Video: Free advice and training at Google's Digital Garage helps Sheffield firms reach new heights

In the cut-throat world of digital commerce, even an established business can use a little advice.

Luckily for firms based in and around Sheffield, Google has been offering just that with its Digital Garage.

Anyone can visit the global giant's base just off Barker's Pool, be it for some basic advice on web security or a more detailed introduction to the world of web analytics.

The Digital Garage is open seven days a week and is completely free.

And although there is a focus on enterprise and startup businesses, it is also an opportunity for established firms

Plastic Tokens may not be a name on the lips of most Sheffielders. But the Attercliffe-based company has been a market leader in its own field for over 30 years.

Amy Coghlan of Attercliffe-based Plastic Tokens

Amy Coghlan of Attercliffe-based Plastic Tokens

As the name suggests, the firm produces plastic tokens to fit any requirement. As well as the obvious customers such as amusement arcades and supermarkets, the company supplies everyone from schools and car manufacturers to role-playing gamers.

Plastic Tokens is already the UK's largest token manufacturer, and has the advantage of both making and selling the product itself. But the firm has big ambitions and wants to expand.

It is going through a rebrand, and the Digital Garage has turned up in Sheffield at the perfect time.

Amy Coghlan, who at 22 is already in charge of sales and marketing, is working on a clear set of aims.

The launch of the Digital Garage in Barker's Pool.

The launch of the Digital Garage in Barker's Pool.

"We want the website to be fully functional," she said.

"We want it to be selling, but also for customers to know what they want when they log on. We want them to be able to make three clicks to a purchase.

"We have got a grant from the council for our business. They are putting some money towards developing the website and doing the marketing strategy. We are also working with marketing postgraduates from Sheffield Hallam."

The aim of the rebrand is clear, but Plastic Tokens staff felt they needed some extra expertise. That's where the Digital Garage came in.

Abdul Hoque with his Squishy Plastik.

Abdul Hoque with his Squishy Plastik.

"I’m from a marketing background so I went to the one-to-one on Adwords," said Amy.

"I got some great links where you can test how well the website is working and who’s visiting.

"I’m also coming into an analytics one-to-one.

"We have been wanting to rebrand for a long time. The Digital Garage is helpful for me to understand as well as to implement.

"I know things about SEO and analytics, but that’s a job in itself. I can oversee it but it’s for someone to do the day-to-day."

Also trying to make a success of plastic is inventor Dr Abdul Hoque. A researcher and lecturer in engineering, design and management at Sheffield Hallam University, he is also the director of Selfix Technology.

Toys and learning aids made from Squishy Plastik.

Toys and learning aids made from Squishy Plastik.

Abdul's original project was to create an adhesive plastic, and while that is still under development, he has come up with a product that is a lot closer to being ready - Squishy Plastic.

The material is solid when cool, but becomes malleable when placed in warm water for a few seconds, behaving in a similar way to Playdough.

The possibilities are many and varied, and Abdul hopes to use the advice he is getting at the Digital Garage to push Squishy Plastik into homes and schools.

"It’s a creative way of doing things," he said.

"I have been doing workshops and classes. Recently I was working with Oasis Academy Don Valley and Phillimore Community Primary School.

"One theme was space, so they had to create aliens landing from space. They created them from the moulds, and I gave them to the children with a fridge magnet on the back. You could see their smiles and happiness.

"We also made the eight planet solar system using Squishy Plastik. I got some really good feedback from parents."

Squishy Plastik is already a business, with an online shop that sells internationally. Abdul has been promoting his work at conferences. But he wants to extend his reach.

"At the moment it’s like word of mouth, but I need to do more networking," he said.

"I need to raise my online presence so having the Digital Garage on my doorstep is fantastic.

"The main thing I have found is it is welcoming. It’s fun. And the energy of the people is fantastic. They really want to help you, which is really encouraging."

Sheffield is not the first place to host Google's Digital Garage - although it is the first high street location. Clothing brand Ushiwear, based in Mirfield, West Yorkshire, first got a taste of digital advice in Leeds and Glasgow, and followed Google when it popped up in South Yorkshire.

Co-founder Neil Kapusi, who runs the business with his wife Jilly, said: "The Digital Garage has provided us with so many new and exciting opportunities within our business; before we attended the very first pop-up in Leeds in June 2015, we had quite a low web presence and our online sales were definitely taking a hit as a result.

“We originally got involved to seek help across all digital areas – which was not only in a bid to improve our website and making it more user-friendly, but learning the practical skills to be able to evaluate the work we were doing in terms of analytics, traffic and audience engagement.

"Within two weeks, we noticed a dramatic increase in sales – not just nationally, but internationally and from March to November, we experienced a 50 per cent increase in turnover due to our greater digital exposure."

Greater reach has enabled Ushiwear to create a new website, employ more staff and upgrade its flagship shop.

Google noticed the success and chose Neil to speak at the launch of the Sheffield Digital Garage.

And the Ushiwear team is visiting Sheffield once every fortnight to make the most of the free workshops and classes.

"It’s been a long time coming, but Digital Garage has helped us establish a solid enough customer base to be able to give our brand the overhaul it deserves," said Neil.

“Ushiwear is really unique in its field, it’s all hand-printed, designed and produced at our Yorkshire studio – and Digital Garage has given us the opportunity to shout about this and really talk to our customers about what we do."

Neil Kapusi of Ushiwear gets some advice.

Neil Kapusi of Ushiwear gets some advice.