Taking finance for granted

Asking you whether you want a non-repayable cash injection of tens of thousands of pounds to help develop your business is, presumably, a no-brainer. But many small business owners don't consider applying for a grant. They are, understandably, either put off by the work involved, or simply unaware of what's out there.

Getting a grant is not always easy, but it is possible. And knowing where to look, who to ask for help and how to fill out the forms will set you well on your way.


The complications

With more than 6,000 schemes now on offer to UK companies, it's no surprise many business owners feel overwhelmed navigating the grant world. It's not just the quantity that's baffling. Applications can vary between a page or two to hundreds of sheets of paper, explains Ian Heywood, director of grant consultancy UK Grants.

To make matters just that bit more complicated, 'the qualifying criteria are becoming more stringent', according to the website of PNO, arguably the most active Europe-wide grant consultancy.

"There's less money going round since the recession," says Rebecca Stark, head of research for the UK grant search database GRANTfinder. She points out new European Union (EU) members in the Eastern Bloc have made areas in the UK previously thought of as in need of grants for regeneration - South Yorkshire and Cornwall, for example - much richer by comparison, so they lose that funding. And, she says, the merger of certain corporate funding providers means that where before there were two grants, now only one is available.

There is still lots of money out there, though. PNO says the EU alone spends €375bn on grants per year. And that amount doesn't begin to take account of all the other grant providers, both government-run and private. The market is in fact so vast Heywood says it's 'impossible' to know how much it is worth.

So where does a small business owner begin, in this messy, labyrinthine quest for grants?

The search

"Too many people go, 'What grant can I get for my business?'," says Heywood. "But it's not a simple case of what grant you can get- it's what your needs for the business are, and then seeing if there's a grant against it."

Umbrella terms for the most common types of those 'needs' include research and development (R&D), training employees, securing and creating jobs, innovation, conservation, or - the government's favourite at the moment - creating new green technology or reducing carbon emissions. That list is by no means comprehensive though, and identifying how you will use the money is more useful than worrying about labels.

The official line in government advice is then to go to your local Business Link advisor. But that's not exactly a failsafe option. "Some Business Links are good, some aren't so good. You can't rely on the human factor," says Heywood.

Instead, start by scouting the internet to see what's on offer.

The key thing to know here is that every single online grant search database in the UK is powered by one of two parent search databases - GRANTfinder or j4b. GRANTfinder operates for small businesses through GRANTnet, and also powers the Business Link grant search tool. You can search the j4b database at j4bgrants.

Both databases are easy to use - enter your postcode, the type of project you want the grant for (they provide a list to choose from), your industry and how many employees you have. To make this bit even easier for you, we've partnered with j4b to offer their comprehensive database right here on Smarta. Start here: find small business grants.

Then run a search through GRANTfinder too - both providers claim to offer the most comprehensive grant database so it's always worth cross-checking results.

There's every chance you'll get a list of 20 schemes. "And in reality there'll be maybe only one or two that you could be eligible for," says Heywood. "That's where the market needs help."

While you can search GRANTfinder or j4b for free, neither provides full details of the scheme - only outlines. On j4b, you have to pay a subscription fee starting at £49.99, while GRANTfinder refers you elsewhere. Heywood recommends turning to Google instead at this point for further research. Alternatively, you could also go to your local council, although not all councils have comprehensive details on all schemes.

This is where it's worth turning back to Business Link or your local Regional Development Agency to help you wade through the different options. They should either know which scheme will be best suited to you, or be able to refer you to someone who does.

Failing that, get in touch with the provider of schemes directly to ask about your suitability. The guidelines for some schemes can be dozens, sometimes even hundreds of pages long, and the last thing you want to do is read through all the paperwork for 20 different schemes only to find you're not eligible.

The assessment

Before going any further, you need to work out if you actually have the resources in place to go through the grant application process.

Any grant in the tens of thousands of pounds upwards is likely to take at least a month between deciding to apply and getting confirmation, and often up to four or five months. Of course, you're not going to be working on it full time, and the smaller a grant is, the quicker it will be.


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