Growing your business

Spotlight On: Unique Business Ideas

13 June 2017
5 minute read

Emma Doyle

There are now more than 5.5 million small businesses in the UK, so the pool of competition out there is vast. Business owners need not only to think big, but to think unique too! These successful one-of-a-kind ideas can be hard to come by, but when they do it’s worth celebrating! That’s why this week we’ve spoken to a few of our favourite, most innovative and inspiring unique small businesses to find out more.

Ideas On Paper, Nottingham

Ideas On Paper - Unique Businesses

Retail entrepreneur Alex Smith, has been learning about shop keeping since he was 18. He was inspired by the independent shops in Nottingham’s Hockley area and so, after several years working in furniture and luxury fashion retail in the capital, he returned to his hometown to open his very own in 2014. This was Ideas on Paper.

Ideas on Paper is an independent magazine and bookstore, tucked into a top floor unit in Cobden Chambers, Nottingham. The shop hosts a curated selection of magazines and journals, books and stationery; all with one common theme: paper.

“There is no other shop in the country that has this combination of magazines and books,” says Alex, “especially arranged in such an eclectic way by someone who is so passionate about what he reads.”

And this passion is clear in every word he speaks of the business: “What would you do if you didn’t have to earn a living? I would do what I’m doing anyway, surrounded by things I love and chatting to these interesting people. I love what I do, the money is just a by-product of doing that.”

The selection in Ideas on Paper truly is vast, touching on topics from fashion, design and art, to business and politics, to culture, travel and food.

“I get inspiration for the collection from the people that come into the shop, every single day”, says Alex, “I follow various blogs and listen to Monocle radio too, but I believe the people’s advice is really worth having in the shop.”

Alex has also been inspired by Nottingham, and the way the city is developing into a far more “dynamic, exciting, and creative place to be”.

Advising small business owners, he says to “begin sooner rather than later. Start small, and start positive; but always allow for the fact that it might not work out and you do need to fine tune the way you do things. Just do it!

“You could be really passionate about an idea, but no one will really know until you start. There’s that Silicon Valley philosophy to fail fast, but what people often misinterpret is that the failing doesn’t lead straight to success. You have to learn too, and it’s about refining and adapting what you do.”

Check out Ideas on Paper on Instagram here, and find Alex’s features on Monocle Radio here too.

We Built This City, London

We Built This City Unique Business

Late in 2014, business owner Alice Mayor and her team of creatives set out on their mission to revolutionise London souvenirs with a pop-up store in Soho, London named We Built This City.

Their aim was to provide tourists and city dwellers alike with prints, souvenirs, and gifts that reflect the true creativity of the capital and – welcoming over 150,000 visitors in their first 8 weeks - that’s exactly what they’ve done!

"Improving London's souvenir offering couldn't have come at a better time in the wake of the Olympics, when the city also officially became the most visited city on the planet," says founder Alice, "people were arriving here in their droves and looking for a more creative and inspiring keepsake of the city."

Three years on and the shop now resides at a permanent site in Soho with a curated collection supporting over 250 London-based artists, designers, and makers. They ran an additional pop-up store in Camden over the Christmas period too.

"We undoubtedly owe our success to the extraordinary talents of our artist community and their work. We search high and low, from the internet to art fairs, markets and trade shows to curate a collection of work that showcases the very best of London's creativity - and that has had such an impact on our customers looking to take home a unique piece of the city. The artists' work is the very reason we exist and our business continues to thrive."

As well as selling their works, We Built This City also host creative workshops with their artists, and offer up their storefront as a canvas to them, switching up their paint job each season with a fresh featured design.

"What really keeps us standing out from the crowd is the combination of our artist-designed collection with the interactive store experience," she says. "We're dedicated to offering more than just a transaction; ensuring our customers get the chance to meet the artists behind our products, and that artists can meet and learn from their audiences."

It is these events have grown We Built This City into a space that radiates such creativity and charm, that wins over each and every visitor they have:

"When I need a burst of energy and ideas, I always head straight for the store itself. Too much time in the office creates a distance between what I'm doing day-to-day and what we as a team are trying to achieve in the longer-term. I love listening to customer's reactions in-store, hearing about their travels in London and talking to our shop team about their experiences and creative ideas too."

When it comes down to business, Alice has taken membership with two entrepreneur networks where she meets regularly with other start-up founders "to get to sound out ideas and get advice on some of the trickier aspects of running a business!"

Offering her advice to other individuals looking to pursue their unique business ideas, Alice says:

"Avoid 'overthinking' everything. There are so many decisions to make in those early days so it's natural to want to seek advice from others and do lots of research. However too much time spent thinking rather than 'doing' at this point can lead to self doubts and a more blurred vision that you started with.

"At We Built This City, we were given just over three weeks to take what was an idea on paper, into a two-floored shop on Carnaby Street! I had no time at all to make 'informed' decisions - I just had to use gut instinct and I learnt that it's the most useful and accurate tool you have in bringing your vision to life. Many of the decisions I made in those three weeks are still in the business today, from staff hires to interiors, stock purchases and company ethos. So cut out the noise, keep learning by doing and go with your gut!"

In 2015, We Built This City also won Best Shop in Soho and Best Independent Lifestyle Retailer. Take a look at their new online store, and follow them on Instagram here.

Celtic Renewables, Edinburgh

Celtic Renewables - Unique Businesses

With oil reserves decreasing and our transport emissions acting as a major source of pollution, it’s no secret that the world is in serious need of an alternative transport fuel for the future.

It’s an idea that may seem impossible to achieve, but founder of Celtic Renewables, Professor Martin Tangey and his team have developed an innovative way to aim for sustainability – using the by-products of the whiskey industry.

“As we are Scottish-based we looked at what was a reasonably plentiful and accessible substrate, and what’s more Scottish than whisky?” says Dr Eve Bird, Chief Scientific Officer at Celtic Renewables.

By adapting the traditional ABE fermentation process here and applying microbiology expertise, they’re creating high value sustainable biofuel from this excess product, known as pot ale and draff. This is not only great way to dispose of the waste of one of the UK’s largest and most iconic industries, but also an effective method of developing renewable energy production and targeting environmental sustainability and carbon reduction.

“We aren’t looking to replace petrol or diesel, because we simply couldn’t produce enough to replace. But we are looking to displace the volume consumed,” says Dr Bird. “Even 16% of fuel would have a massive impact, and producing it in a way that is at least economically comparable.”

A finalist at the European Business Awards for the Environment 2016 – 2017, Celtic Renewables also produce other sustainable chemicals such as acetone and ethanol, as well as high grade sustainable animal feed. It’s an incredibly promising product, and a business model with a huge capacity for growth.

“This is our exemplar plant and they are planning more in Scotland, but we are also looking at other countries which have whisky industries. We’re looking at our core process, which is obviously the most important part, but we are also looking to demonstrate this technology so we can say, ‘look, this is the blueprint, let’s take it everywhere, let’s make it five times the size’.”

Find out more about Celtic Renewables and their sustainable research here.

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