Opinion

The UK needs a revolution in business funding

10 min read

15 October 2012

It's time to take matters into our own hands. Could crowdfunding be used to circumvent the banks and replace the broken instruments that have failed to fix, or even improve, the UK economy?

Since I wrote my last article for Real Business I’ve been digging into the problems we face as a nation. This has involved facing up to the magnitude of the trouble we are in; how bad it’s become, and how much worse it could get.

It’s led to some surprising conclusions: Firstly, it’s way worse than I’d thought – and I already knew it was bad. Secondly, the answer in now in our hands – but we haven’t realised it yet.

This Tuesday it finally, and decisively, emerged that “austerity” isn’t working. In fact, it’s having the reverse effect and risks killing the patient, according to its major advocate until now, the IMF. It turns out that, when measured, for every one per cent cut economic growth is reduced by 1.7 per cent (not 0.5 per cent as previously thought). The implications of this have yet to sink in, but anyone who’s seen the reports of the most recent unrest in Greece can be in little doubt that those who fear for it’s democracy have ample grounds for doing so, based on clear historical presidents. The medicine has been harming, not enhancing, the patient’s ability to recover.

Since this has been the chief (if not the only) instrument available to tackle the wider crisis, any comfortable illusions that the IMF and governments actually know what they’re doing must now be put firmly aside.

David Cameron’s suggestion that the UK economy is “healing slowly” was dismissed by the accompanying downgraded figures, which show the opposite; we remain in decline, not just barely above level as was thought. No wonder he’s now telling the Tory Party conference, and the nation, that it’s “sink or swim time”. But it’s hardly a good sign when the monetary authorities are clearly at sea and yet feeling obliged to press their view onto national governments and national politics.

In short, the plot has been well and truly lost. Economies are actually about businesses and production – not the infrastructure of banks and finance. How did we end up where they’re thought of as a mere adjunct to something bigger? That the real money is to me made out of juggling money to produce more money out of thin air?

Paul Mason of BBC’s Newsnight said that this is a turning point. He’s probably right. The fog is dissolving and it’s now clear that these financial Emperors have no clothes at all. Just a clever juggling act that deftly creates value in the accounts they control – seemingly from nowhere. Real value is created by real businesses, from real people doing real work. From real innovation. Now, that is “redistribution of wealth” – on an epic scale.

Meanwhile, business is being stifled for lack of cash, and banks apparently still have better things to do with their funds, despite every effort from the government, who have finally cottoned on to the fact that failing to fund businesses and entrepreneurs is the biggest risk of all. But taking 18 months to build a Bank for Business is too long – we don’t have 18 months to spare – and I doubt that it will work.

We need action now, before we are dragged onto the slippery slope down which Greece is now sliding. The government and all the political parties need a wake-up call. But even so, the question remains as to whether the banks will play ball, even at this stage. History says not. Cameron told the party conference he will, “get behind the doers, the risk-takers,” but how can he?

He might not – but we, the real wealth creators, can. The very government that spent the last year and more trying to bring cash into the hands of businesses so that they might save the economy, says that we are its only hope.

As Matthew Rock said, the ‘real lesson of the past five years’ financial crisis is that our political leaders and central bankers are impotent in the face of rampant new digital and global forces.” He’s right too in pointing, as both Vince Cable and the PM have repeatedly done, to the SME sector and entrepreneurs as the true source of any real hope.

I’ve been thoroughly investigating the new, and it turns out even more revolutionary than we’d thought, small business funding model called crowdfunding. I already suspected that it had great promise for entrepreneurs, inventors and business people. It does. However, it has another potential that has not yet been realised or exploited. It can get the right amounts of money directly to the right businesses without the permission or agency of the banks – the exact thing we need to get the economy moving in the right direction.

Crowdfunding has the potential to short-circuit the economic system as we know it and get life-blood right to where it is needed in the economy. Better yet, the money can come from existing spending – but could also, with a little ingenuity, be accelerated by government money.

At present, the model is still in its infancy in the UK, although it has a spectaularly successful track record elsewhere and in the creative sector. But it’s now clear to me (and I’m far from alone in this) that crowdfunding can and will disrupt finance as we know it. It’s already clear that it’s the next wave of the web (following the disruption of publishing and social media). Left to itself it could take two or three years – longer if we plunge into a deep recession – to mature to the point when it can make any significant impact. We don’t have the time and we don’t need to take that risk.

We need a crowdfunding revolution now. We already have the kind of society that I at least thought had gone forever with Victorian times. Where working people need food parcels to feed their families and there are no jobs for the increasing numbers of barely employed and unemployed (masked by a clever system that accounts every part-time job as a sustainable living).

We need to accelerate and channel the tectonic shift which is crowdfunding to do the most good in the shortest time. We’ve been playing the game by the old rules, but the rules have changed. That’s why the levers are broken – or even, as we’ve seen, working in the opposite way to that expected and intended.

We need to work out the new rules fast, and start to play by them to turn this thing around. The solution is now with the crowd.

So learn about crowdfunding. Try it out. Support a business or two – start with tiny amounts of £10 or so to get something you want or need. Get your business engaged, learn how to raise the finance you need by crowdfunding something yourself.

Even if your’re skeptical (and I wouldn’t blame you) look into it, just in case it could work and make a difference. The government and the IMF remain powerless and there’s precious little else you can do that might make a difference. It could make all the difference to your business – not to mention the nation. So try it.

Barry E. James is CEO at Angel Revolutions.