Business grants are an excellent way for startups and small businesses to secure much-needed funding. They are offered by governments and private organizations, but securing the capital is challenging. Application processes are complex; some funders set strict terms and conditions around how the money can be used, and the time and effort to apply for them can be demanding.
Jeroo Doodhmal founded her U.K.-based children’s shoe business, Pip & Henry, in 2020. Driven by a passion for the environment, the shoes are responsibly produced and made from sustainable materials such as organic cotton, pineapple leaf fiber and recycled rubber.
Like many entrepreneurs, she completely self-funded the startup. However, in the last couple of years, alongside business loans and equity funding, she has secured more than £350,000 in grant funding from organizations such as Innovate UK, eBay Circular Fashion Fund, John Lewis Circular Future Fund, and LSE Generate. Here she shares her secrets of success in the grant funding stakes.
Alison Coleman: What’s the best way to track which business grants are available?
Jeroo Doodhmal: Several grants are available to small businesses, each with different criteria related to a specific business problem, sector or location, as well as the size or maturity of the company. You have to do the legwork yourself, for example, connecting with individuals who work at funding agencies on LinkedIn and subscribing to newsletters from industry bodies and grant writing consultancies to get notifications about the larger grants from bodies such as Innovate UK. Setting up Google Alerts for relevant topics keeps you updated in real-time. Where possible, it’s also worth checking out the directories of current and upcoming grants from funding organizations.
Coleman: What was your first grant funding success, who was it from, and what did you use it for?
Doodhmal: Early in our startup journey, we won a few small grants, between £5,000 and £10,000, from MSDUK and LSE Generate. While I was bootstrapping the business, this helped to fund the development and design of our product range and the manufacture of our first few prototypes to test and soft launch with consumers.
Some grants offer a wide range for you to choose from, for example, between £150,000 and £500,000. It’s tempting to go high, but be realistic about your needs, given your business’s stage and plans. You will be asked to provide detailed forecasts and breakdowns of how you plan to use the funds and what milestones you hope to achieve each quarter. Prepare accordingly. Be authentic to yourself and your startup goals.
Coleman: Last year, you won the John Lewis Circular Future Fund award, which granted you £250,000 in grant funding. How challenging was that process, and what did you use the money for?
Doodhmal: It was a fairly lengthy process. I had to submit a written proposal outlining what I wanted the funding for, including video explainers. Shortlisted candidates were asked to provide further information, including detailed budget forecasts, timelines, risk mitigation plans etc. Finally, we were invited into the John Lewis offices to present in front of a panel of experts, some from within John Lewis and others working in the field of sustainability. From there, the winners were selected.
We are designing shoes that can disassemble more cleanly and grow with a child’s foot. This reduces the frequency with which kids’ shoes need to be sized up and allows for true end-of-life circularity. This grant helped kick-start that R&D journey, enabling us to work with specialist labs, designers, materials specialists and manufacturers to develop these much-needed solutions, something that startups of our size couldn’t fund themselves.
Coleman: How much funding have you had in total, and how much impact has it had on your business – what has it enabled you to do?
Doodhmal: We’ve won almost £400,000 in grant funding, and around 90% of it has been invested in our R&D work. While we’re still a distance away from releasing the outputs of this, we’ve made significant progress and feel confident of creating a genuinely game-changing solution for the children’s footwear market that will have a lasting impact on reducing the amount of waste generated by the footwear industry.
Coleman: What have been the most significant lessons learned in becoming successful at securing grant funding?
Doodhmal: Since winning the John Lewis Circular Future Fund, we’ve won several other significant grant awards, including from Innovate UK, eBay Circular Fashion Innovators Fund etc., and there are four essential learnings:
- Winning grant funding is not easy. We were one of four winners of the John Lewis grant out of around 250 applicants. The odds are often significantly lower with some of the popular Innovate UK grants. But don’t give up! I made three unsuccessful applications to Innovate UK before I was successful on my fourth, so listen to the feedback that you get, iterate your answers and apply again. In other words, keep learning.
- Set aside a reasonable amount of time to write your application. Each fund will emphasize different nuances of your business, i.e., commercials, your R&D journey, ethos and mission. Read through the goals and criteria carefully and directly answer questions around these, always providing data and stats to back up your assertions and claims. And never ‘copy and paste’ answers between different application forms. Be clear about your and your team’s experience and achievements. Leverage social proof; what other awards have you won? What do your customers or industry experts say about your business? If there is an option to submit a video, do it.
- You might be tempted to get a grant writer to help with some of the bigger awards. While they’re great for advising on formats and requirements, which can be helpful, if you’re new to grant writing, take the time to write the application yourself. No one can explain your business or convey your passion better than you.
Coleman: Seeking grant funding is challenging. What’s your advice to other founders just starting on their business journey?
Doodhmal: Applying for grant funding can sometimes feel like a dark art. It’s hard to discover what’s out there, read through the eligibility criteria, and then go through the laborious process of applying with low odds of success. Because the day-to-day running of your business can be so all-consuming, it is easy to be put off from investigating the space. I would advise identifying the niche where funding will impact your business most and focusing on finding and applying for the awards most relevant to those goals.