In Defence of Start Up Britain…

I am grateful to Andy from Flexibility for stopping by the site and leaving this comment:

There are weaknesses in the startupbritain site and in the approach.

But it’s not actually a government initiative – it’s an idea that has been promoted to government by a group of businesses, and endorsed by government.

A lot of the criticism I’ve seen has come from other providers of commercial services to small businesses, who are clearly peeved that the startupbritain founders have been more successful in their self-promotion. They should look and learn.

There’s a whiff of sour grapes in the air, for sure …

The comment resonated with me for several reasons and prompted this reply:

Thanks for taking the time to stop by and comment Andy.

I think we are all clear that this is not a government funded initiative.

But Cameron, Osborne and Cable all took significant time out to promote Start Up Britain at what is hardly a quiet time on the world stage, when they themselves were looking for something that they could hold up as part of a ‘strategy for growth.’

By aligning themselves so closely with Government Start Up Britain were always going to split opinion along political lines, even without the controversy caused by ‘weak’ implementation. I think it was Ronald Reagan who said ‘The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ Well Start Up Britain looks a little that way.

A lot of the ‘criticism’ that you have seen relates to broken links, links to malware, links that fail any test of impartiality, ‘guidance’ that lacks credibility, guidance that misses vitally important areas (like the role of family in friends in financing startups) and guidance that appears ‘self serving’ for the site founders.

Now whether these faults are pointed out by people with their own vested interests in offering commercial services to the sector, or by the sugar plum fairy is really neither here nor there. They are substantial and significant problems that must be addressed quickly. To be fair some have been dealt with. The Warren Buffet Malware link is a thing of the past. But the broken link to the HP ‘offer’ is still with us.

My criticism comes from having spent decades working with a range of organisations on business support, including credit unions, Business Links, Enterprise Agencies, Regional Development Agencies, Chambers of Commerce, Local Authorities and so on. And while most of what they did fell well short of perfection they always took very seriously the need to be impartial, independent and accurate with any guidance offered. Sure, in part this was because they didn’t much fancy the inside of the courtroom, but primarily because they wanted to start their work with small businesses from a premise that says they will ‘Do No Harm’.

I have spent much of the last couple of days looking at the comments of the most vociferous supporters of Start Up Britain, trying to work out a) what precisely is it they find so useful in the site and b) what is their motivation for going public in their praise.

Specifics on what people find useful I have been given little feedback on. Apart from a couple of authors who have told me that it has increased their book sales and newsletter registrations and a couple of vague comments about ‘useful’ links.

What motivates them to go public in their praise? Well perhaps good old fashioned friendship. I have had a number of calls from people saying ‘these are good people behind the project’ and I should ‘support them or shut up’. Well, I am sorry but if the site was founded by Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Bob Geldof and my Mum, I would still be pointing out the same flaws.

Or perhaps supporters are looking to curry favour with what is clearly a powerful groups of individuals with some even more powerful friends. The possibility of having a #bepositive tweet retweeted by a dragon is not to be sniffed at I suppose. I prefer a slightly less fawning approach to engagement myself trusting that they will value robust, objective criticism over the banal nodding heads of the yes wo/men

Or perhaps supporters are looking to position themselves to get their ‘offers’ on the site. A link to your own excellent website on flexible working would make much more sense than that slightly weird ‘shedworker’ link for example. The #startupbritain twitterstream is already filling up with accountants, bookkeepers, designers and printers all looking to do start ups a favour by taking their money from them. Even a car dealer offering £100 of free fuel! Is this the future of Start Up Britain? A price discounting race to the bottom? I hope not.

So conversely it seems to me that it is not just the critics of Start Up Britain who may have the vested interest so much as some supporters with sharp elbows looking to promote their own wares through the site.

That whiff that you are picking up?

Well, yes, there maybe a hint of sour grapes in it. I would be livid if I had worked for decades on providing independent, impartial and competent advice to the sector to have my own efforts dismantled and see this ‘curates egg’ fanfared by Cameron, Osborne and Cable and a bunch of celebrity entrepreneurs.  I am amazed that the mainstream press have not had more of a field day with it to be honest.

But the main smell is a whiff of anger and frustration, laced with just a little hope that perhaps this time we really will be able to build a support network led by entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs that models the very best of British enterprise rather the naked self interest and lazy opportunism.

Here’s to the hope.


  1. Mike; some good points you raise…you have an annoying habit of doing that.

    My wife saw the site and she thought that it failed to walk the talk it was talking; encouraging new starts to get trade…do the companies offering the services need this free route to market?

    She thought it would be more useful to build on its good points but to localise it; i.e. to have some domains such as “startuplancashire” that would link new businesses to locally sponsoring support services and to enable the new starts themselves to trade from the site.

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