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Digital survival skills delivered for small businesses across the north

Eilidh Macdonald, centre, with, clockwise from the top left, Barnaby Ashton, Mairi Voinot, Calum Roden and Cara Forbes have all found new roles through HIE's technology placement programme.
Eilidh Macdonald, centre, with, clockwise from the top left, Barnaby Ashton, Mairi Voinot, Calum Roden and Cara Forbes have all found new roles through HIE's technology placement programme.

Where can small businesses turn when they need help to take their first online steps? Peter Ranscombe finds out.

There was a moment in the spring of 2020 as Scotland was sliding towards lockdown when small businesses all held their collective breath.

Schools, shops and pubs were all closing, and the economy was grinding to a halt.

Lightbulb moment

Then there was a lightbulb moment, as entrepreneurs realised they had a captive audience sitting at home all day, staring at their screens. “Pivot” went from being a one-line joke in an episode of Friends to a necessity for survival for thousands of companies, as they adapted their business models overnight.

Restaurants turned into takeaways, pubs turned into bottle shops and every retailer that could started a home delivery service. Online sales underpinned many businesses’ survival, with shops and restaurants plying their wares on social media and then using their websites to take payments.

Now the lockdowns are over, even if the pandemic isn’t, helping those companies to retain that new-found and hard-won custom is at the top of the agenda for Hugh Lightbody, chief officer at Business Gateway’s national unit, which offers a range of help to aid small firms in using digital technology.

Although Business Gateway’s services are delivered by Scotland’s 32 local councils and their contractors, the organisation still offers some courses centrally, freeing up cash and time for its local operations. Among these central services is a “digital health check” accessed through their website, packaged as part of the wider Digital Boost brand.

The five-minute questionnaire helps newbies to work out exactly what sort of help they need, whether it’s creating a website, learning how to market products and services through social media, or setting up electronic commerce – or “ecommerce” to its friends.

Businesses know they need to do this, but they need help and guidance.”

Hugh Lightbody, Business Gateway.

Mr Lightbody said: “The digital health check helps the individual to get a better understanding of what they know and what they don’t know.”

For many businesses the next step will be to take part in one of the 320-plus webinars run by Business Gateway, with around 250 delivered nationally and a further 70 or so locally. The webinars started as in-person workshops but they quickly moved online during the lockdowns, allowing more Scottish businesses to access help from a distance.

“The most popular webinars are things like ‘Facebook for Business’, ‘Instagram for Business’ and video production for social media,” Mr Lightbody said.

Hugh Lightbody.

He added: “Businesses recognise the importance of digital, particularly because young people are more digitally-savvy and more prepared to use digital as a way of finding out about stuff. Businesses have been wanting to get in amongst that and look at how they stand out from the crowd – video and how you present your content are incredibly important.”

The third strand to Business Gateway’s support package is one-to-one appointments with advisors.

“That could include help to develop specific features on a website, such as Recite Me’s accessibility software to make your site more inclusive,” Mr Lightbody said.

Digital boost grants

Advisors can also point companies in the direction of digital boost grants from the Scottish Government.

“The demand has been phenomenal,” Mr Lightbody said, adding: “It’s self-evident businesses know they need to do this, but they need help and guidance.”

The Scottish government also offers digital development loans for bigger projects through Lanarkshire Enterprise Services. “That might include setting up a customer relationship management system, so you get to know your clients, or a full-blown ecommerce system that links sales to your inventory control,” Mr Lightbody added.

Funding to help companies take their first digital steps is also available through economic development agency Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE).

Busta House Hotel in Shetland is among the businesses which have taken steps to raise their digital game.

Rachel Hunter, the enterprise quango’s director of service delivery explained how HIE can offer cash from its discretionary grants fund towards the cost of digital technology.

During the lockdowns the agency’s digital enablement grant scheme delivered £2.36 million of funding to 213 projects.

Ms Hunter said: “Through Covid there was unprecedented demand for support for businesses to change their models, to start selling and communicating with customers online. We saw a huge uptick in demand and we can still support businesses to make that change through grant support.”

Companies that received a digital enablement grant include Elgin-based IT Central, which secured £25,000 towards the cost of setting up a studio to help other businesses record videos.

In Inverness, Wasps – the charity behind the transformation of the former Inverness Royal Academy Midmills building into the Inverness Creative Academy as a space for businesses, social enterprises and fellow charities – received a £24,600 digital grant, with some of the money used to develop a website to help tenants manage their bookings and sell products online.

Inverness Creative Academy.

Busta House Hotel in Shetland received a £6,375 digital grant to help redesign its website and introduce an integrated online booking system.

HIE recently launched the third round of its Young Business Capital Investment Grant scheme. These grants cover 50% of the cost of capital equipment and works between £5,000 and £100,000, including information technology infrastructure.

As well as financial support for hardware, HIE can help businesses with the people they need to harness digital technology. One of the schemes run through the Northern Innovation Hub – part of the £315m Inverness City Region Deal – is the technology placement programme, which offers funding worth up to half the cost of employing a graduate to smaller businesses throughout the Highland Council area.

These university and college graduates have up-to-date digital skills and know what’s going on with technology.”

Rachel Hunter, Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

Ms Hunter said: “It supports the employment of a graduate for up to one year to work on a project involving technology – so that could be introducing a new system or process, or upgrading an existing one, or developing a new product or service.

“It could be for firms starting to sell a product or service online, for example.

“We’re keen to see more businesses take up that opportunity, because these university and college graduates have up-to-date digital skills and know what’s going on with technology.”

Shetland-based Laurence Odie Knitwear is among firms using an HIE placement scheme to boost their digital skills.

Laurence Odie Knitwear, which owns the Shetland Woollen Company brand, received a digital enablement grant to develop its website, and went on to hire Martin Turner under HIE’s graduate support programme to work on digital marketing and branding.

Other graduates supported by the scheme include Cara Forbes, who is working on digital marketing for North Uist Distillery, and Shannon Mackenzie, from Thurso, who is providing digital marketing and social media content for the Argyll and the Isles Tourism Co-operative.

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