Face for Business Supports Spark Up Liverpool




Face for Business has been an advocate of start-ups and entrepreneurs ever since we participated in the inaugural Small Business Saturday UK event in 2013. We joined the Liverpool & Sefton Chamber of Commerce recently, and were introduced to the ‘Spark Up Liverpool’ team, and had the opportunity to present to their current programme cohort. After meeting so many entrepreneurs at the event, we felt enthused to help promote the programme. We went on to interview two of the Chamber’s business enablers, Anelise and Chris, and if you’re an entrepreneur we hope our interview inspires you to look into the Spark Up programme further. Liverpool needs to bridge the business deficit gap, and is aiming to support as many start-ups as possible.

Spark Up Programme Overview

Can you give a brief overview of the Spark Up programme?
It’s a 12 week business accelerate programme. The next programme runs from 1st October to mid-December.  The idea of the Business Accelerator is that it allows early stage businesses (trading under two years) to grow and scale up, with a mixture of seminars – about business skills and getting business models ready, one to ones, mentoring, and business panels, Dragon Dens style. When ready they will stand up and be challenged by a panel, and if they can’t get through that then they’re not ready for investment. If they do get through, they are ready.

We don’t offer finance ourselves, and take no equity stake in business, it’s completely free to use.  Our only remit is to create regional growth, in terms of investment, turnover and employment.  The Liverpool city region has a deficit of 18,000 businesses, compared to other cities, so we realise there needs to be many more start-ups in the city, which is why we’re doing this.

We’re powered by Liverpool & Sefton Chamber of Commerce, supported by NatWest, Glow New Media, Big Partnership and now Face for Business, and the University of Liverpool.  We’re supported by a couple of lecturers that work at University of Liverpool, and we have an ‘Entrepreneur in Residence’ who helps to inspire our students. We also go into the university and inform their students of the programme.

How did Jenny Stewart come up with the idea?
Jenny went to Boston, to visit ‘Mass Challenge’ (which is a similar idea) and brought the model over to the UK. Jenny came back full of ideas to give to the Chamber of Commerce, then went on to meet with ESpark at Glasgow, who were really helpful, and gave her loads of information to replicate the model in the North West – both are powered by NatWest.

What does the 12-week programme entail? (Boot camp, one to ones?)
Boot camp started on 1st October, with the selected candidates. Over 50 start-ups were invited for interview process, which was a 60 second pitch, with Q&A at the end, to decide who would go on the programme. 41 businesses made it on to the final programme and attended the two day boot camp, on 1st and 2nd October.  The boot camp is tailored towards more entrepreneurial thinking than traditional business planning, as ideas are more than likely in the early stage, and not related to business planning.  Candidates need to find if there is a market/audience firstly.  We bring thinking back to ‘Who is your customer?’ We make sure that they’ve identified a market and have developed a minimal viable product/service. There is an element of planning, but not the traditional business planning route. 

Candidates have a taster of the Spark Up programme at boot camp, which is an introduction to how the programme is run. There is usually an inspirational guest speaker, as pitching is a big element of the programme. As soon as the candidates get to boot camp, they’re up and out pitching, making them realise that this should form part of their daily activities. Boot camp ends with a mini pitching event, then we get into the normal structure of the programme.

Programme Goals 
Mondays are for dedicated one to ones, with mentors and enablers, pushing them on from week to week, and Tuesdays and Thursdays are for co-working and collaborating, which is a key element of the programme. Candidates work together, and have a hot desk space, but will find that they will be out speaking to clients a lot of the time. It is difficult, but it’s about getting that right balance. Overall, when candidates are co-working this is when the magic happens, they come back to the work space and bring ideas back to the table, and speak to one another as well as supporting each other when they get knockbacks.

During the programme goals are set and catered to the individual, as their businesses are all at different stages. We ask them what they’ve done, and what they need to do next. This is followed up week after week, and we set actions and checks to help drive them forward.

The end of the 12 week programme culminates in pitching competitions, and cash prizes are given out. Then, three business are selected to pitch at the chamber’s annual dinner event, to at least 1000 people. Guests are given a keypad, and vote for who they liked best. Anyone from previous cohorts can also enter this pitching competition.

There are no specific end targets at programme closure, it’s all about growth and scalability – candidates may be freelancers, or companies with up to 500 employees, and therefore is tailored to the individual. There is no ‘one size fits all’. Some may be finishing or developing their idea, some may realise it’s not for them half way through the programme, and accept that they’ve failed comfortably, but realise that they have developed skills during the process. For some it can be more of a personal journey.


What’s different between this programme and the previous two? Have you gained new insight as the programme develops?
Yes, although we were not involved in the first one, so it’s a bit difficult to say, and we joined the last one half way through. This programme is more structured and focused on one to one’s, with the emphasis on enablers driving candidates forward. The programme is shorter, at 12 weeks rather than 20 weeks.

Feedback from the last programme showed that after 12 weeks, candidates didn’t feel as motivated and dropped off a little bit towards the end. In an ideal world we’d expect them to motivate themselves, but we discovered that we needed to keep momentum up, and now, with the built in incubator, those that show promise at the end of 12 weeks and are on the verge, or need extra support, are selected to continue.

Structured sessions are not offered during the incubator period, but candidates have access to office space and Wi-Fi etc, and also can still be in touch with their mentor’s and business panels, and are put in touch with people they need to speak to. Spark Up decides who goes through to the incubator during an interview process. Candidates have to put their case forward by demonstrating how the programme has benefited them and what they’ve gained, and if they demonstrate this, then they’re on!

Spark Up Candidates and Key Requirements

Who is your target audience? How are you spreading the word about Spark Up?
So far there is a big emphasis on social media and twitter, with more word of mouth marketing, and getting word out within our network and our own press outlets, with help from the Liverpool Echo. We also get word out at the Chamber and other events we attend.  We’re looking for new candidates all the time, and with an open application process, anyone can apply. The application process is closed briefly before each cohort starts for the recruitment process. Those who have applied will be invited along to open days, to see the co-working space and to find out what’s involved as well as to get ready for the recruitment process.

What are the key requirements you look for in candidates who apply to partake in Spark Up?
Personality! The ‘entrepreneurial’ person! Someone who can show enthusiasm, motivation and perseverance, and someone whose hand you don’t have to hold, and who are not in the 9am-5pm mind-set. We are looking for people who will put their all into it! They might not come with the best idea, but they will be the right person. Ideas can change, but personalities are harder to change. Candidates need to have a certain kind of skill set. One of our major success stories, Just Super Juice, came with one idea and left with another. We really liked them, they came on the programme, and realised themselves that the first idea wasn’t going to work out, and we discovered that they had a real passion for natural juices and healthy living. (See link to Just Super Juice’s story – who will soon be our client!).

Can you talk me through a typical success story?
It’s difficult to say, as you can’t predict the outcome. Candidates really need to have what it takes. A different version of success is that one of our candidates (Rebecca Christian) came with a web design business idea, but was a fantastic artist, designer and unique illustrator, similar to Cath Kidson, she can put prints onto a variety of mediums. Sometimes you need to leave candidates to themselves to work out their ideas. Also, other successes is the confidence that candidates finish with and watching them progress. It will be interesting to see how candidates pan out, as this time we’ll be seeing them from day one.


Spark Up and Business Support

What seems to be the main factors preventing entrepreneurs from getting their business idea started?
Not understanding the support that is out there. There is a lot on offer in this region, some similar, some different, if we have trouble understanding who is doing what for whom, how can a regular person with a business idea know what’s there for them – there is lack of joined up thinking.  Also, confidence can stop a person from thinking ‘I can do this’, along with the misconception that you need finance/money to start a business. You don’t.  

In summary, confidence and a person’s own ability to find advice that’s out there are key factors. If you have a good business idea there are people out there who will support good ideas but it’s how you articulate them, and it’s about having the right mind set.

How do you find your business mentors? Are there particular sectors you target?
We are in a really fortunate position. Because we are powered by the Chamber of Commerce we have access to a huge network of businesses in the community who are happy to give back. Previously there was a bank of mentors and stock business, to contact as and when – this didn’t work. We changed the process slightly, and now have 15 mentors from different specialisms – one or two each sector. For example, accountants, investors, web designers, and other relevant business. We’ll have a smaller core groups of mentors, who are matched with candidates. If we spot gaps, we can make links which is a better use of mentors time, and businesses time.

What are the long term objectives of the programme – how many do you envisage doing each year?
The plan is to undertake three programmes per year, with up to 50 candidates in each programme. For some candidates the programme may run up to six months, taking into account the incubator process, and how many go through. We can afford to be selective with the businesses we take on. We’re trying to create a circle, but with it being new we’ll be reviewing the process.

Call Answering Support Services for Spark Up Candidates

What support can we offer Spark Up during this programme?
The idea of creating a start-up package for the businesses, with factors like having a business telephone number is great, as these businesses don’t have their own office, and a Liverpool number* will look like they’ve got an office, and looks much more professional. They will need someone to answer calls when they are out of the office and at meetings. The more boot strapping you can do for new businesses, the better.

*Face for Business can provide start-ups and entrepreneurs with a geographical number for their business.  Call us for more information (0333 3231 007).

Have you read a business plan that has included a telephone answering service as part of resource allocations??!

No! Word of mouth is so important within this partnership, to build up a network with a ‘fantastic service’.

Feeling Inspired?
We hope you feel inspired to look into the Spark Up programme further, and really believe that if you want to start your own business there are outlets and advice available.  Please visit the Spark Up website and read their case studies and success stories.

Let us know if you have found this article informative.  We would love to hear your start-up stories!

Spark Up Video March 2015

Other sources of information and links to Spark Up Business Enablers:-

Liverpool Chamber of Commerce

Spark Up Programme  

Liverpool Echo News 

Anelise Siddle

Chris Callaway

Just Super Juice Case Study

Rebecca Christian

University of Liverpool 

Small Business Saturday UK

Interview by Sara Parker, Marketing Manager, Face for Business.