Starling offers £5k SME grant – but founders need to impress Carol Vorderman first

For many small business owners struggling to get off the ground, spending money on marketing, branding and raising their profile can feel frivolous. 

But this is exactly the kind of thing that Starling Bank wants to help them to do, with its new competition which could net start-ups thousands of pounds in cash. 

The challenger bank’s Take Flight initiative will see SMEs pitching their business case to celebrity judges who themselves have experience in running companies, including TV personality and business founder Carol Vorderman. 

The ten winning companies will each be awarded £5,000, which Starling says will help them ‘get to the ‘next level’. 

TV personality and founder of The Maths Factor, Carol Vorderman says she is looking for business leaders that are determined and have established businesses

Anne Boden, CEO and founder at Starling Bank, explains: ‘This is aimed at very small businesses. It will help them kickstart those early stages of their business. It’s surprising how far £5,000 can go.

‘Sometimes you are afraid of spending money on marketing and get your profile, brand and logo sorted out. 

‘It feels like the money will never go back in again. But this gives you £5,000 to spend on things you know you need to buy, but fear and feel reluctant about.’

Carol Vorderman on what the panel will be looking for 

Ten entrepreneurs will each win £5,000 if they are chosen by Starling Bank’s four judges. They are: 

  • TV personality and founder of The Maths Factor, Carol Vorderman
  • Chika Russell, founder and chief executive of Chika’s Snacks
  • Belinda Kirk, rower and founder of Explorers Connect
  • Claud Williams, executive coach and founder of Dream Nation

This is Money spoke to Carol Vorderman to find out what she and the other judges will be looking out for.

Who can apply for the Take Flight initiative? 

· Businesses must have fewer than 10 full and part time staff.

· Businesses must not have an annual turnover of no more than £1,400,000.

· Businesses must have an active Starling Business current account and must be a customer for at least three months from the date of entering the competition with at least one customer-initiated transaction per calendar month. Accounts must not be suspended or under investigation.

· Businesses must not be receiving funds from a UK banking grant or similar competition.

· Businesses must be incorporated and registered in the UK with Companies House.

· Businesses must demonstrate that they will invest their grant directly in the business.

· Businesses must not engage in activities that are restricted under the Business Current Account Schedule.

· The deadline for entries is 14 January 2022.

She says: ‘It’s about the commitment and the business plan, and not just a whim that’s been thought up. It’s that work ethic we’ll be looking for as, without it, your business won’t go anywhere.’

Companies that give back will also be in with a good chance of scooping one of the grants.  

Vorderman explains that she’s not looking for the next Philip Green: the Topshop tycoon who created a retail empire on cost-cutting and ruthless deals.

She says: ‘Not everyone wants to make the most money. It’s not about the ruthless end – that was the 70s way of thinking, but it doesn’t have to be that way anymore. 

‘The thinking is now, “All I want to do now is give back”. I don’t think businesses are always about the Philip Greens.’

She refers to Newcastle-based Big River Bakery as an example of a business that has struck a balance between profitability and giving back. 

She explains: ‘It’s a social enterprise that has really taken off. They make money but have deliberately put the bakery in a poor area and train kids up.’

Both Boden and Vorderman promise the Take Flight experience won’t mirror the cut-throat nature of Dragon’s Den. 

But just like in the infamous BBC show, entrepreneurs will have to explain why they should get the grant and how they will spend it, as well as being on top of the business’ numbers.

Boden says: ‘We want businesses to succeed and be inspired. It’s not like Dragon’s Den. Numbers are important too – that’s why Carol is involved. But mostly, the business should be about passion – we want to see that.’

The judging panel is (L-R) Chika Russell, founder and CEO of Chika's Snacks;  Belinda Kirk, rower and founder of Explorers Connect; TV personality and founder of The Maths Factor, Carol Vorderman, and Claud Williams, executive coach and founder of Dream Nation

The judging panel is (L-R) Chika Russell, founder and CEO of Chika’s Snacks;  Belinda Kirk, rower and founder of Explorers Connect; TV personality and founder of The Maths Factor, Carol Vorderman, and Claud Williams, executive coach and founder of Dream Nation

There are a few entrance criteria that applicants must adhere to. 

Something that will rule many out is that they must hold an active Starling Business current account for at least three months before the date of entering the competition. 

The competition is open to any small business from any sector, including banking. 

Boden says the grant would even be open to a rival start-up bank. She adds: ‘Yes, it would be open to them too. Competition is good!’

Most business leaders feel lonely

The launch of the initiative comes as Starling Bank’s releases the results of a business survey, finding that two thirds of small business leaders (63 per cent) feel lonely in their role. 

The bank says this could prevent companies from reaching their full potential.

Of the 1,046 business leaders surveyed by Starling Bank, seven in ten (70 per cent) say they find it hard to come up with new and innovative ideas on their own, and a similar number (68 per cent) want more advice from their peers on running their business.

Besides offering a £5,000 grant, the Take Flight initiative will also offer businesses a support package, including business guidance. 

Anne Boden, CEO and founder at Starling Bank says the £5k grant that 10 businesses will win could help them kickstart those early stages of their business

Anne Boden, CEO and founder at Starling Bank says the £5k grant that 10 businesses will win could help them kickstart those early stages of their business

Boden says she was keen on this extra offering as she herself benefited from advice when she started out as a solopreneur.

‘As an entrepreneur myself, I’ve experienced the pressures of spinning multiple plates – it’s a lot to take on when you’re also trying to drive your business forward,’ she says. 

‘I was flying solo when I first started Starling Bank, so asking others for advice and learning from them was invaluable.’

She acknowledges how difficult it is for entrepreneurs to get funding, especially those from diverse backgrounds. 

Boden says: ‘I spent two years trying to raise finance. Only one per cent of venture capital funding goes to women. 

‘Raising finance, getting grants and borrowing is difficult. It’s difficult for diverse people because lots of venture capitalists tend to invest in people that look and sound just like them.’

When asked what advice she has for unsuccessful Starling Bank grant applicants, she says: ‘Keep on trying. There’s lots of free resources, lots of websites with business information and university courses you can take advantage of. 

‘Also take advantage of free offers – there’s lots out there. The important thing is to start. It’s not always the best idea that builds the best business.’

Applications can be made through Starling Bank’s website and must be submitted before the 14 January 2022 deadline.

Not with Starling? The other grants UK small businesses can apply for

Businesses were supported through various government schemes during the pandemic. But some, such as the furlough scheme and ‘Eat Out to Help Out’, are no longer available. This may, however, change depending on whether the country goes back into lockdown.

For now, there are other grants that SMEs can apply for to drive their business forward. These include:

The UK Smart Grants: This is a grant for research and development projects and is open all year round. The minimum award is £100,000 and the maximum £2million.

The Kickstart Scheme: This scheme allows companies (large and small) to access funding to create jobs for 16–24-year-olds on Universal Credit.

The UK Tradeshow Programme: This offers SMEs part of a £7.9million fund to help them participate and exhibit successfully at overseas trade shows. Between 2,000 and 3,000 businesses are supported through this initiative each year. Successful applicants can either £2,000 or £4,000 up to 40% of the cost of exhibition space, stand expenses and conference fees including promotional material.

UK Research & Innovation: This organisation provides grants for developing new products, services, and business models in a variety of industries. The maximum grant awarded regularly runs into millions of pounds.

Karen Taylor, head of grants at business finance and tax relief specialist Catax, says: ‘There’s now a steady flow of grants that can help SMEs, from general support to create jobs to very specialist financial assistance to develop the latest technologies, and that will continue long after Covid support schemes are a distant memory.

‘Sector-specific grants are growing very strongly as the government seeks to place the UK at the forefront of global innovation post-Brexit. 

‘Hot areas currently attracting a lot of funding include net zero, bio-medical, green energy, battery tech & electric vehicles, cyber security, agriculture and quantum technologies. 

‘Grants are also available from Local Enterprise Partnerships and Growth Hubs but what is available varies between regions.’

Small Business Essentials