Opinion

British business: Short on ambition or afraid to fail?

4 min read

07 January 2014

Are we as a nation lacking ambition? We once had it by the bucket load; we need only look at the Victorians for evidence of Britain as the world leader in bold ideas and industriousness. But has this drive waned to the point where we’re limiting our futures by being afraid of taking real risks? Are British entrepreneurs scared of failure?

We have a huge roster of tech success stories in the UK, yet all too often our best home-grown talent ends up abroad. We have more university-educated citizens working overseas than any other developed European economy, many of whom are tempted away by technology hubs like Berlin, Dublin and Silicon Valley. If we’re to keep hold of this talent we need to convince our most promising minds that Britain offers all the right conditions for success. A large part of that is creating a support network that lets ambitious people be ambitious without fearing failure.

Failure does not automatically have long-term negative effects. Edison famously tried 10,000 designs before he made his light bulb work, but once it did he changed the world forever. Similarly, amongst small businesses with the right attitude, failing at one thing will be the catalyst that moves them nimbly on to the next. And don’t get me wrong, the UK has some powerful programmes in place to support small business growth. Through my work as Chair of eSkills and the Technology Strategy Board I have seen how British entrepreneurship can be nurtured with the right support at grass roots level. 

Much of this support comes from large organisations like Cisco, and I take real pride in the amount we do to promote entrepreneurialism in the UK. Collectively referred to as the British Innovation Gateway (BIG), our support takes the form of three main initiatives: the National Virtual Incubator (NVI), IDEALondon and the BIG Awards.
The NVI joins the dots between incubation centres, science parks and academic departments through a network of 12 NVI nodes across the country. 

The flagship node is at IDEALondon, our new co-working, networking and support space; other nodes include the University of Cambridge Business School, Sunderland Software City and The ehi2 Centre. As a result of this network over 100 ambitious start-ups have access to technology, resources and support that may otherwise be beyond their reach. 

Just as the NVI nurtures early-stage ideas, the BIG awards reward the more fully-formed ones with a transformational prize – $100,000 in cash and a further $100,000 in marketing, PR, HR and legal counsel. Last year Snap Fashion took the top prize with an application that helps shoppers find identical but cheaper versions of clothes via photo recognition. A year later it has 170 retailers on board, contracts in Asia and America, and is planning to roll-out an Android version. This year’s winner, uMotif, allows users to keep track of their health via mobile and web applications, and I for one can’t wait to watch them grow over the next 12 months. 

Through these programmes, we’re finding small businesses with that added ingredient – the commitment to be ambitious about their ambition. We have to encourage an environment where we, as bold Britons, feel comfortable taking the big risks that get the bigger rewards. 

Phil Smith is Cisco UK and Ireland’s CEO as well Chairman for eSkills and the UK Technology Strategy Board (TSB).

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