W.C. Fields once suggested that working with children or animals is an experience best avoided. To her benefit, Shannon McNab has long since chosen to ignore this advice.
A native Canadian, Shannon travelled a long and winding road, which included work and study in the USA and Taiwan, before it delivered her to the UK. After years spent as a "starving artist" and performing in shows for kids, she set up her childrenís entertainment business, Simply Smiley Productions, in 2005. She has been generating hilarity and happiness around London, and beyond, ever since.
"I had become a nanny to pay the rent," Shannon recalls before opening her own small business. "I recognised that a lot of families needed help entertaining their kids, and thatís how the idea arose -- it just developed from there."
As the owner, director, and creative brains behind the company, Shannon (or Princess JoJo, as sheís often known when performing) started the company as a home business, then managed to get some friends on board. They soon found their initial customers kept coming back for more.
"What we do is a mixture of teaching and entertaining -- 'edutainment' is our niche market," she explains. "Our main focus is bringing the magic of theatre to children. Lots of them have never been to the theatre, so we go out to schools, put on shows, and do tours -- and we get the kids involved, itís got be interactive."
Thereís an element of philanthropy in the ventureís services for schools, which are partly inspired by a desire to help children enjoy new experiences and learn to express themselves. However, itís a business, too, and the company has found success through a variety of work streams that include parties, workshops, on-board entertainment for international ferry companies, and special events for corporate clients like The Bank of England (Mervyn King is an established, enthusiastic customer whose employed Simply Smileyís pantomime talents on several occasions.)
Like any commercial undertaking, there are peaks and troughs. For Shannon, there came a point when business development was both desired and necessary, but needed government assistance to do so.
"I wanted to expand the company, but I had loads of personal debt," comments Shannon, candidly. "Iíd always funded things from my own pocket, but costs had increased, and it had been slower on the business side -- we had very incremental growth. We wanted to do a new show, but were at a bit of a standstill and despite plenty of work -- interest rates were killing me. Our website looked a bit tired, too."
Determined to freshen things up, Shannon looked into business funding possibilities. She first approached her bank, Barclays, but to no avail (they cited the fact that Shannonís work was 'seasonal,' to her amused exasperation.) However, shortly afterwards she talked to the Lambeth Business Desk and GLE (Greater London Enterprise), and things soon started to look up.
They recognised that I was a woman running my own business, living and working in the local borough, so I might be eligible for help," Shannon remembers. "I worked with Liam, a business champion with 40 years' experience who deserves a gold star! I hadnít done proper business accounts before, so he was great for that -- future projections and things which were completely new to me. He helped me fill out the loan application, too," she proclaimed
Continuing, Shannon stated, "The thing is, small businesses often donít fit the criteria for banks, which makes it very difficult for us. But in accessing public funds, you can get someone whoís really on your side, and thatís crucial. I think local funding is best, rather than lots of these overblown national funding schemes."
The loan application process, which included a full mapping out of uses for the potential government money, was a long one in Shannonís memory, taking five months to process before reaching crunch time. That arrived in the form of an interview panel, but Shannon recalls it with typical mirth, with the late arrival of one member boosting her confidence.
Sure enough, her efforts were successful and the result was a government loan of £15,000. The business financing was invested in three different ways within the business.
Firstly, the website and IT systems were upgraded and updated.
Secondly, it helped to consolidate Shannonís personal debt.
Thirdly, having once thought that sheíd have to revamp an old show from a previous year, Shannon was instead able to create a brand new production, complete with dedicated marketing and branding.
In short, the financial assistance was of huge benefit to Simply Smiley Productions -- and their delighted audiences. Itís a journey that has left Shannon keen to impart any insights she can that might help fellow entrepreneurs.
"You need to be prepared to open up your books -- so if you do dodgy business, donít bother," she jokes. "Look, perhaps it can be too much hassle, seeking funding. But if you can jump through the hoops and spare the time -- itís faster to go to loan sharks, by the way -- go for it! It isnít easy, and nor should it be, itís public funds after all. I feel very fortunate that they gave it to me."
She has words of practical advice too: "Iíd recommend finding funding in your local neighbourhood. Strike up a conversation with your local business desk and, if you find someone thatís interested in helping you, thatís a great start, a really good sign, because it can be terrible if youíre at it all alone. The application may be complicated, but if your support system is local you can easily go there, speak to a real person, and have help at hand. Plus, having an expert, someone whoís not too close to you, whoís different and objective -- personal support like that is essential."
So, while Princess JoJo might disagree that thereís no magic wand, Shannon herself can testify that wishes can come true (with a little help and hard work.)
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