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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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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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    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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    I’m infuriated by the election campaign. When things were booming, the Government poured more petrol on the fire, preventing any correction and encouraging the whole population to binge on debt. Then times turned bad, so they borrowed even more. Spending has to reduce because we’re spending more than we’re earning. We understand that on a personal and business basis so why not on a national one?

    In business we know that delay makes things worse. Every day of piling on more debt steals from the future. Japan blazed the trail we’re following and got 20 years of stagnation with still no end in sight. And the Government is running on a record of being a safe pair of hands! Yeah, right.

    The opposition isn’t getting the point across, because they think we don’t want to hear bad news. They are too scared to say that public sector jobs and benefits will have to be cut.

    Sometimes the future of the country should be put before immediate electoral gain. And sometimes a gutsy and principled stand is rewarded. But we aren’t really engaging with the issue and the political commentators aren’t making much of it either. Maybe I’ll take a holiday in Greece this summer. It will be nice and familiar.

    Chris Barling is chief executive of Actinic

    Do you agree with Chris? What do you think about politicians’ promises and their handling of national debt? Leave your comment below.

  • 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
  • startupdonutbannerbutton728x90

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    Read Full Post »