When Boris Johnson said, in March 2020, that he thought the UK could “turn the tide” of coronavirus in 12 weeks, no one expected to be living under Covid-19 restrictions almost 12 months on. But in March 2021, BOOST&Co marks a surreal milestone: we are sponsoring Cofinitive’s #21toWatch awards for a second time, which means that this is the first annual event in which we’ve participated during lockdown not once, but twice.

We always look on the bright side, though, and having sponsored the 2020 awards to mark the launch of our Cambridge office, we now have an anniversary to celebrate. Our first year in the city may have taken a form we could never have envisaged, but this has given us an opportunity to reflect on how we have coped, what we have learned and how we have improved. So if you think nothing has changed over the past 12 months, think again…

What we’ve learned – relationships are more important than ever

Find the online networks that work for you

If you work in business, the chances are that you’re a people person, so you may not have welcomed the switch to online networking that took place when the first lockdown began. Having enjoyed my initial stint in our Cambridge office (meeting face-to-face, chatting over coffee, even shaking hands), I found it difficult to be restricted to video calls. This hit home when the #21toWatch awards ceremony – a large in-person event – had to move online.

I quickly realised, however, that there was only one thing to do when faced with carrying out all my networking online – embrace it. Looking at my LinkedIn activity in 2020, I can see that the platform acted like a diary, which is a big shift from how I used it in the past. And although we’ve all felt lonely over the past year, I’ve stayed connected through LinkedIn and Lunchclub, which uses AI to match people with similar interests for one-to-one video calls.

Open up your (virtual) office each month

Talk Funding with Faye is a regular slot in which I make myself available to meet anyone with ideas to discuss, on the last Wednesday of every month. I shamelessly pinched this initiative from cofinitive’s monthly Communications Clinic, because it’s something that Faye Holland, the PR and communications company’s founder, does really well.

Faye connects business people across the east of England through her extensive network, so #21toWatch, which highlights outstanding SMEs, is an excellent yardstick of the talent in the region, as well as a great way to celebrate its success.

Since creating my own slot, I’ve met the founders of exciting start-ups and scale-ups from across the UK. Sparing the time to answer questions, provide guidance on funding and connect with other people is rewarding in itself, but you also get back what you give.

Meet new people at least once a week

When the business world moved online, I committed to meeting at least one new person each week. Now, I’m meeting many more than that. Making these connections is essential for my role, but during the flurry of activity that surrounds each deal, it’s easy to forget just how important it is.

These efforts have enabled me to extend my network from Cambridge to cover the whole of eastern England, as well as helping me to re-establish links with former colleagues and friends who are much further afield. In 2020, some of the most interesting people I met crossed my path unexpectedly; in 2021, I’m looking forward to meeting them face-to-face.

Conclusion: networking is vital – it can help you to stay informed, make you more innovative and teach you new things. That’s another reason why BOOST&Co enjoys working with #21toWatch: its focus on innovation means that its award-winners, whatever market they’re in, often break the mould. Funding these types of firms is what we’re all about.

How we’ve coped – keep calm and carry on innovating

Creative thinking can get you out of a crisis

When a global crisis strikes, it may seem logical to stick to what works, but the past year has shown that innovation is more important than ever. The pandemic has accelerated the pace of the digital transformation that was already taking place, with the tech sector playing a key role in improving connectivity, communication and a sense of community for businesses and customers across the UK.

In unprecedented circumstances, a creative response is required, and the management teams that think differently are those that will drive the country’s economic recovery. The business community in the east of England values collaboration and innovation, as do BOOST&Co and the companies we fund. This is key to our partnership with #21toWatch, which places equal emphasis on these paths to success.

Watch out for the people doing great things

Cofinitive’s criteria for the #21toWatch awards prove that this is no ordinary event. Entrants – the region’s most ingenious people, companies and “things” – are assessed on five attributes: innovation, challenge, influence, viability and memorability. Watch out for the winners, who are due to be announced in early March.

Other tales of innovation helped me through the gloomy pre-Christmas period, when I judged the Rising Stars awards run by Tech Nation, which promotes growth in the tech sector by providing business leaders with the content, coaching and community they need. It was heartening to learn about early-stage firms that are disrupting funding and finance, supporting sustainability and the environment, contributing to digital transformation and working wonders in the topical area of health and wellbeing.

Collaboration, then, is the key to shared success. At BOOST&Co, this runs through everything we do, from our partnerships with innovative businesses to our valuable work with advisors and introducers. We also love teaming up with experts to share their insights, such as advice from James Sutcliffe, who established The Founding Network, on exchanging expertise with fellow business leaders, or the thoughts of Charles Towers-Clark, the chairman of Pod Group and author of The W.E.I.R.D. CEO, on how to lead in turbulent times.

Conclusion: innovation is still flourishing – and when the coronavirus restrictions are lifted, the entrepreneurial companies that continue to think creatively are likely to thrive. The sheer volume of nominations for #21toWatch and Rising Stars shows that the business community is still innovating, albeit at kitchen tables and in hastily equipped home offices across the UK.

How we’ve improved – educate, inform and expand

With the country’s SMEs continuing to innovate, BOOST&Co hasn’t rested on its laurels, either. Through our existing products – term loans, venture debt and invoice financing – and the government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), we are supporting more businesses than ever before.

We have recently funded companies including Total Processing, a Manchester-based payment processing firm that is taking on the major players in its market (and winning); the fast-growing spend-management experts Simfoni; Oxford’s cloud computing specialist Extrinsica Global; and Managed, a IT managed services provider that is revolutionising the way in which businesses handle their IT.

We are doing deals in an even wider variety of sectors, from maintenance to wealth management – and as businesses adapt to a post-Covid world, we want to help their leaders understand not just their funding options, but everything they can do to promote recovery and growth. Our insights cover everything from transforming your firm into a dream-team marketing machine (for free) to the key lessons we’ve learned from administering one of the government’s business-support schemes.

Of course, all of our deals have been done remotely over the past year, proving that connectivity and good communication can be maintained despite physical distance. This extends to the #21toWatch awards, which will attract a typically diverse group of companies, advisors, introducers, founders and funders to celebrate the local business community – and its strength in the face of adversity – on Thursday 4 March.

So, watch this space for more information on the winners, who will feature in the next episode of Jonny Gould’s SME Walkabout, and don’t miss the current episode of the podcast, in which I discuss the awards with Jonny. Even amid a pandemic, there is plenty of innovation, dedication and determination out there – and, together with #21toWatch, BOOST&Co will continue to celebrate and support it.

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