How to… create a high street incubator

CitylabLOGOThe CityLab project in Stirling has proven there is high demand for enterprise support on the high street, as Andy Kennedy explains.

The CityLab was an aspiration of Start Up Street Stirling and a response to the perceived need for ‘incubator space’ for people with business ideas, which had been highlighted as a city centre deficiency.  There was also the hope that the project would increase a sense of place and diversify the offer for city centre users.  This project has provided outcomes and learning points that hopefully can provide information that is useful for future projects in Stirling and beyond.

Stirling CityLab was a pop up pilot project that operated as a high street point of contact for start-up businesses, ideas and enterprise, from January to May 2013. It was dedicated to supporting anyone eager to operate in Stirling’s city centre and provided business advice, support, networking and access to the city centre whilst offering accessible and free working space, meeting space and WiFi to registered participants.

As well as providing an opportunity for entrepreneurs to ‘do business in the city’ we also hoped that the CityLab would meet some of the aims of the Stirling city centre strategy. Using a vacant unit enhanced the appearance and increased footfall to a key city centre street. Some of the results we anticipated, but others were unexpected and really challenging. The journey for projects like this is not a predefined map from A to B.

The results
The results for participants were amazingly diverse, ranging from development of new knowledge and skills on a personal level, to practical progress with business ideas. One of the most common requests for use of the CityLab was for networking space. Participants wanted a way to find, engage and interact with other like-minded people in Stirling who had ambitious ideas, even if those ideas were at an embryonic stage. Continued dialogue among participants triggered shared inspiration, practical tips and highlighted the common challenges experienced when developing a business at the ‘pre-pipeline’ stage. These results were anticipated, but the level of intensity and resources required to support the participants weren’t. Although this put pressure on the project team to deliver, it also reinforced the sense of common purpose among the participants and the CityLab team.

For the period of the project a new hub of activity was created in Stirling. The project built confidence in the city centre as a place for local people to `do things` and to take some ownership of actions to improve the area. The cost of operating in any city centre high street property can make sustaining new concepts risky. This is a key issue for projects of this type.  Rent can be the subject of negotiation, but property business rates and costs of utilities remain the major financial barriers to success. A fundamental review and change to business rates and other taxation in city centres is long overdue, and urgently needed if we are serious about breathing life back into our high streets. The current model is broken, due to changes in business formats.

Citylab_Infographics3Key learning points from Stirling CityLab:

Programme: It was important that the CityLab space was both user-led and flexible, so that it could accommodate participants’ requirements.  The actual levels of engagement and participation far exceeded the projected numbers of the original proposal.  This highlights a substantial demand for ideas and enterprise development on the high street that may be lying latent in other town and city centres.

Project partners: Equally important was ensuring that the CityLab didn’t duplicate or mirror facilities provided by partner organisations but steered people towards the existing guidance and support infrastructure provided by partner organisations. A discrepancy became apparent between what is currently provided, and what pre-pipeline businesses need.  It also showed the need for informal engagement with individuals who have new and imaginative business ideas and aspirations, but not at a fully blown business planning stage.  The CityLab filled this gap.

Securing space: This project required a good high-street presence to ensure its impact could be maximised and provide accessibility for the greatest number of potential participants.  Again, business rates for the unit were a significant barrier to using a city centre space and to overcome this, were paid from a budget secured for the project by Stirling Council city centre initiative.  Discussions and negotiations for use of space worked most effectively by accessing the landlord direct, rather than dealing through commercial property agents.  Having a public agency providing the necessary covenant, facilitating discussions and the legal framework for property occupation and leasing requirements was key to securing the property.  This was time consuming and resource heavy. Don’t underestimate the time and patience this requires!

Space set-up: As a user-led project, flexibility of the space was paramount to ensure easy adaptation for events and multiple uses. An informal setting was favoured and this helped build trust and confidence between facilitators and participants. Individual working spaces and a meeting area were provided and large desk group spaces were created to encourage co-working and increase interaction between participants. The high street presence provided a market place for participants to trial products with direct customer feedback.  However, IT provision was a key need for participants and facilitators, and digital connectivity within utilised spaces is vital to city centre regeneration projects of this type.

Events: The CityLab space was open for individuals and organisations to host events and workshops during opening hours or by arrangement.  Uptake of the free event space was consistent and regular throughout the project.  This demonstrated that flexible event space with basic facilities is in high demand by potential business operators who have minimal capital for business idea development. The challenge is, who funds that space? It also became apparent there is a need for awareness of specific formal requirements like criminal record disclosure checks for working with young people and knowledge of events licensing and governance needs. This all helped avoid the use of space becoming too restricted by bureaucracy.

Visibility: With the space secured, the most cost effective marketing was to open the doors and let people come in. Even during set up stage, curious or interested passers-by were eager to engage. In the first week alone, sixteen participants had engaged beyond an initial enquiry and had received a ‘one-to-one’ meeting with the CityLab team. Simultaneously, a website was created, social media, press releases and e-bulletins were used to promote the project and a database of people engaged with the project was developed.  The links to ‘Made in Stirling’, another Start Up Street initiative bringing together small businesses involved in the creative industries, provided a ready-mixed conduit to audiences for CityLab events, workshops, business customers and activities.  The visually attractive, high quality frontage, created interest and confidence in the project. It showed that this was not just `property occupation`, it was `business development` and was key in spreading the word and building the reputation of participants and the project team.

Citylab_Infographics3Participants: CityLab participants varied from young to old, individuals to organisations, experienced business people to first time entrepreneurs, physical businesses to online services, local to international market focused, and participants who required substantial support to those who accessed specific resources.  The project highlighted that, across the board, people looking to develop their ideas need a pro-active sounding board to discuss markets, provide local knowledge, signposting, available resources, public assets, funding opportunities, vacant property lists and relevant expertise. These elements all need to be developed with project funders and local partners by the project managers. The project also showed the benefits of encouragement within a safe and supportive environment to develop participants’ ideas and having a network of like-minded people to trigger ideas and an element of cross-fertilisation. Making all of this fit together and having a `team` that can do it, requires a wide range and varied expertise. One person cannot do it.

Community: It is estimated that 2,500 people accessed the space and engaged with the CityLab in some capacity, many through formal and informal events.  This allowed for substantial and open discussion that strengthened the team/participant and community relationships.  The CityLab team allowed enquirers to formulate their own level of integration with the community. Nothing was forced; all was based on self-determination.

Duration: The project ran from January 2013 to May 2013 and was used to test the market and interest in an on-street enterprise incubator hub in Stirling.  This initial period was not long enough to adequately support participants as their ideas developed.  To develop sustainability and co-development for the long-term, a more permanent form of incubator hub would need to be considered.  A longer period could also investigate the feasibility of income generation for the space alongside the CityLab programme, to help underwrite some of the costs.

Finally, we had to pull out of the project and location, as the property was let and the budget allocated had been consumed. However, I would term this as a break in the process, nothing stays the same these days and the possibility of the continuation of CityLab in Stirling, in some form is being explored further.

The Stirling CityLab started its life as a vague idea without a certain audience. Through genuine partnership working, resolving the conflicts that are always present in real partnership and a lot of hard work and trust between all involved, it was taken from concept to reality. It had a positive effect in Stirling’s city centre, proved that there is demand for such a facility, but more importantly, allowed participants and the team delivering the project the opportunity to really get ideas off the ground. It has provided a workable model that can and should be developed. That can only be good for Stirling’s city centre economy and for its businesses and residents.

The CityLab was project managed by Icecream architecture, supported and funded by Stirling Council and is the result of on-going work to put entrepreneurship and community at the heart of Stirling city centre. The full CityLab report is available here.



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