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The perfect blend

Penny Power OBE (right|) with her business partner Gail Thomas
Penny Power OBE (right|) with her business partner Gail Thomas

In November, The Business Café started a crowdfunding campaign to launch a new coffee shop chain. Business Info spoke to Penny Power OBE about her new venture

Author, speaker and entrepreneur, Penny Power founded Ecademy, the UK’s frst social network for business, in 1998. She wrote the Government’s Digital Business Britain manifesto in 2011, and in the same year founded the Digital Youth Academy, bringing Digital Marketing Apprenticeships to market. In 2013, she was awarded an OBE for ‘Entrepreneurship and Social Digital Development’.

Her latest venture is the establishment of a chain of High Street coffee shops for entrepreneurs and small businesses. If she is successful in raising the £350,000 needed on crowd-funding site CrowdCube, the frst café could open as soon as March 2018.

Business Info (BI): What is The Business Café and why does the UK need another coffee chain?

Penny Power (PP): I really believe in online; I’m active on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter and in 1998 I launched the frst social network, four years before LinkedIn, which grew to a community of 650,000 SMEs in 52 countries. But, I’m also very aware that people can get lonely and that many people, especially with Brexit, want to conduct most of their business locally.

So, our idea is to create a business café in high streets across the UK, as an alternative to Starbucks or Costa, where members can sit and enjoy a coffee in a really nice, business lounge-type environment and where they can feel that they are loved and that their small business means something. So, the culture is friendship frst.

We are also employing Digital Friends and training them to be able to pass digital skills and knowledge on to our members for free. If you’re sitting in there having a nice cup of tea thinking ‘I really wish I could do my bookkeeping on my phone’, for example, you can call over a Digital Friend who’ll help you load that application on your phone and show you how to use it. It’s about delivering skills but also creating a community, helping with the mental resilience and sustainability of small businesses so that they don’t feel so isolated and lonely.

BI: How does The Business Café differ from co-working spaces?

PP: Co-working spaces, which we’ll want to partner with, are where you go to work. The Business Café is different because it’s a coffee shop environment, it’s where you go to have a chat with someone, to ask some advice, to gain some new skills. If somebody wants to stay all day we would encourage them to go to a co-working space rather than hog a table and hide behind a laptop.

BI: What evidence do you have that there is a need for this type of café?

PP: I’ve spent 20 years working with small businesses and start-ups and building communities and support for them, so I’ve got a large network of small, self-employed businesses. Over the last three years, I’ve done 2,000 face-to-face meetings with my network and they really love this new concept, this blend of Facebook and Starbucks.

BI: How long have you been developing the idea?

PP: It came to me in October 2013 when I was between companies. I’d sold one company and was about to start another and was sitting in Caffé Nero feeling a little bit lonely, just thinking this is really hard work. At that stage, I didn’t want to go out and sell to anyone or find any suppliers, I just wanted to talk to other people like me – entrepreneurs who were trying hard and taking the rough with the smooth. I looked around and there were a lot of people sitting there with laptops and nobody was talking. I actually blogged about it. I wrote a blog on 28 October 2013, and that’s when the idea started to grow.

BI: How do you plan to recruit members?

PP: We aim to work very closely with business networks. We don’t want them to think we’re challenging them; we want to get them involved, to invite them to the launch of our cafés and to encourage them to promote their events on our walls. There will be a Community Manager in each café, a bit like the landlord of a pub, who will reach out to those networks, as well as to universities and colleges, because we’ll be employing young people from local colleges and giving them skills. Hopefully they will then get jobs with local businesses, so there’ll be a throughput of young people learning how to engage with businesses.

BI: Could you tell me a bit about the business model. Is it a franchise network?

PP: We will own the first one, but we’ve been approached by about 34 people who come from networks that want to own one, including someone from BNI (Business Network International), five councils, a consortium of employers. So a franchise model is possible. We’ll get the first café up and running and that should organically enable us to open the second one and then we’ll see what happens. I like the idea of franchising, of local people owning them.

BI: Why did you pick Peterborough for the frst premises?

PP: Several reasons. We didn’t want to start in London, because there are a lot of environments in London where you can go and sit; Peterborough is a really interesting regeneration city – it’s one of the fastest growing cities in the country; and my business partner Gail lives there. She’s going to run the business, while I build the culture, build the brand, so it makes sense to start there.

BI: What other locations might you expand to?

PP: Some of our investors want us to go to London, to areas that are more like a village. I was in Islington last week and there was a café there that was absolutely rammed with people working on laptops and they all knew each other – they are crying out for it. Other places we’ve got interest in are Winchester, St Albans, Slough, Bracknell, Farnham, Oxford, Sheffeld, Scunthorpe. We might have to do a competition to fnd out who wants it most, like BT did when it started its broadband roll out.

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