An Enterprise Escalator? No Thanks! Give Me a Sherpa Instead

Kevin Horne is the CEO of Norfolk and Waveney Enterprise Services (NWES) ‘one of the leading business support organisations’ in the UK.  NWES is a members of the National Federation of Enterprise Agencies and Kevin has written a piece drawing attention to the NFEA’s Enterprise Manifesto.

Kevin goes on to describe the ‘Enterprise Escalator’ which provides a ‘comprehensive customer journey’, comprising:

  • Outreach and awareness raising.
  • Pre-start advice.
  • Start-up training.
  • One to one support.
  • Access to finance.
  • Mentoring.
  • Networking.

On the surface, good sensible stuff.  But it perpetuates a myth.  The ‘escalator’ implies that, if start up is right for me, I just have to get on and I will effortlessly ascend to the next level.  It is a false promise.  It is the enterprise fairytale.  Real world is less ‘escalator’ and more ‘snakes and ladders’.  Less gentle trip to the shopping centre and more laying siege to the mountain.  It is life making work.

And what if it is not right for me?  Kevin rightly suggest that we need to signpost to other services – but will any of those really help?  I have seen too many people with aspiration and potential be sent back to the job centre because the job of helping them find their enterprising feet will just take too long.  It won’t fit with the neatly packaged funded services that look to provide a start up fast track.

Perhaps we should offer an enterprise sherpa service.  Someone who has managed the ascent before – but who has also, on occasion, failed.  Someone who recognises that this is a risky endeavour and needs to be carefully managed if it is not to cause damage.  Someone who can recognise when the time is right to push for the summit and when the time is right to do more training and preparation at low levels.

If we are to engage people in communities then we have to engage them ‘where they are at’.  Some will already have made it to base camp and are hungrily eyeing the peak.  It might not quite be an escalator but we can certainly pass them the oxygen, clip them onto the fixed ropes and wish them luck.

But many remain in the valleys and seldom look to the cloud covered tops.

We have to personalise our services and we have to recognise that many are not yet close to being  ready to start a business – now is not the time to launch an assault for the summit – but instead to weigh up the pros and cons of even considering a short trek.

Different people are at different places.

Some will be highly motivated but with few skills.  Others will have skills (that they often don’t recognise) but little or no motivation.  Some will have neither motivation nor skill. A precious few will have both.

The real ‘enterprise’ challenge is to engage those who have already decided that the ‘labour market’ is not for them and to encourage them to reconsider what they can do with their lives.  It is about reconnecting them to their aspirations, helping them to find belief and confidence and finding ways in which they can unstick their lives and make progress.  It is about helping them to see that their is an enterprise journey that might be right for them.  Can we cost effectively extend our sherpa service to engage and inspire them?  What are the costs of not doing so?  This should be the realm of the enterprise coach.

It is often a protracted job that requires a long term, strong, supportive, challenging, trusting and non-judgemental relationship.  It is not about the ‘Enterprise Fairytale’ and fast start ups.  It is about the hard work of developing people and helping them to find ways to dare to move forward again.

I wonder if Enterprise Agencies have the skill and commitment to required to develop an enterprise based service that will really start where many people are at?


  1. Paul Scott says:

    Hi Mike
    re your comments on enterprise agencies.
    We are local, not for profit, with volunteer boards. Our advisors are all SFEDI accredited, we all have customer First or equivalent. Between us we have many millions of pounds of local start up loans, and large property portfolios for start ups.
    We have seen out 4 versions of Business Links and hopefully will shortly wave cheerio to them for good.
    Yes, we do still have things to learn and there may be things that we get wrong, but we are here for the right reasons, and want to help people start their own business.

  2. Paul

    My intention here was not to criticise EAs. As nurturers of entrepreneurship most do an excellent job.

    My challenge here is to say how can we get beyond ‘nurturing entrepreneurship’ to nurturing enterprising attitudes and doing good long term work to develop people to the point where entrepreneurship becomes a possibility. I think it is often about re-conceiving the role of outreach workers and enterprise coaches, and rather than setting them up as recruitment sergeants for mainstream business support set them up as person centred and responsive coaches.

  3. There is room for escalators, sherpas, coaches, advisers, mentors and many others.

    For me the real debate is about funding, access and quality / effectiveness of support.

    I am a believer in the importance of self-employment for both the individual and society / the economy.

    There is a case to be made for some publicly funded support for both the unemployed and those who are in work, but this needs to be both limited and fairly allocated.

    For the unemployed there needs to be specific and stronger recognition within Flexible New Deal (FND) for a tailored service from providers that helps people start a new business as an alternative or additional activity alongside having a job.

    More difficult to argue is the case for publicly funded support to those already in work or already self employed.

    Here I believe entitlement should come via a skills and personal development route and in the same way that Train to Gain will pay for the cost of vocational education it should also be available to pay for business education to the same extent.

    In practice this might mean a bursary of £2,000 to be spent on business advice plus matched funded support of a further £3,000 to each individual as part of a more general package of publicly funded personal and skills support for all over 18 linked to proper lifelong learning.


    • Albert, many thanks for taking the time to comment.

      If we wait for the funding to be right we will be waiting a very long time. We cannot leave it to National, Regional and Local Government to get the enterprise environment right. I think we have to do it ourselves in our own communities. Wherever we can.

  4. George – with local elections in London – we have taken local action endorsed the manifesto and have e-mailed a copy to each and every incumbent councillor asking for their comment.

    In addition we will be e-mailing and posting a copy of the manifesto to every known trading business on our extensive data base – ensuring that for once the business voter considers which party best represents their interest.

    As a post election follow up to both the local and national elections we will also be holding a “meet the business voter” event inviting MP’s and local councillors to attend.

    None of this would have been possible without the NFEA manifesto acting as a catalyst. My thanks

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