There is an exciting and positive new dynamic in the Leeds economy. Numerous small independent businesses are being started and are growing rapidly. These firms don’t fall into neat traditional economic classifications, but instead share common features and values. They are highly creative, entrepreneurial, distinctive, and cool. They collaborate, compete and cluster. They are displaying all the features of economic agglomeration, and the trend of business innovation increasingly being focused in and on the fringes of city centres.
The entrepreneurs starting and running these firms are also working together as a new part of the Leeds business community. They are creating new bottom-up initiatives to support and promote each other, and to champion Leeds. They are doing so not for payment or profit, not because they have been tasked to do so from above, and not because of a top-down economic strategy. They are doing it because they are absolutely passionate about what they do and their city. This can be illustrated through three examples.
Last night I had the great pleasure of attending and saying a few words at a fantastic event: the first Leeds Independent Business Awards. These awards were organised by brilliant Lola Wilson (with help from many others), founder of the website / blog leedsloveaffair.co.uk. Several aspects of the event spoke volumes about the characteristics of these new business networks.
First, the award winners were chosen through an online vote, demonstrating how these businesses are engaging with the community through social media.
Second, the event was held at the Tetley, a new contemporary art gallery in Leeds South Bank, a fast growing creative business quarter and innovation district, an example of the new “innovation districts” identified by Bruce Katz (www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2013/12/30-silicon-cities-katz).
Third, there is a value system of mutual support and goodwill here. The event did not consume a penny of public money. It was organised by volunteers, many who work for Logistik Group www.logistikgroup.com (a great fast growing creative firm in Armley, Leeds) who encourage staff volunteering. The Tetley hosted it for free, and the headline speaker Mr (Matt) Burton from Educating Yorkshire did not charge a fee.
Fourth, the centerpiece of last night’s awards was the showing of a film made to highlight the voices, importance, concerns and aspirations of the children in Leeds. This support for the Child Friendly Leeds initiative (www.leeds.gov.uk/c/Pages/childFriendlyCity/default.aspx and www.childfriendlyleeds.wordpress.com) is one example of the commitment these firms are showing to the city and the well-being of its communities.
Another sign of this new business community at work was a visit to Leeds by TechCityUk (www.techcityuk.com) and the information economy team in BIS. Leeds City Council and Leeds and Partners hosted parts of the visit, and demonstrated support for the sector. But much of the organisation of the day was done by a group of Leeds tech and data companies. The presentation about the digital economy capabilities of Leeds came from this group. It told a story about our expertise in data science, fin-tech, our trail blazing work on open data, and the fact we are an Internet independent city. It did so in a way that was compelling because it originated from the businesses themselves.
Another example of a great bottom-up initiative was the Leeds Independent Bikes project (www.leedsindependentbikes.co.uk/). This initiative, timed alongside Leeds hosting the start of the Tour De France, has involved designing and printing 120 unique large vinyl stickers in the shape of bikes. These have been placed on the windows of independent businesses, and of other organizations that have allowed their windows to support small independent businesses without a prominent shop-front or pavement profile. It has highlighted and showcased the range, creativity and quality of Leeds independent businesses. The project was created and driven forward by Laura Wellington and James Abbott-Donnolley, whose day job is to run Duke Studios (www.duke-studios.com), an incubator for creative start-ups.
All of this is not to say large firms and traditional business networks are a bad thing. Large firms have much to gain by doing more for small independents. High street chain retailers benefit from independent traders providing appoint of difference for retail destinations (and independent retailers benefit from footfall attracted by large multiples). Today’s independent businesses are tomorrow’s high value clients for larger firms. And if large firms turn their back on dynamic new start ups, they are turning their back on new ideas, potential future acquisitions, and leaving themselves vulnerable to competition and waves of creative disruption from new ideas, products, processes and brands.
It is clear independent businesses are a good thing for many reasons. Much of the value stays in the local economy. They provide the creativity and innovation that our cities need to be competitive in a knowledge economy. They tend to train their staff well and invest in career progression for them. They create distinctiveness, an experience and brand image that our city and town centres need to succeed. They are putting lots back into their cities and communities. And they are coming together to create new business networks that are helping drive the innovation our cities need for economic success.
p.s. In praise of Kirkgate Market
Last night I unexpectedly came away from the Leeds Independent Business Awards with the Award for Best Place to Visit, for Leeds Kirkgate Market, which I collected on behalf of the Leeds City Council Markets team.
Kirkgate Market (www.leedsmarkets.co.uk) is the largest covered retail market in Europe, and home to hundreds of fantastic independent businesses. The award follows a TripAdvisor award (www.leedsmarkets.co.uk/blog/kirkgate-market-achieves-top-tripadvisor-award) earlier in the year. It is fantastic recognition to the efforts made by all the businesses in the Market (in what has not been an easy year). It is also recognition of the great work of the Councillors that are taking difficult decisions on the future of the market, and the Leeds Markets team that are managing and promoting the market, as well as developing plans for a £12m investment to improve it and secure its long-term future.
Many congratulations to the other winners: North Bar www.northbar.com/; The Gredy Pig www.facebook.com/pages/The-Greedy-Pig/101684753228381; Our Handmade Collective ourhandmadecollective.wordpress.com/about/; and Pastille Beauty www.pastille.uk.com/.