From Dumfries to Downing Street

Karen Riddick is a light hearted observer, business-woman and enthusiastic writer from Dumfries.

She has gone from working 9-5 to building a successful online business which now fulfils over 1,200 orders per month. Karen shares her real life experiences in business.

A Business Trip Like No Other

It’s not every day that you get an invitation to 10 Downing St – so when I received one, the first thing I did was to check whether it was genuine! Thankfully it was! The event was being organised by Enterprise Nation, the UK’s most active small business community. They have around 75,000 members but, for this event, they were looking for twenty rural business owners to attend a meeting with James McLoughlin, Special Business Adviser to the Prime Minister.

My business probably has as much rural roots as you can find. I own an online eco-friendly soft furnishing store called ‘Second Nature Online’. I started it ten years ago while living on the Isle of Islay (some two hours by ferry off the west coast of Scotland). I am now back in my home town of Dumfries, but I have faced many of the challenges which are common to rural and small business. These days, I handle around 1200 orders a month with over 40% going to overseas buyers. I am an advocate of online retail as a source of rural employment and as a partial solution to town centre regeneration. Perhaps it is this which saw me onto the invitation list, but I still felt a tad nervous about it!

Eagerly, I awaited our remit and, when it came, it sounded fairly straightforward. The rural business owners had to deliver one message each for the budget. The problem was that, like most business owners, I had lots of messages for Government! It was clear that whining or rambling would not be welcome though. The session was due to last one hour so, with twenty people in attendance, our messages would need to be productive, concise and meaningful.

An important message

In order to keep my mind fresh, I used the London bound train to formulate my thoughts. Ten years of self-employed lessons to be squashed into a single message for the budget. It was hard to know where to start. Should I opt for VAT registration, poor broadband, transport costs, BREXIT, currency fluctuations, National Insurance and the horrors of trying to speak to a human when phoning HMRC? Or should I go for something that had a potential solution. Something like employment, premises and training.

I definitely had a message about the reluctance for small businesses to become employers – I should know because I am one of them. With increasing legal, financial and administrative obligations, employing one or two staff can simply feel like too much hassle. And that is a pity because it ultimately acts as a ceiling to growth. Should government be thinking about a different resource model? One where small business can more easily buy in the staff resource they need – without becoming employers?

Dumfries High Street

I also had a message about the difficulty of finding the right business premises, despite an apparent glut of empty buildings. Whether you are looking to buy or rent, there are few suitable properties on the market. Purchase prices are often out of reach and lease conditions can be frightening, especially to a small business. In addition to rental costs, the rateable value of town centre properties means that rates relief is only available for properties of a limited size – in which case it may be difficult to operate at the level required to be a profitable business.

Is there scope for a commercial ‘help to buy’ scheme similar to the domestic system? Should we develop a commercial tenancy support service? Overall, there has to be an easier way for businesses to occupy suitable premises.

Another message can be found in the field of training and advice. There is plenty of general advice available but are we doing enough to ensure that businesses can access the specialist help they need? Do we need to ramp up the availability of duty advisors and drop in clinics? Common topics such as tax, human resources, social media, legal matters and other specialist areas could be covered by pre-approved advisors pulled in from specialist areas.

From my own perspective, industry specific advice is particularly important if businesses are to tap into the powerful web-based platforms which exist in their chosen field.  For example, online retailers need training in how to sell on Ebay, Amazon, Etsy etc – rather than simply setting up their own website. There is also a need for better training in online communication.   Face to face dealings are very different to online correspondence and many people find it all too easy to get caught up in negative exchanges which, at best are a waste of time, and, at worst, may be damaging to their business.  

Above all, there should be a wider message about the need to encourage even more start-up businesses.  Self-employment continues to rise in the UK and, in rural areas, it may be one of the only employment options.   People who work for themselves are more likely to become inspirational business owners who will bring benefits to the local economy.  We need to ensure that enough is being done to encourage and embrace these individuals. In addition to personal benefits, freelance workers and self-employed contractors could form the core of a service industry which serves small businesses, particularly those who do not want to have permanent employees.

Through the barricades

So, after much thinking and typing, I was well prepared by the time I left the train.  After meeting with the Enterprise Nation leader and other business owners, we made our way to Whitehall.  I confess that I did feel smug whilst pushing past the tourists and presenting my passport for entry to 10 Downing Street.  I did not, however, expect the line of questioning which I encountered before being allowed through.

The armed police officer looked at my passport and then at me.

“Can you tell me which famous boxer shares your name?” he asked.

“Riddick Bowes” I replied nervously.

“It’s Riddick Bowe actually” he corrected me with a smile.  “There’s no ‘s’ – but you can come through anyway”.

And I was in!

Given the chaos of Whitehall and the surrounding streets, it felt strangely peaceful to walk up the short cul-de-sac towards that famous door.   I kept my eye open for Larry the Downing St cat, but my attention was quickly taken by the prospect of what it would be like inside. I can now tell you that it is a bit like visiting your Auntie.  There’s a warm welcome, some old furniture and traditional pictures on the wall. There’s also a nice cup of tea. I tried not to whimper when I was told to leave all electronic equipment in the cubby holes in the hallway.  The security guard wasn’t to know that all my precious messages were on the laptop – with a summary on my iPhone notes page.  Luckily, I had scribbled the bullet points of my messages onto a scrap piece of paper, but I did not get to use that either!

Say but little and say it well

During the one-hour session some people were able to speak on any subject of their choice whilst others had specific questions directed to them.  I was asked to comment on the value of exporting as a rural business activity. I hadn’t written that one down, so I had some fast thinking to do.  In hasty response, I commented that my own export success had only been possible as a result of the easy access to international markets offered by selling on Ebay and Amazon.  I re-iterated that, whilst there was widespread advice on how to set up an independent retail website, more rural based retail businesses would benefit from specific training and guidance on how to use these powerful global marketplaces.  

I also made the point that by encouraging retail businesses to use Amazon, Ebay, Etsy and many others, it could reduce their reliance on passing trade and improve their resilience to currency fluctuations.  I managed to squeeze in a final suggestion – that with enough momentum, increased support for internet-based businesses could lead to a wider campaign in which successful online retailers begin to occupy some of the empty properties in our struggling town centres.  

That was all I got to say in person, but I was struck by how much the attendees had in common.  Amongst other things, we had very similar messages in terms of employing staff, accessing advice and finding premises.  

Exactly one hour after arriving – we left.  There was a flurry of photographs and post meeting chats but, all too soon, we were on the other side of the railings again – all of us certain that this had been a once in a lifetime event.   

Don’t Wait!  Just Do It!

So, what will happen to my online retail message?  I suppose it is far too soon to tell but, in the meantime, there is nothing to stop me making my own tiny steps.  I am booked in for a couple of sessions during the coming Dumfries & Galloway Business Week (early October 2018). It is in early development stages, but I will be speaking about selling on Amazon and, if there is sufficient interest, it may well pave the way to more detailed training opportunities for local businesses.    

And at least that’s a start!

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