A vibrant network of entrepreneurs and a strong desire to support enterprise means Sheffield is one of the best cities in the country in which to start a business.
Sheffield’s two universities have specific enterprise-focused departments, designed to give students the best chance of turning their embryonic business idea into a profit-making company employing local people.
They work with schools and colleges and link with a wider entrepreneurial network in the city that offers collaboration rather than competition.
One of many people to benefit from Sheffield’s enterprising spirit is Scott Woodley, a former primary school teacher. Alongside friend Mark Hughes, he decided set up Tutora, a database that links private tutors to schools and students, after becoming disenchanted with teaching.
“Early on we contacted the University of Sheffield,” said Scott. “Through the enterprise zone and founders brunches and events like that, we got really good connections.
“The great thing about the city is that it isn’t London. That city has its benefits in terms of size and the number of investors, but it’s just so huge that people get lost.
“There is such a great community here in Sheffield. There’s the entrepreneur hub that the university runs. Early on we went there and met Sam Chapman, who runs another startup called The Floow. He gave us some really good advice.”
Working with his former school in Dobcroft and his existing connections, Scott spread the word about Tutora quite quickly. But it was the wider support from businesses and investors that really helped his and Mark’s idea take off.
He said: “We solved so many of our problems through talking to other businesses. Now there is a founders network. People are really willing to give their time.
“I’m not from Sheffield but part of the reason I stayed is because people are so friendly and willing to give their time. That trickles down all the way to the business world.
“The university has been awesome with us. It’s quite heavily involved in the entrepreneurial world. It runs things like the recent Leanconf in Manchester, which was a really big event with some amazing speakers. They provide office space and the enterprise zone is great, with all these amazing people working on these exciting projects. If they can’t help, you can go to one of the meet-ups.”
Scott and Mark still spend time working at the enterprise zone in Portobello, near the Sir Frederick Mappin building. But they and others do not need to worry about opportunities drying up once they leave the university environment.
“Looking at the city there are some great tech companies out there, as well as the universities at the cutting edge of research in the city,” said Scott.
“There is access to some really good people. They are really willing to help people stay. If people want to stay in Sheffield there are great graduates coming out of the universities, and the city itself is looking to support people. I can only see the tech community growing.”
Elizabeth Shassere left a career in the public sector to explore the possibility of starting her own businesses about two years ago. She took part in the MADE entrepreneur festival, and developed an idea to allow people to text feedback, complaints and comments to companies.
She turned that idea into a business, Textocracy, which she took to start-up weekends across the north.
“We brought it back into Sheffield and have been growing it ever since,” said Elizabeth. “Having come back, there were many people in the community who gave me the support I needed to keep going.”
Elizabeth also took advantage of the University of Sheffield’s enterprise zone. She secured support for Textocracy from about 20 companies and is letting her business grow organically.
“Many people gave me time and advice out of the kindness of their hearts,” she said. “They referred me to people in the Key Fund social enterprise which helps startups in the community.
“The list is endless. The number of people who just gave me that great bit of advice to keep going.”
And again, the support did not end with the university.
Elizabeth said: “In addition to the initial support I had since the business first came into being, I’ve tapped into the wider community of entrepreneurs and start-ups. Organisations such as Sheffield Digital have a great network. It goes much further than just investors or the universities. There’s a whole community of people who are trying to do similar things to us.
“The more that we continue to support each other the better off we will all be. And there are plenty of success stories in Sheffield which attract attention to the rest of us. I think it’s a great place. It also offers a high quality of life and affordability. It really does swing above its weight.”
Samantha Deakin is a startup coach and creative digital specialist working at the University of Sheffield’s enterprise zone. She said her role was to make students’ and graduates’ ideas happen.
“We specialise in helping early stage startups validate the assumptions they have about their business, such as the problems they’re trying to solve, who has those problems, what the solution might be, and how they’re going to make money,” she said.
“I personally work with early-stage tech startups. I’ve seen Sheffield go from strength to strength in the last few years and the startup community is definitely growing and becoming more and more supportive all the time.
“It’s really important as a young startup to tap into the various support services and reach out to meet-up groups within the start-up community to build networks, get peer support and learn more about the solutions you are building and ultimately trying to commercialise.
“The fact that Sheffield’s digital community is strengthening through organisations like Sheffield Digital only helps make an even stronger case for doing business in Sheffield. There’s a real feeling that people want to help you here.
“They want to see you succeed. And that can be really motivating.”
Sheffield Hallam University also boasts an enterprise team, which offers support for students for up to five years after they graduate. It helps hundreds of graduates develop their business ideas every year.
One, Hannah Duraid, set up The Great Escape Game Sheffield with her partner Peter Lacole. She had already completed a PGCE course at Hallam.
“When I had the idea for the escape room I wondered if the university had anything, and they had the enterprise centre,” she said.
“It’s amazing. They have advisers, academics, marketing people, lawyers. It’s a really rich resource of people you can book in with for free.
“I had help with digital marketing. They are always contacting us and putting us forward for awards.”
Although there is a time limit on the university’s help, many people end up establishing long-term contacts.
Hannah said: “A lot of the people that helped us, we have taken on as actual clients. It’s not pushed upon you but we got on with them and have taken them on board.
“There’s a lot of support in Sheffield. The city really pushes enterprise. It’s quite a friendly city and everyone is happy to help each other, shout about each other and really get involved. It made us feel particularly confident because they backed us all the way.
“We are now being asked to go and talk to the newbies and share our experiences.”
Simon Thompson, who is head of careers and employability at Sheffield Hallam and works closely with the enterprise team, said it was important for the whole of Sheffield to support new businesses.
“There are very ambitious targets in the region, with growth of more than 600 local start-ups over 10 years. The universities have a very important role to play in that. Our role is increasing.
“We are very committed to ensuring all our students see starting their own business as a really viable career option for them. It’s quite a vibrant scene in the city for creative businesses at the moment.”
And working with schools and colleges is also key.
Simon said: “There’s a role on a city-wide bases to work together for the good of enterprise in Sheffield.”