StartUp Britain: so what?

By: Simon Wicks

Date: 28 March 2011

David Cameron at the StartUp Britain launchTalk about a love-in. Anyone who’s anyone in UK enterprise was there - and then some. David Cameron’s giving a speech? You’re kidding, right?

And not only Cameron (as if his presence weren’t impressive enough). We also had George Osborne hinting at new policies for small investors, Vince Cable making cutting asides about the banks, Peter Jones speechifying sincerely, Duncan Bannatyne growling tongue-in-cheek.

So, you could say the launch of StartUp Britain was a fairly high-profile affair. Always a risk, that. It was slick, it was glossy, it had inspirational music and clever sloganeering (“by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs”, “itunes for entrepreneurs”, etc). There was a fair bit of hype, to say the least.

But beneath the marketing gloss, what have we actually got? You can read the detail elsewhere, but basically we have a web portal linking to existing start-up resources; we have corporate offers for small businesses, many of which are already available elsewhere; we have the promotion of enterprise education, most of which was already happening; and we have the start of a mentoring system which aims to put business owners in contact with each other (this is new, but hardly an original idea).

Reading between the lines, it looks a lot like the Government has looked at StartUp America (launched three weeks ago), said “We need some of that” and approached a few of the entrepreneurs who carry most influence with small businesses. The conversation probably went something like this:

Government stooge: “Dave wants to launch StartUp Britain.”

Enterprise campaigner: “Great – we’re up for that. When? July time maybe?”

Government stooge:  “No.”

Enterprise campaigner: “Ok, June then. I expect we could get something decent together by June.”

Government stooge:  “Er, no. March.”

Enterprise campaigner: “But it’s already March.”

Government stooge:  “Yeah.”

Enterprise campaigner: “Oh. Right.”

The whole thing has been pulled together in about three weeks by a small group of exceptional people, quite possibly to a schedule set by the Government. Yes, it’s far from perfect, but it’s out there now and it’s just the start of something. The PM and his chums will likely now move on to the next publicity opportunity (they’ve not actually put any money into this); meanwhile, the founders will have to make something more of what they’ve started. Believe me, these are not the sort of people who will want to let an opportunity like this go.

The thing is, StartUp Britain is actually something we need. In the last few years, a huge number of small business resources have sprung up online (Donuts included); how the hell are prospective business owners supposed to know what’s worth looking at? Until now, they’ve only really had Business Link serving this kind of function in a systematic way, and Business Link has always been very conservative about its recommendations (with good reason). StartUp Britain doesn’t have to be - if it’s the most useful resource, it should get on the portal. How you decide what is ‘most useful’ is a different matter.

Of course, there are plenty of gaps - we’d like to see more focus on helping people get to grips with the technical and legal aspects of setting up and running a business, for example (Law Donut, anyone?). But it’s a start, and the founders themselves admit they’re only “two per cent” of the way there.

Perhaps it was launched prematurely - but, hey, it’s been done in true fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants entrepreneurial spirit, and the people behind it should be given a high five for just going for it. This is something “by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs”, after all, so let’s support StartUp Britain and help to turn it into something genuinely helpful to small-business owners. I haven’t even mentioned the potential lobbying power of this group of people (it’s considerable) - in fact, it's in the unified campaigning for enterprise education where StartUp Britain might have the biggest impact. This is an opportunity for the UK’s enterprise community - let’s take it.

Do you suppose they’re going to remove David Cameron’s giant disembodied head from the home page now they’ve launched?

Two irritations - the language of enterprise and navel-gazing by the media

One thing that annoys me whenever I go to small-business events is the readiness with which everyone talks about ‘enterprise’ and ‘entrepreneurship’. On the one hand, they discuss the ‘fear factor’ of starting a business and how we can help people overcome it; on the other, they use the very terminology that puts people off in the first place. How many ordinary small-business owners associate themselves with the qualities of a ‘classic’ entrepreneur? Not many, I bet.

My concern is that by indulging the fantasy that everyone can be a restless, risk-taking, dynamic wealth-generator who starts another business - sorry, enterprise - with every million made, we distance ourselves from the reality of what it’s like to actually start and run a small business. It’s just one more step from this to Government business policies that offer a disproportionate benefit to a niche section of our total business community. Take last week’s Budget, for instance…

My second irritation is the media talking about the media. So I’m going to finish this blog by mentioning two ‘real’ people I met today, both of whom I’d love to feature on the Donuts in the future.

Eliza Rebeiro is 17. She started her community interest company at just 14, to campaign against the growing threat of knife crime to young people in south London. Of course, Eliza didn’t know she was starting a business when she launched Lives Not Knives. She just did it and it gathered momentum and now she organises events, provides mentoring to young people and has all sorts of other plans to pull young people away from the gang culture that surrounds them (including business education, a theme of the day). Eliza’s properly inspiring.

The other is the beautifully-dressed Adam King, co-founder of affordable bespoke tailor King and Allen. I have to declare an interest here - King and Allen is based down the road from my flat and I bought one of their suits with some redundancy money about five years ago. At the time they were plying their trade from some pokey rooms above, I think, an abandoned bank branch, and I was struggling to find a job. It’s a very nice suit.

Anyway, Adam’s story started with a successful world record attempt and - well, more of that another time. Meeting Eliza and Adam made my day. There are hundreds of thousands of excellent people starting and running myriad businesses all over the UK. Every one of them has a story worth telling and every one of them is deserving of support and recognition. As long as initiatives like StartUp Britain don’t lose sight of this simple principle, they should do all right.

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