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?
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.
Colin Bell over at Winning Moves picks over this old chestnut in his latest post.
Should we throw our limited resources at businesses that we believe have high growth potential or should we just go for lots of start-ups knowing that a minority of them will experience high growth anyway?
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 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.