The big companies targeting start-ups – and what they can offer you

Startups reviews the recent offers of support from Amazon, Google, Virgin and others

Millions of entrepreneurs dream of building the next Google, Virgin or Amazon. And now, they can access help and support from the real thing. The world’s biggest companies have spent much of the autumn months thinking small, by launching a raft of initiatives aimed at reaching out to start-up businesses with funding, prizes and mentoring. In the first of two articles, we outline the help that’s on offer from the big boys, and how it can help your business out. No-one is more active in the start-up space than Google at the moment. The search engine giant seems intent on playing a key role in Britain’s tech revolution – and recently announced plans to create a multi-million pound ‘technology community centre’ in the heart of London’s East End. The new hub, intended to be an integral part of London’s new ‘tech city,’ will span seven floors and provide shared space for internet start-ups. Google claims it will maintain a day-to-day presence in the building, but the lion’s share of the premises will be reserved for early-stage businesses. The building will open early next year, and the East London Tech City website should provide regular updates. Google has also rolled out a version of AdWords, one of its key services, for small businesses. The new version, AdWords Express, is designed to help start-up firms maximise the value of pay-per-click marketing – a form of advertising whereby companies pay to appear in Google’s search rankings alongside particular keywords. AdWords Express requires just a small amount of information to get a campaign off the ground, and is designed to be as simple and user-friendly as possible. Like Google, it seems Virgin Media Business is determined to play a leading role in London’s burgeoning tech space. In September the company equipped THECUBE, a start-up business incubator at Silicon Roundabout, with dedicated high-speed broadband and flexible contracts for entrepreneurs. The initiative will last for one year, at no charge to THECUBE or its members – offering super-fast internet to London’s most promising tech start-ups. Just around the corner from Silicon Roundabout, mobile communications giant O2 has created a one-stop drop-in workshop for small businesses, offering seminars and networking events in partnership with StartUp Britain and Enterprise Nation. O2 claims its workshop is targeted at flexible workers, entrepreneurs and local small businesses, and caters for up to 75 visitors. Specific features of the workshop include open workstations, allowing up to 10 people access to power and wireless printers; a customer lounge featuring soft seating and free-to-use tablet devices; semi-private meeting rooms offering access to LCD screens for company presentations; and dedicated O2 business gurus, offering advice and specialist appointments.

On top of this, Telefonica, O2’s parent company, has recently launched its major start-up incubator programme, Wayra, in the UK. O2’s key market rival, Vodafone, appears equally keen on building interaction with small businesses, and cementing its relationships with new and growing firms. Indeed Vodafone Business has unveiled a raft of new phone and broadband tariffs, specifically designed for small businesses and one-person businesses. Sole traders are now able to secure 300 minutes of call time, 250 texts and 500MB of data for just £25. From this basic package, Vodafone offers a range of tiers to suit different businesses, up to £370 a month for 10,000 minutes. Call forwarding and Microsoft Office 365 functionality is also available. Amazon has also been actively wooing start-ups for several months. In September Amazon’s Web Services division announced several initiatives to help start-up business enter the cloud – in other words, move away from traditional software and hire online companies to manage key company functions, on a pay-as-you-go basis. Amazon’s services included free training on cloud computing for UK start-ups, and a new competition called the 2011 Start-up Challenge, which will seek to find the most innovative start-up businesses using Amazon Web Services, and give the overall winner a bundle of prizes, including $50,000 cash and the same amount in credits. Although entries for this competition are now closed, it provides a clear sign of the direction in which Amazon is heading – expect more help for start-up firms over the coming months, as the company seeks to build its entrepreneurial user base. Finally we come to the high street banks, widely criticised for withholding credit and refusing to help small business in need. Following a tide of bad publicity in recent months, it seems the banks are falling over themselves to launch initiatives for new companies, and drag themselves back into credit with small firms. For example, RBS announced a brand-new scheme which will provide what it calls “historic low fixed rates” for start-up firms, and is removing charges on the early repayments of its loans. Similarly Lloyds TSB has secured fresh funding from the European Investment Bank, which will facilitate the provision of discounted loan rates to Britain’s small businesses. The government has also used Global Entrepreneurship Week to announce a series of initiatives aimed at start-ups: £5m of start-up support for ex-services personnel; £500,000 of funding for student enterprise organisation NACUE (National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs); the relaunch of the Business Link website; a doubling of its mentoring network; and encouragement for school enterprise through a new online resource. The message from all this: Now is a very good time to consider starting a business.

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