Interview: Small Business Saturday is coming to a town near you, says campaign director Michelle Ovens » SMEInsider

Interview: Small Business Saturday is coming to a town near you, says campaign director Michelle Ovens

Over the past two years, Small Business Saturday has become synonymous with entrepreneurship, community spirit and celebrating the hard work work of small business owners nationwide.

Last year the event got 17 million to come out in support of their local business, with 64 per cent of the UK aware of the 2014 campaign.

This year the team behind it all intends to go one step further and get the whole country supporting their cause.

The event has gained an incredible amount of support from politicians, with minister for small business Anna Soubry lauding it as ‘‘an opportunity to come together as one nation and get behind the small businesses which form the backbone of our economy and employ 12 million people across the UK.’’

I spoke to Michelle Ovens, campaign director of Small Business Saturday. This summer Michelle was awarded an MBE for services to enterprise in the Queen’s birthday honours.

We discussed why it’s so important to shop local, the differences between large and small firms, women in business and why digital is the key to keeping startups alive.


Working hard to raise awareness

When I started speaking to Michelle, I immediately picked up the excitement in her voice. Small Business Saturday is nearly two months away and she has been working hard to make sure that the day is a success.

I immediately got down to asking her about what the event really stands for: ”What we are is a great big PR and marketing campaign for small businesses who can’t afford to do it themselves, said the national campaign director.”

Small business Saturday is not just one event – It’s many, many many events throughout the UK,” continued Michelle.

The biggest event we are putting on is our bus tour which is happening throughout November. We’re travelling to small businesses up and down the UK, from John O’Groats to Lands’ End – a total of 29 stops in 27 days.

During this time we’ll be giving loads of help and advice to lots of small business, holding workshops and giving out free marketing packs to help small business show their support.”

We then got talking about the day itself, and what people up and down the country will be doing:

On the day itself all kinds of things are happening. We’ll be in small businesses, town centres, local authorities and trade organisations, as well as operating online.”

Building on experience

Michelle quickly pointed me to the Small Business Finder, a feature on the events website Just type in your address and you get to see what’s happening around you on the 5th. Once I found out what was happening in my area (there are 25 small businesses supporting the event where I live), we soon moved on to what inspired her to start the campaign:

When I started small business Saturday, I had been running my own SME for about six or seven years, so I was well aware of the challenges that small businesses go through,” explained Ovens.

Small businesses do a lot of great things for the local community and the economy, so they should all be celebrated more as they can get a bad rep from the press at times.”

The campaign in the United States (which started three years before the UK version) is really doing a great job, so we should be celebrating SME’s here. There are over five million in the UK and we all know someone that owns or works in one.”

Even the people on my team have their own small businesses, so we are really part of the community.”


Running a small business is like Cheers – everyone knows your name

The event is doing great things for small businesses, particularly ones that struggle against the might of larger firms, so I was keen to ask Michelle why people should shop local:

First of all, we never say anything about big business – the world needs everything. But there are things that you can get in small businesses that you just can’t get in large ones, one of the biggest things being a community,” stated Ovens.

Running a small business is like Cheers – everyone knows your name and there is a real value to that. We know first-hand that SMEs with a strong relationship with the local community tend to do really well.”

One of the great things about small businesses is that they are also giving back to the local community.

Take Old Spike Roastery for example. This small coffee business in Peckham also acts a social enterprise as it employs homeless people to work as barista’s. Not only that, the business also helps their homeless staff get back on their feet by helping them secure a bank account and somewhere to live.

This year they are part of Small Biz 100, a cause which puts the spotlight on 100 small firms that can’t afford their own publicity. Michelle is incredibly proud of this initiative as it puts a spotlight on small businesses:

The great thing for us is that we meet these incredible people. These are not run-of-the-mill people with run-of-the-mill stories. They are incredible people doing incredible things and I think it makes the local community so much richer because of it,” beamed Ovens.

If you look at companies like Southsea Bathing Hut, Old Spike Roastery and Happus, they will grow out of these local communities and have an impact across the UK. This is definitely something that needs to be celebrated.”

small business saturday bus tour

Digital is the key to small business success

I soon moved on to the problems that are plaguing small British businesses, including one stat that constantly hangs over the head of SME owners – half of UK start-ups fail within five years. I asked Michelle why she thinks this is happening, but immediately her positivity shone through in her response:

We shouldn’t talk about why businesses fail; we should talk about how they can better succeed. It is so tough for small business owners, most of them are a one man band – they do everything themselves!”

I could tell that this was an issues that Michelle had been thinking about for a while, as she almost immediately highlighted digital as a way in which small businesses can improve their success rate:

Digital engagement within small businesses is very low at the moment compared to Europe, but the UK as a whole has really high digital engagement. The problem is that some small business owners view digital as a competitor as opposed to an opportunity, and some are just too afraid to get to grips with it,” Ovens expalined.

Small businesses owners should be viewing digital for what it is – a free marketing tool. They can use it to get in touch with the local community, to get new customers and to explain what they actually do. There is a lot of activity trying to increase digital engagement for small businesses. I think SMEs are moving in the right direction with this, but more can be done.”


Women are small business superstars

The question I ask to many small business experts is ‘Do you think there are enough women in business?’

The answer I get from many is ‘No’, but Small Business Saturday is getting rid of this misconception:

The interesting thing is that Small Business Saturday has slightly more women than men. With Small Biz 100, we had many more applications from women than we had from men,” said Michelle proudly.

We’ve got a lot of women who own small businesses that are starting their second career – they might have stopped working to have kids, they want to have flexible hours or start a completely new career.”

Women are leading in all fields, from web designers to personal trainers, designers, artists, childcare businesses and so many more sectors. We should be encouraging more women to become entrepreneurs but we should also celebrate the ones we’ve already got.”


100% engagement

Small Business Saturday is in its third year, but Michelle already has some great plans for the future. Reflecting on the huge success of the campaign so far, Michelle wants to push on and grab the attention of the whole nation:

I’m astounded by how far we’ve come in the first three years of Small Business Saturday.”

Michelle went on to explain that 70 per cent of all local councils in the UK are planning to support the event, with the campaign director hoping that the number will be higher by the time December 5th rolls around:

We want to continue our success by gaining 100 per cent awareness in local councils, but we want people to go further than just being aware, we want people to participate.”

My team and I always talk about Small Business Saturday not being just one day. Really December 5th is just a moment of celebration and discovery, where you find small businesses that you can support all year round. In the future we want Small Business Saturday to be a staple on everyone’s calendar.”

From November Michelle will be travelling up and down the country with the Small Business Saturday tour bus, promoting SMEs across the UK. On December 5th she’ll be with her team and the British media at the Salieri on the Strand. If you can, head down to your local participating business and help raise awareness of the work SMEs are doing.