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.