Published: 30th Jun 2016

TestTown helps young people try out their business ideas for real, in empty shops on UK high streets. This year’s grand final was in Glasgow’s Saltmarket district, as Kirsty Tait reports

‘This is where Glasgow started,’ replied one trader when asked by our young TestTown finalists about the Saltmarket in Glasgow.

A nod to the rich historic and cultural value of the area to the city centre. Originally known as the Waulcergait, the area was associated with wool production and it was the fashionable place to live and work for 18th century merchants.

Like most areas in the UK and Ireland, it has known its highs and lows over the years and like many present day high streets spirits are currently quite low. ‘The rent keeps getting put up, the area has no identity – we need more shops,’ responded another trader.  These feelings are based on a very real issue where the vacancy rate for the area sits at 28%, greatly exceeding the city centre average of 13%.

Invited and hosted by Glasgow Council and shops owners City Property LLP, it was against this background that we brought 11 of our TestTown finalist businesses to Glasgow Saltmarket and the iconic Briggait in February this year.

TestTown is an initiative developed by Carnegie UK Trust.  It was grown out of two beliefs: that our town and city centres are in trouble unless they become more welcoming to new business, ideas, services and technologies; and that creative people with business drive and concern for community can make transformative things happen – if they are well supported and allowed to have a go.

The idea was simple. Take over all kinds of vacant spaces across a town or city district area, for a week. Let young businesses with the germ of an idea get their hands on those spaces. Give them the resources and training in how to convert an idea into a pop-up business. Let them loose to trade to the public for real over a long weekend. Follow it up with support and see how many businesses grow from the experience and help to change town and city district environments in years to come.

Since launching with our first pilot in Dunfermline in 2013, TestTown events have now been held in 19 towns and city districts across the UK and Ireland. In total, 280 entrepreneurs have experienced a TestTown development week and gone on to trial and run more than 117 new businesses. They make money. They create jobs. They breathe life back into the areas they break into.

Our Grand Final in Glasgow Saltmarket was no exception. All 11 of our finalist businesses had come through their own local TestTown heats in 2015 from all across the UK and Ireland. We had a huge variety of ideas, levels of experience and ages – ranging from teenagers to those in their 40s.

It was an intense week; starting with what proved to be one of the most valuable exercises – a regeneration challenge. We wanted the finalists to get a feel themselves for the place, the challenges it faced and the opportunities it possessed.  The Saltmarket traders and Glasgow public were hugely generous with their time and through the hard work of our finalists we now have a wealth of feedback and ideas to move forward with.

The finalists were then given a day to set up their trading spaces and by working together they transformed the two vacant shops in the Saltmarket and the grand hall of the Briggait.  In retrospect this was one of the most challenging areas we have worked out of.  Competing with a busy city centre and working out of a location that sees relatively few casual visitors, our finalists had to work incredibly hard to draw people in.  But they succeeded and the two days trading saw people visit the area and more importantly try and buy the services and goods offered.

The legacy of this week has surpassed our own expectations.  We are continuing to work with a very committed set of agencies in Glasgow to set up permanent pop-up/ meanwhile trading spaces in the Saltmarket.  In terms of our finalists, all of them have used the experience to develop their ideas with six of the businesses setting up permanently in shops and spaces in their home towns.  As one stated ‘You will never learn what we have learned this week in a college room or in a lecture hall, from a book or off the internet- it’s a real life experience and it has been invaluable.’