After years of partnership in Bristol and around the UK, NatWest and Entrepreneurial Spark have split and are now offering different support for startups. Confused? Many are, so we grabbed Matt West, Entrepreneur Development Manager at NatWest, to explain it all.

Hi Matt, thanks for sitting down with us today! First of all, tell us a little about the background of Entrepreneurial Spark and NatWest’s history?

NatWest partnered with Entrepreneurial Spark in late 2014,  and since then we created the world’s largest free business accelerator, with a real focus on supporting the person behind the business over the product or service that they’ll be offering. We ensured that people didn’t have to bank with us or pay for any of the services provided: we don’t take equity, there are no hidden T&Cs, and our focus was always on developing the person.

During this time, NatWest supported Entrepreneurial Spark from being a Scottish-based enterprise to having 12 hubs across all four nations in the UK. Companies that have been supported by the partnership have generated £650m in turnover, received £250m in investment, created 8000 jobs, and enjoyed an 87% first-year survival rate, far above the average.

What success stories can you tell us about?

One of the most well-known ones is This Mum Runs. Its founder Mel Bound used to have a marketing job in the City and was a keen runner, and after starting a family found that her passion for exercise had fallen by the wayside. She put up a post on Facebook about her desire to run while caring for young children, and the next morning 70 women turned up to join her on a run! Mel quickly realised there was something in this, and launched This Mum Runs, which is now a community of over 20,000 mums encouraged to put their running shoes on, and get running – from absolute novices to 10Ks.

Mel raised finance through crowdfunding and launched an ecommerce store, won Female Entrepreneur of the Year in 2016 by Enterprise Nation, won awards from the Bristol Post, been a key part of Facebook’s ‘She Means Business’ campaign and is in the process of raising more investment right now.

Another fantastic success story is Rovco: Brian Alan set the business up and came to us with his vision. After working with our coaches, his vision changed from a simple contracting business to one that has huge growth potential. He has almost ten people working with him now, is about to successfully close his second funding round, and has been nominated for innovation awards for what he has created.

So what has changed: why is Entrepreneurial Spark no longer ‘powered by NatWest’?

There was no falling out or argument – it just became clear that Entrepreneurial Spark and NatWest have slightly different visions for the kind of support that they want to offer, and so we’re going to different directions to offer even more choice for entrepreneurs. At NatWest, we’re committed to the accelerator model, so we’ve brought that expertise and knowledge in-house to become the NatWest Entrepreneur Accelerator Programme!

This is divided into two programmes: the Pre-Accelerator, which is aimed very much at concept-based ideas, the visionary process, early stage of turnover, people who want to put initial ideas in place. After that comes the Accelerator.

Why two programmes, why not just one Accelerator course?

The Pre-Accelerator course is a short, three month long digital online training course which people can do from anywhere in the UK, which makes it much more accessible. The community aspect is really important for what we do, so we always look for around 50 businesses or individuals to become their own virtual hub within a city or town, but they don’t need any physical office space.

The Accelerator course is built around three pillars: Environment,  Coaching, and Network.  Environment refers to the fully funded office space, WiFi, printing, and presentation space we provide for Bristol entrepreneurs. As a result, the hubs create a community of like-minded individuals, giving entrepreneurs the opportunity to benefit from peer to peer networks, the chance to bounce ideas off each other – potentially the most priceless part of what we do. Coaching offers training, insight, and an acceleration manager to hold them to account, challenge them, and push them outside their comfort zones. Lastly, Network refers to the connectivity that NatWest is able to provide to fledgling business owners- people in local ecosystems, investors, local and national businesses, successful entrepreneurs. This gives them access to the knowledge, experience, and connections to help you grow your business. Whether you want to grow your Twitter community or establish a board of non-executives, we’ll find someone to help – and if we don’t know someone, there’ll be a connection who does.

This sounds like a big undertaking for NatWest – why continue to invest in entrepreneurs?

We’re the UK’s largest lender to SMEs already, and this enables us to go above and beyond just lending money. We understand that helping businesses succeed is crucial for a strong local and national economy.

What does this mean for entrepreneurs?

Instead of jumping straight into an accelerator, there’s the chance for foundational training – and the entire process focuses on developing them as people. With the clout of NatWest behind you, entrepreneurs may also find it easier to move into investment rounds.

So for those readers who are interested in entering either of NatWest’s accelerator programmes, what is the new application process?

The application process is pretty much the same! There’s an online application form which takes around an hour to complete, and if you’re successful, you’ll have an eight-minute interview in which to impress. We’re looking for great people, not just great business ideas. We’re sector and industry agnostic and work with businesses that are still nuggets of ideas to companies already enjoying £3-4m turnover.

We’re looking for the potential for growth: growth as a person, as a business leader, to professionalise, to grow headcount or investment, or anything! October is our next intake and applications open in the summer, so keep an eye out!

You can learn more about NatWest’s Accelerator Programme here.