Supporting small businesses in 2023: and why this matters to corporates

By: John Bee, Managing Director, White Space Strategy

A memory of an encounter has been burning through my mind for the last month – corrosively, in truth. I spoke to the owner of one of my favourite local bars in August. He’s a wonderful man who’s created a fantastic bar on Oxford’s Cowley Road, and he’s AWLAYS upbeat. Cowley Road is a thriving arterial road that runs from near the MINI factory on the eastern edge of the city all the way to Magdalen College and the city centre. It bustles with a kaleidoscope of local shops and restaurants with a constant stream of customers, including many of the city’s student, academic, young professional and ethnic minority residents who live close by.

However, the bar’s energy bills are going to treble next year, increasing from £2.5k to £7.5k a month. So, when I spoke to the owner in August, he was not upbeat. This is what he said to me:

“HOW AM I GOING TO COPE?”

That’s £90k a year, when you do the maths. For a small bar on the edge of Oxford. This is why my mind’s been corroding this last month.

The focus for relief from energy price rises has rightly been on households – although, in my view, measures still don’t go far enough and are not sufficiently targeted. But what about our small businesses? How on this earth are they going to cope? From Oxford to London to Paris to Dusseldorf to Lahore to Fukishima to Oxford (Alabama) and every place in-between, small business owners are in the same position as the owner of bars on Cowley Road (for some, it’s worse: inflation in Turkey’s currently around 80%).

There’s a Cowley Road in every city I’ve got to know well (it’s Mill Road in Cambridge – I prefer Oxford’s version, but they’re both amazing places; it’s Gloucester Road in Bristol, which feels very different but also the same).

Who needs resilience the most?

As the owner of what is essentially a global small business (White Space Strategy), I have deep respect for the people who run these businesses and for everything they’ve created.

Energy price rises simply aren’t fair on them – and some very good businesses are going to go under over the next 12 months without significant help.

These kinds of businesses are part of the supply chains our corporates rely on – directly, if you’re Amazon and indirectly if your staff live amongst them.

I also worry about the local communities they serve. These businesses provide jobs, diversity and vibrancy which make our cities better places for living.

And, finally, what about the banks and energy companies they could end up owing money to?

So, for lots of reasons, it’s important these small businesses survive and prosper.

Take a walk on the sunny side?

To illustrate all of these points, here are few photos of some of the other shops and businesses on Cowley Road. The dedication, love and professionalism of the people who own and work in them is clear to see.

To conclude before the photos start, though: do we really want to live in a world without our Cowley Roads? And, more practically, what would it mean for all of us if they fall into acute financial difficulty?

From a penny to a thousand pounds

First stop, Hi-Lo Jamaican Eating House, an Oxford institution. It’s strapline of ‘From a penny to a thousand pounds’ will trip off the tongues of prime ministers past, present and future:

Next stop, Peloton: the best coffee on Cowley Road (in my opinion, at least). It was also a lifeline for locals and staff during the pandemic. Cowley Road was the only place that felt in any way normal – the buzz and positive energy never went away, fuelled by great coffee:

Just up the road, Euro Supermarket. The name is a misrepresentation of sorts – it’s an eastern European shop, but people from everywhere are welcome:

Fancy some music? Head to Truck Store. But is it really more than just a record shop?

Apparently it is:

Dive in here in the evening for a great cocktail and the atmosphere of warmth.

Need a dress repaired or a suit dry cleaned? VIK will take care of it:

And so Cowley Road goes on. There are another 40 or 50 places like the ones you’ve just seen: bike shops (x2); barbers (x a lot more than 2); supermarkets from every corner of the world (including England); a music venue that used to be owned by Radiohead. It’s an amazing place, and contributes greatly to my city’s sense of community.

You can walk the whole walk by watching the video header in this post. It’s never the same road twice, though: the people and the sounds are always different.

The real conclusion

I’d usually conclude a blog by identifying some take-outs for White Space Strategy’s clients and community: what can a big corporate learn from these businesses? This time, though, I’m not going to do this: I think we’ve all walked down our own city’s Cowley Roads and know intuitively what the learnings are.

For what it’s worth, I actually don’t think corporates could replicate a lot of what these local businesses do – nor should they try to. Chains and corporates have their rightful place in the world – I love buying from Amazon – but so do the shops on the Cowley Roads of our world. They exist in symbiosis, if you think about it: Amazon needs marketplace sellers; Deliveroo needs great local restaurants; our staff need amazing places to shop at and funky cafés, so they want to live near our head offices.

The question, to me, is the other way around: what can corporates do to help small businesses through 2023?

About the author:

Headshot of White Space founder and MD, John Bee

John Bee

Managing Director, White Space Strategy

John founded White Space Strategy in 2005, and has worked on over 300 growth strategy projects worldwide.

White Space Strategy was named as one of the UK’s leading strategy and innovation consultancies by the Financial Times in 2021 and 2022.

He is currently also working with Oxford University within their UN Sustainable Development Goals Impact Lab, and has lectured at Warwick Business School.

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