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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
  • Visit our extensive election coverage page on the Start Up Donut
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    The election messages continue to dance around reality. I did arithmetic at primary school, but did the politicians?

    Here’s my maths. The government spends £400 for every £300 it receives, spending half our national income. If the country earned £800 per annum, the government spends £400, of which £100 is borrowed. Total government debt would be £500, rising by £100 per annum. This is less than six years away from going down the pan like Greece.

    If we protect health, the government would have to cut a third of all spending to balance the books. That is an unimaginable level of cuts implying public sector pay falling by a third, which in turn would depress GDP severely making things even more difficult.

    If GDP grows, it will be better. But we live in an uncertain world, with huge financial risks still lurking all around. Still all of the talk is about additional spending and what will be protected.

    We have a financial crisis worse than anything seen in our lifetimes. Why are the politicians playing dumb and not getting totally real with the electorate. Maybe we still don’t want to hear?

    Chris Barling, Actinic

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    The Liberal Democrats have come under some fire for a negative campaign tactic of claiming that the Conservatives will not commit to saying they will not raise VAT. The reason for the criticism is that the Liberals will themselves not commit to saying they won’t raise VAT either.

    I believe the decision taken to lower VAT to 15 per cent was a good one, but was marketed wrongly. It as presented to the general public as a saving across the board. But, as a member of the public who buys different things in his shopping every week, a saving of a couple of per cent was not noticeable on my Tesco receipt.

    However, as a director of a company with VAT returns running into thousands of pounds, the VAT decrease was genuinely helpful. To my customers, saving £1 on a violin was irrelevant. Our products are priced to sell, so I decided not to pass on the VAT saving but instead to raise all of our prices.

    To the customer, the prices remained exactly the same. But the few thousand pounds I saved by doing this probably saved a job.

    If VAT is raised, I would like to see the Government promote it as a rise on the price of all products, just as last year they promoted it as a reduction on all products. But this is not likely. And, without a strong message that this is a universal price rise, many small companies scared of lifting their prices will try to absorb the extra tax themselves. This will be severely to their detriment.

    Moving across the VAT threshold is one of the most difficult barriers for the emerging small business and a higher rate of VAT will only add to the burden. I would hope that on the day that VAT is raised, so, too, is the turnover threshold at which a business must register for VAT – and by a considerable amount.

    I could write further on many more issues from mortgages for the self-employed to my belief that the Conservative’s recent deluge of signatures from business leaders is a boring stunt with no real message for the struggling small business.

    Clearly, business leaders will sign up against any tax that would befall them, so it’s a shame the Tories didn’t use this platform to announce other more relevant, more helpful, business- centric manifesto pledges… but I said I wasn’t going to write about that, so I must stop.

    Whoever you vote for at this election, I encourage you to actually use them. More than once, my company has written to elected representatives and you know what? Some of them are actually out to help us – it’s not all house swapping and duck houses!

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    Once upon a time, all any organisation had to answer when buying a printer were three simple questions:

    • Inkjet or laser?
    • Mono or colour?
    • Multifunction or standalone?

    Advances in the technology and falling prices have led to new questions and the evolution of the trio above.

    Inkjet or laser?
    Either. The boundaries between printer types are diminishing all the time. Misconceptions such as “Laser printers are cheaper per page over time” have long been discarded. Manufacturers are investing huge sums to ensure tomorrow’s laser is yesterday’s inkjet, and vice versa.

    Mono or colour?
    Go for colour. Yes most prints will be black, but ink and toner now contain chemicals to counteract drying out, so even extended periods of not printing in colour are fine. Make sure you get separate colour cartridge slots, not tri-colour cartridges. This way you’ll only replace what you use, minimising waste and saving on cost.

    Multifunction or standalone?
    Multifunction printers (MFPs) now match the performance of standalone printers, saving on space, wiring and plug sockets. Simply decide what functions you need before researching your options. Remember that most MFPs can’t use more than one function simultaneously; a single machine may be overwhelmed if you have large copying, faxing and printing demands.

    Costs
    Find a balance between available funds and long-term running costs. Cheaper printers will save on start-up costs, but will require more expensive cartridges, meaning higher costs per page in future. Check availability of compatible cartridges (ie ones not made by the printer manufacturer). The existence of these consumables indicates a popular printer and long-term demand – and will also help save on printing costs.

    Suppliers
    If you buy a printer from a high street store, be aware that when the next upgrade arrives from the manufacturer, not only will your model disappear from the shelves, but the cartridges will too. Check that you can buy consumables online for your machine as well.

    Networking
    Ethernet ports are a given and WiFi capability can up the price of a printer significantly, but there are benefits. It saves on cabling and enables you to position the printer where it’s convenient, enabling flexibility in office and hardware layouts when your business begins to grow.

    Ease of installation
    Check for user reviews online. Is it a simple plug-and-print model? Avoid printers with unnecessary installation software on CD. This is especially relevant when selecting an MFP, because some not only require you to set up a user profile for each person/PC before you can print, but some demand a separate installation for each profile per printer function.

    Usability
    Make sure your printer has a clear display for error and performance reporting. This is crucial when purchasing an MPF, because more than one function can go wrong.

    Look for a front USB port, because this enables you to plug in memory sticks to print documents without the need of a computer.

    Estimate your usage needs – is a 200-sheet tray big enough? To avoid the hassle of replenishing paper, check higher capacity trays or the availability of add-on storage trays.

    Different media
    If you want to produce a range of printed media (eg cards, labels, various paper weights), check the printer has trays for separate media feeds and doesn’t rely on a single-sheet manual feed, which can be very time-consuming.

    Matt Bird, StinkyInk

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    Perhaps controversially, I believe that too much emphasis and, indeed, money is spent on encouraging people to start their own business. In my opinion, resources should be restructured to offer more help to people once they have actually taken the plunge. 

    I believe people should be shown that business is a genuine career option, and I am a strong advocate of Young Enterprise. But I’ve seen too much money wasted on national campaigns encouraging Joe Bloggs to start a business while someone who has a great small business cannot get to the next stage because of unnecessary barriers.

    A prime example of a product which should help but which doesn’t is the Government’s Small Firms Loan Guarantee (SFLG). The idea behind this is that the Government covers some of the risk of the loan in order to allow banks to lend more easily to small businesses.

    This was re-launched last year as the Enterprise Finance Guarantee Scheme and the Labour Party’s manifesto tells us it has helped 9,000 businesses. Writing as someone who has first-hand experience of the SFLG, I can tell you that if I was to start the process over again, I certainly wouldn’t bother. In the end we gave over so many of our own guarantees that the entire point was lost; despite whatever their PR says, the banks are simply not ready and willing to lend on this scheme.

    In a nation of more than 60 million, 9,000 people on this scheme is not a claim to fame but an admission of failure. The figure should be tenfold. The Government needs to seriously and quickly address this issue and they should not be putting forward a scheme which the banks may or may not promote. They should be telling the banks that if a business comes in and meets a set of criteria, then they must allow them finance under a scheme where the risk of the loan is partially covered by the Government itself.

  • Business regulation
  • Have your say! Business support – Part 1
  • Have your say! Business support – Part 2
  • Have your say! Business support – Part 3
  • Visit our extensive election coverage page on the Start Up Donut
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    Bookmark and Share

    I’m not naturally a cynical type of chap, however politics seems to bring a side out of me that I don’t really like.

    While trying to decide who to vote for, I find myself muttering phrases such as

    “Well, they’ll never actually do that, will they?” This really isn’t like me at all.

    Apparently this time we are to be “helped” in our decision by the TV debate. As far as I’m concerned, this X-factor style circus only makes it more likely we’ll end up with a pretty boy/girl with lots of style and little substance.

    What I’d like to do is vote for the party whose policies are best aligned with my life and that of my family. I couldn’t give a hedgehog whether the leader smiles or can remember someone’s name, but I do want to know if they know what they’re talking about.

    I have a business to run – much like the rest of you. If I spend the required time trawling through all the information that would allow me to decide which party will make my business run better, then somebody else will no doubt be spending that time making their business run better than mine.

    So I have to guess, basically. My guess is that Brown is an economist, whilst Cameron and Clegg are basically pop stars in suits. I think that Brown will probably ultimately be seen to have dealt well with the financial upheaval of the past 18 months, and that on that basis he should be retained. That’s enough thinking for me. Back to work.

    Ross Campbell, The Exercise Club, Clifton.

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    It may sound a little strange, but in retrospect, I can’t think of a better time to have started my business than during the recession.

    I trained myself up on food safety and manufacturing, as well as on managing a business during the depths of the economic downturn. I didn’t mean for it to happen that way, but in reality, now I’m ready to scale up, the general atmosphere for businesses is much more positive.

    Now, I realise I have some ingredients for a tasty business which can succeed:

    • the sector of the market I’m operating in has had a record-breaking 12% rise last year despite the recession;
    • my never-ending, and indeed, increasing passion for cooking the best authentic Mexican food there is in the land;
    • importantly, the great, fantastic people I have met along the way who bring different experiences and skills …

    All of this seems to be combining to create something very special. Maybe entrepreneurs are like passionate foodies in the kitchen, combining the different ingredients to create a delicious meal, where timing, quality of input, skill, and the heating element of their passion all have a part to play to create success.

    You can find out more about Marcela on the new interactive business website www.inafishbowl.com

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