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How we did it: Totnes local enterprise incubator

totnescroppedWhen Transition Town Totnes was unable to secure funding for a local enterprise incubator, it decided to tap into the resources and goodwill of the local community. As the REconomy Centre prepares for launch, Frances Northrop tells its story.

In September we will officially open the REconomy Centre in Totnes, a new enterprise workplace. This will mark the end of a journey that has been relatively long (over two years) but, because of the relationships we’ve made and the trust we’ve built on the way, well worth it.

The story starts back in May 2011 when Transition Town Totnes gathered together local stakeholders such as the town and district council, education providers and business groups in the town and asked the question, ‘what is our local economy for?’ These organisations span a wide spectrum of aims and views but there was a surprising consensus: that an inward investment model of economic development is no longer viable and that it was the local economy in Totnes – a large web of independent, often family owned, small businesses – that gave it some true resilience.

We were unanimous that this local economy, nimble and more resourceful than many bigger companies, but which was often overlooked because it doesn’t deliver economies of scale, should be nourished and built upon. In answer to the question, ‘what is our local economy for?’ we agreed: ‘The purpose of our local economy is to maximise the wellbeing of our entire community, and to do this in a way that uses and distributes resources fairly and respects natural limits.’

Building a new kind of local economy
Various actions came out of this meeting, such as our local economic blueprint, focusing on the potential of building on this local economy by looking at food, renewable energy, retrofitting homes and health and care as the sectors which had real potential to grow as well as the additional benefits of building our resilience to outside shocks.

We also undertook activities to create the entrepreneurial climate needed, to show the opportunities, build networks of mutual support and investigate opportunities for different forms of investment. Over the last two years we have been holding bi-monthly business network meetings and have run two Local Entrepreneur Forums, both of which have brought together aspiring and existing entrepreneurs and some potential investors and people interested in catalysing this kind of economy.

These have been very successful in building a community of people who were interested in what we were doing and our thoughts and conversations often turned to the need for an incubator. We saw that, for this support to be tangible, they needed a collective space to gather, share ideas, get support for their business and often a permanent or informal arrangement for desk space.

There were several perceived blocks to this, chiefly because we started off with the idea that we needed a big chunk of money to make an incubator happen and that it needed to be fully resourced with staff and equipment to make it a success. So we tried to work with both the county council and the local enterprise partnership to sell the idea and gain funding but to no avail. Our ideas were just a little too left field and small scale for their liking and we couldn’t deliver the critical mass that they needed. We also looked at different funders, including, latterly, the social incubator fund, but the same rules also applied there.

But as with many things we come across in our work what seemed to be barriers to our progress were in fact signs to guide us to something better, because what we have now is exactly what we wanted and more, an incubator which actively demonstrates the results of the relationships and trust we have built over those two years.

Tapping into local collective goodwill
It was at our second Local Entrepreneur Forum, at which five low carbon, social enterprises pitched to the ‘community of dragons’, that made us think differently. The idea was that everyone at the forum was a ‘dragon’ and, as such, could offer support to the fledgling businesses. Offers flowed in of cash, fruit trees, volunteer time, storage space and even massages for the stressed entrepreneurs. Watching this collective goodwill, the penny dropped that the passion of the people in the room for what we were doing, the joy it inspired and the support it engendered might mean we didn’t need the shiny approach after all but rather something more, well, transition.

In this spirit we approached the district council about an empty office building it owned and they agreed to lease it to us on a peppercorn rent. So with this great start and a far smaller budget than any social incubator fund – about £500 and lots of goodwill – we gathered together some of the businesses and asked them if they would be interested in being part of this adventure and, if so, what they could offer in return.

The response was joyous. It turned out that many of them had harboured a real desire to see the building in use again and were literally clapping their hands with delight when we got the keys. They also loved the idea of contributing their skills or other resources rather than just cash. So far contributions have been a printer, furniture, a promise of weekly fruit from a gleaning project, beautiful handmade shelves from a carpenter, turning the garden into growing space and an offer to devise the monitoring and evaluation for this approach. Ideas are coming in thick and fast for workshops. Of course we need some money – even Good Energy doesn’t take apples as payment – but people are happy to give that too as the sharing makes it affordable.

incubator2

A room in the new incubator space

Alongside a variety of business support sessions we are determined to encourage networking for pre-start ups and currently offer around 15 skillshares a month which are totally free of charge which we will start to run from the incubator. These range widely from getting to know Twitter and business planning to sewing, draught-busting and horticulture. These skillshares serve several purposes: they enable businesses to market their services and build confidence in their product; allow people to share their skills and try them out on a potential new audience and help others to learn new skills.

It is also the intention that this centre be a space for the credit union and Citizens Advice Bureau to meet with their clients so that people who may not usually cross paths can start to make the connections between the gift economy, community finance and small business creation. We hope the flow of people through the building will lead to a flourishing of new economic activity, new livelihoods and a sense of security in an uncertain world.

We officially launch on the 18th September and it will be a delight to see the joy of the people involved. The whole thing has been a symphony of personal relationships with things shared out of love and because people are caught up in the promise of something new and inspiring. Our incubator has built in resilience, pride and ownership. We made it happen but it is not ‘our’ centre, rather it will belong to everyone who has a stake in this exciting new economy.

HOW TO DO IT

  • Build a case and develop relationships.  All the community rights stuff formalises things that can be as simple as a conversation, either with a local authority or a landlord. If you can establish relationships based on trust and shared objectives it can be extremely fruitful.
  • Take an asset-based approach to locating premises and find the spaces in between. We were so intent on finding somewhere ‘large enough’ we dismissed what was under our noses and which has turned out to be small but perfectly formed.
  • Work out what you need and start to involve people in the planning for the space, even before you get the keys. You’ll be surprised (sometimes) by how amenable people are, and flattered to be asked and it is heart-warming how infectious and creative this approach is.
  • Start a skillshares programme. You’ll be amazed at the network of people it will create and it encourages people to think of themselves as entrepreneurs, enabling people to try out their new business ideas on others. They can be run at no cost from people’s homes.

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