Some amazing projects in Rotterdam that Leeds could learn from here.
Archives for March 2011
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.
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.
Another day; another website driving the ‘enterprise led recovery’.
Today sees the launch of Start Up Britain. Described on the BIS website as ‘an independent collective of UK entrepreneurs and big businesses, representing the private sector response to the Government’s ambition for an enterprise-led recovery. Over 60 leading global brands have pledged millions of pounds in support to new entrepreneurs’.
Now, 60 global brands offering discounts does not in my mind translate into millions of pounds worth of support. It smacks of introductory discounts designed to develop the start up market.
On its own site Start Up Britain says we are:
a new campaign by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs, launched on 28th March 2011. Designed to celebrate, inspire and accelerate enterprise in the UK, it has the full backing of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and HM Government.
This is a response from the private sector to the Government’s call for an ‘enterprise-led’ recovery. We believe that many of the important functions and services necessary to foster and champion new enterprise can be open-sourced, instead of provided by government directly. We aim to do this by creating a living market-place online for the wide range of enterprise support that is already available.
As a private sector organisation we aim to shoulder some of this responsibility for enterprise promotion with the government, re-modelling existing cost centres, and reducing the cost to the taxpayer.
So Start Up Britain is a campaign. But what kind of campaign? A campaign to change policy? Or an advertising campaign? Details on what is being campaigned for, and who the campaign is targeting are a little sketchy.
The line about ‘many of the important functions and services necessary to foster and champion new enterprise can be open-sourced, instead of provided by government directly’ leaves me perplexed. What is meant in this context by ‘open sourced’? What are the ‘important functions and services’? I think they are saying leave business support up to private sector, because they can turn a few bob on it. Not sure how this will pan out for the poorest in our communities but hey – this is an enterprise led recovery we are starting here. We will have to rely on trickle down and philanthropy to sort out the poor. Seems a bit like the privatisation of healthcare – where the profitable bits are taken on by the private sector leaving the expensive stuff – like enterprise in areas of deprivation to be managed by the state.
Now I love the idea of a living marketplace for enterprise support. A place where buyers and vendors can meet, talk and exchange. A place where customers can soon see who is the real deal and who is selling tat. But I am not sure that a series of links to ‘some of our favourite sites’ really constitutes a living marketplace. More of a sales and referral network really. Many of which seem to end up in the US.
Follow ‘Tip 4 – Get a Logo’ and you end up on a San Francisco based platform that will crowd source you a logo designer on the cheap. That is really going to help UK based graphics companies. Thanks. But the problem is even more acute than that – ‘Tip 4 – Get a Logo’. I must have assessed over 200 business advisers in my time and I have NEVER heard any of them give such a crass piece of advice as ‘get a logo’.
And it seems to me that just about every private sector sponsor/supporter of Start Up Britain gets a link to sell their book, their training course, their start up packs. Vested self interest anyone?
If you follow the links to ‘Schools to learn about entrepreneurship’ you find there are just two. One from Peter Jones the other from Doug Richards…
I especially liked the section that says ‘Knowing your market’. It offers links to a range of online survey platforms. Is the implication really that an online survey is all you need to know your market? Surely a link to some more generic advice on the importance of market research and its limitation might be more helpful?
The section on ‘Getting Funding’ does not even mention families and friends as a potential source!
If you follow the Warren Buffet link to ‘get some motivation’ then you get a malware warning.
And if you follow the link to Capital Enterprise at the time of writing you will find that it is broken.
At best what we have here is a bit of flaky directory, with no way for us to rate our experience of the providers.
And Cameron, Cable and Osbourne turn out to launch this curate’s egg?
The twitterstream for #startupbritain is telling. Part spam, part gushing praise and hardly any objective comment at all.
Enterprise Zones are places where a different set of rules apply to business. Inside the Enterprise Zone businesses get:
- business discount rate worth up to £275,000 over five years for firms that move into the area over the course of this parliament
- a more relaxed, flexible and ‘radically simplified’ planning regime
- access to ‘superfast’ broadband.*
Enterprise zones will be pockets of the country where the usual rules that govern the relationships between business and society are bent to the advantage of business. Business will get enhanced public services in the area, and they will pay less for them. Their operating costs will be reduced. It will be those of us who neither live nor work in an enterprise zone who will pay. We will be relying on
the ‘trickle down fairy’, trickle down economics to ensure that we all share the success of those who can afford to invest in an enterprise zone.
Enterprise zones ‘work’ (on their own purely economic terms) when they are able to attract more investment. They attract more investment by reducing the risks and increasing the rewards for the investors. We subsidise those investments.
Interestingly the Government is reported to have said that it does not want Enterprise Zones to be about remedying local dereliction but about economic growth. This is about making public investment where the return on that investment, measured in economic terms, are likely to be greatest. This means that it is likely to be an investment in already strong economies, helping them to become stronger.
So how might things be different with some #altlep thinking?
In an alternative LEP I think the logic may run a little differently. I think we may question the wisdom of zoning, and instead prefer to think about how we can improve the preconditions of enterprise for all.
We would also make sure that we did nothing that was going to further benefit big business while doing little to help the small businesses that are increasingly the mainstay of our economy.
I think we would think twice before easing planning requirements in certain zones. Either we have got the planning process right in holding the balance between environment and business or we haven’t. Or perhaps we should devolve more powers of planning and taxation to the local level so that those who will really be impacted can have a say?
We would recognise that enterprise is expressed in many different voices, not just the voice of business. We might be interested in setting up a ‘social enterprise zone’. An area where enterprise is encouraged because of its positive impact on society, not just on the economy. The mantra might be, ‘yes please make some money if you wish, but make something much more interesting as well, please….’
I think we might question trickle down theory that says ‘a strong economy produces strong public services which in turn produce a strong society’. While it is true that ‘a rising tide lifts all ships’, in a ‘rising’ economy some people rise much further and much faster than others. And when the economy sinks, well not all hands sailors share the same risk.
I suspect we would think much more deeply about the psychology of enterprise, the mental barriers to acting boldly in pursuit of dreams, rather than how we can change fiscal and planning policy to encourage those who are already doing it to do it more profitably. How do we change the psychological landscape so that many more individuals take responsibility for their own lives? That they feel that it is possible for them to make progress, without waiting for a benevolent employer to come along and offer them a job.
I suspect we would seriously consider the impact of a traditional enterprise zone on its neighbours. Displacing jobs is not the same as creating as them after all.