Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Book Review: Intervention - The Battle for Better Business

As the economic continues to bump along the bottom in the UK, there is a continual focus on the ways to increase entrepreneurship and stimulate the economy.  Many of the people who have found themselves outside of regular employment are setting up in business for themselves, creating a new wave of business start-ups.  There is considerable academic (and far from academic) debate about how best to support entrepreneurs, whether we should, and if we do what types of entrepreneur to support.  Should support be focussed on so called “high growth” prospects, which have the capacity to grow rapidly from a few founders to companies employing hundreds?  Should we instead focus support on the large established companies that employ significant numbers of people?  Or are those businesses types of business able to support themselves, and should we focus on the small one man band new entrants to the commercial world?
These arguments are not new, and I have just finished reading a book that covers some of this ground.  Intervention – the battle for Better business (by Elliot Forte) covers the history of the BusinessLink business support group in the UK since its introduction by Michael Heseltine to the effect abandonment of the model under the current coalition government.
In the name of full disclosure I should point out I was both a client of and supplier to a variety of Business Link organisations, and so benefited greatly from their activities during the past 15 or so years.
The book is written by a Business Link insider who obviously valued their activities, and sees it as a shame that they have been closed down to be replaced by a website containing basic business information.  He is hardly uncritical of the way the organisation(s) operated, and in particular the way they had to adapt to constantly changing political priorities.  (one Business Link Operator I worked with closely changed its name, remit and organisation every 2 years for a decade – which was hardly beneficial for productivity).
I tend to agree with his conclusions that Business Links were particularly beneficial for the smaller operators.  There is an argument put forward that most of the information needed to setup and run a successful small business is available on the web – but many people setting up for themselves are practical people who benefit from a conversation rather than trawling through web pages.  For the same reason the excellent books provided by banks to new starts tend to sit on the shelves.  I think these micro start-ups are the ones who benefit from business advisors – but they are exactly the people who do not have the money (or self awareness) to employ one.  The larger and potentially more successful businesses can buy in their own support rather than using a government subsidised service.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the 10 to 50 man business that would benefit from external business advice, but is sceptical of consultants and will not employ them.  Here the Business Links provided a good introduction at subsidised prices, often free.
The book highlights the relatively low cost of Business Links and the large number of businesses that they touched – however lightly.   The current Business Link website largely duplicates and consolidates  information available in other places.  The government is focussing resources on companies with potential for rapid growth through the Regional Growth Fund, which is equivalent to the running costs of Business Links for a decade.  So we are placing quite a large bet on companies meeting their potential.

My concern is that we have a new community of small scale entrepreneurs starting in business during the depths of a recession.  Those that come through this will be the foundations of Britain’s next entrepreneurial community – but many will fail when their redundancy money or savings runs out.  A little bit of government funded support could increase the percentage making it through, and give a stronger business community in the future.  I too think the Business Links were a useful, if far from perfect, contributor to business success in the UK.

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