Interviews

Chuka Umunna exclusive: Small Business Saturday is crucial for the success of firms big and little

8 min read

22 July 2015

The shadow business secretary spoke to Real Business at the launch of Small Business Saturday 2015, providing details on his ambitious aims for the annual day and why the event is instrumental in helping companies of all sizes prosper.

The recent launch of 2015’s Small Business Saturday made clear that while the initiative is only in its third year, the event has had a significant impact.

For last year’s day, about 16.5m people got involved to support at least one local business for the initiative and nearly two-thirds of people in the UK were aware of the campaign.

The occasion was brought across from the US, where it was created by American Express in 2010 – and served to put $5.7bn (£3.4bn) into the pockets of independent shops and local service providers across the US. Now, with a presence in the UK, it has become a campaign that enjoys cross-party support, though shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna has been at the forefront of driving the movement.

He had previously said that there had been “such a lot of talk about the American dream – small business succeeding against the odds” and while the UK did have a British dream, “we don’t talk about it, it’s not part of our imagination”. Umunna feels the introduction of Small Business Saturday has helped make the dream a reality.

Speaking to Real Business exclusively at the 2015 launch, he said the initiative “does strike a chord with everyone”, partly because nearly everyone knows someone who runs a business, or does so themselves, but more fundamentally because there’s an intrinsic respect for others “who take a bit of a risk”.

These initiatives for smaller businesses succeed, he feels, because these firms have a certain amount of heart and character behind the name. While big brands may be doing big business, it’s often difficult to humanise them and see the people working behind them.

Umunna believes that the general population and day-to-day consumers can recognise that while smaller businesses “want to do well for themselves and make money”, beyond that, they’re “trying to make a contribution in some way, shape or form” and do so in an individual way.

As a nation, we respect innovation, hard-work and honesty, which is what Small Business Saturday celebrates about the millions of small firms that contribute not just to the economy, but the communities they serve too.

There has been concern as to whether SMEs across the UK are getting enough attention under the spotlight, and Umunna feels the bus tour that has become part of Small Business Saturday’s annual event, has been a particularly good tool here. It covers a solid regional spread with the aim of making sure all businesses across the UK are celebrated.

Recent research indicated that there may be an increasing financial split developing for small businesses, in terms of location. Everline and the Centre for Economic and Business Research found that London business owners were most optimistic about their growth prospects – anticipating revenue increase of an average 44 per cent in the next ten years, rising £162,000 to £528,000. This is more than double the turnover by small businesses in the North, which expect to see growth of 33 per cent.

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The importance of focusing on businesses across the UK is therefore something to prioritise, and this year’s bus tour is set to cover more locations than 2014 – making its way through more than 25 locations across the UK. Truro, Londonderry, Banbridge, Glasgow, Swansea, Nottingham, Norwich and Winchester will all be spots along the tour.

“It has been good at celebrating regional businesses and I think that’s been a really important part of the campaign,” Umunna explained. “Each region has its own history, its own demography, that produces different patterns so you do see differences,” he added.

It has garnered such a response for smaller businesses that it does raise the question of where slightly bigger businesses factor in – are they at risk of being overlooked or even suffering if Small Business Saturday continues to gain traction and establishes a longer-lasting impact?

“No, not at all. I think it’s good for slightly bigger businesses, because a lot of these smaller ones are their supply chain, and if you’ve got a healthy supply chain I think it’s good for your business,” Umunna said. “So, really they’ve got nothing to worry about.”

He also feels that giving independent retailers and other local business a platform is necessary for the health of the high street ecosystem. “It’s as much good quality, independent, local businesses that draw people to the high street within the retail sector, for example,” Umunna added. “So, the bigger brands need them there – they want people to come to the high street. It’s not just about them.”

He suggested that it’s to the benefit of businesses of all sizes that Small Business Saturday prospers as an initiative. “If every high street was a mono street and there was nothing unique or different about it, people would end up going out of town to big department malls.”

“So, I think it’s definitely of interest in there for the bigger businesses to help out the small boys,” he added.

Michelle Ovens, the national campaign director for Small Business Saturday, has outlined a long-term goal to “have a lasting impact on small businesses by changing mindsets, so that people make it their mission to support them all year round”.

Umunna is even more vocal about his ambitions – “If you asked me what my goal is, I think it would probably be to be as recognised as Comic Relief and some of those big national campaigns.”

As the annual day looks to reach even more people for 2015, it looks like his prediction may be a distinct possibility. “I think we’re well on the way to doing that,” he agreed.