Business development · 21 July 2015

Chuka Umunna: I want Small Business Saturday to be as big as Comic Relief

Chuka Umunna at the Small Business Saturday launch

Since its 2010 launch in the US, Small Business Saturday has become a successful annual day encouraging shoppers to go local for their purchases. It had a similar reception in the UK – now in its third year, the event launched with the theme “five million small businesses, one big day”.

Last year, around 16.5m people supported at least one business on the day, with awareness evidently up among the general public as nearly two-thirds of Britain were aware of the campaign. This year’s will be held in December, and it aims to build on the success of the previous two initiatives – with a bus tour running throughout November and calling at 27 towns and cities.

Along with national campaign director Michelle Ovens, both small business minister Anna Soubry and shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna were in attendance at the launch.

Ovens said that while the occasion was just one day annually, “the goal is to have a lasting impact on small businesses by changing mindsets, so that people make it their mission to support them all year round”.

Umunna first brought the idea to the UK, after seeing the success it was having in the US. The 2012 campaign helped drive sales of $5.5bn in small independent shops, while encouraging longer-term custom too.

He sat down exclusively with Business Advice at the launch to discuss how the project could be developed even further and what had been the biggest success so far.

“It all kicked off with me issuing a press release in January 2013, pitching it out there, and it’s so wonderful to see what it has led to – I can’t believe what it has become,” he explained. “I always get a bit emotional when it comes to the launch of Small Business Saturday.”

Anna Soubry with Michelle Ovens (centre) at the launch

He credits its success to the collaborative contributions of a range of people. “I knew we wouldn’t be able to do something like this unless we had different business organisations together to start with, which represent small and micro businesses. When I pitched it to them, they immediately jumped at the chance – the Federation of Small Businesses in particular, bira, the chambers, the IoD – all of them jumped on board with this in a very public way, which is wonderful,” he said.

The operational side of things meant they would need a full-time team, which Ovens has built, and Umunna pointed to the transformation the initiative has seen – going from Ovens running it independently “out of her own resources”, to having offices near Somerset House. “It’s sustainable now,” he added.

He’s hopeful that 2015 will see the awareness and impact spread even further among both businesses and consumers. “I think what we managed to do last year was take it up a notch in terms of its profile, and its recognition in every single community. I think we can do that again and then some,” Umunna said.

“A lot of established businesses know about Small Business Saturday now, but what I would like to see is this become so well-known that those who are thinking of doing the small business thing, and are moving into the startup space, see it as the vehicle through which they can learn a bit more about what it’s actually like to run a business and the obstacles you face when you’re doing it,” he added.

His goal is to add to make the event so recognisable that it becomes its own brand. “If I were asked what my inspiration would be for this initiative, I think it would probably be to be as recognised as say Comic Relief and some of those big national campaigns that everyone knows, and I think we’re well on the way to doing that,” he explained.

Umunna believes Small Business Saturday can be taken even further

The zeal with which the general public has taken up the cause has been particularly impressive. Ovens believes it’s because of the pervasive nature of small businesses.

“Most people in this country own a small business, work for a small business or know somebody who does, so supporting a small business on Small Business Saturday is absolutely personal,” she said.

Umunna also feels the response has partly been due to the ever-changing nature of work. “You’ve got a lot more self-employed people than ever before and a lot of those people are running small businesses. Some of that is because employment has been hard to come by since the downturn, but some of that is just the nature of work is changing and a lot of people want to be their own boss and are taking the plunge.”

He also pointed out that independent businesses can offer a variety of products that big brands can’t, which is a real draw for consumers on the hunt for more individual goods.

“Big brands are becoming more and more dominant, so people do value something that’s a bit more niche and different. So if you find something that’s affordable and on your doorstep, it’s just so much nicer to have,” Umunna argued. “Just on a basic level, if you turn up to a wedding or event in a dress that nobody else is wearing, and you don’t have to worry that because you got it from Topshop or H&M that somebody else might be wearing it, I think that definitely has a part to play.”

Elsewhere, he said quite simply, people “fundamentally respect others who take a bit of a risk”.

He added: “Of course they want to do well for themselves and make money, but they’re trying to make a contribution in some way, shape or form that’s unique and I think that’s really inspiring”.

Umunna himself has plans to go into business in the future, though doesn’t know in what capacity that would be just yet. While he drew media attention and speculation after withdrawing his Labour leadership bid, following the increased level of attention on him and those close to him, Umunna’s foreseeable future is committed to politics.

Contemplating in which sphere he might like to pursue a small business, Umunna settled on “probably music”, before adding that “I would like to go into business at some point, but what it would be I don’t totally know”.

With this year’s Small Business Saturday on track to attract more attention than ever before, Umunna may find inspiration among the plethora of businesses getting involved.

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Rebecca is a reporter for Business Advice. Prior to this, she worked with a range of tech, advertising, media and digital clients at Propeller PR and did freelance work for The Telegraph.

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