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Laying the foundations

Woman looking at Aeroplane
Starting up a new business is never an easy matter, let alone when you’re operating in an entirely new city. First Voice spoke to two London-based firms about how they went about it and the support they received along the way

Shopest 

Some of the most innovative businesses emerge from frustration at being unable to find a particular product or service, and that was certainly the case for Sara Ahmadi, founder and CEO of retail store locator app Shopest. 

Back in 2015, she was working as a designer in New York, and wanted to buy a bikini from a local store in Brooklyn, an area she had recently moved to. “I didn’t know the name of any stores so I went on my phone and put in ‘bikinis nearby’, expecting to get the usual results from shops in the neighbourhood, but I didn’t get any,” she recalls. “I got a lot for waxing salons but nothing to do with actual swimwear.” She ended up heading to Macy’s in Manhattan rather than spend time searching for a local store. 

The experience weighed on her mind and after her holiday she approached a number of stores in another part of the city, and asked them if they had any way of connecting with nearby shoppers who were looking for the type of goods they sold. “They didn’t have any way they could connect or be searched for without the shopper knowing the actual name of the store,” she says. “So there was a disconnect between interested shoppers and the actual stores.” 

Shortly after this, Sara moved to Dubai, where she started building an app to connect shoppers with local sale events, but in January 2017 she decided to move to London and build up the business. “The decision was whether to launch in New York or London,” she says. “They’re both known as hubs for fashion technology, but I’d studied at Central St Martins and had a lot of contacts in London. A lot of the people on my team were based here too so it made sense to start up here.” 

In summer 2017, just before the app officially launched, Sara went to the Unbound London event at the Old Truman Brewery, where she first met London & Partners; the Mayor of London’s official promotional agency which aims to help innovative start-up businesses grow. 

It was the start of a relationship that would prove vital in helping the fledgling business make contacts in the sector, and improve the skills and experience of Sara and her co-founder. “We were invited to a lot of events and met a lot of people in both fashion and retail which meant we could test the idea with them and find out a bit more about the industry,” says Sara. 

Sara signed up to the free Business Growth Programme, which enables small firms to attend a number of seminars or educational sessions. “It’s for the people on the programme to decide which are most relevant to their business,” says Sara. “I spent about four months going to a lot of different events and workshops and I’m on the alumni part of it now so there are more events and meet-ups.” 

One event that was particularly useful was the pitching workshop, which helped Sara land a place on the prestigious Textile Metro programme in Berlin. “They only chose nine companies out of about 500 applications and I was the only female CEO on the programme,” she says. “I had to pitch twice, in front of a room of 20 and 10 people, and the experience and coaching that I got at London & Partners was very helpful with that.”

The programme also helped her make important contacts, including putting her in touch with the head of innovation at the London College of Fashion, which led to the business being accepted on another accelerator scheme designed specifically for the fashion sector. 

With the business now established in the UK and a number of independent speciality retailers onboard, Sara is hoping to extend its geographic reach. “When we have grown a bit more we will look at going on the Mayor’s International Business Programme, but we’re probably about six months away from that,” she says. “That’s where they really push you a lot more globally and even take companies over to Silicon Valley with the Mayor’s Office.” The firm already has an office in Berlin and hopes to launch in the US in due course. 

Sara believes working with London & Partners has played a big role in the business getting to where it is today. “It’s really helped with the way we have positioned our business and set our long-term goals,” she says. “It’s also really helpful for a start-up to be able to say we have the support of London & Partners and are on their Business Growth Programme. It’s a tick in the right box.”

Cura Systems

Serial entrepreneur Abu Omar developed his latest business Cura Systems after witnessing at first hand how hard it can be to help elderly people keep on top of their medications. “I’m one of four brothers, and my mother hops from country to country to spend time with us, and trying to keep track of her medication and visits to doctors – which country, which doctor, what medication does she need to make it consistent – is a nightmare,” he says. 

The product is a comprehensive system designed to help care homes manage the needs of their service users and their own planning, including care plans, daily reports, to-do lists, medication management, staff schedules and time and attendance. 

The business was originally devised in Singapore, but Abu realised there were many more care homes in the UK, which were generally not making use of technology, and decided to move to London in 2014. “We’re really looking to raise the bar,” he says. “The care home industry is way behind in terms of adopting technology and has been the poor relation for far too long.”

But starting over again in an entirely new country was a challenge, even for an experienced entrepreneur, and when Abu came across London & Partners he was keen to take advantage of the free support that was available.  

Abu signed up to the Business Growth Programme and attended a number of seminars, including courses on marketing, selling and finances. It also introduced the fledgling firm to lawyers, bankers and accountants. “They put us in touch with advisory people as well, who could tell us how to go about doing things in the UK,” says Abu. “So in the early days it was very useful and meant we didn’t have to go and hire very expensive lawyers or accountants, and they guided us through that process once we had the company set up.”

One of the main priorities for the business at this point was to attract investment, and the programme took Abu through how to pitch for finance. “We were at the point of not being a pure start-up but not being a mature business either; we were right in between and looking for funding,” he says. “The programme looked at how to pitch the business and put the best look forward. I must admit that an old sceptic like me thought they couldn’t teach me anything, but they did.” London & Partners also put the business in front of a number of venture capitalists, although it eventually chose to accept finance from high-networth individuals instead. 

As well as this, London & Partners ran its own pitching competition, where companies which had been through the programme could compete for funding. “They choose around 25 candidate companies which they thought might be ready for investment and then they put us through the mill,” he says. “We attended various sessions where we had to pitch and show the best face of our company and product. That was the last one we went on, and we came second in that.”

As well as the practical support, Abu credits London & Partners with helping him plan the overall strategy of the business; something which was important as he sought to get it established. “We have more than 70 homes on our books now,” he says. “It took us eight months to get our first customer, and another six to get the second. I’m not sure to what extent it’s directly related to London & Partners, but there was certainly a growth spurt after we completed the programme. We have more than doubled our customers in the last year alone.”

Now, Abu is starting to think about expanding internationally. It is already selling in its initial market of Singapore, and has ambitions to launch in the US in 2019. “The business is growing exactly as we want it to,” he adds.

London & Partners

Tailored to your business growth ambitions, London & Partners’ Business Growth Programme offers free impartial business advice and support to SMEs looking to grow across London. 

Partly funded by the European Regional Development Fund and offering in excess of £5,000 worth of support, the programme can help unlock your business potential by identifying barriers to growth and providing tailored solutions including mentoring, workshops, business growth advice and opportunities across its London network.

Launched in July 2017, the programme has gone on to help nearly 400 companies realise their growth ambitions. 

If you are an SME based in London with 3-250 employees, a minimum viable product and an ambition to grow, we may be able to help you. Sign up to the programme via businessgrowth.london or to hear from businesses which have already benefited visit https://bit.ly/2y72QdG