Look Beyond London: Running a business in Birmingham

12 min read

29 September 2017

Former deputy editor

From a barbershop to virtual assistant service, we’ve spoken with the enterprising leaders running a business in Birmingham.

We previously explored Bristol and Leeds, but now it’s time to see what it’s like running a business in Birmingham as we continue the Look Beyond London series to give companies across the UK the recognition they deserve.

Demonstrating its significance as a destination, Birmingham has been officially backed by the government as the UK candidate to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

“The Commonwealth Games in Birmingham would be brilliant. It would showcase the best of Britain to the world and make the entire country proud,” said Karen Bradley, secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

“Not only would it help grow the economy in the West Midlands and beyond, it would also leave a strong sports legacy, by upgrading facilities to benefit both elite athletes and the local community.”

The backing of Birmingham is in line with the Midlands Engine strategy from the government, which seeks to support the region’s economic growth. Describing the area as “dynamic”, the government has revealed there are 428,000 more people in employment now than in 2010, while the economy has grown £32.9bn.

According to chancellor Philip Hammond, there’s a target to invest £392m across the Midlands. And business in Birmingham will be key to the initiative, as the Midlands Engine report noted the city is the second-largest in the UK, which achieved a 5.1 per cent economic growth in 2014/2015.

Offering her insights to Real Business about doing business in Birmingham, Catherine Warrilow, head of brand at things to do website Day Out With The Kids, said the city had an endless pool of local tech talent coming out of universities.

“Birmingham is thriving and also a great base for us to access our UK-wide client base of family attractions,” Warrilow detailed.

Business in Birmingham Canals

We’re in a great position to manage relationships up and down the country

“We have grown a fantastic team of 16 over the past nine months and had incredible interest in brand, SEO, UX, social media and new business roles. We’ve been able to hire exceptional people in the area, all of which commute from within a short radius. We also benefit from a great number of industry events hosted at the NEC.”

She explained there’s a real sense of community among those doing business in Birmingham, which the team taps into by embracing local events and groups. Warrilow noted that’s key when it comes to recruitment, as well as motivation and networking with top speakers.

Adding how running a business in Birmingham differs to London, she said: “Aside from the obvious cost benefits, we’re in a great position to manage relationships up and down the country. It may be smaller in size than London, but it means that everyone has the chance to be really connected to all parts of the city.

“There’s a real sense of pride in Birmingham business, something which appears to be more diluted in London.”

As for change to the city, Warrilow is pretty satisfied with how things are going.

“It would be great to see more digital and social meetups in the area but other than that we’re here to stay!” she said, pledging the company’s loyalty.

Elsewhere, Barberology founder Adam Gore said launching his business in Birmingham was an easy decision to make.

“Launching Barberology in Birmingham was a no-brainer for me – I’m from the city and already know the market. By researching and spending time getting to know people here we have been able to build a strong local customer base,” he said.

“Birmingham has fantastic transport links and by expanding our marketing we have been able to attract customers from outside of the city.”

Gore noted that the city has grown hugely over the past couple of years, supported by new investment, digital innovation and local business campaigns.

“The official figure is that 8,300 Londoners upped sticks and moved to the Midlands last year. This isn’t just because it’s cheaper but the growing opportunities that are on offer here for businesses. This is only getting stronger.

“For example, Google recently opened a Digital Garage on the high street, offering free digital training for individuals and businesses looking to become more visible and effective online.

“This helped me immensely – accessing the free training helped and I started seeing results instantly. I learnt how to optimise our website, how to word things in a better way, what images to use and how to get the business to pop up in search results when people in the area searched.”

Continuing the observation of running a business in Birmingham, we hear from leaders in two very different sectors and are told, in no uncertain terms, why “you won’t find a better city than Birmingham.”

And with technology in mind, Barnaby Lashbrooke runs virtual assistant service Time Etc in Birmingham.

“My then business partner moved from rural Dorset to here to go to university and I uprooted myself to join her here. I’ve never looked back! Also, I grew up very close to Birmingham, so my support network is nearby,” he said.

Calling the environment excellent, with strong support from those doing business in Birmingham and affordable office space, he’s also funded other local tech ventures.

“I’ve invested in several Birmingham tech startups – a scene that is developing all the time,” he said. “Entrepreneurs here are supportive, friendly and straight-talking.

“We champion one another and you often see business owners trying to give something back to startups such as free office space or mentoring.”

Business in Birmingham library

“Birmingham deserves more recognition than it gets”

In terms of what the city can offer that London can’t it came down to two key things for Lashbrooke: “Value for money and quality of life in the form of more palatable house prices and rents, and shorter commutes.”

That said, he would like to see better access to legal and financial services for those doing business in Birmingham.

He added: “I’d also give Birmingham a PR boost. Global businesses like WeWork see London as the first port of call, followed by Manchester, which has the cool factor. Birmingham deserves more recognition than it gets.”

The other local leader we heard from was Rachel Deacon, the MD at creative agency LIFE. With more than 15 years of work in London agencies, she knows first-hand what life in the capital is like and why business in Birmingham is so different.

“We’ve always considered being in Birmingham a big plus. It’s a brilliant city, not least because it’s a city of ‘every-men and women’. It’s a long way in attitude and expectation from the London advertising bubble, but still just 90 minutes by rail from clients based in the capital.

“It has easy access to the rest of the UK, and relatively cheap property prices which makes it a compelling option for talent – both home-grown and moving out from London; and that, combined with a really vibrant creative scene, ensures an exciting future.”

Beyond low rental prices, Deacon pointed to the ongoing redevelopment of the city centre, resulting in more choice for commercial space.

Business in Birmingham Bullring Bull

“You won’t find a better city than Birmingham”

Passionate about the entrepreneurial support in the city, she said: “Birmingham is the birthplace of industry. One the UK’s currently most successful global companies, JLR, is based here, and with continued government investment, HS2 – eventually, maybe – and international businesses like HSBC moving here, there’s a bright future for business in Birmingham.”

She added that London is London, but said outside of that “you won’t find a better city than Birmingham”.

“One of the things that continues to amaze and delight me about Birmingham, having moved here from London, is the ease of movement. I live in Sutton Coldfield and work in the Jewellery Quarter and my commute takes about 15 minutes each way (or I can run it easily in an hour).

“Similarly, we can reach clients in Manchester, Leeds and York in a couple of hours, or hop on the train and get to our London clients in less time than many of our London agency competitors.

“And it works both ways; we’re an easy mid-way point for clients with offices and manufacturing or sales facilities spread across the UK, so we can offer a central base for them. Even these days you can’t under-estimate the value of spending time with clients face to face.

“It’s a brilliant city with its own unique and exciting culture, offering a range of compelling opportunities for businesses. If you want to be in London, be in London. If not you won’t find a better city than Birmingham.”