Local Business Accelerators: Diss couple win business help thanks to a little big-sky thinking

Local Business Accelerator Dragons Den event at the start up lounge. Mark Ford of Big Skies Food Com

Local Business Accelerator Dragons Den event at the start up lounge. Mark Ford of Big Skies Food Company.Photo: Steve Adams

When Mark Ford and Zoe Denham's teenage son Sam was seriously injured in a sporting accident and only able to eat through a nose tube, his mother promised that one day she would make him a pie from under the big skies of Norfolk.

That pledge turned into a business idea, and now the couple from Diss are hoping to take the venture to the next level after being selected as Norfolk winners of the Local Business Accelerators (LBA) competition - winning a year's worth of advertising support from Archant, publishers of the EDP, as well as mentoring from NWES and a year's free membership to the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce.

The business beat off stiff competition from seven other finalists from across Norfolk at a special Dragon's Den style event at City College Norwich's Start-Up loung to secure the prize after impressing judges with their plans to develop their business - Big Skies Food Company.

And now they have the chance to win a place in the national LBA final and with it a year's worth of free mentoring support from Dragon's Den star Deborah Meaden as well prize offerings from BT, the CBI, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England Wales and £10,000 cash sum from the Business Growth Fund for the overall winner.

The pair produce 1200 premium quality sausage rolls and pies a month, using locally sourced produce from Blythburgh Free Range Pork, Waveney Valley Beef, plus onions, carrots, potatoes and free range eggs from local suppliers. But while they have a stall at Diss market, the next stage for the business is to find a commercial kitchen to move into and reach a wider customer base.

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And while the couple have built up a strong presence for their brand on social media, Mr Ford, 45, who left home at 7am braving the winter weather to get to the final, said advertising would help fulfil a business plan to create a region brand, while winning the whole competition would help give the company a national presence.

'We launched the business in June 2011 and started at Diss Market and we have been trading there ever since,' he said. 'Up until now we have used Twitter to promote our business. We have 3,500 followers most of whom are local.

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'The biggest challenge for us is growing pains - we need to find larger premises as we can't wholesale meat products from home, we've got to have a commercial kitchen,' he added. 'We are looking to double production and already have some outlets that want to take our products.

'Winning would help us introduce our products to consumers that we have seen at our stall but we are not reaching via social media, and the mentoring would help us build our brand and find new customers.'

Caroline Williams, chief executive of Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, and one of the three judges, said: 'It shows that Norfolk has got some great new businesses coming through. They have all got a great future and we all felt there were areas we could support them with, whether they won or not.'

Fellow judge Kevin Horne, chief executive of NWES, said: 'The entrants were typical of Norfolk with a huge amount of diversity, but each one had the same passion to start their own business to make it a success.

'We felt Big Skies Company would really benefit from the support we could offer to take them to the next stage.'

Now in its second year, the LBA initiative, aims to highlight how local newspapers can assist businesses in achieving their growth objectives. Organised by the Newspaper Society, the industry body for the local and regional media, and sponsored by Business In You, a government initiative to encourage more people to start a business, it offers businesses between one and five years old the chance to win a free advertising campaign in their local newspaper plus mentoring support from local business experts.

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