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Starting a small business? Get all the help you can

'It's liberating to be doing something that you love'

The IndependentMore people than ever before are starting up on their own. The UK now has more than 4.3 million small businesses - half a million more than seven years ago, according to the Department for Trade and Industry. And while it is regularly claimed that 50 per cent of small businesses fail within the first year, in fact, the DTI says the figure is closer to 20 per cent.

All sorts of public and private sector organisations offer support to budding entrepreneurs, including financial help. Business development grants are available from sources including the Government, the European Union, regional development agencies, local Business Link offices, and several charities.

For example, Enterprise for All is a new project part- funded by the City of London Corporation, which offers help to unemployed people keen to start their own businesses. As well as financial help, the idea is to offer training on the skills needed to set up and run a small business. The scheme, run by the East London Small Business Centre, has so far provided £150,000 of new funding to start-ups.

Pearl Agbloe, from Manor Park in East London, trained as a hairdresser in the early Nineties. After her daughter was born, she decided to start her own small business - but no-one was prepared to back her dream. "None of the banks wanted to lend me money," she said, "and I didn't have the money to learn the skills I needed to set up a business."

Last year, Pearl discovered that the East London Small Business Centre provided free training to would-be small business owners. "I was a qualified hairdresser but I needed to do courses on things like putting a business plan together, and how to do all the paperwork to cope with issues like VAT."

Finally, in January, Pearl's application for a grant from Enterprise for All came through, and she was able to launch her own salon. "I've found running my business easier than I would have done without all the training I got," she said.

The best single source of information about grants for small enterprises is the Government-backed Business Link, an advisory service that operates through a network of local offices around the country.

A spokesman for Business Link explains the advantages of financing at least part of your venture in this way: "Generally you do not have to repay grants unless you break the conditions, and then you do not have to pay interest on them".

Grants are often linked to specific business areas - exporting, product development or training, for example - or to specific geographical areas, like the Enterprise for All scheme.

Start by working out what you need a grant to finance. For example, the Learning and Skills Council and some Business Links provide grants for training and skills development, while anyone unemployed or employed in a part-time or low-paid job, aged 18 to 30, and with a business idea, can apply for funds from the Prince's Trust. Use the Business Links network to identify which agency to approach. See www.businesslinks.gov.uk or call 0845 600 9006.

In most cases, small business owners have to put up some funds themselves - you might get 40 per cent of the amount you need to launch the company, say - which will require you to find finance elsewhere too.

However, even if you are struggling to make up the difference, don't despair. The Small Firms Loan Guarantee, a joint initiative from the DTI and a number of banks, offers help to small business owners struggling to get loans. In certain circumstances, entrepreneurs who don't have assets to put up as security may still be able to get a loan, because the Government will put up a guarantee against default.

Above all, a good business plan is crucial to attracting any of this help. Prospective entrepreneurs need to explain what their business will do in detail, and provide realistic financial forecasts. You will also need to demonstrate that you have done market research to establish there is a demand for your product.

Most organisations offering grants will be able to offer you advice on putting a business plan together.

Claire Knapp, from Brighton, has always known she wanted to run her own business. "Even as a child I used to make things to sell," she says. "I did some modelling when I was 18 or 19 which gave me a taste of what it was like working for myself, but in my twenties I then did all sorts of jobs and projects."

Having put spare cash into property for several years, Claire was eventually in a position to launch her own business, a complementary therapy centre in Brighton, which reflected her own passions. "It was half organic beauty salon and half alternative therapies," she said. "That's something I was brought up with so it seemed perfect."

However, after several years spent trying to establish the business, Claire began to realise it wasn't working and last year decided to close the centre. "It was heartbreaking but if something isn't right you have to pull the plug," she says.

In its place, Claire has launched a web-based business selling organic beauty products - www.theorganicsalon.com.

"It's a combination of my beliefs and the modern world," she said. "I love the flexibility of the internet, even though I'm here by myself working away."

Her tip for would-be entrepreneurs is to stick with it. "I did lose money on my first job, but I've tried to stay positive," she says. "Being in charge can be scary, when you know you have to pay your mortgage, for example, but it's also liberating to be doing something you're really passionate about

Published: 11 March 2006

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