A Blackburn business is flying high and making major progress after successful involvement with the Lancashire Forum.
“Like many small businesses, we were trying to be all things to all people, but it’s hard to manage and market such a scattergun approach,” said Dr Eddie Kirkby, of The Making Rooms. “The Lancashire Forum enabled us to focus our activities and move forward.”
The Lancashire Forum, part of Boost; Lancashire’s business growth hub, is a six-month programme designed to help owner-managers, MDs and senior decision makers of SMEs to grow their businesses. The programme has played a key role in The Making Rooms’ development.
The Making Rooms exist to provide a space for creativity, technology and advanced manufacturing to come together.
“Our objective is to help create new businesses, jobs and skills,” added Eddie. “But a lot of things go into that, from the free open access day at our Fab Lab (Fabrication Laboratory), to our incubator spaces and funded programmes like Tech Blackburn, our technology start-up accelerator. We also hire out time on equipment like laser cutters and CNC routers, and provide commercial design, 3D printing and prototyping services.”
Blackburn Borough Council approached Eddie after he set up the UK’s first Fab Lab in Manchester in 2009, wanting him to do the same in Blackburn. The business plan quickly evolved and the intention was always for The Making Rooms to become independent, flexible and agile.
“This was the first time I’d effectively had sole responsibility,” said Eddie. “So I found myself thinking ‘I want to learn how to lead a business myself – and I want to learn from others in the same situation’. That’s where the Lancashire Forum came in.
“I’ve had a relationship with Lancaster University for years, particularly with the product development unit. When I heard about this programme, there were two main drivers for me: gaining tools and techniques for growing a small business, and building a peer network.
The Forum delivered exactly what Eddie wanted, and he added: “I came away from every session with something I could apply in the business, and it wouldn’t have been anything like as effective without the peer-to-peer learning. It really put me at ease that it wasn’t just me struggling with these issues. I gained lots of confidence – and support.”
Eddie explained how, with his business being so responsive, forecasting was difficult and a traditional business plan of limited value.
“Being introduced to a tool like the Business Model Canvas was so useful, because it’s much more adaptive,” he said. “The key thing I took away was rationalisation of the business. I was able to cut all the services we were offering down to a few key revenue streams, so we could really focus on those.”
He has since used the same methods for this year’s strategic review, changing the business model to a simpler one and now reaching their sustainability target.
Since attending the Forum, The Making Rooms has grown dramatically. Eddie said: “Without increasing costs, the growth in revenue has been phenomenal. In the latest report, income for commercial work had gone up by 53%. However, our strategy now is to deliver more grant-funded programmes (which we have increased by 141%), whilst maintaining growth of the commercial work. If we continue to focus on this more predictable side of the business, we should be recruiting new staff in the next six months.”
Eddie is keen to highlight the ongoing one-to-one support he received on the Lancashire Forum, both from his peers and from the experts delivering the workshops.
“They didn’t just stand at the front and then disappear,” he said. “They were really interested in helping you. Here in Blackburn and East Lancashire, it’s a close-knit, collaborative community, especially on the innovation side. You have things like Boost and the Hive, which make building a business a much easier pathway. By putting those SMEs together in a room – and with all the people they know as well – the Lancashire Forum has created a wide-ranging network and a lasting impact.”