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Facing up to business needs

Without face to face practical support we could be setting new businesses up for an almighty fall, warns Dawn Whiteley

I’m sure many of us are a bit sceptical about ‘evidence based policy’ on the grounds that it involves the expenditure of a lot of time and money on research – which ends up either reminding us of the ‘bleedin’ obvious’, or creating complex consultant designed solutions to a potentially non-existent problem.

But credit where credit is due. The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) commissioned SQW last year to research some client views on business support to inform the policymaking process. SQW, a firm for which I have lot of respect, surveyed 1,100 businesses and conducted eight focus groups.

What did they discover? There are over 100 dense pages of graphs and tables but here are some conclusions:

  • Business owners call upon a ‘rich diet’ of interactions – the web, customers, suppliers and other business contacts, professional advisers, friends and family
  • About one third of respondents among the general SME population had undertaken conversations with Business Link recently
  • Growing businesses were more receptive to advice than the non-growth sector (cause or effect?)
  • Views on the quality of Business Link support varied, which is not surprising – but those who had a face to face meeting were most positive
  • There is currently a ‘rather shallow level of engagement’ with the Business Link website.

Against this background, the policies outlined by BIS in its Bigger Better Business policy paper might seem a little perverse. The paper makes mention of a redesigned Business Link website (good), a contact centre (but only designed to support those who don’t have their own access or who need help with navigation), 40,000 ‘experienced business mentors’ (I’d say necessary but not sufficient.)

However, there’s no face to face advice for anyone following the closure of the Business Link local network, with the exception of those unemployed for more than six months who qualify for the New Enterprise Allowance.

Now I must declare an interest. Enterprise agencies, and other members of our national enterprise network, have been providing advice, guidance and training to new businesses for many many years. We’ve responded many times to the changing landscape of business support, been through a few recessions already – and in many parts of the country we have been providing services under contract to Business Link. So if there is any criticism of these services, we hold our hands up to our share of the responsibility.

We believe that the knowledge and skills behind a successful business can be taught. Plumbers don’t fail because they can’t change a tap; they fail because they get their pricing, their cash control, or their sales and marketing wrong. And you can’t blame them: they’ve been trained to do plumbing, after all.

We have a realistic view of the world we live in. We know budgets are tight. We know that there are many different learning styles, that increasingly people rely on the web and a variety of other sources for advice, and that many people can manage very well on their own.

But there is a sizeable group who can’t – a group probably concentrated in those parts of the country most at risk from reduced public sector budgets or those communities which BIS identified as having low entrepreneurial activity – BAME groups, women and service leavers for example.

As SQW concluded in its report for BIS: ‘The impact of reducing the availability of face to face services will be uneven. Start ups and new businesses will be particularly affected as they are the least likely to know what support they need, the least able to find or trust appropriate support and the least able and willing to pay for this support.’ I couldn’t agree more.

The Start Up Britain campaign, with all its endorsement from No 10, is not the only answer. I’m all in favour of people waving the flag for enterprise, but if we want to make a difference, we need to move from promoting enterprise as a cool thing to do, to providing practical support to help people making a success of their enterprise and that practical support needs to take many and different forms in order to meet the needs of those people seeking it.

Otherwise we run the risk of simply setting people up to fail. That would be more than a tragedy: it would be a crime.

  • NFEA’s policy paper, Still putting the ‘E’ into LEPs, can be downloaded at http://tiny.cc/u58qb

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