BLOCKBUSTER, HMV, Jessops, Comet... just a few of the famous retail names to have gone into administration over the last year.
According to the figures, 2012 was the worst year for UK retail businesses since 2008 when the country went into a double dip recession – and 2013 is predicted to be worse.
But the grim statistics haven’t deterred bike enthusiast and entrepreneur Alex Gunn, aged 26, from setting up his bike repair business on Wellington Street, Sheffield. He opened the doors of Bike Rehab to the public on May 10, 2012, and next month he will take on his first employee.
“I have always wanted to work for myself,” he said.
“I worked previously as a head mechanic and when I moved back to Sheffield with my partner there weren’t any bike mechanic roles available, so I felt it was the best time to do what I’ve wanted to do for years and open my own business.”
With eight years of experience in the industry, the Sheffield University graduate knew the difficulties of competing against online companies and the slim margins around selling bikes, so he focused his attention on what he knows best – fixing bikes, and customer service.
Alex said: “If shops provide an actual service to the community and make the buying experience nice, then people will buy on service rather than solely on price.”
But he wanted to know what he was getting himself into before taking the plunge, and discovered Sheffield Council is one of a few local authorities in England to offer free business classes.
“I was looking for something to teach me the basics, and was surprised to find the council offered free business classes,” he said. “They were extremely useful and taught me how to avoid making big mistakes.”
Coun Leigh Bramall, cabinet member for Business, Skills and Development, said: “The council is supporting significant numbers of people taking their first steps in developing and refining their business ideas.
“We secured £500,000 for start-up loans for 200 young people in the city. We are the only local authority we know of that bid for and secured this funding. The council is also investing £800,000 over the next two years through the Keep Sheffield Working fund to support economic projects.
“Even during difficult times, we feel being business-friendly and focusing on business is a key priority for Sheffield.”
Rob King, Enterprise Coach at Sheffield Enterprise Agency, said the provision of free business workshops where people learn how to set up and run a business and put their ideas to business experts was ‘essential’ to the city.
As well as a basic understanding of business and a lot of research and preparation, Alex believes exceptional customer service is key to a successful business, and he has built up a loyal customer base and immersed himself in Sheffield’s bike scene.
Andrew Whewell, 58, agrees. He opened Andrew’s Café, a family run business on Chapel Walk, Sheffield, in 2009, successfully competing against the major chains by focusing on the customer.
“We offered a service people couldn’t get anywhere else,” he said.
“We serve our customers at their table. Our customers love that they don’t need to stand in a queue like at other coffee shops.
“They have a wonderful time and they come back.”
Before opening his café, Andrew worked for Marks and Spencer for 30 years.
With his wealth of experience in a customer service environment he knew what worked and what didn’t, and targeted a market he considered unaffected by the recession – pensioners.
Kevin Bennett, Head of Enterprise at Creative Sheffield, said in recent years more people were setting up businesses, a statement backed by figures from the Office for National Statistics which show Sheffield had a growth in the number of new businesses in 2011 compared to the previous year for the first time since the recession began.
“People who would have looked for a job before the recession are now looking to set up their own business,” said Kevin.
But figures from the ONS reveal 60 per cent of all types of Sheffield businesses created in 2006 closed down by 2011. So why have so many failed, and what is the advice to entrepreneurs?
Kevin said people should seek advice before setting up. “Last year nearly 1,700 people attended our introductory workshops, but only 500 stayed on till the third one.
“This is because some people realised, after speaking to our business advisers, that what they thought was a cutting edge idea wasn’t as good as they first thought.”
Andrew warns of the dangers of not planning ahead. “Ninety per cent of businesses fail because they do not get the cashflow right.
“They see the money coming in and get greedy. I always know how much is going out and when.”
Both entrepreneurs and business experts stress the importance of writing a business plan. Andrew didn’t think he needed one, but it made him pinpoint his target audience and turn them into customers.
Alex believes it is important to build business relationships and network. “You find out more from talking to someone for five minutes who does the business and has been through everything than you would researching on the internet for hours.”
Kevin said: “My advice is to get the right advice by speaking to one of our business advisers. It is something the city has really invested in. And ask yourself, have you got something that is really different?”
To attend free business classes, or for any business related questions, call the First Point for Business Enterprise Gateway on 0800 0435522 or visit welcometosheffield.co.uk/business.