Another afternoon talking NEETS and another bunch of folk who think that a few more entrepreneurs going in to schools to raise aspirations will make things better.
Because for the vast majority of the time our cultures, in schools, councils and other machine bureaucracies actually teach a very different lesson.
The celebration of compliance and subjugation to the system. So….
Here’s to the compliant ones
The ‘OK’ folk
The shapeshifters occupying the shape shifting roles
The ones who see the reason of others
They are fond of rules and the security of routine
They can quote you, agree with you, glorify, and support you
And, when you need to, you can ignore them.
Because they challenge nothing,
They don’t push the boundaries
And, while some may see them as automatons, we see them as gun fodder
The people who will threaten nothing and will work for little more.
For a long time now I have had real concerns about the focus of policy makers, and the projects that they spawn, on ‘enterprise’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ as being just too business oriented. It is as if the only fields of human endeavour that matter are commerce of some kind. Making money or fixing societies ills.
This is especially un-nerving when you see it played out in our primary schools as 6 year olds are encouraged to wear badges that proclaim them be a ‘Sales Director’, an ‘Operations Manager’ or a ‘Brand Executive’. Yuk!
What about all of those other great fields of human endeavour?
Climbing mountains, making art, having fun, playing sport, writing, cooking and so on.
What if we encouraged our 6 year olds to wear badges that proclaimed them to be ‘Footballer in Training’, ‘Ballet Dancer under Construction’, ‘Surgeon to Be’ or ‘The Next Michael McIntyre’? OK, so perhaps we don’t need another Michael McIntyre…. but you get my point?
Because what really matters is not exposing more people to the world of business and entrepreneurship. It is to get them imagining possible futures, and learning how best to navigate towards them. It is about developing people with a sense of agency and influence over their own futures. It is about building a generation with both power and compassion. And a generation who really understand how to use the tools of collaboration, association and cooperation in pursuit of mutual progress.
Does it really only matter if their chosen endeavour contributes to GVA? Or is there more to our humanity that we need to recognise and encourage through both our policy and practice?
And this is not just an issue in schools. It runs like a plague through our communities from cradle to grave.
I think this is important because we lose so many who are completely turned off by the thought of a world of commerce (and let’s face it we don’t all want to dive headlong into a world of Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice).
So what about if instead of focussing on enterprise and entrepreneurship we attempted to throw our net wider and to encourage and support people to build their power and compassion in whatever they choose to be their particular fields of human endeavour?
Nice move by Lord Sugar to choose Tom Pellereau as his business partner. Seriously nice move because Tom’s skills complement those of the Lord Sugar rather than replicate them.
So many people go into business with people who share similar skills, values and attitudes leading to a very lop-sided business indeed. Perhaps half a dozen people who understand the product or service, but NONE who really love marketing, sales, financial management, compliance or governance.
And I don’t think that Lord Sugar is a product man. At least not any more. He is now a ‘sales and marketing man’ a distribution expert. Someone who can get products into the hands of the masses.
I just hope that poor old Tom is given the chance to develop products that not only make him wealthy, but also make him proud and enhance the lives of the people who buy them.
This would indeed be progress.
I visited a really great community centre recently. Busy, friendly, homespun, clearly doing great work in and with the community. We were using several rooms, one of which was called the ‘Enterprise Hub’. It was spotlessly clean, airy, spacious and well furnished, just like every other room in the building. But for the life of me I could not work out what made it an ‘Enterprise Hub’. It was not set up for hot desking, there were no PCs, no mail boxes, none of the usual paraphernalia…
So I asked the centre manager about the Enterprise Hub. The answer surprised me – but it shouldn’t have done. They were looking for cash to modernise and re-decorate the room and in conversation with the local authority it become clear that the only budget with cash available was in ‘Enterprise’.
‘They said if we called it an Enterprise Hub we could have the cash.’
I love the way this demonstrates the inherent enterprise of the community centre management team in tracking down the cash that they need to ‘get the job done’. I am less impressed by what it says about some investments in ‘enterprise’. I can just imagine the report to the councillors about the new enterprise hub…
I remember a colleague saying to me at the launch of a major enterprise initiative,
‘The problem is that many of the people in this room don’t really understand enterprise. They don’t live it and breathe it. If the Government was announcing a major initiative to invest in duck farming, because an economist had said THAT is the future of the UK economy, many of these same people would be in the room, nodding sagely, and would run home to invent new policies to encourage duck farming’.
For a few years now I seem to have been living in Groundhog Day. Not everyday, but enough to be disconcerting.
I will be chatting with an enterprise professional, perhaps a lecturer in a University, an enterprise coach in a ‘deprived’ community, a start-up business adviser or a bureaucrat managing an enterprise project. In our conversations about enterprise we will recognise how it is not all about business. How enterprise can be expressed in a seemingly infinite number of ways. Sure, for a significant and important minority, it is about commercial endeavour. Business, profit, and social impact in some combination. In order to express their enterprising soul a minority have to start a business.
But for the majority being enterprising, being proactive in pursuit of a better future, does not mean starting up a business. It may mean making a phone call, having a conversation, calling a meeting or writing a letter. Taking some action that increases agency and power in pursuing a preferred future. It may be taking the opportunity to reflect on ‘The direction in which progress lies‘, or ‘What are the next steps that I can take to make progress?‘ or ‘What options have I got?‘
We will reflect on how some of the most enterprising people we know may work in the Council, or the University, or organise festivals and campaigns in the community. That the enterprising soul finds its expressions in many forms and not just in entrepreneurship.
We will agree that the real point of leverage in our communities lies not in providing start-up advice with those who are already minded to start a business, although of course this IS important. The real leverage lies in helping more people to establish the direction in which progress lies for them and their loved ones and helping them to plan and execute actions designed to move them in that direction.
If we can significantly increase the stock of enterprising people then, as sure as eggs is eggs, we will also increase the stock of entrepreneurial people. And we will not lose so many who are completely turned off by enterprise because of the Gordon Gecko or Victorian perceptions of enterprise nurtured by the reality TV shows and newspaper headlines.
We will also increase the survival rate of new businesses as people make natural progress into entrepreneurship instead of being persuaded to start a business (‘all you need is the idea and the determination to succeed’) when they have not yet gained the real skills or capital that they will need to succeed.
In our conversations we will agree on these things. And then almost invariably they will head off to run another course on ‘Marketing and Sales’ or ‘Business Planning’ or to look at monitoring returns that count bums on seats and business start-up rates.
If ever there was an industry that needed to innovate and re-invent itself and its role in modern Britain it is the enterprise industry. If we really want to build a much more enterprising Britain then we need to break the stranglehold that the business start-up industry has on enterprise policy.
This might be just one of the ideas we can explore at Enterprising Communities: The Big Conversation in Leeds on May 19th.
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 http://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.