Category Archives: Out and about

Being last, not fast

“There is more to life than increasing its speed” Mahatma Gandhi

My dear old dad hated school sports. He told me he was so determined not to come last in running races (he had standards…) that he once ended up in second place and was annoyed that he had to run again in another heat!

At the weekend I recalled my dad’s remark about not coming last when attending my local parkrun. I’ve written other blog posts about my love of parkrun – particularly that it’s about community rather than competition – but last Saturday’s experience was a first for me – I came last!

My time was 00.55.41 for the 5K – the slowest of 304 parkrunners – but that was all part of the plan as I was a ‘tail walker’. It involves making sure everyone returns safe and sound at the end of their run/walk/whatever. My hour-long walk around the route was a joy – very fresh air (a good blow in bright sunshine), great exercise in beautiful National Trust surroundings, and friendly chat – mainly with my co-tail walker who’s recovering from a hamstring injury. We talked about everything from sports injuries obviously, to dogs, caring duties, films, and the NHS.

It wasn’t quite a stroll in the park, but I was pleased there was no pressure (self-imposed or otherwise) to do other than finish the 5K circuit… last. I feel society is increasingly inclined to make us think that fast is desirable – that cramming more and more into our already busy lives is ‘a good thing’.

The idea of slowing things down is, of course, nothing new – the slow food movement in Italy dates back to the late 1980s https://www.slowfood.com.  I bought Carl Honore’s intriguing bestseller In Praise of Slow soon after it was published in 2004  https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Carl-Honore/In-Praise-of-Slow–How-a-Worldwide-Movement-is-Challengin/1980344 and I’d probably buy The Idler (a bi-monthly magazine for people who like to live in the slow lane https://www.idler.co.uk) if I had time to read it.

On a similar theme, if there was a competition for firing up your laptop, mine would probably come last. Every time I sit there after switching on my computer, I’m reminded of an early marketing database I used which allowed me time enough to make a cup of tea while it was selecting records from a list of 10,000 book-buyers. Fast forward three decades and, for all my impatience while waiting to use my computer, I’m grateful for the enforced delay as an opportunity for some mindful reflection at the beginning on the working day.

To coincide with its 15th anniversary, parkrun-UK commissioned some research  https://blog.parkrun.com/uk/2019/10/05/not-just-run-park. Two findings particularly interested me – firstly, that volunteering at parkrun was found to be better for our health and well-being than just running or walking the 5K. Interestingly the role of tail walker has been renamed in recent years – it used to be ‘tail runner’ – and this relates to a second research finding; that the average time for the 5K circuit had increased year-on-year – reflecting the growing number of people taking up parkrun (and running?) for the first time.

Looking more widely at slowing down society I don’t think I’m inclined to start a ‘come last’ campaign, but anything we can do to find more flexible ways of working (I’m right behind the campaign for a four day working week https://www.4dayweek.co.uk ) and to reduce the pressure on the next generation, is to be welcomed as a route to improved well-being.

Related blog posts:

https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/08/16/counting-what-counts

https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2019/06/01/coming-from-behind

https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2019/07/29/my-four-day-weekend

Royston revealed

This time last year I was planning 12 monthly articles under the theme of ‘Hidden Royston’ for the Listing – our local lifestyle-and-community magazine. We agreed that 250 words and a photo would appear in print (delivered to 17,000 homes in and around Royston) and 1,000 words with photos would be published online.

I’d lived in Royston for 25 years but I felt I knew little about the past and present of our wonderful market town. So I wasn’t setting myself up as any sort of local expert – my first task was to talk to others who were. I wanted to uncover interesting (and probably trivial) facts that might get a ‘well, I never knew that!’ response from readers and leave me and others better informed.

Naively I imagined I could plan out a month-by-month writing schedule neatly fitting topics into three sub-themes – underground, after dark, and behind closed doors. Of course, it didn’t turn out like that; on one or two occasions pieces unravelled as copy deadlines loomed, ideas that I thought were rock solid didn’t develop, and some stories I’d love to have followed didn’t happen for reasons beyond my control. The series is now complete – 11 blog posts (and a Christmas quiz) are online for all to read (see links below) so I thought this was a good time to reflect on what I’ve learnt over the past year that might help others thinking of doing something similar.

Older and wiser – lessons learnt: So-called facts can be closer to speculation and need triangulation to establish some sort of truth. My research skills are limited and conversations with different local information sources often told divergent stories about the town. One line I pursued early on was that there was a tunnel from a High Street shop to the local church. A couple of local traders confirmed it; one even said they knew someone who’d been down the tunnel. An ‘authority’ later scotched the theory and said it was untrue with no evidence to back up the assertion. Information about another underground tunnel from a local hotel – Banyers House – to the same church proved to be more accurate and I was shown what was said to be the blocked end of it.

Another lesson learnt was that other people’s timetables aren’t your own. I spent literally months pursuing an ‘after dark’ piece, being reassured it would happen, only to give up after being passed from one contact to another. My last piece in the series – an after-dark-behind-closed-doors piece about the biggest local employer Johnson Matthey  took a long time to set up, because of security and other considerations, but the visit went head smoothly in the end.

A tip for anyone researching and writing a series – have an article ‘in your back pocket’ just in case a planned piece falls through at the last minute. I wrote one about reducing waste in Royston and was pleased to have it ready-written to meet a tight deadline.

Early on I discovered an easy way to add interest to a piece is to conduct a ‘straw poll’ to gather the views of local people. This applied to two pieces; one when finding out which High Street traders had cellars and how they used them. The other piece was on CCTV cameras in public places. I had expected it to be a controversial subject but after talking to a random selection of local shoppers I found that few of them were bothered about being filmed!

Most interesting discoveries: Some of my research didn’t result in a published piece, but intriguing conversations with knowledgeable locals gave me great pleasure. I met a local former furniture upholsterer who knew my father’s family firm – Arthur H Lee and Sons wove fabrics for domestic and commercial use – that closed back in 1970. I had a long conversation with a former neighbour who is an authority on the Royston Cave. We agreed that the cave was famous enough not to merit further coverage, but that same source shared a story about forged bank notes being printed in a local hotel cellar that was later confirmed by hotel staff.

Surprises: I wanted to find out what goes on behind closed doors at the local police station (it’s been closed to the public since 2013) and to investigate the use of use of CCTV cameras in public places. I expected to be told the information was confidential. While one or two answers to interview questions were ‘not for publication’, I’m pleased to report I was welcomed with straight answers to my questions.

For me, one of the most intriguing pieces focused on the origins of different road names around Royston . Much of the work had already been done by local historians – thank you F John Smith in particular – so the piece could be drafted in the comfort of our local library.

Ones that got away: I had a theme going around in my head along the lines of… lines. Something about Royston being on the Meridian Line, being the centre of important transport routes (the town is at the crossroads of two ancient trading routes) and talk about ley lines in the town centre. But sometimes you start a piece in your head and find it simply doesn’t work out on paper.

Another topic that never materialised was ‘dogs after dark’. A friend who is both a dog owner and an insomniac talked about the community of dog-walkers who meet at all times of day and night on the Heath with dogs in tow. When dark, they recognise each other by the coloured LED lights on the dog collars! My plan had been to join dogs and owners in the dark – sniff them out if you like – but I decided such an approach might be misinterpreted.

In conclusion, I’m very grateful to all the people who gave me their time to suggest stories and advise me on places and people to look for further information. I have always sought to get approval for pre-publication drafts and feedback suggest that subjects have been happy with what I’ve written. I’ve also been particularly pleased when my writing stimulates positive exchanges on local social media platforms – not least from the Facebook fan club of my interviewee at Royston Fire Station! Finally, special thanks to David Waters – photographer for some of the articles – his pictures considerably upped the quality of those pieces.

Read the Hidden Royston series of articles here https://www.thelistingmagazine.co.uk/category/community-news/hiddenroyston 

Gifting for our time

Today [Saturday 7 December] is Small Business Saturday. Since this always falls at the weekend, the most active way to show your support on the day is to go shopping and make sure you use independents wherever you can. I was out and about in our town centre and bought some bolts from our brilliant hardware store (I’m making a pallet wood bike ramp with a young lad), a jar of local honey from a market stall will make a great Christmas gift, and we enjoyed a pint in a High Street pub ( it was thirsty work!)

But thoughtful buying and gifting is not just for one day or just at Christmas time. As consumers we can make giving and spending decisions that are more or less ethical and environmental – we have the choice. Just as I chose to buy nothing on Black Friday and refuse to use Amazon (do you know about Hive – they support local bookshops). It’s also why I have a little library outside my house – I love books but also want to promote concepts of sharing and second-hand consumption.

Research by the Charities Aid Foundation around Christmas 2018 found that 44% of adults would rather have fewer gifts and see money diverted to a good cause. Last Christmas, a Mintel report also found that 29% of gift buyers bought presents with a lower environmental impact, and 65% said retailers should make more of an effort to promote gifts that generate less waste.

On which subject – environmental consumption, I recently discovered the wonderful graphic above via the Just Little Changes website. It’s self-explanatory, so what are you waiting for?! Let’s make giving meaningful and redefine the value of a gift.

And while you’re at it, why not wrap your presents in newspaper? A sheet with colour photos and interesting headlines is a great discussion starter and makes a serious point about saving money and the planet that might just last beyond Boxing Day.

Sources and useful information:

https://www.npr.org/2019/12/04/784702588/the-best-thing-you-can-do-is-not-buy-more-stuff-says-secondhand-expert

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/22/black-friday-consumption-killing-planet-growth 

https://justlittlechanges.com

http://www.buynothingday.co.uk

https://www.hive.co.uk

https://smallbusinesssaturdayuk.com

 

Wine by weight

I don’t want to give the impression that my holidays revolve around alcohol, but this June I was looking forward to a special service provided by a small Greek supermarket that I’d visited two years previously.

At that time the enterprising owner offered to fill your own container (usually a bottle, but it could be a basin – only joking) with pleasant and affordable local red or white wine and would then charge the customer according to the weight of wine (having weighed the container before and after). This meant you could buy as little or as much as you wanted and, importantly, it cut down on single-use bottles – never a bad thing in a world of increasing consumption and waste of non-renewable resources and in a country which is still , I think, in a financial crisis.

Sad to report then that this June the wine was no longer available on tap and the woman behind the counter – not the owner – had never heard of the idea and had been working there for nearly two years. So, the practice had ceased around June 2017 and, at that stage, I could only speculate why the service had been stopped.

Maybe, I thought, it was about demand – that not enough people could be bothered to bring their own bottles when out shopping (I hoped it wasn’t the case, even if we’re talking about people on holiday). I speculated that it could be the Greek weights and measures police (or the EU maybe!) closing a loophole that no one knew existed in the world of wine-retailing. Or possibly it was pure economics – that the supermarket made more money from selling bottled wine.

I was wrong in all my speculation! When I finally met the owner, she told me they’d stopped the service for a far more pragmatic (literally down to earth!) reason. Rather than wait to be served, the customers were carelessly filling their own containers and shop staff were constantly having to clear up a wine lake (took me back to the good old days of the EEC – remember the wine lakes and butter mountain?) on the floor; their liquid assets were literally flowing out of the business.

I live in hope that the supermarket owner will see the environmental sense in providing wine by weight and find a way to make it business sense as well – like not letting customers anywhere near the wine taps. We should encourage and support changing attitudes to unnecessary and wasteful food (and drink) packaging. I see that this June Waitrose launched a ‘package free’ trial in one of its stores in Oxford (with prices typically 15% lower than their wrapped cousins) – and this includes four beers and four wines available on tap!

I hope Waitrose can make it work financially, but it certainly makes sense in environmental/ethical terms; they are following a growing trend among small independent retailers. My daughter introduced me to one – Unwrapped in Sheffield – and I left the shop amazed by the ‘magic machine’ that turns whole peanuts into peanut butter with no additives or processing needed. Closer to home, I was pleased to be part of a successful crowdfunding campaign that will see Full Circle Shop in Cambridge expanding their product range and going mobile. Then, only last week, in my home town (Royston) I discovered a friend of many years has just launched Anahata – selling plastic-free, planet-kind products online and through market stalls.  If a former work colleague’s support efforts bear fruit, a new outlet for ‘naked food’ and other household items may soon be opening in Bedford.

Exciting times indeed, so let’s raise a glass to all retailers offering plastic and packaging free products the world over.  The wine-by-weight experience of that Greek supermarket might be a lesson for all bring-your-own container outlets – make sure your customers know how to fill their containers properly. Or maybe it’s only Brits abroad who need to be shown?

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/jun/04/waitrose-launches-packaging-free-trial

https://www.unwrappedshop.co.uk

https://fullcircleshop.co.uk

https://www.facebook.com/anahata.planet

 

Another birthday bucket list – part 1

Two years ago, I shared my dislike for the bucket list idea as it relates to ‘things I must do before dying’. I then went on to share a birthday bucket list of four free/low-cost ‘things I want to do to celebrate my birthday and keep myself out of the NHS for as long as possible’.

This August I’ve decided to come up with another short list of five not-very-challenging (apart from one) ways I plan to exercise my body and brain.

Learn birdsong We’re not talking Radio 4 ‘tweet of the day’ here – I’m not looking to become a global expert! I aim to recognise just the most common UK bird songs, but even then I think I’ll have my work cut out – this link takes you to the songs of 254 UK species https://www.british-birdsongs.uk. Not sure how I’ll test myself – maybe a showdown with my wife who’s pretty knowledgeable on these sorts of things…

Swim 200 lengths in five days No big deal in itself – I get bored with swimming lengths in a pool long before I have to stop (I’m a breast-stroker – none of that exhausting crawl style for me). But I’m taking advantage of five days free swimming – a special offer at our local leisure centre – to push myself to swim further than I would normally do for each of the five consecutive days. And to make it a bit more serious, I’m going to weigh myself before and after and note any effect on my physiology before, during and after – particularly any benefit to my running and sleep at night.

Station to Station run – Norwich to Sparham The swimming will be good preparation for a 14 mile run from Norwich City Centre to Whitwell Station along Marriott’s Way – a former railway track now used for bikes, walkers, horses and… runners. It’s a while since I’ve done that distance and, while it will be on a level surface, it will still be a challenge – an opportunity to apply my mindfulness on the move training!

Learn to use a multimeter I’ve got one of these but have never used it (a long story…) and it seems like the whole world (well, practically-minded friends) knows how to use a multimeter apart from me.  Since you ask, a multimeter is ‘an electronic tool used to measure voltage, amps and resistance across circuits.’ By attaching two leads to different parts of an electrical system you can trouble-shoot electrical equipment that’s not working. I’m hoping my mate Dermot will give me a lesson (in terms I can understand!)

Sleep under the stars This has become an annual event for me and every year I make myself more and more comfortable (must be an age thing…) from thin camping mat, to self-inflating mattress to, this year, an inflatable double mattress that’s already seen action at Latitude Festival. So, no hardship but I do love listening to the nearby sound of nature competing with the far-off traffic noise from the A505 (did I mention the sleep-out is in my back garden?)

Part 2 of this blog will report back to tell you how I’ve got on.

 

My first birthday bucket list  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/07/23/by-birthday-bucket-list-part-1

Coming from behind

No – despite the title, this is not going to a piece about the Conservative leadership contest; it’s about a much more inspiring line-up of runners and riders – at Wimpole parkrun.

I came late to the joys of running (the subject of another blog post) – it certainly wasn’t parental influence! My dear old dad hated school sports and his only rule was ‘don’t come last’ – to sustain a modicum of self-respect. He was once trying to do this so hard he came third and had to run in another heat which, he said, annoyed him for the rest of his life!

This Saturday morning, I was a car park marshal at our local parkrun – one lap around the beautiful Wimpole Estate near Cambridge. I’m not telling you this to get brownie points (although brownie points are one thing you do get for volunteering…) but to explain the new experience that followed.

Despite the beauty of the Wimpole course, a major problem is that it’s pretty much only accessible by car – a steady stream starts around 8.30am and continues until 9am – so, although volunteer car park attendants can officially step down at 8.50am to join other runners for the start, there are still many cars still to be parked at that time.

Well, there were this morning which meant I joined the back of the pack after the start, as the leaders where disappearing over the horizon. Which is not to say I would have been a front-runner – I wouldn’t – but nor would I be starting from the back. This was new for me – experiencing the difference between passing others in front, rather than having people passing me, as we ticked off the five kilometres. No doubt there’s a parkrun statistic to show whether running from the front is more motivating than catching up from the back – ultimately it probably depends on personality.

I’m not competitive but, as readers of my past parkrun blog posts will know, like my dad before me I try to sustain a modicum of self-respect by being in the top third of finishers, by being in the top five in my age group, and by finishing under 26 minutes.

So how did I get on this morning? Two out of three – 158th of 477 runners, fifth in my age group. I was nearly two minutes behind my best time this year – not too bad, and it gave me something to write about here!

My love affair with running https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2019/04/09/my-love-affair-with-running

Inside your comfort zone

Regular readers of this blog series will know that I go to a school reunion in York every May. Yes – I left school 46 years ago, but I’ve been ever-present at the past ten reunions, and probably more than that.

We do the same things each year (if it ain’t broke etc) and this May was no exception – same pubs, same visits to the school on Friday and Saturday, same Saturday night gathering at our regular Italian restaurant with 20 of us enjoying each other’s company.

But, I hear you say, what about doing something different; ringing the changes? We’re told that getting outside our comfort zones, taking risks, meeting new people, stretches us and enriches our lives.

That may be true, but I believe it’s also important to recognise that doing something predictable and familiar, including relaxing with people with whom we feel comfortable, has its own merits. With good friends we’re free to be ourselves; to have some meaningful conversation (particularly important for men) alongside the school-boy banter. Every year I learn new things about people I’ve known since England last won the World Cup (1966 if your memory needs a jog), I get new insights from comments that are made in passing, from differing views shared. I was also delighted to have a good chat with my former geography teacher – a man who had a massive influence on my early academic exploits. For me, the reunion would not be the same without him.

Of course despite the familiar formula, this year’s reunion was different from previous gatherings in a number of ways. From the more trivial – for my B&B breakfasts, I chose Eggs Benedict (look it up) and kippers, rather than my traditional order for a full English – to more serious subjects. The recent and unexpected death of one of our old school teachers meant we found ourselves reflecting on our own mortality (although our year group reunion members seem to be pretty healthy).

So, feel free to spend time in your comfort zone – it’s a great way to recharge your batteries, reflect on what you value in life, and the odd surprise is bound to crop up when you’re least expecting it.

And the significance of the platform planter in the photo? I discovered it while changing trains in Peterborough and in so doing I learnt about a new-to-me charity – the Bee Friendly Trust https://beefriendlytrust.org. You should never stop learning, even 46 years after leaving school.

A little story from another school reunion https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2018/08/27/the-joy-of-planning-and-the-unexpected

The will of the people

In an earlier blog post I shared the observation that a street demonstration is a manifestation of a failed democratic process.

To me it certainly felt like something of a ‘last resort’ at the Peoples Vote march in London, where folk of all ages united in a cheerful, peaceful and, I thought, powerful expression of ‘the will of the people by an estimated one million marchers.

When all has been said (but not done) to bring the Brexit debate to a resolution that might unite rather than divide UK voters, I turn to pithy and humorous messages that typify most mass demonstrations for light relief and insight. As a lifelong lover of language, such placards and banners can capture and communicate in a short sharp way that no amount of bluster from MPs and commentators even can. Maybe the leave-remain debate should be decided by a showdown – placards at dawn?

What follows is a small selection of the placards at the Peoples Vote march. They’re broadly grouped under four headings – hasty handmade; pointing the finger; playing on words; using humour…

One placard – the first I saw – encapsulates all four elements (see right)…

The majority of placards were handmade – but it was the crude, handwritten and simplest ones had, for me, an added effectiveness – produced by real people speaking from the heart…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were prime targets for the strong feelings of the demonstrators; Theresa May and the members of the so-called European Research Group were, for obvious reasons, first in the firing line…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other placards went for a play on words – Brexit and breakfast, May the Prime Minister and May the month etc – some more contrived than others…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, there were ones of note for their subtle and not-so-subtle use of words to make people laugh. Humour is, of course, subjective but these are a couple of the other messages that made me giggle…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks to fellow marchers (including my family) for sending me home thinking that maybe we’re not all, as Private Frazer from Dad’s Army would put it – doomed. Thinks – maybe Dad’s Army could have done a better job with sorting out the Brexit shambles. Captain Mainwaring for PM anyone?

For a flavour of the march https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=52&v=81eLXg21VSA

More signs of protest – from the NHS March in London in March 2017  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/03/11/nine-healthy-signs-nhs

Thinking big

My dear old mum used to say that if all the money put into probation and prisons was invested in nurseries, after a generation prisons wouldn’t be needed. I was reminded of this when learning recently about a social enterprise that I think is simply brilliant.

70% of toddlers and infants aged up to four years in Brazil have no access to nurseries. A 27-year old entrepreneur has set out to change this by organising ‘community mothers’ to provide home-based daycare centres.  Like all the best social enterprises, Elisa Mansur’s initiative MOPI (The Movement for Education) is a simple idea that works at so many levels:

  • It trains community mothers of all ages in best-practice childhood education through play
  • It creates employment for those traditionally disadvantaged in the Brazilian jobs market
  • It provides accessible and affordable nursery places to free-up family members for additional purposeful activity
  • Above all, it gives the next generation the enriched start in life they deserve and need for a fulfilling future and for the wider benefit of society

Whenever I see what I think is a simply brilliant idea, I can’t resist imagining it being replicated in the UK. The need for accessible and affordable quality nursery spaces is real, as is the undeniable benefit of providing training and employment for people who might run them. But I’m afraid I can only see the heavy hand of bureaucracy spouting all sorts about safeguarding, quality assurance, and limited resources. But, given the reward of success, it doesn’t stop me speculating.

And my mother might well have been right about the long-term impact of investing in nurseries, but we’ll never know of course; politicians think they can only think-and-do short term – operating with five-year horizons. But we can dream, can’t we?

Here’s a short film about Elisa Mansur’s vision http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20190307-the-27-year-old-protecting-brazils-hidden-job-economy

Investing in business success

In my work with young people wanting to set up their own enterprises, I take a particular interest in the insights of others similarly placed to provide support to business start-ups. In Milton Keynes, my meetings with young would-be entrepreneurs are held at the NatWest Accelerator Hub. Below I chat with two women who manage the Hub – Sharon Rai and Debbie Lewis – to find out more about them, their support roles, and their vision for the Accelerator Hub itself.

Sharon and Debbie are both steeped in business with combined experience in running a chain of hair and beauty salons, training, coaching, and other business development roles. Sharon grew up with family businesses around her – she describes her grandmother as a “serial hustler entrepreneur” so business is in her blood.

The role of ‘critical friend’ to entrepreneurs excited both women and it was the diversity and number of businesses being supported by the Accelerator Hub that attracted them – the scope for making a practical difference to the business development of over 120 would-be entrepreneurs each year.

“It’s about everyone in the Hub pulling in the same direction to achieve more than simply working 9 – 5 and getting an income; they want to make a difference and have a positive impact on the world around them.” Both also appreciate the freedom the backing of a major high street bank gives them to work out what’s best for the clients – without an agenda, hidden or otherwise.

I wonder how far Sharon and Debbie can stand back and put the emphasis on clients ‘doing it for themselves’? Both are clear about their role… “At the interview stage [for admission to the Hub] self-motivation is an important assessment criterion. It’s not our role to enthuse them; we’re there to pick them up when they are down, slow them down when their heads are in the clouds, and reflect back their comments when they need a dose of reality.”    

Support for Hub clients

There are two programmes on offer to would-be business owners; Debbie and Sharon makes the distinction between the two…

“The Pre-Accelerator Programme is for early-stage, or what may simply be ideas-stage businesses” explains Debbie “It’s an eight week predominantly digital [so arm’s length] offer to help with client discovery, validation of the business idea, and basic steps to assess whether the business has legs. After further reflection and work on the business idea (which might result in big changes to the original concept), entrepreneurs may then be able to apply for the Accelerator Programme.”

Sharon explains the sort of entrepreneurs coming on to the Accelerator Programme. “We may have people who are not yet trading, but may have secured investment, may have built a prototype or MVP [Minimum Viable Product], and have enough early interest to warrant the support the Hub can give them. In contrast, we may have businesses that have been trading for a number of years but want to make a step change. The critical element on the Accelerator Programme is that we’re looking at scaleable businesses. They have access to up to 18 months of support (reviewed every 6 months) but it may not be best for businesses stay for the full 18 months in one go. For some it’s a matter of getting out into the business world, or fixing a part of the business that’s not going well, and then coming back for the next step.”   

What’s in it for the bank?

The Hub in Milton Keynes occupies the second floor or a large building occupied on the ground and first floors by staff involved in commercial banking activities. It offers free facilities and programme support to Hub clients with a team led by Debbie and Sharon. I wonder about the commercial rationale behind this philanthropy and both are quick to answer…

While we’d obviously like clients to bank with NatWest there’s no obligation to do so. Indeed, if you looked at the cost per acquisition it would look like a very expensive way to get business customers! Ways in which the bank benefits from the Hub include an Entrepreneurial Development Academy where the Hub team are training ‘entrepreneurial thinking and doing’ in banking staff. Intrapreneurship is how they describe it. Fintech [technology specifically relevant to financial services] businesses and entrepreneurs may also be able to help the bank – through a healthy two-way exchange of ideas and insights.

A third potential benefit for NatWest is innovation, as Sharon explains “Being at the forefront of innovative technologies and solutions, we can feed that thinking and behaviour back into the bank.” And Debbie believes that the inter-change of ideas does effect change…

In the relatively short time I’ve been in post I’ve seen continual review and feedback and I haven’t found the frustrations of slow progress that other organisations experience. What we’ve reported gets considered, though obviously, it’s not always acted on.”

I learn that NatWest wants to be seen as the number one bank for entrepreneurs, so anything the Hub can do to turn clients into advocates must be good for business and brand. This also fits neatly with the vision for the Hub, which is to be a household name and first-choice provider when it comes to talk about ‘tools for entrepreneurs’ in and around Milton Keynes.

Defining success

I find it hard to believe that a business support facility backed by a major bank wouldn’t want some hard facts and figures to show the return on their investment. Sharon confirms that they’re working to certain Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to assess the productivity of the Accelerator Hub. “For me, the really important measurement is the percentage success rate, and our 87% success rate compares very favourably with the 50% success [or 50% failure rate] of unsupported businesses. We also measure investment attracted, jobs created, and number of entrepreneurs supported.”

Alongside these ‘hard outputs’ are the ‘soft outcomes’ that result from bringing entrepreneurs together under one roof. These include the connections being made – between entrepreneur and mentor, or at a peer-to-peer mutual support level – to create a local community and support ecosystem that is invaluable. “The stories behind the figures are what drives the magic – creating something that is sustainable, long lasting, and with a significant local impact.” 

Sharon also identifies what she describes as a ‘fluffier element’ when defining what success looks like. “At the Hub we talk a lot about having a growth mindset – this is about supporting and enabling people to take ownership of their decisions. Success is when those same entrepreneurs hire their team and use those same principles.

Another measure of success is our ability to get entrepreneurs out into schools to inspire the next generation, to give them a sense of purpose and the heightened sense of self-worth that comes from surviving the highs and lows of starting and running a business.”

Debbie continues… “For young people, having someone coming in to school as a non-parent and non-teacher, and showing interest in them can give them a real buzz and a sense of importance. And it can be particularly powerful when the entrepreneurs are of a similar age to the students.

Having a vision for the next generation seems appropriately forward-looking for a sector like banking and financial services that has been transformed in less than a generation, let alone between generations. As we finish, I reflect that ‘banking on the future’ summarises our conversation quite neatly.

For further information about the Milton Keynes Accelerator Hub, e-mail miltonkeynesaccelerator@natwest.com, go online at www.natwest.com/accelerator and you can book onto one of the Natwest Entrepreneur Milton Keynes events via www.eventbrite.co.uk