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  1. Spotlight
6 September 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 3:13pm

Big opportunities for small businesses

Technology is levelling the playing field for startups.    

By Rob Orr

What if you found yourself unable to speak? No longer able to share your thoughts and feelings, needs and frustrations. As a speech and language therapist, Rebecca Bright often worked with people in that situation day in, day out. People with conditions such as cerebral palsy, motor neurone disease and stroke, who needed extra help to communicate.

But the tech tools on offer to them were far from ideal. They were clunky, chunky and just not portable. They were the opposite of user-friendly. She knew she had to do something.

Ten years later Rebecca is running Therapy Box: a business that develops multiple apps for people with speech challenges. Those apps are available in ten languages and have won Therapy Box a trophy cabinet’s worth of awards, including the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Innovation (twice), and the Virgin Media Business VOOM – a competition where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to Richard Branson. In 2016, Rebecca was awarded an MBE.

Ask her what she’s most proud of, however, and it isn’t all the gongs and plaudits. It’s the emails she gets from people she’s helped. The apps have been “life-changing”, they tell her. Making that kind of difference to someone’s quality of life shouldn’t be taken lightly. It comes with the responsibility of not letting customers down. For that you need technology you can rely on. That might not sound particularly exciting. But for Rebecca and millions of other small to medium-sized businesses, speed and reliability are critical. If things stop working it really does matter.

So how do you go from practising therapist to celebrated, successful business owner, making a real difference to the lives of people all over the world? By going online, of course. If you want to be there for your customers, you have to be online, open for business and available whenever they need you. You can’t afford to take chances with an IT system that might fall over, freeze or fail. Because if things go wrong your troubles can come thick and fast. The right IT backbone can help a business be nimble, agile, and responsive. It will let you transfer huge amounts of data in the blink of an eye, keep costs low by using the internet for voice calls and keep files stored safely and securely in the cloud.

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The growing businesses of tomorrow will be increasingly reliant on such advances. That’s one reason Virgin Media Business is investing £3bn in a super-fast, super-charged and super-robust optical fibre network – the UK’s largest, reaching out to more than 17 million homes and businesses. Being able to re-purpose, re-prioritise and refresh the way you use your network means you can add users, launch a new website, offer a specific contact phone number for a marketing campaign and more, knowing you can switch it all off again and go back to normal if and when you need to. That’s what gives some businesses the advantage when chasing after a new idea and bringing it to life.

Another business that knows all about making the most of an opportunity is Approved Food, which started life as a market stall in Sheffield run by Dan Cluderay. Dan wanted to go from selling 50 items on his stall to offering thousands of items online. Along with his business partner Andy Needham that’s exactly what he’s done. Approved Food offers heavy discounts on a range of more than 6,000 groceries and household items, some of which have gone beyond their best before date. Not to be confused with the use before date, they are quick to point out. It’s a niche that has delivered commercial success and publicity in spades, including appearances on the BBC’s Dragons’ Den and ITV’s Bargain Fever Britain among others. And despite their modesty – “over the past ten years we have made every mistake in the book,” they say – Dan and Andy’s business is booming. They’re always open: 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Queries are answered at any time, from any location. There are plenty of challenges, of course: accessing stock, the marketing know-how to make people aware of their website, the ability to process orders efficiently.

But perhaps the biggest challenge is meeting customers’ expectations. Customers whose opinion of service is now viewed through an Amazon-shaped filter and who want to know why you can’t operate like their favourite apps and retailers. They’re not interested in listening to excuses. The harsh reality is that if you can’t move at that kind of speed, your customers could well decide to shop elsewhere with a company that can. And many businesses unable to keep up have found themselves left for dead. Like Therapy Box, Approved Food has partnered with Virgin Media Business and is also a VOOM winner. It says the speed, connectivity and reliability it gets from Virgin Media Business simply means one less thing to worry about while it pushes into new areas.

A fast, reliable network is now within the grasp of almost everyone. You don’t need to be the biggest or most powerful to offer the best levels of service and innovation. And you don’t need to have the deepest pockets to be able to unleash your digital potential.Business owners will always be faced with challenges. But if you’re looking to grow and evolve your organisation with ultra-fast connections, empower your staff with secure mobile access to corporate data and applications and make the most of opportunities that might come your way, don’t compromise on your ambitions with unreliable technology.

Rob Orr is executive director at Virgin Media Business.