HR & Management

Setting up a third company while boosting entrepreneurship in York

9 min read

26 September 2017

While seven million tourists visit York each year, it's the big retail chains that truly benefit, Joe Gardham is convinced. He believes there's limited room for small players – and that it's partly the reason why less than two per cent of university graduates remain in the city.

“We want to change that,” Gardham explained, “and give the young ones a chance to build their careers here. We want York to be a place where younger people feel at home.”

His words come off the back of Hiscox research, in which he took part. In its ninth annual entrepreneur report, the insurance firm sought to find out more about the current business landscape by talking to owners and senior executives in companies with fewer than 50 employees across Europe and the US.

Serial entrepreneurs, it found, were on the rise – most of which were Millennials. Interestingly, Gardham himself is a serial entrepreneur – now in the process of setting up his third company – with a mission to make it easier for Millennials in York to acquire the same title.

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We spoke exclusively to him about Spark:York, an affordable business area in the middle of York he co-founded alongside Tom Mckenzie and Sam Leach. 

What was your founding vision for Spark:York?

Spark:York has a social purpose. We hope to create the ultimate, inclusive space in the heart of the city – the perfect place to meet friends, eat, drink and socialise. We want to remove money as a barrier to coming into the city centre, and enjoying what’s going on. What we aim to show is that you can run a successful small business that is underpinned by social values, a hybrid between a charity and a business.

What would you cite as the company’s initial challenges?

Looking back I would say our biggest challenge was credibility. We were three young lads with an outrageous idea to place shipping containers in the middle of an historic city centre. Linked to this was our lack of experience in doing anything similar in the past, and not a penny in capital funding.

How did you get past this barrier?

We overcame this barrier through a combination of hard work, an incredible amount of research and proof of concept, building a huge network of like-minded people to champion our cause, and surrounding ourselves with experts and professionals with experience.

We were, and still are, sponges; spending most of our days listening to advice. From project planning, to building materials, to how to bend a length of steel – we’ve watched, learnt and soaked up huge amounts of knowledge

What would you attribute as the factors leading to the company’s success since then?

Continued hard work and evolution; not resting on our laurels; bringing in the right professionals at the right time; managing our public messaging (the swan effect of beauty above water, whilst paddling furiously beneath the surface); having dedicate roles and responsibilities as directors.

Do you believe it’s currently harder for young people to become entrepreneurs?

I think with the connectivity of the world, affordability of starting a business (I started a consultancy for around £150), a general shift in working patterns (i.e. more home working, flexible hours) and more easily accessible inspirational figures (social media has made some entrepreneurs into role models that people feel a personal connection to through Instagram and Facebook for example).

Early in my career entrepreneurs were the likes of Alan Sugar – those who TV companies chose to broadcast or papers chose to feature. Now I can find out what Elon Musk had for breakfast, or see the latest £1m Kickstarter innovation with a few clicks and scrolls on my morning commute.

This “celebrity status” allows every budding entrepreneur to feel closer to achieving their dreams, but may also mask the hard work and failures they go through to reach that platform.

What inspired you to work alongside two millennials (skills, perception, etc)?

When I first met [Leach] we discussed the idea. He went away and came back with a fully costed, 137 page business plan. I’m an ideas person, and having somebody who can change those ideas into a credible plan was a huge draw.

[Mckenzie] brings an amazing can-do attitude to the team; kicking down closed doors when I’m hesitating and thinking about all the dangers lurking behind it. This enthusiasm, enviable naivety and passion is really inspiring and has ensured we’ve continued to move forward as a team. Without these very different but complementary skills, Spark:York wouldn’t have got this far.

What would you say are the biggest benefits of having a mentor?

In my situation, my mentor has been hugely helpful in a number of ways. Firstly, having a mentor who has relevant experience has been unbelievably beneficial. He has introduced me to useful contacts, advised me on fundraising and finances, and shared the mistakes he’s made and pitfalls to be aware of.

Secondly, despite his stature in the city, he has treated me as an equal at all times, always making time for me, proactively contacting me for updates, and listening without interruption to my challenges. This is hugely motivating and inspirational. Thirdly, he has acted as a champion for our project – introducing Spark:York into his other business meetings and activities.

Have you used any of the advice you gained from your own mentor, while mentoring others?

Absolutely. Whilst I no longer have a mentoring role with an organisation, I believe I have learnt a lot of skills from my mentor, especially around people and conflict management, which I use in my day to day working life with clients, suppliers or colleagues

What has it been like juggling two companies while setting up a third?

Very challenging! I have taken on a small team of staff, which has allowed me to focus on more than one company. The biggest challenge for me is letting go and delegation! My companies are my brainchilds, and it’s hard to hand that over to somebody else, so building a trusted team is absolutely key to this being a success. It’s early days, so we’ll see how it goes – eventually I’d like to reduce my involvement in my consultancy and leave it with staff.

With growth on the cards, what are your future ambitions for Spark:York?

Spark:York itself will evolve and grow, but I’m keen to take the Spark brand outside of the City and explore franchise models – empowering other local entrepreneurs to change the fabric of their cities too. Every person on the planet is sitting on an idea, and most lack the opportunity, finance or time to realise it. I’d like to show people (of all ages) it is possible, and here’s how we can achieve it