Google's Digital Garage helps turn business ideas into reality for Sheffield residents

Alison McHale has used advice from the Digital Garage to help sell her pottery aprons online.
Alison McHale has used advice from the Digital Garage to help sell her pottery aprons online.

Google opened its Digital Garage in Sheffield with the aim of filling the digital skills gap that exists in the city.

The problem is a key topic of conversation among business leaders, with an increase in digital jobs offset by a lack of people to fill them.

Google is targeting established companies with the Digital Garage. But it is also trying to encourage anyone with a bright idea to take the first steps into the world of business.

The free training centre, which is based off Barker's Pool, is open seven days a week. Google's 'technicians' - young, friendly digital experts - are ready to welcome anyone, regardless of experience or ambition.

One of those to wander in full of curiosity was Alison McHale. The former Sheffield Hallam University lecturer retired in May after a health scare, which pushed her towards a change.

She took pottery classes while undergoing rehabilitation following open heart surgery, and made herself an apron. Pleased with the result, Alison decided to make a few more - and began to think about selling them online.

Some of the experts from Google's Digital Garage team in Sheffield.

Some of the experts from Google's Digital Garage team in Sheffield.

She spotted the Digital Garage and wondered what help was available.

"I just walked in and met some of the trainers," she said.

"I was given information, encouragement and clear next steps. It was rationalising and helping see your potential that you didn’t realise that you had - that you could do website reports, for example.

"I had never heard of Google Analytics."

The Digital Garage gives free advice every day.

The Digital Garage gives free advice every day.

Alison had a decent grasp of the web, but had no experience setting up a website - or running her own business.

The Digital Garage runs a range of workshops and one-to-one sessions, many of which focus on encouraging entrepreneurship and enterprise. And it was at one of these that Alison really began to make progress.

"I came in to an opportunities workshop," she said.

"I have reasonable digital literacy but I was looking to expand it, with all these systems and platforms that speak to each other. So I now have a web presence I’m comfortable with and in control of.

"I’ve done a ‘build a website’ workshop and have set up www.alimacdesigns.co.uk.

"I’m building that up, getting images on. I will come back for one-to-one mentoring to understand how I can maximise that."

It's still early days for Alison, and she is not far removed from her time on the Chesterton Unit at Northern General Hospital - where she described her care as 'absolutely outstanding'.

But she is excited about what lies ahead.

"I’ve never run a business before. Through my job at the university I administer and support students to go out and do their own thing - and now it’s my time," she said.

"I love being taught things. Teachers are always learning new things themselves. I find it invigorating and revitalising.

"As you are getting to the retirement stage it’s very easy to become swept up along by other people’s interests. You have got to look after grandchildren. But actually I have got quite a lot of life yet."

Years ago word of mouth might have been enough to get a business off the ground. But in the digital age where companies advertise all over social media, knowledge of the online world is essential.

It's for that reason that Franchette Wan visited the Digital Garage.

The 35-year-old is originally from Mauritius but now lives in Fox Hill. She practices massage and beauty, along with therapy based on 'access bars' - which focuses on 32 points on the head which, it is claimed, release energy when touched.

Franchette has been working with friends and relatives but wants to expand her business.

"I want to brush up my skills and become a bit more visible online," she said.

"I want to get out and grow the business by getting more presence online. I will need a website to explain all the treatments.

"I have been on the building my website course. I have been looking at it and just need a one-to-one session with a mentor to sort it out."

Franchette has a Facebook page, www.facebook.com/belledefleurbeauty, but with the help of the Digital Garage is learning how to better promote her business - and analyse the traffic she gets.

She credits the garage technicians for helping her grasp the concepts.

Franchette said: "It’s very helpful and very welcoming. You are at ease and just step through the door and it’s very friendly. Everyone is very enthusiastic.

"They made it quite easy for me and the advice is very clear. There’s not a lot of jargon.

"Without this it probably would have taken a long time."

Google's Digital Garage is giving free advice and training in Sheffield for six months. Find it off Barker's Pool, open 10am to 6pm Monday to Saturday and 11am to 4pm Sunday.