Opinion

The time for these business support turf wars is over

9 min read

04 March 2015

With the support Barry James has had in the past often killing the business-line, product or project it was intended to help, he argues that it's time to put entrepreneurs at the centre of whatever is done in the future.

For too long tonnes of taxpayers money has been wasted on schemes that deliver little or nothing beyond keeping local bureaucrats in a job – or at least the next fat contract, aimed at ticking the right boxes. This has been our experience and, baldly put, it’s the conclusion of last week’s select committee reported here.

Simply Business’ Jason Stockwood’s comments on this are right: “We urgently need to confront the sense of isolation felt amongst entrepreneurs. They need accessible and useful support, and they need sounding boards for their ideas and concerns,” he said. What they don’t need is the “alphabet soup” that’s out there. The jungle with no map and no signposts.

This is what we’ve found over the last few weeks as we’ve consulted widely and travelled to a range of areas from coast to coast. 

The elephant in the room however behind the committee’s report is that those who are focussed on supporting and enabling entrepreneurs told us that they are sick and tired of seeing the local “warlords” scrapping over budgets and territory while wasting the resources intended to be used to tackle these problems. That everything has had to be in silos that can be owned by a local titan of the local politics. That it’s all about the denizens of the LEPS, councils, and alphabet soup funding organisations, who’s first, and often only, priority is their survival and extending their territory and budgets.

This came as something of a surprise as it was not remotely why we started on this exercise – but it’s striking that we have found it almost everywhere we’ve been. When Jason Stockwood said that entrepreneurs “need accessible and useful support, and they need sounding boards for their ideas and concerns” he’s 100 per cent correct. When he added that “local authorities are best placed to deliver this”, I’m far from sure. 

Not only are they one of the main participants in these endemic, unchecked, turf-wars we find in so many places but they also live in a different world – a different culture – to entrepreneurs. They almost invariably struggle to even understand their mode of life, so different to their own, let alone their needs.

Research has shown that entrepreneurs learn best from, and trust the experience of, entrepreneurs – first and foremost. They speak the same language, suffer the same threats and isolation and confront similar challenges. They identify with each other.

This is why when you get clusters of entrepreneurs and startups something that can seem almost magical can happen – Silicon Valley being the most famous example. An ecosystem can form. They start to feed off of each other’s experiences. Become able to articulate their problems better – and often solve them themselves. They support and, increasingly, fund each other.

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The outside help they need is often minimal but the form in which it’s provided is crucial. The support I’ve had in the past has often killed the business-line, product or project it was intended to help. It took so much time and energy to access it that the product withered on the vine meanwhile, and the delay is often so long the window of real opportunity has closed.  

This is the norm not an exception. Add to the select committee’s diagnosis that not only is the help clumsy, inaccessible and hard to get  its so slow – both in design and then in access and delivery.

Entrepreneurs move fast and make the most of tiny amounts of money, time and other resources – otherwise they wouldn’t be entrepreneurs for long. Neither government nor local government work, or even think, like that.

It’s not just governments failed attempts at getting resources past these gatekeepers to the entrepreneurs that is the problem though. With the retreat of the banks access-to-finance has changed. There is no longer a front-desk. One place to go to give you a yes or a no – or, hopefully, to signpost you to where you need to be. A part of the major bank’s role that has not been fully appreciated, or replaced.

New forms of finance are now available. To that extent the banks are gradually being replaced, but it is with another jungle. Another alphabet soup of alternative finance, including peer-to-peer lending, crowdfunding for equity and seed funding, invoice and property finance and a whole lot more. The finance, help, expertise and support is out there. But it can take weeks or months of effort and specific skills – neither of which the entrepreneurs has at his/her disposal, to reach it. It needs mapping and signposting.

That’s why while elsewhere in Westminster, as the select committee was delivering it’s doleful verdicts, we were nearby, in Committee Room 6, launching the first three hubs, created by entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs, to address precisely these problems. The first three for Sheffield, Manchester and Bristol already followed by a growing number readying for launch locally. All using a new approach based on the open technologies of social media and business networking – online and offline – to link what’s there together and help build a local ecosystem in each place, made by and for entrepreneurs.

As we’ve consulted entrepreneurs and the professionals closest to them across the UK, the cry has been surprisingly uniform. It must be open and must not become captive to the local political turf-warlords. Any more than LinkedIn is. It should help signpost what’s out there without fear-or-favour, and help tame the alphabet soup into a local resource – including an online directory of what actually works here – rather than waste the one precious resource that every entrepreneurs must guard most closely: their time.

This is a great opportunity for all concerned to engage directly with entrepreneurs and to build the kind of local ecosystem that can help support and grow more of them. The initial signs are of great enthusiasm from entrepreneurs and the professionals closest to them, striving to help them. Time will tell whether others in that food-chain will grasp a new opportunity to move beyond these turf-wars which have swallowed resources, wasted time and acted more as a blocker than an enabler to creating such ecosystems.

I suspect that as crowdfunding and alternative finance continue their rapid growth, enabled by the substrate of web and social media, there is an inevitability to this and that entrepreneurs will find ways to coalesse. As well known VC Julie Meyer, CEO of Ariadne Capital, put it recently when she said: “The world is being redesigned at this time” by entrepreneurs. If they’re not careful those in town halls up and down the land, as well as those in Westminster could be, as she says, “the last to know”.

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