Small businesses at Downing Street: what we talked about

Enterprise Nation delegation at Downing Street

Emma Jones, special advisor Daniel Korski and the Enterprise Nation delegation. Photo: Enterprise Nation

Put small businesses and government together, and there’s always plenty of potential for a fraught relationship. So when Number 10, Downing Street, invited Enterprise Nation to bring a delegation of small businesses owners to Number 10, Downing Street, there was no shortage of entrepreneurs applying to share their thoughts, ideas and reflections.

I went along representing both myself and my clients: small business owners who want to grow by using our time and our energies most effectively. For me, having a system that allows us to focus on the things that grow our business, helps us deal with necessary formalities confidently and efficiently, and provides us with reliable, targeted information when we want to take risks, are all essential for us to run successful organisations.

What was it about?

It was presented as a listening session: a chance for government to hear the voices of small business. Our hosts were business and skills minister Matthew Hancock, and Daniel Korski, recently appointed special advisor to David Cameron.

We were a diverse group of small business owners, across manufacturing, services and tech. Some of us have big ambitions for high growth, others want to run a stable business that suits their lifestyle. Emma Jones, small business champion and the founder of Enterprise Nation, chaired our discussion.

Growth no longer equals recruitment

We began with a discussion about recruitment and growth, and the old perception of success equating to size and staff. Many of us round the table are adopting a different model, growing our business by using associates, freelances or partners, with or without a small group of employees as well.

There are still challenges with paperwork and legislation, however, with one young company struggling to know how best to take on regular but low-hours help. A further barrier is a lack of clarity from HMRC over the distinction between employees and freelancers, with no protection from large back-dated claims from HMRC.

One participant took a different view, choosing employees over freelances but frustrated by red tape, particularly over immigration for skilled staff. His fast-growing company is caught in a short window of VC funding and trying to get the necessary visa for a key member of the team to work in the UK, a long, labour-intensive, expensive and uncertain process, at a time when speed is essential to him.

More detailed information, please

Much discussion centred around the need for good, relevant information, whether for tax, employment, funding or other issues. There was plenty of agreement about the benefits of a in-depth, joined up resource. Much nodding accompanied the suggestion that the current government website is simply too general. Matthew Hancock touched on the continual tension between the demand for simplicity, and the need for depth; one person suggested that developing a series of personas to give another level of help would be beneficial.

Enterprise Nation members in the Downing Street state dining room.

Creating a start-up buzz in the state dining room. Photo: Downing Street

Funding: make it simpler

For many participants, the issue with funding seemed to be less about capital than cashflow, particularly in the early couple of years of a business, and especially when working with large companies with long, slow payment processes. Is the reason so many companies fail in the first two years as much to do with cashflow as weaknesses in their business? Schemes to help this already exist, but the agreement of this as a problem suggests that either they’re not working, appropriate, or known about.

There was general criticism of age-related schemes for funding. We can apparently expect this to change.

Meanwhile, however, finding sources of funding is immensely time-consuming, at a point when an owner should be focusing on their business. There was a plea for better information on what is available.

Actively promoting small businesses

Should and can the government and public sector do more to actively support new businesses? Central government departments have a target of 25% of procurement to come from SMEs, although with SMEs being companies of up to 250 employees, it’s debatable how much this benefits the smaller businesses such as ours.

Matthew Hancock talked briefly about a small group of MPs appointed as Small Business Ambassadors, and the government’s support for Small Business Saturday.

We briefly threw around some other ideas: could Downing Street, or other departments, be more public about the suppliers and products they use? Could MPs tweet about small businesses they’ve had dealings with?

Was it worth it?

I’m confident that we were listened to, and Matthew Hancock seemed particularly engaged and open. Whether we can expect any of our suggestions to be developed is another question. However, I don’t think that’s necessarily the only measure of success. When I’ve been on the other side of this kind of event, listening to people, I’ve found much of the worth comes not from the specific ideas, but from beginning to understand their mindset, values and overall concerns. I suspect this may be the case here. Matthew Hancock and Daniel Korski will have heard much commitment and engagement, a huge passion for our businesses, a desire to spend our time and energy in the most effective way, a willingness to collaborate and share ideas, and an equal willingness to stand up for what we believe in.

If they can use that understanding to develop policies that allow us to get on with creating growth, and adding value to our lives, the lives of our families and communities, then our morning will have been well spent.

 

If you’re interested in getting on the guest list for Enterprise Nation’s next trip, find out more about the benefits of membership here. 

Follow me on Twitter for more advice, insight and information for small businesses @joannapieters

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