Start Up Britain – credit where credit is due…

Well Startupbritain.org certainly splits opinion, at least amongst the twitterati and the blogger community.

Start Up Britain: Some love it, some hate it and some are just indifferent.  In 25 years of working on business support and enterprise in the UK and overseas I have never seen anything like it given such a ringing endorsement by Government.

Credit where credit is due.

They have shipped and made things happen.  And what a launch!  The Prime Minister, The Chancellor of The Exchequer and The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and President of the Board of Trade all turning out along with assorted Dragons and celebrity entrepreneurs to offer their support and endorsement.

All of them want to see a more enterprising Britain.

More businesses starting up.

More businesses surviving and more businesses growing.

Now we might have an interesting conversation about the balance between economic growth driven by an enterprise led recovery, national well-being, and an environmentally sustainable future, but that would need us to take a holistic perspective on enterprise policy in the UK.  And I suspect, for the moment at least, this is all about wealth creation, employment, tax take and ‘a private sector led recovery’ rather than the wider role that enterprise can play in creating communities that people want to live in.

Startup Britain have shipped, and they have had feedback.  The makeover has begun.  Some of the typos have already been picked up and corrected.  I am sure the broken links (HP offer for example) will be mended and the links to malware (Growing/Staying Inspired/a bit of motivation/Warren Buffet) sites removed. (Although more than 24 hours since I first blogged and tweeted there has been no acknowledgement of the problem and no resolution)

I also suspect that a bit of a site makeover might be in order to make it a little less political and move the discount vouchers and special offers to a more discrete position.

But I think the challenges go a little deeper and wonder whether they will be addressed.

Surely Anything is Better than Nothing?

I do not subscribe to the school that says ‘anything is better than nothing’ – especially when that ‘anything’ is launched by half the cabinet and a host of celebrity entrepreneurs.  I work at the coal face of enterprise support in the UK, where regularly people lose their houses, marriages and occasionally their lives because the business that they were encouraged to start has left them in more debt.

And many more struggle on day after day living hand to mouth because they were encouraged to start a business that was at best marginal.  I have talked with many an adviser who have told me about the pressure they come under to make loans to would be entrepreneurs against their better judgement, because they have start up and loan making targets to hit.

Enterprise really is a double edged sword. And if we choose to promote it in our communities then we must do so with care, competence and compassion. Entrepreneurship is not all about computing in the cloud, venture finance and making the first million.  We love to promote the upsides of enterprise – but it also has a dark side.

A little more curation please…

If Start Up Britain wants to be a serious player in the long term they really do need to develop a professional approach towards site curation.  At the moment there are too many links to the same few sites, many of which are businesses affiliated to  Startup Britain’s founders and more vocal celebrity supporters with books and other products to shift.  When offering advice and support, impartiality matters.

I would strongly recommend that they appoint a credible curator/editor and possibly an editorial board that can ensure impartiality and quality of what gets listed on Startup Britain’s web directory and then a good folksonomy system that will ensure that the most useful content gets clearly flagged by the people that use it.   I used to argue that Business Link should have a folksonomy approach to rating both its own advisers and the third party service providers that they brokered out to – but this was seen as just too risky!

Sort Out an SEO Strategy…

At the time of writing if you Google ‘startup britain’ the main www.startupbritain.org site does not appear at least not on the first half a dozen pages, after which I gave up.  Instead www.startupbritain.co.uk and www.start-up-britain.co.uk take pole position.  Now that is enterprise.  Perhaps time to use some of those free adwords that you are entitled to…

Oh, and it would be lovely to actually link to a specific piece on the site.  But we can’t.  Think of all those lovely referrals that you are missing out one.

Re-think Peer to Peer and DIY Support

The Start Up Britain ‘peer support strategy’ needs a bit of a rethink.  It is great that the Supper Club and Prelude (both founded by Start Up Britain co-founder Duncan Cheatle) are offering free mentoring. (Free as long as you agree to provide 2 hours of free mentoring for every hour that you receive: it will be interesting to see the pathway through which mentee becomes mentor).

However we know that mentoring is not right for all, and a quick look at Prelude and The Supper Club suggests a certain emphasis on high growth strategies.  If I want to become a self employed window cleaner will I still get the mentoring?  Will I be invited to mentor others?

What about encouraging other forms of peer to peer support and an ethos of DIY?

What about helping entrepreneurs to become much more effective at managing their own learning rather than spoon feeding them courses and mentors?

What about helping entrepreneurs to figure out the type of support that they need and how they can best access it?

A truly British Campaign?

Start Up Britain needs to think a little more about developing a genuinely British presence.  Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland?  I am not sure yet that it really covers England.  It needs to quickly move on from being Start Up London and the South East – remember that stuff about re-balancing the economy?

For example I spent a bit of time trying out Enternships.com (another Founding Partner of Start Up Britain) to see what enternships might be available in my home city of Leeds.  Answer = 0.  Bradford = 0.  Yorkshire = 0.  A search for enternships in Manchester did turn up 4, albeit 1 of them was actually in London.  2 were for telesales positions and one was to do social media for a recruitment agency.

A Little More Transparency Too…

Start Up Britain is variously referred to as ‘a not for profit company‘, ‘an independent collective of UK entrepreneurs and big business’ and a new campaign run by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs.   It is described on the BIS website as ‘representing the private sector response’.   This leaves me confused.

So there we go.

I have been positive.

I only hope that we see a response.

Comments

  1. The bit about a “not for profit company” seems at best misleading. Whether it’s not for profit, I don’t know, but it doesn’t appear to be a company. At least there’s no mention of any company called Startup Britain on the Companies House website.

    Did they not bother setting up a company because of all the bureaucracy involved? Or did they set it up in some overseas tax haven?

    Either way, not exactly a ringing endorsement of the idea of starting companies in Britain.

    • We entirely agree with your note in terms of the poor message we have given by not yet being registered, we expect this to be put right today.

      Non for profit means exactly that. Indeed everything has as yet been done without cash and with time and gift from wonderful supporters,

      Lara

  2. Thanks Mike for yet another thoughtful piece. I too am sadden by the forcing of people into self-employment that is likely to be unsuitable for them and the debt and damage this can create.

    This new public / private initiative, Start up Britain, where favourite is spelled in the American way on the site, is not what is required to help start up businesses – it could actually damage them.

    While some of the offers might benefit those who are thinking of becoming self-employed or actually start a new business, they are not at the top of my list of what needs to be in place to ensure successful start up and survival.

    As an offer from the private sector, the value provided and the range of services and products is hardly exciting.

    As an offer sponsored by the Government it not only highlights how out of touch with reality the politicians and civil servants who conceived and launched the initiative are but also how useless they are in getting a good return for the start ups they seek to help, given the value of the publicity and promotion they have provided for free to the companies involved.

    I believe the politicians and civil servants have been totally outclassed by their private sector colleagues who have got back at least 3 times the value of what they are paying out.

    The only positive aspect I can see in all of this is further proof that private commercial businesses are so much better in marketing and negotiating than politicians and civil servants and perhaps business support via government is doomed to be a waste of money if this is all it can achieve.

    I have spent over 40 years in business, the last 20 in the business support sector as an Interim Manager with one of the largest organisations in the UK helping the unemployed become self-employed, a business trainer, mentor, consultant, adviser and Angel Investor.

    My business, Small Business Solutions, is a member of the NFEA.

    What is offered by this initiative is almost a joke – the government – in my view, have totally lost the plot.

  3. 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 …

    • 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, and 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, and guidance that misses vitally important areas (like the role of family in friends in financing startups) and guidance that is ‘self serving’ for the site founders. Now whether these faults are pointed out by people with their own vested interests in offering commercial relationships 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 many 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 want 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? Some kind of price discounting race to the bottom? I hope not.

      That whiff that you are picking up?

      Well 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’ get fanfared by Cameron, Osborne and Cable and a bunch of celebrity entrepreneurs. 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.

      • I think I agree with almost everything you say …

        It was a colleague who alerted me to the torrent of criticism on the networks. Some of it quite political – David Cameron’s face on the site being a kind of red rag to a bull for many. But on trawling through various blogs and twitter comments etc I did notice that soem of the most scathing criticism came on sites that seem to offer a variation of the same. E.g. offering mentoring, funding advice etc etc and in each case from one specified company. If they’ve got bags of experience I can understand their antipathy to what they may see as an upstart operation with more spin than substance…

        So, in the interests of fairness, I felt a need to offer something in defence, perhaps

        But I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, there is a need for some kind of new initiative to boost business creation. Whatever we’ve been doing up to now hasn’t really been working, as the increasing dependence on an unaffordable public sector has shown.

        And the public sector promotion of entrepreneurship and business growth hasn’t worked. There’s an inverse relationship between money for this poured into areas like the North East and the actual levels of self-employment and private sector business.

        But, as you say, startupbritain, and the government’s new policy for growth, don’t seem to offer much that is new. Enterprise zones, business parks, money targeted to SMEs with ‘high growth’ potential, hoping they’ll be the next Virgin or Microsoft – all these betray old thinking about reliance on substantial inward investment to produce large, premises-based companies that employ lots of people.

        No doubt there’s some value in that, but there’s another world bubbling under, of home-based and virtual businesses, people looking to increase turnover but not headcount, or to create social value while making a living, working with associates on a project-by-project basis rather than with employees, running part-time businesses which they may or may not wish to scale up ….

        Most of these are off the radar of government-backed support. Maybe it’s even better that way. But I do think that there are things the government can do in terms of infrastructure (e.g. universal fast broadband and support for local workhubs) that can support entrepreneurship by overcoming some of the constraints of geogrpaphy, and also boost the role of enterprise at the domestic and local scale.

        The frustrating thing is that I know some of the people behind SuB – and the government ministers backing it – do actually understand much of this. I guess there’s been a big compromise with the need to find advertising backers who will fund the launch.
        And as someone who has got much poorer over the past couple of years, I know that these kind of things can’t survive on good will alone!

  4. An interesting dynamic is at play Andy.

    The more start-ups you encourage, especially in areas of deprivation the more failures you are likely to get. And each failure is another story of debt, loss and disappointment that spreads through the community like wildfire depressing the enterprise culture. And the vast majority of the those that survive are less rags to riches than ‘benefits to hand to mouth’. And they feel cheated by the shiny promotion of enterprise as a route to be your own boss and make good money.

    I have been arguing for a long time that to encourage enterprise we should be begging people NOT to start businesses unless they really have to. Sure we will get fewer startups, but a much higher survival rate and in the medium term a much stronger enterprise culture. More on this here http://localenterprise.wordpress.com/2008/11/17/the-truth-about-enterprise/

    But thank yo for taking the time to engage and enter into a respectful and constructive dialogue. I only wish there was more of this and much less mud slinging.

  5. Good write up. I’ll follow your blog from now on.

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