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Blog posts tagged Doug Richard

Enterprise Manifesto debate

May 06, 2010 by Rory MccGwire

I wish that every meeting could be as interesting as the one that I just had.

It was a group of founders, but not just any old founders. These were the founders of UK business advice websites primarily aimed at small businesses. Between us, we have a regular user base of over half a million businesses each month. By any standard, that is an extremely large audience.

Doug Richard (of School4StartUps), as always, had a lot to say. Fair enough, as it was his Enterprise Manifesto that we had all gathered to discuss.

We started with his number one question: Should Business Link be scrapped? I must declare an interest at this point. Various bits of Business Link, and the website businesslink.gov in particular, are clients of my company. But I not only depend on Business Link for part of my annual revenues, I also see first hand some of the good, effective support that is given by Business Link and its partners to small businesses.

Doug would scrap the regional (“offline”) part of Business Link tomorrow. As someone who has been involved in turnarounds before, he reckons that the set-up in the regions is too institutionalised to be capable of being turned around into a new approach. “Best to start from scratch. Scrap it, then wait a couple of years and see how things look.” Obviously, this is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but Doug is not a man for half measures.

Shaa Wasmund (smarta.com) was more soothing and pragmatic than I had been expecting from reading her ultra-dynamic biography. While she commented that Business Link is too dominated by cadres of civil servants and the government way of doing things, she also mentioned how impressed she was with some of the initiatives being delivered by a Business Link that she works with.

Emma Jones also had some positive feedback, saying that the homeworkers who chat to each other on her Enterprise Nation website recommend the Business Link seminars to each other. Then she asked the question that was on everyone’s lips. If one did scrap Business Link, what would you replace it with?

At this point someone mentioned the figure of 35% as the projected shrinkage in the public sector over the next several years. Many of these people, notably the over 45s, will not find employment thereafter. “What will we do?” I asked the room, “Abandon them? Or help these business novices into some kind of self-employment, if that is the only option for them other than welfare?”

Nick James (freshbusinessthinking.com) is a big believer in online. So much so that, like Doug, he reckons that Business Link should only offer online help. “If people do not want to take advantage of it, that’s up to them. Nowadays every business should be online if they are serious about what they do.”

The trouble is, the website businesslink.gov reaches less than 45% of businesses (it says in its latest annual report … which, being a bit of a swot, I had read that morning). And the excluded 55% are exactly the people who need the most help to start up and grow a small business.

Dan Martin (Business Zone editor) backed me up on this point, saying that we must not assume that everyone else is like us. We regard online information as the obvious solution, but lots of other people don’t.

We all agreed that Business Link has become very good at delivering the metrics demanded of it by government. But, as Nick neatly put it, “to score a metric point for having a phone conversation or for having sent out a brochure is to miss the point of what business support is there to do.”

We all felt that the Business Link access brand itself is valuable. Even slash-and-burn-Doug agreed that it would be wasteful to throw this away only to then have to reinvent another access brand to replace it. Over the last fifteen years Wales has regularly reinvented both its business support network and its access brand, at great cost and for no obvious benefit.

So, although Doug had started the discussion session as provocatively as ever, likening his Enterprise Manifesto to the successful manifesto approach taken by Karl Marx 150 years earlier, at the end of the day we all found that our positions on business support had a lot in common.

Firstly, we all have a desire to help people to start and run businesses and feel that someone, somewhere, needs to be paid to do this support service. Secondly, we loathe what you might call the public sector obsession with spurious metrics, metrics which start life as a measurement to help achieve a goal and which then quickly themselves become THE goal.

Our discussion ranged over a number of topics in a short space of time. We covered public sector procurement (Yes, have a quota for small businesses, which the big contractors have to fulfil through transparent subcontracting), social enterprises, and the need for a high speed broadband infrastructure.

It was a pity that not everyone could make it. David Lester (Crimson Publishing, which owns startups.co.uk), Stuart Rock (Caspian Publishing, which owns realbusiness.co.uk), Alex Bellinger (smallbizpod.co.uk) and Jasmine Birtles (moneymagpie.co.uk) couldn’t make the meeting but would have enjoyed it I’m sure.

Michael Hayman of the PR firm Seven Hills did a great job of keeping the conversation going and keeping us all laughing at the same time. We were never going to have time to each propose and then debate our own vision of how business support should be run in the UK but we got some good points out on the table.

An interesting meeting, as I said. I don’t think you could find a more committed, can-do group of individuals when it comes to helping other people to start and grow a business. Something tells me that we will be meeting together many more times over the course of 2010 and 2011 to exchange our views on how business support, regulations, taxation and the whole enterprise landscape might be improved in the UK.

  • Business regulation
  • Have your say! Business support – Part 1
  • Have your say! Business support – Part 2
  • Have your say! Business support – Part 3
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    Have your say! Business support part two

    April 19, 2010 by Rory MccGwire

    Earlier this year, entrepreneur and founder of The School for Startups, Doug Richard, published his Entrepreneurs’ Manifesto – a “declaration of rights” for small businesses.

    The manifesto sets out eight demands to a new government, each of which addresses a different key concern for businesses. In the build-up to the 6 May general election, Donut MD Rory MccGwire is offering his thoughts on the issues raised by Doug Richard.

    Scrap Business Link?

    In Part 1 of this blog I summarised the recent history of business support in the UK. I concluded that, after 20 years of heavy expenditure, one precious asset that we have is a brand that most business people recognise. Business Link is “the place to go to access whatever help is available”.

    I take this view notwithstanding the fact that I’m still hearing the same things now as I’ve heard every single year during that period.

    “Business support is too fragmented.” “I don’t know where to go for help.” “It needs to be more practical.” “The advisers need to be people who have run SMEs.” “It must be local.” And meanwhile the civil servants seem as keen as ever to have a service that is “innovative”, a word that is prominent in every tender that comes across my desk at BHP, the company behind the Donut websites.

    In his intentionally controversial Entrepreneurs’ Manifesto, Doug Richard proposes scrapping Business Link and moving business support online.

    Traditionally, business support has been delivered one-to-one through business advisers and telephone helplines, together with an extensive calendar of training courses and networking events.

    But hold on a minute, let’s start by asking what we are trying to achieve. What are the objectives of government business support?

    Well, it’s support for businesses of course. There are about four million of them.

    Some of them are like Doug Richard and me: successful (OK, he’s a lot more successful than me, I’m the first to admit it), confident, experienced, and so on. Do these individuals seek Business Link’s help on how to start a business, or how to comply with all the regulations surrounding employing someone? Probably not, but we do take advantage of tailored support for ‘high growth’ companies. The UK invests a lot of money helping its most capable businessmen, not least because the next Google, Dyson or Nokia may be among the businesses that they start. I have mixed views on this.

    I generally prefer ‘pull’ to ‘push’. So who are the people who actually come looking for help?

    In a word, novices. It is people who feel they would like to be self-employed, but want to bounce their idea off someone with some experience who can also tell them how to go about getting started.

    One obvious group that springs to mind is women who are returning to work once their children are in full-time education. They have a high propensity to seek help.

    Another group who ask for help is people who have never run a business, but suddenly find themselves out of work. (By the way, Tony Robinson, the well-informed boss of SFEDI, the standards-setting body, was quoting a UK statistic that if you’re made redundant at age 45 you only have a 10% chance of getting a new job.)

    There are lots of subgroups like this. Some of them get lumped together in reports under the unflattering name of ‘disadvantaged groups’, or ‘the hard to reach’.

    Do these guys all use the web for business support? Er, no. The latest research from the Small Business Research Trust reveals the true extent of this non-use.

    In 2007, ‘information on websites’ was the most popular form of business advice, having just pushed ‘face-to-face contact with an adviser’ into second place. But the latest data, published in December 2009, puts the business advisers back at the top of the charts. I guess there is simply too much information out there on the web for people to cope with.

    BHP’s own user-testing bears this out. Users with a specific business question are unlikely to be able to find the answer online. Their first port of call is businesslink.gov, which is also their best chance of finding the answer. So it should be after the vast sums of money that have been invested in it. Happily, they also find the Donut websites useful for the topics that we cover. And likewise a specialist website such as j4bgrants is a treasure trove for that specific search. But while other small business websites are brilliant in other ways, they don’t always give you direct answers to direct questions.

    As the data shows, businesses are once again finding it easier to simply ask someone: a friend, an accountant, an adviser, or whoever.

    Business Link, and the plethora of business support organisations that it acts as the signposting for, delivers this face-to-face support. So it’s no good simply scrapping it. The question is, how can we improve it and which organisations should be delivering this one-to-one business support?

    I’ve got lots more to say on this fascinating topic. On call centres; on how to objectively establish the success and value of a service; on the psychology of start-ups and micro businesses; on how to make the front line and the back-office of Business Link (etc) hugely more cost-effective; on how to involve the banks (an old idea, but a good one); on how to get the support/messages of 1,001 different public sector organisations out to small and medium-sized enterprises; on how to do public sector procurement without financially damaging so many of the bidders; and, sticking with procurement, on how to tap into the specialisation, experience, passion and sheer hard work of the smaller suppliers more than we do now; and that is just the first list of things that springs to mind…

    But let’s see what others have to say first. Comments please!

    (By the way, thank you to everyone who commented last week on my business regulations blog, I’ve enjoyed reading them all.)

    Rory’s other Have your say! blogs

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    Have your say! Business regulation

    April 14, 2010 by Rory MccGwire

    Earlier this year, entrepreneur and founder of The School for Startups, Doug Richard, published his Entrepreneurs’ Manifesto – a “declaration of rights” for small businesses.

    The manifesto sets out eight demands to a new government, each of which addresses a different key concern for businesses. In the build-up to the 6 May general election, Donut MD Rory MccGwire is offering his thoughts on the issues raised by Doug Richard.

    In his manifesto, Doug Richard argues that business regulation should be streamlined so that people can start businesses more quickly and run them more easily. 

    I agree. But in order to achieve this, I think the law must make an important distinction between small and large businesses. They have different regulatory requirements. What is fair and suitable for one is often neither fair nor suitable for the other. 

    It’s also important to recognise the natural bias in our regulations, a bias that stems from the fact that regulations are always going to favour the people who make them. So our regulatory system is heavily skewed towards the preferences of the government, the public sector, big business and the trade unions. 

    The seemingly simple task of taking a chunk of time off for a family holiday is a struggle for many people running a small business, so it’s hardly surprising that they do not have time to assist in the law-making process. 

    Nor do the various small business membership organisations have the power to make much of a difference. Think back to when the government raised CGT by 80 per cent without realising until afterwards that for many small businesses the only “pension” available at retirement is the proceeds of the sale of the business. A £1m threshold was hastily added, but not before it became obvious that the small business lobby groups had not even been consulted on this legislation, let alone listened to. 

    Yet it’s small businesses that end up paying the price for so much of the legislation. Take a law requiring organisations to offer wheelchair access to their premises. I’m sure everyone agrees that society wants to help make life less difficult for disabled people. But few people stop to consider who will be forced to pay for the door widening. We all pay for the doors to be widened in the public sector buildings and the corporate buildings, through our taxes, pensions and savings (some of which are invested in listed shares), which seems completely fair. 

    But when it comes to all the properties owned by small businesses, it’s the business owner who pays. So if I earn a £20k salary working for the local council or for a big company, I am not affected at all, but if I would have earned £20k from owning a shop, I might be left with just £17k after the adjustments to my shop front. How can that be fair? It’s not. It is merely convenient, both for the lawmakers and for the Treasury. 

    It’s the same with employee rights. Nobody questions the need for new parents to spend more time with their children. But who pays? There’s no compensation to any of the small business owners who pick up these costs. In a small business, every member of staff is a key person and losing them, even temporarily, is a considerable blow. Larger businesses have the resources to cushion the blow; small businesses don’t. 

    Given that small businesses employ a very considerable proportion of the workforce, I suggest that society ought to compensate small businesses if we all want to have those benefits. If not, you end up with a situation where business owners are terrified of employing women of a certain age. It’s discriminatory, but it happens; the law has massive unintended consequences. 

    Sensible regulation is essential to protect customers, employers and employees. But it must recognise the reality of running a small business. 

    So much of our business regulation is designed for Hewlett Packard and Rolls Royce, not for “mom and pop” businesses. But, in my view, firms with fewer than five employees should have a completely different set of regulations. If you choose to work for them, perhaps you shouldn’t have quite the same rights as employees in larger companies, simply because these rights amount to robbing Peter (the employer, who is a person) to pay Paul (the employee). But then you would be discriminating against employees of small businesses, which is clearly wrong. 

    So the only fair solution is for society (aka the taxpayer) to face up to, and pay for, the cost of implementing all these rights, instead of turning a blind eye while the costs fall onto the shoulders of small business owners. 

    Doug Richard is right and all the political parties seem to agree. We need to do something to enable the moms and pops to run their businesses in a more flexible and efficient way. Now let’s see if anyone actually does anything. 

    What do you think? 

    Rory's other Have your say! blogs

  • Have your say! Business support – Part 1
  • Have your say! Business support – Part 2
  • Have your say! Business support – Part 3
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    What do you think about the regulations affecting small businesses? Please leave your comment below.

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    Eight reality checks for social enterprises

    January 21, 2010 by Simon Wicks

    This week, Doug Richard, former Dragons’ Den investor and founder of the School for Startups hosted a ‘bootcamp’ for social enterprises in London. Much of the day focused on comparing businesses run to generate profit for shareholders with those run to create a social impact. Just how “business-y” should a social enterprise be?This week, Doug Richard, former Dragons’ Den investor and founder of the School for Startups hosted a ‘bootcamp’ for social enterprises in London. Much of the day focused on comparing businesses run to generate profit for shareholders with those run to create a social impact. Just how “business-y” should a social enterprise be? Richard attempted to answer the question by focusing on the realities of running a social enterprise in a competitive marketplace. Here are eight lessons that every social entrepreneur would do well to bear in mind:

    1. Don’t assume that being “good” is good enough. If the sole difference between your social enterprise and other businesses in the same marketplace is that you are “ethical”, ask whether that is enough in itself. You may need to rethink your offer or your business model.
    2. You’re in the business of marketing and selling something to somebody. Whatever your ethical objective, you can’t achieve it unless you are selling people something they actually want. Like any business, you need to know your customers, understand your market, and so on. As Doug Richard puts it: “Understand the industry you are in and you can understand how to prosper within it.”
    3. People will not queue up to give you money. Just because you are doing “good”, that doesn’t mean people will lend to you or invest in your business. The “market” is mostly indifferent to the good that you do; your enterprise has to be strong enough to survive on its own terms.
    4. Do one thing and do it well. Successful businesses tend to have one type of expertise; those trying to do too much often over-reach themselves and fail. “A narrow business is better than a vague one,” according to Richard. Whether it’s the thing you’re selling or the thing you’re giving, do one thing and do it well.
    5. You don’t have to be a “social enterprise” to be a social enterprise. The legal forms of social enterprises (such as Community Interest Companies) are still evolving and you may find they limit your capacity to grow. There’s nothing wrong with being a limited company with a social purpose. Richard advises going down this route and incorporating your ethical aims into your company memorandum and articles. (NB: this can be a confusing area as this blog by The Capable Manager explains. Mi-Tee have also kindly offered to share their solution to this problem if you contact them via their website).
    6. Present your cause in a way that actually engages people. As Julie Devonshire of Global Ethics Limited, which runs The One Foundation, puts it: “You have to make your cause so brilliant that people will not just listen but will get off their backsides and act for you.”
    7. Try to avoid paying for anything. Global Ethics Ltd got BT to give them £3.3 million of human resources. They also paid just £293 for a television advert that would normally cost £200,000. Do everything in your power to persuade people to give you things for nothing.
    8. Don’t give it all away. Says Doug: “You need to give away exactly as much as your business model can afford to sustain and to grow.” It’s obvious really; if you’re giving everything away, you have nothing left to develop your enterprise so you can give even more away in future.

    Simon Wicks, BHP Information Solutions

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    Is it really so easy to set up and run a successful business?

    January 19, 2010 by Simon Wicks

    I'm sitting in the lecture theatre of the Royal Institution, listening to the investor Doug Richard, founder of The School for Startups, tell an audience of potential social entrepreneurs the 20 questions that every successful business should ask themselves. The questions cover most aspects of business operation - market understanding, differentiation, industry knowledge, business model, pricing, operational dynamics, people.

    The good thing about Doug Richard is that he keeps it simple. He tries to deal in the realities of running a small operation, is sceptical about big business and the claims of people touting big theories. Moreover, he's interested in doing things cheaply and effectively. It's good solid stuff and the questions are smart and get to the point.

    So, in relation to your market, the three key questions are:

    1) How many are there?

    2) How can we reach them?

    3) How many can we reach?

    It's good, basic stuff that people well-versed in business might nod sagely and carry on - though it bears restatement often. However, the difference today is that this is an event specifically for social entrepreneurs. These are people who might not be "entrepreneurs" in the conventional sense; who perhaps are driven more by values or a charitable principle than by the desire to make profit. So the mechanisms of marketing and sales may be quite alien - and even frightening - to them.

    But the truth is, as Doug points out, no matter how you dress it up, you can reduce marketing and sales to core principles. You need a product, you need a market for that product, you need a business model that suits your product and your market, and you need to price your product correctly. That's more or less it.

    On the way, you get lots of gems. Pricing theory is misleading, says Doug: the way you price a product is to sell it to people. Efficiency counts for an awful lot: look at Tesco - few people say they like Tesco, but they shop there nevertheless. Don't listen to the opinions of friends and family about your product: they will give you a polite answer, not a truthful answer. "Every business needs three people: someone to sell, someone to deliver and someone to count." And so on, and so on.

    Worthwhile? Absolutely. And I'm sitting here thinking "Wow, it's all so simple. If it's this easy, why haven't I started a business?" Ah, that's a much more difficult question to answer and I doubt even Doug would have a satisfying answer for that one.

    Simon Wicks, BHP Information Solutions

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    Starting up in a down-turn – but where to get funding?

    November 26, 2009 by Mark Sinclair

    Starting up a business is always going to be tough and like many things in life, there’s probably never going to be a perfect time to take the leap and launch your idea. For many entrepreneurs, one of the key concerns is acquiring funding to turn your dream into a reality. Doug Richard says that one of the best ways to fund your start up is to seek investment from one of the three Fs – Friends, Family and Fools.

    Many people are reluctant to enter into business with friends. What has your experience been? Would you advocate mixing business and friendship?

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