Andi Best Freelance Designer

Andi Best inducted into Theo Paphitis' #SBS entrepreneur network


  • Published 01-03-2022
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Andi Best inducted into Theo Paphitis' #SBS entrepreneur network
It was early. Too early. Normally when I'm awake at this hour it's because a party of strident foxes are performing gymnastics on the bins outside or because my sleeping infant's foot has found its way unceremoniously into my face.
But on this particular morning my desperately needed slumber was precluded by a journey 170 miles north so that I may be presented with a certificate by none other than Theo Paphitis.
You see, Theo likes me and he likes my business. He told me so, on Twitter back in September 2021. He told me he liked my business so much that he would happily induct me into his professional network of small business entrepreneurs (population 3500 at the time of writing), and that if I wanted to, I could pop along to a modest little get together he was hosting in Birmingham's International Conference Centre and meet him.
So that's exactly what I did.
It was my first time attending the annual #SBS Event (and indeed the city of Birmingham) and my expectations were formed from a patchwork of accounts offered by former attendees and my own previous experiences at networking events and award ceremonies. What follows is an overview of my time at the event which I hope serves as guidance for future debut attendees who are unsure of just what happens once you've been inducted into the #SBS network.
Let's return to that horrifically early morning start, fumbling in the dark with shirt buttons and suitcase. I was hitching a lift with my good friend and fellow #SBS winner Andy (not to be confused with me, Andi) and being as we had quite a distance to cover we were setting off with the hues of sunrise still overhead.
Traffic was in our favour and extensive, long overdue chit-chatting (thanks lockdowns) made for a most favourable journey, getting us to the venue only one hour after the event's commencement (and into the most musical car park I've ever encountered).
If I were to repeat this pilgrimage at a future #SBS event I'd opt to do so with a hotel and a night's sleep waiting for me at the other end, instead of jumping directly into proceedings, as on reflection I could have done with higher energy levels throughout the day. We live and learn.
Moving through the bowels of the ICC we presented our Covid-free status documentation - the GOV email confirmation of a negative LFT result - to venue staff who in turn branded us with wristbands marking our clean health. We were pointed towards the (free) cloakroom to deposit our coats and suitcases as we'd not had a chance to visit the hotel yet, nor was it available for check-in until much later in the day.
Unburdened by luggage we ascended the escalators up to the main conference space where we registered our entry and collected our programmes and lanyards.
The main hall was dark, with a charged atmosphere and swell of noise. The room was teeming with #SBS winners - some dressed as smart as can be fathomed, others in their casual-style branded workwear. I'm not sure an official attendance figure was disclosed but there were easily 1000 people there.
The darkness was afforded by dramatic purple lighting that was smothering the blue and orange branding all around the space. It struck me as an odd decision, particularly as it made some of the key details harder to decipher, like the colour-coded balloon system used to denote congregation areas for businesses of similar industries, or the break-out spaces up on the balconies which remained so dark it was though nothing were up there but mops and buckets.
To dispel the weird nightclub vibe we headed directly to the refreshments stand and got as much caffeine into our bodies as the waitstaff would allow. Standing under cascades of rich violet and grave baselines whilst holding a mug of tea is definitely a mindset adjuster. Though between bouts of pulsing music a string quartet positioned by the entrance would strike up with renditions of various pop songs, which suddenly made tea-drinking a little more acceptable.
The sponsors of the event each had a stand around the perimeter and in front of those were tables with the remnants of what might have been a continental breakfast buffet that we missed through tardiness. A solitary tray exhausted of almost all its muffins remained in the centre and all around it people had decanted their various promotional ephemera. I reached into my pocket, pulled out a healthy wodge of business cards and dropped them directly onto the actual muffins, thinking they were less likely to get ignored that way. I'm sure the phone will ring any moment now...
Before long the PA system beckoned us to take our seats as the stage was to receive its first speaker; CE of the Theo Paphitis retail group Kypros Kyprianou. Crowd-pleasing, COVID-bashing and joke-ladling, he suitably warmed the audience for the main speaker of the day, Theo Paphitis. Mr P walked out to rapturous applause and dazzled us with an array of videos, slides and pep. He spoke of his theme for the day - optimism - framed around what he perceived to be the diminishment of COVID as per a room as full as this being testament to the spirit of small business perseverance against recent poor odds.
He shouted down imposter syndrome. He told us all to stop panicking. He demanded that we remain optimistic.
Andi Best inducted into Theo Paphitis' #SBS entrepreneur network
He talked briefly about the #SBS community and it's more colourful statistics; did you know that of all the applicants hoping their business qualifies to join the network only 0.8% are successful?
He then moved on to the future of the network, sharing insights into upcoming benefits, competitions and improvements to the digital infrastructure.
By the end we were thoroughly dialled in and eager to hear from the next speaker Rachel Watkyn, the owner of Tiny Box Company Ltd. For me, Rachel was the most entertaining speaker of the day and her journey to success was most relatable. From her spontaneous beginnings, to her calamitous setbacks, to her upward trend of expansion, hers was a story I'd happily listen to again.
To ensure no upholstery got ruined and that Theo got his deposit back from the venue, a comfort break was next on the bill, which despite the gallons of Twinings I didn't utilise. In fact, I actually went on the hunt for more tea, feeling the early onset of fatigue in the dimly lit space. Imagine my incandesce when the waitstaff who had formerly and happily topped up my mug were now embargoing the beverages from all but Gold Badge members! Eh? Membership? To a one-day table of hot drinks? They'd certainly been taking notes during Theo's talk on optimism.
Debbie Lewis from NatWest was up next and she threatened us all with audience participation trust exercises, which thankfully turned out to be a ruse to illustrate a point about irrational fear. Her presentation was on 'positive mindset' and how we can condition ourselves to overcome things like imposter syndrome, and how NatWest have developed a few schemes and sessions for personal mentoring on the topic.
Desolate muffin trays now boasted sandwiches, pasta, finger foods, cakes and fruit skewers, as the lunch hour took hold. Buffet style food meant buffet style seating - roaming peripatetically around the place with a plate under chin. It was a networking opportunity of sorts, and a chance to take a look at the interactive entertainment and activities that had been laid on, including capturing yourself on a 360 camera video recording broadcast to social media. It also afforded me the chance to bump into some of the other winners with whom I regularly chat with on Twitter - genuinely friendly people. It was a shame to miss bumping into some of the others, but at the capacity it was hardly surprising that they went undetected.
Watered and fed we took up seats once again an hour later for the star attraction on the agenda - a fire-side chat between Theo and Dragon's Den successor, special guest Touker Suleyman. The pair of seasoned investors made quite the double act; sat in winged leather chairs and sharing tales from their past, spinning great yarns about their paths to success. Touker, on multiple occasions, talked himself desultorily onto thin ice by inadvertently remonstrating the industries of some of the event's sponsors as well as nearly disclosing insider information about the BBC, causing Theo to desperately yank him back and salvage the segment.
Like all sessions today this one concluded with an invitation for audience Q&A, and like those sessions before it, it would present a piercing dichotomy. On the one hand, we thousand business owners had just spent the day hearing reinforcement for the need to celebrate our businesses at every opportunity; that we are survivors, optimists and a privileged few who have Theo's backing. On the other hand, the unravelling of Theo's nerves was palpable with each new occupant of the microphone who meandered through a concoction of waffling, grandstanding, slogans, gushing and free gift dispersal. Were it not for the more structured and poignant questions among the crop the man could well have blown his top like an agitated school teacher. These were certainly the most uncomfortable moments for me of the day, and I'm sure I'm not alone in my feeling there.
Theo then delivered his outro to the room which concluded the stage-set aspects of the programme. What remained was for the first-time attendees to form an exceptionally long queue (COVID had prevented the #SBS event from taking place last year) to join Theo for individual photoshoots as part of the certificate collection process. I, feeling the weight of the long day, butted up against a tiring half term holiday and predominantly fuelled on a diet of teabags, was more than a little weary for a decent photograph but I persisted all the same. Ever the professional Theo kept up a broad grin throughout (about 350 snaps) and certainly proved to be the more photogenic of our pairing. I'm very proud to have shared a platform with the man and very honoured to have been inducted into the scheme that he devised and generously devotes time to.
Because he doesn't have to.
As someone with such a high demand for his time he could easily remain insular and focused on his own commitments, and yet, his self-professed passion for small business compels him to keep the #SBS scheme alive; into its eleventh year no less. It's admirable, to say the least.
Armed with my certificate and goody-bag brimming with freebies care of the event sponsors, it was time to make the short walk to the hotel to deposit my belongings and then delve into the finest dining and drinks Birmingham had to offer with some fellow winners. Again, energy levels were all but depleted at this point so in terms of raucousness the evening erred on the tamer side, but the rest on the Premier Inn pillow was well earned all the same.
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