and developed an environment that welcomes business and entrepreneurs.

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

PF: I would say just do it. Don't restrict yourself, and don't think that you have to charge lower prices because you are based in Birmingham. I teach my clients how to charge premium prices and enrol high end client with ease, and this is very doable, whether you are based in Birmingham or not, so never restrict yourself based on you live. Also, I would say take advantage of the shared work spaces available. Birmingham has a lot of quirky places where you can work, and be inspired as well as network, so tap in to that.

SM: Test out your ideas on potential customers as early and cheaply as possible. Find the free networking events – there are lots of them. Find spaces where you can work for little or no cost, or set up pop-up shops or temporary stalls. Find the hubs of other start-ups for your sector so that you can get access to all of the help, support and ideas you need to make it happen. Get on social media or drop into Birmingham's Social Media club – it’s a great way to plug into the city.

BL: Get to know the city first. Rents can vary wildly and there are some fantastic deals on office space available if you hunt around. Unfortunately, Birmingham isn't as well connected by public transport as it should be, so think carefully about how visitors, and your employees, will get to your office.

SH: Do it! Compared to London or other business centres, Birmingham’s start-up costs are very reasonable, there is a huge resource talent pool to tap into, and it’s a great fun city to live and work in.

The Virgin Media Business VOOM bus will be at The Custard Factory in Birmingham on September 28th, 2017. Find out more and sign up now on the Virgin Media Business website.

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