Regional and rural start-ups aren’t limited to businesses working the land or serving communities in remote locations. Nationwide, many small businesses are thriving outside major cities, from gin distilleries and cake makers to music shops and accountancy firms.
Start Up Loans spoke to four regional enterprises from across the UK about their experience as a local business, the benefits of outsourcing and the impact of Covid-19 on their start-up journey.
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Founders: Emily Robertson and Rupert Waters
Business: Gin distillery
Location: Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire
Leaving her role as a software engineer in bustling London and moving to rural Cambridgeshire to launch a gin distillery didn’t faze Emily Robertson, co-founder of Roundwood Gin.
“The way the world is now, it’s pretty easy for us to get deliveries daily or send parcels and in terms of being connected in that way,” she says of her choice of location near Huntingdon.
Emily, 28, took out a loan of £25,000 in 2017 through Virgin StartUp to set up the distillery with co-founder Rupert Waters. She used the loan to transform a former barn into a fully functioning distillery with a hand-designed copper still.
However, internet connectivity proved to be an early issue for the rural-based business. “Broadband has been interesting. We’ve got microwave-based dishes on the roof rather than cable, as broadband was hopeless, and we couldn’t get much done initially.”
Another challenge was the Covid-19 pandemic. “It’s made for an interesting year,” admits Emily. “It’s not what we planned or wanted. We’ve simply had to try and make the best out of it.”
The pandemic saw Emily switch gears from pure gin production to creating hand sanitiser for the local community after seeing news reports on the national sanitiser shortage at the start of the pandemic in 2020.
She launched her own range of hand sanitiser and sold individual bottles through her website. She used the proceeds to fund donating supplies of larger volumes of sanitiser to the local community, such as doctors’ surgeries.
Covid has taught Emily that flexibility is crucial: “It’s definitely about being flexible and being a bit more willing to try things. The ability to pivot, make changes and operate a bit more outside the comfort zone. Things change, and we have to make the best of it.”
Vie’s Jamaican Rum Cakes
Founder: Elaine Rémy
Business: Small batch cakes
Location: Windermere, Cumbria
Set in rural Windermere in Cumbria, Elaine Rémy’s new cake business Vie’s Jamaican Rum Cakes has won awards for its start-up success, including Start-Up Business of the Year.
“All the companies I work with are Cumbrian businesses,” Elaine says. “It’s one of the great opportunities of being a rural business. Because it’s a small place when you do networking, you’ve just got all these great people on your doorstep. So that I think that’s an advantage.”
Elaine also discovered a direct link between Cumbria and Jamaica, and the historical use of slavery in rum production in the 18th Century – a history that is baked into her cakes.
“I discovered The Rum Story in nearby Whitehaven – an exhibition that tells the story of rum and the African slaves used to produce it,” she says. With Whitehaven a key town in the rum trade in the 1700s, Elaine teamed up with The Rum Story and uses its extra-fine dark rum, which can be traced back to 1785, in her cakes.
Being a rural business has opened lots of doors, says Elaine: “Covid changed things. It gives me an excellent rapport as well with local people, such as at the local Post Office in Windermere. Locals put nice stuff on their Facebook page about Vie’s.”
“I have had a lot of support, especially from my local Cumbria Chamber of Commerce. They found me an advisor who had experience in the food industry. My advice is to be surrounded by people who are experts in what they do, who are mentors, so they’ve been there and done it.”
Founder: Daniel Edwards
Location: Bawtry, Yorkshire & the Humber
With businesses continuing to launch during the pandemic, small firms such as D&K Accounting are well placed to offer a more personal accounting service to rural businesses looking to get established.
Just because your start-up isn’t in a large city doesn’t mean you can’t operate with lots of employees, says D&K Accounting founder Daniel Edwards.
“We try to outsource everything,” says Daniel. “Our contact team are based in Liverpool. Our administrator is based near Peterborough. I have a bookkeeper who’s down South. Outsourcing has become a lot easier because everyone’s working from home.
“I think there are going to be a lot of empty offices in cities because everyone is working from home, and the surrounding businesses such as lunch break businesses and cafes may also suffer the knock-on effect.”
Networking is critical for small businesses in more rural locations, according to Daniel.
“Go networking. There’s a lot of networking that is free to attend, and you access a wealth of knowledge. Having a group of people you can meet – whether it’s a marketer, a solicitor, a photographer – it’s good to have those contacts. Being a sole trader or limited company can be a lonely place, so networking is something people should do more of.”
Founder: Jim Rintoul
Business: Independent music shop
Location: Stirling, Scotland
The local community is at the heart of Joanie’s Music, with the retro-inspired guitar shop in Stirling encouraging people to get back into music during the recent Covid-19 lockdown.
“That the Stirling and Clackmannanshire musical community didn’t have somewhere to go and get their guitars fixed or trade their stuff in or buy a packet of strings seemed crazy to me,” says owner Jim Rintoul. “People who didn’t want to go on the internet had no real option but to drive to a big city.”
Jim launched initiatives such as encouraging the local community to share songs and chat, recognising the value of music in supporting mental health.
Setting up away from a sprawling capital city has underpinned the local focus of Joanie’s Music, says Jim.
“When I came back up to Scotland, my wife and I felt we had finished living in London, and we’d had our fill of that particular experience. I had the idea of a vintage guitar shop and opening that on a local level and bringing it to my hometown, where it might be a little better appreciated. You know, there was nobody doing this in the Central Belt.”
While lockdown caused Jim to rethink his plans such as more click-and-collect online orders, he remains upbeat about the future.
“There’s stuff that you’re going to have to accept and that you’ll learn by doing,” he advises. “I think if you’re prepared to do a little bit of learning by doing, that certainly is helpful. There’s always going to be something you don’t know the answer to, and you have to work out.”
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