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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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    Earlier this year, entrepreneur and founder of The School for Startups, Doug Richard, published his Entrepreneurs’ Manifesto – a “declaration of rights” for small businesses.

    The manifesto sets out eight demands to a new government, each of which addresses a different key concern for businesses. In the build-up to the 6 May general election, Donut MD Rory MccGwire is offering his thoughts on the issues raised by Doug Richard.

    Put simply, Doug Richard has suggested that we should scrap Business Link and move government-funded business support online.

    In Part 1 of this blog I summarised the recent history of business support in the UK. I concluded that, after 20 years of heavy expenditure, one precious asset that we have is a brand that most business people recognise. Business Link is “the place to go to access whatever help is available”.

    In Part 2, I looked at who ‘the customers’ of business support are, and how they would like to receive help. I concluded that it is a very broad audience and that business novices make up a large proportion of the group. The latest research confirms that they prefer one-to-one help to online help, although I am the first to agree that online business support is extremely cost-effective and is more popular with experienced business people. (The popularity of one-to-one support should not come as a surprise to anyone, as it mirrors the way we behave in the rest of our business lives. When we have a question, we usually approach ‘someone who knows’ for the answer.)

    So the question for the final part of this three-part blog then becomes something like ‘How is this offline help best given?’, ‘Who should be doing it?’, and ‘What tools/methods can make these delivery methods more cost-effective?’.

    Let’s see; what do we already do that works well? Answer: loads of things.

    Take start-ups. In the UK we provide start-up packs, start-up seminars, start-up advisers, telephone helplines, and start-up premises (if there is a vacant premises lying around). Although the quality of business support services vary from place to place and from adviser to adviser (more on that later), the business novices who I meet tend to be pretty grateful for the support they have received and think it really has been useful.

    Start-ups need to get their hands on a lot of information very quickly, such as information on how to do basic book-keeping. But a typical question from a start-up is not “How do I sell?” but “How do I sell to Mr Smith at ABC Ltd?”. And the person asking this question is really asking for two things. Firstly, they want some suggestions on which types of approach might work best in that specific situation. And secondly, they want reassurance and encouragement from a fellow human being along the lines of “I know that this is totally outside your comfort zone, but go on, you can do it!”. Let’s face it, starting up a business is a lonely, worrying, risky thing to do, so the emotional side of business support is massively important.

    Did you notice how difficult that question was by the way, the one about selling to Mr Smith? Most people would struggle to give a good answer to that question. Which brings me on to my next point.

    With the right team, you can work out what the 100 most common questions are from start-ups on the topic of sales, and you can then find 1-5 good alternative answers to each question. You can put these questions and answers on a website, for those people who like to browse businesslink.gov. And you can also put them into a business support knowledge bank, which is exactly what clever East Midlands Development Agency has done, so that anyone in any local business support organisation can use (and contribute to) these questions and answers.

    I know this is all possible, because it is what my company does for a living. We find out what all the most common questions are, then provide the answers and keep the whole library up to date each year. Any company with our skill-set could do it.

    It is worth noting that the involvement of an outside ‘supplier’ seems to be essential. The Training and Enterprise Councils, Business Links and Regional Development Agencies have never been good at knowledge banks; hundreds of new items of “useful” information simply pile up month after month without being organised, tagged, edited, de-duplicated or later updated.

    In the UK we seem to have spent the last 30 years squabbling over budgets and contracts and who does what – and always with a focus on the delivery end of things. It is only since the businesslink.gov website came along that we have started to realise the value of providing excellent tools for those delivery organisations to use.

    Look at Tesco. How would they run business support in the UK? They would hire the best of the best to create (and keep up-to-date) a set of integrated ‘products’ that their network could then deliver. They would have three suppliers of each type of product at any one time, to keep the suppliers on their toes (think CRM software, training courses, brokerage system, knowledge bank, CPD, and so on). But they would pay the suppliers properly and they would enable the suppliers to build up capacity and world-class know-how in their niches (rather than stopping to re-tender the contract every five minutes like the public sector does).

    Would Tesco keep the regional Business Link offices? They could not say, until they were a lot clearer on their budget and their objectives for the next decade. But we can be sure that they would end up with a slick, branded, easy-to-access service that achieved what the customer wanted. They would use ‘invisible shopper’ market research to improve the service, as this quickly identifies the problems and the opportunities for improvement.

    Let me finish on this point of economics. Business support is not just a cost. Every time we help a good company to be brilliant, we boost employment and GDP. And, looking at the other end of the scale, every time we help a long-term unemployed no-hoper to start in self-employment (even if it is just as a gardener or window cleaner), we boost employment and GDP and reduce the welfare burden on the state.

    Last year the UK spent £80bn on education. We spent £97bn on welfare. And every year we happily dish out taxpayer-funded training to public sector employees on everything from assertiveness and teambuilding to you-name-it. These are vast sums of money and any spending on business support needs to be judged in comparison with these other budgets and what they achieve for our society.

    Just as it makes economic sense to have a workforce that is literate and numerate, it makes sense to have owner managers who know how to start-up, run and grow a business. Personally, I do not think that taxpayer-funded business support needs to be an expensive operation, but it does need to be high quality and accessible, both online and offline.

    I look forward to your comments.

    Read Doug Richard’s Entrepreneurs’ Manifesto

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    Earlier this year, entrepreneur and founder of The School for Startups, Doug Richard, published his Entrepreneurs’ Manifesto – a “declaration of rights” for small businesses.

    The manifesto sets out eight demands to a new government, each of which addresses a different key concern for businesses. In the build-up to the 6 May general election, Donut MD Rory MccGwire is offering his thoughts on the issues raised by Doug Richard.

    Scrap Business Link?

    In Part 1 of this blog I summarised the recent history of business support in the UK. I concluded that, after 20 years of heavy expenditure, one precious asset that we have is a brand that most business people recognise. Business Link is “the place to go to access whatever help is available”.

    I take this view notwithstanding the fact that I’m still hearing the same things now as I’ve heard every single year during that period.

    “Business support is too fragmented.” “I don’t know where to go for help.” “It needs to be more practical.” “The advisers need to be people who have run SMEs.” “It must be local.” And meanwhile the civil servants seem as keen as ever to have a service that is “innovative”, a word that is prominent in every tender that comes across my desk at BHP, the company behind the Donut websites.

    In his intentionally controversial Entrepreneurs’ Manifesto, Doug Richard proposes scrapping Business Link and moving business support online.

    Traditionally, business support has been delivered one-to-one through business advisers and telephone helplines, together with an extensive calendar of training courses and networking events.

    But hold on a minute, let’s start by asking what we are trying to achieve. What are the objectives of government business support?

    Well, it’s support for businesses of course. There are about four million of them.

    Some of them are like Doug Richard and me: successful (OK, he’s a lot more successful than me, I’m the first to admit it), confident, experienced, and so on. Do these individuals seek Business Link’s help on how to start a business, or how to comply with all the regulations surrounding employing someone? Probably not, but we do take advantage of tailored support for ‘high growth’ companies. The UK invests a lot of money helping its most capable businessmen, not least because the next Google, Dyson or Nokia may be among the businesses that they start. I have mixed views on this.

    I generally prefer ‘pull’ to ‘push’. So who are the people who actually come looking for help?

    In a word, novices. It is people who feel they would like to be self-employed, but want to bounce their idea off someone with some experience who can also tell them how to go about getting started.

    One obvious group that springs to mind is women who are returning to work once their children are in full-time education. They have a high propensity to seek help.

    Another group who ask for help is people who have never run a business, but suddenly find themselves out of work. (By the way, Tony Robinson, the well-informed boss of SFEDI, the standards-setting body, was quoting a UK statistic that if you’re made redundant at age 45 you only have a 10% chance of getting a new job.)

    There are lots of subgroups like this. Some of them get lumped together in reports under the unflattering name of ‘disadvantaged groups’, or ‘the hard to reach’.

    Do these guys all use the web for business support? Er, no. The latest research from the Small Business Research Trust reveals the true extent of this non-use.

    In 2007, ‘information on websites’ was the most popular form of business advice, having just pushed ‘face-to-face contact with an adviser’ into second place. But the latest data, published in December 2009, puts the business advisers back at the top of the charts. I guess there is simply too much information out there on the web for people to cope with.

    BHP’s own user-testing bears this out. Users with a specific business question are unlikely to be able to find the answer online. Their first port of call is businesslink.gov, which is also their best chance of finding the answer. So it should be after the vast sums of money that have been invested in it. Happily, they also find the Donut websites useful for the topics that we cover. And likewise a specialist website such as j4bgrants is a treasure trove for that specific search. But while other small business websites are brilliant in other ways, they don’t always give you direct answers to direct questions.

    As the data shows, businesses are once again finding it easier to simply ask someone: a friend, an accountant, an adviser, or whoever.

    Business Link, and the plethora of business support organisations that it acts as the signposting for, delivers this face-to-face support. So it’s no good simply scrapping it. The question is, how can we improve it and which organisations should be delivering this one-to-one business support?

    I’ve got lots more to say on this fascinating topic. On call centres; on how to objectively establish the success and value of a service; on the psychology of start-ups and micro businesses; on how to make the front line and the back-office of Business Link (etc) hugely more cost-effective; on how to involve the banks (an old idea, but a good one); on how to get the support/messages of 1,001 different public sector organisations out to small and medium-sized enterprises; on how to do public sector procurement without financially damaging so many of the bidders; and, sticking with procurement, on how to tap into the specialisation, experience, passion and sheer hard work of the smaller suppliers more than we do now; and that is just the first list of things that springs to mind…

    But let’s see what others have to say first. Comments please!

    (By the way, thank you to everyone who commented last week on my business regulations blog, I’ve enjoyed reading them all.)

    Rory’s other Have your say! blogs

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    Earlier this year, entrepreneur and founder of The School for Startups, Doug Richard, published his Entrepreneurs’ Manifesto – a “declaration of rights” for small businesses.

    The manifesto sets out eight demands to a new government, each of which addresses a different key concern for businesses. In the build-up to the 6 May general election, Donut MD Rory MccGwire is offering his thoughts on the issues raised by Doug Richard.

    Scrap Business Link?

    In his manifesto, Doug Richard calls on the new government to scrap the Business Link business support service to provide savings and to migrate all government business support services online to promote efficiency.

    In the report he wrote for the Conservative party earlier, I think he also recommended using the universities and specialist providers such as the British Library as a replacement business support network on the ground. More recently, Mark Prisk, the Conservative Shadow Minister for Business, has been talking about using the existing network of Enterprise Agencies for this role.

    I’m sure Doug is as pleased as I am to see that the government is already going flat out to move the whole business of government online. Thousands of disparate systems and websites are being corralled into three mega websites: businesslink.gov for businesses, direct.gov for individuals, and nhs.uk for health. 

    Yes, this is expensive, but what an improvement.

    Lots of individuals lack a computer, but most businesses are online and will readily engage with businesslink.gov, as the evidence already shows. We small and medium-sized enterpriseslike being able to do tax returns and company searches etc online; it is a real convenience. We also use the huge library of advice pages. 

    So let’s talk about the more contentious idea of scrapping face-to-face business support. But first, a bit of history. 

    In the 18 years I’ve run BHP, I’ve seen governments come and go. At every general election, there’s a clamour to change the way government delivers business support. And we do change – all too frequently. 

    In the 1970s, we had Enterprise Agencies, which were hailed as fulfilling an important need. 

    Then someone said “No let’s have Training and Enterprise Councils”, so we had 82 TECs, with a £1.3bn budget to help SMEs in England and Wales. Scotland decided to have 22 LECs. 

    Why 82 TECs? Because support had to be local, as everyone seemed to agree that “a business in Preston has a different set of needs to a business in Portsmouth” (nonsense on the whole, but that’s a topic in itself…). 

    Then someone (I won’t mention Tarzan by name, as I’m trying to stay clear of party politics) said “No, these TECs are failing, let’s have a one-stop shop for business support. We’ll call it Business Link”. So we had had 82 Business Links, as local was still flavour of the month, while Wales invented something else new called Business Eye. 

    Meanwhile the government had also created a network of nine massive organisations called Regional Development Agencies (in England only), each with a list of tasks and targets that went on for pages and pages. 

    At this point someone said “Crikey, this costs a fortune and the quality and type of business support varies far too much, so let’s take the 82 Business Links and make them into nine Business Links”. 

    And that’s where we are today. Endless change. If you ran a business like this, you would have gone bust over and over again. The cost of this never-ending change is too much to even contemplate. 

    But, finally, we have a brand that, like any commercial brand, has been allowed time to establish itself. Hallelujah. There are even road signs saying Business Link in some towns. 

    The question now is what we want the brand to offer, and how business support should be delivered. I’ll deal with that in my next blog. 

    Rory’s other Have your say! blogs 

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    Earlier this year, entrepreneur and founder of The School for Startups, Doug Richard, published his Entrepreneurs’ Manifesto – a “declaration of rights” for small businesses.

    The manifesto sets out eight demands to a new government, each of which addresses a different key concern for businesses. In the build-up to the 6 May general election, Donut MD Rory MccGwire is offering his thoughts on the issues raised by Doug Richard.

    In his manifesto, Doug Richard argues that business regulation should be streamlined so that people can start businesses more quickly and run them more easily. 

    I agree. But in order to achieve this, I think the law must make an important distinction between small and large businesses. They have different regulatory requirements. What is fair and suitable for one is often neither fair nor suitable for the other. 

    It’s also important to recognise the natural bias in our regulations, a bias that stems from the fact that regulations are always going to favour the people who make them. So our regulatory system is heavily skewed towards the preferences of the government, the public sector, big business and the trade unions. 

    The seemingly simple task of taking a chunk of time off for a family holiday is a struggle for many people running a small business, so it’s hardly surprising that they do not have time to assist in the law-making process. 

    Nor do the various small business membership organisations have the power to make much of a difference. Think back to when the government raised CGT by 80 per cent without realising until afterwards that for many small businesses the only “pension” available at retirement is the proceeds of the sale of the business. A £1m threshold was hastily added, but not before it became obvious that the small business lobby groups had not even been consulted on this legislation, let alone listened to. 

    Yet it’s small businesses that end up paying the price for so much of the legislation. Take a law requiring organisations to offer wheelchair access to their premises. I’m sure everyone agrees that society wants to help make life less difficult for disabled people. But few people stop to consider who will be forced to pay for the door widening. We all pay for the doors to be widened in the public sector buildings and the corporate buildings, through our taxes, pensions and savings (some of which are invested in listed shares), which seems completely fair. 

    But when it comes to all the properties owned by small businesses, it’s the business owner who pays. So if I earn a £20k salary working for the local council or for a big company, I am not affected at all, but if I would have earned £20k from owning a shop, I might be left with just £17k after the adjustments to my shop front. How can that be fair? It’s not. It is merely convenient, both for the lawmakers and for the Treasury. 

    It’s the same with employee rights. Nobody questions the need for new parents to spend more time with their children. But who pays? There’s no compensation to any of the small business owners who pick up these costs. In a small business, every member of staff is a key person and losing them, even temporarily, is a considerable blow. Larger businesses have the resources to cushion the blow; small businesses don’t. 

    Given that small businesses employ a very considerable proportion of the workforce, I suggest that society ought to compensate small businesses if we all want to have those benefits. If not, you end up with a situation where business owners are terrified of employing women of a certain age. It’s discriminatory, but it happens; the law has massive unintended consequences. 

    Sensible regulation is essential to protect customers, employers and employees. But it must recognise the reality of running a small business. 

    So much of our business regulation is designed for Hewlett Packard and Rolls Royce, not for “mom and pop” businesses. But, in my view, firms with fewer than five employees should have a completely different set of regulations. If you choose to work for them, perhaps you shouldn’t have quite the same rights as employees in larger companies, simply because these rights amount to robbing Peter (the employer, who is a person) to pay Paul (the employee). But then you would be discriminating against employees of small businesses, which is clearly wrong. 

    So the only fair solution is for society (aka the taxpayer) to face up to, and pay for, the cost of implementing all these rights, instead of turning a blind eye while the costs fall onto the shoulders of small business owners. 

    Doug Richard is right and all the political parties seem to agree. We need to do something to enable the moms and pops to run their businesses in a more flexible and efficient way. Now let’s see if anyone actually does anything. 

    What do you think? 

    Rory’s other Have your say! blogs

    What do you think about the regulations affecting small businesses? Please leave your comment below.
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    Do you have content you would like to share with an interested audience of existing and potential customers? It’s never been so easy to package your content in a stylish way, and distribute it in a cost-effective way. Enter the age of home publishing.

    Technology, the great leveller

    It used to be that if you wanted to publish a book, magazine, newspaper or show series, you could only do so if you had access to large (and expensive) capital equipment and a workforce of hundreds. Not any more. Web-based applications are freeing up the imagination and putting home business owners in control of how content is distributed. Here are some to get you started.

    • Books – always wanted to write the authoritative guide for your industry/sector? Want to show off your portfolio of photographs or handmade goods in a coffee table style book? Now you can with self-publishing sites Blurb and Lulu.
    • Newspapers – move over, Rupert Murdoch, the home business owners are coming to media town! Become a newspaper publisher with Newspaper Club – the service is currently in beta but you can sign up and see what this tool could do for your business.
    • Magazines – digital magazines are becoming increasingly sophisticated with embedded links to buy products alongside video clips and interactive forums. Take a look at Yudu and Zmags. According to digital publishing service, nxtbook media, advertising in digital magazines is more trusted than online ad banners so for your sponsors and advertisers offering a presence in a digital magazine and on your site offers a good rate of return for them.
    • Audio – speak to your audience by producing a podcast and inviting in guests who can be interviewed using Skype. Click here to read a round-up of features on how to produce a podcast.
    • Video – publish content of you making your product/service or customers saying nice things about your product/service, by using a Flip camera that can be bought for around £90 and comes with only one button so is hyper-easy to use!
    • Online – share content and your expertise in the form of an online slide show using Slideshare.

    This list does not even cover publishing content for people to consume whilst on the move ie mobile applications and publishing for devices such as the iPad and Kindle.

    Make the most of earning revenue from charging individual subscriptions or secure a sponsor who would like to be associated with your content and the viral way through which you’ll distribute it. Before you know it you’ll be publishing online, in print, and in audio/video, to an audience of interested readers/watchers/listeners. What a business to run from the comfort of your own home!

    Emma Jones is Founder of Enterprise Nation the home business website and author of ‘Spare Room Start Up – how to start a business from home’ Her next book ‘Working 5 to 9 – how to start a business in your spare time’ will be published in May 2010.

    This blog post was originally published on the Enterprise Nation website.

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    It’s not easy starting up a business. From initially having the courage to realise your idea, to seeking advice and then facing the endless scrutiny that surrounds your new business – there is a certain amount of thick-skin needed to even make it to the starting line. In this video, Eden Project co-founder Tim Smit talks about the qualities needed to survive in the tough world of entrepreneurship.

    Smit talks of process and creativity. As an entrepreneur, how did you manage to stay positive while dealing with the range of skills needed in starting up a business?

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