Case study: Help is at hand for SMEs and start-ups in west London

SME Magazine catches up wtih Allen Pluck, chief executive of Portobello Business Centre, a business development and enterprise agency which offers a wide range of services for people who want to set up on their own, and for already established businesses planning to expand, in west London.

1 Allen, tell us about the Portobello Business Centre. What does it do?

If you were to use the jargon you would describe Portobello Business Centre (PBC) as an independent non-profit making social enterprise. In simpler terms, we exist to help people get into and stay in business without it costing a fortune for the privilege. We help people to start up grow and expand their businesses. We support them in realising their full potential. Our clients typically are new young and micro business start-ups with between 1 -10 employees.

Most of our services are provided without charge (note the lack of the word “Free”) or at heavily subsided rates, but that doesn’t mean we compromise on quality. John Ruskin’s Common Law of Business Balance aside, it doesn’t make our services “cheap” or “incapable,” it simply means we’ve cannily found a way for somebody else to reimburse us for the fantastic services you receive.

As a not for profit organisation, we work hard at keeping our quality high and our costs to a minimum, we are not paying shareholders or directors and we are heavily committed to buying, promoting and utilising local services and local business skills. We quite literally look to recycle our previous clients’ skills to help provide our business services to others. It’s a great way of getting our clients to “put something back” into community for the subsidised support they’ve received.

We offer and deliver: One to One advice; Training Courses; Seminars; Workshops; Business Consultancy and Networking opportunities. We also provide advice and access to business loans, finance and grants for London based businesses.

All of these services are affordable, high quality, independent and confidential delivered by an innovative and professional team. Residents or businesses located in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea may also be eligible to fully subsidised support.

2 What challenges are business start-ups in west London facing? How do you overcome them?

I think the first hurdle most people face when they’re setting out is where to go to get good information and advice. If you are starting a business or running one there is way too much information available to you. Just try typing “new business start” into a search engine and see how many hits you get! It was just shy of 222,000,000 the last time I tried it and even adding the words west London will still leave you with in excess of 35 million sources of information.

It also seems everyone has funds to lend, an opinion or tips to share to get you up and running. Trouble is once you start investigating some of these sites you’ll find the information can be conflicting, confusing and for the best part they’ll not be that impartial.

The majority of people starting a business are still coming at this for the first time and will have little or no previous experiences of running a business. So all of this can be extremely daunting. With so much information out there it’s an overloaded minefield that entrepreneurs are left trying to navigate.

Our advice would be to look for an organisation that has a good track record of providing support. They should provide local as well as on-line delivery of services and be able to provide case studies of companies they have helped and a range of support services (advice, training, and networking) as well as quality benchmarking for what they do. Then, of course, you can look at the costs.

3 How successful has it been? What examples can you share with us?

I think Portobello Business Centres track record speaks for itself. We are nationally recognised as a leading quality provider of professional Enterprise Support Services and have provided our support and assistance to many thousands of businesses in our local community and across London for over 25 years. You simply cannot achieve that as a social enterprise if your services aren’t up to scratch. If you don’t believe us – ask our clients.

Some of people we have helped have witnessed huge business growth and are household names (Incognito, Innocent, Petar Agbaba – CB*MA). We believe every business we support, that starts, survives and grows is a success in their own way.

You could even regard those who don’t go on the start a business as being a success – as we have provided these people with the opportunity to decide that self-employment and business is not for them rather than start up and fail.

4 Talk us through your average week

I don’t think I have ever had average week! – Every day brings something new and different. That is in part due to the diverse nature of the new business ideas that clients bring through our door and in part because we, like our customers, are also a small business navigating rapidly through a changing business environment.

Technology, Brexit, the Pound, the property market, increasing costs, everywhere you look there are current and future challenges for new business growth and survival. We work hard to meet and stay ahead of these challenges in exactly the same way our clients do. Maybe that is why our clients respect the support we provide the way they do – we’re definitely “in this together”

5 You say quite clearly that “you do not do free”. What do you mean by that and is it working?

At Portobello Business Centre simply we don’t do “Free.” Even when we provide services at no cost, someone, somewhere is paying for the service. So we do “Subsidised”, we do “Without Charge” We do at “Zero Cost” but we don’t do “free.”

All this means we’ve found a way for somebody else to reimburse us for the service. And we want you to be part of that by helping us and putting something back in to make that happen.

I find when services are provided “free.” they aren’t valued and are often wasted there is no commitment or appreciation of the value. As a result experience has shown that clients turn up late or fail to arrive at all or don’t keep the promises they made.

I look at the services we provide as being just like the rain forest – if you keep taking away from it without putting something back, eventually there is nothing left to take away and the world is poorer for it. We encourage everyone to put something back into their community be that skills, time or financial support.

For those potential customers who are disgruntled by the idea of contributing something, I offer them a “free” swap service. i.e. If you offer your services “Free” to me forever – I’ll offer you ours…it’s not a conversation that last s very long…

6 What do you hope to achieve over the next five or so years?

We are expanding our services, and also re-launching services we have successfully delivered in the past. We are also growing our support into areas where we have not traditionally been very involved with in the past as well as spreading our wings with like-minded organisations within a consortium (Business for London) to provide cover beyond West London. So busy times ahead.

7 Sum up your business approach in three words?

Open, Professional, Considerate