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Startup Britain: a small step forward

There's been a fair bit of grumbling and other negative reactions about the StartupBritain initiative recently launched. Much of it is terribly misguided - the grumbling, I mean.

Since a number of people have asked me my opinion on the topic, here's my analysis of what's going on.

Pro-entrepreneurs, not just pro-startup

I'm the last person to want to support the British Conservative party, but if there's one thing they've declared consistently, it's that they are pro-business. They believe (rightly or wrongly) that to be prosperous, a country needs to provide a good climate for businesses to flourish, rather than a "big" government that gets deeply involved in people's lives. I won't get into a debate of whether this is the right view or not, that's not the point of this article.

As part of their agenda to make Britain a better place to do business, then, the current government has put its stamp of approval on StartupBritain. What is it? Have a look, if you haven't yet.

It's basically a site with a lot of advice on all sorts of topics of interest to entrepreneurs - whether the tech startup kind or the more traditional kind. At this point it's worth noting that a lot of the criticism of StartupBritain has been levelled from a pure tech startup point of view - as if the advice was only for this tiny sliver of the entrepreneurial world.

This is a first point that is really worth making. The people who create jobs are entrepreneurs who start businesses. Tech startups are only a very small percentage of those. It's an important percentage, and one which deserves (and, as we shall see later, gets) special attention, but when managing a country, you have to also cater to the other 99%.

In addition to the advice, StartupBritain includes some minor discounts for some services of interest to new businesses. These have been much maligned because of their opportunistic nature.

If you keep an eye on it over a few days, rather than condemning it on launch day, you can see that the site is growing and changing fast. Some might say they're iterating.

What, then, is so worthy of the bile that has poured out from some sources? Nothing. StartupBritain not a world-changing site, but it's a good starting point. And, from a source (the government) that normally produces practically nothing, it's surprisingly positive that they've managed to agree to support this (private) initiative (I'm told it was pulled together within a matter of months).

Some examples of criticisms

Exhibit 1:

Why is this site not giving realistic advice and why is it not supporting UK design and branding agencies? Is there a place in StartUp Britain for them?

Because giving startup advice is such a non-controversial topic that a one-day old site can be expected to get it right and please everyone from the first day...

Exhibit 2:

To state that the UK government is clueless hardly requires a blog post, but in this particular instance, I refer to startupbritain.org: a site purportedly dispensing advice to entrepreneurs who are looking to start a new business. Besides the fact that the content is essentially one big list of links, some of the advice given is not only poor, it’s also potentially damaging to our industry.

(...)

Visit the site and you’ll see that the ‘create a logo’ tip is a direct link to 99 Designs

Of course, every new company needs branding consultants worth thousands of pounds to get their image right, because that's exactly what will make them successful. (<sarcasm>)

Exhibit 3:

To the trained eye, it’s clearly a glorified, government backed ‘link farm’ – a term which is used by those in the industry to describe a page full of ‘spam’ advertisements, which when clicked, earn the owner of the website ‘affiliate commission’.

What else would you have started with? Pulling together offers that may be relevant to entrepreneurs is a starting point, not an end-game. And as a minimally useful starting point, it's not so bad.

Is it enough? No, but there's more!

The only valid criticism I have read on the topic said that StartupBritain doesn't go far enough. That's true - if you look at it in isolation and frozen in time. One particular example was the terribly misnamed "£1500 support package" (which effectively consists of a number of very minor discount coupons for various services, all of which are available elsewhere). People rightly claim that this is hardly "funding" worth the name - hell, it can barely be called "support".

But StartupBritain is evolving fast, iterating on what was essentially an MVP, in a way that should be praised, not condemned. Moreover, it is not the only initiative the government has in place to help new businesses (including tech startups).

If you're looking for funding, the Technology Strategy Board has had an ongoing series of grants for some time. They have many flaws (mainly the narrowness of the selection criteria), but this is real funding, to the tune of hundreds of millions a year. And TSB is not sitting idle either: just now, they are launching a new type of grant which is less narrow and more applicable to typical startups. Very importantly, while every service, including extremely high-profile things like the Police and the NHS, has had to face budget cuts, TSB did not.

Beyond TSB grants, there are also R&D Tax Credits. For example, with GrantTree, we've helped a number of startups to claim substantial amounts of money from this scheme. Those are, once again, very real sources of funding assistance for tech startups. And there, again, the government is moving in the right direction: the latest Budget announced not only that the tax credits would increase from 75% to 125% over the next two years (starting in April this year), but also removed a cap that made most early startups ineligible. This, again, is against a backdrop of every other government service being cut down.

Add to this that a few months ago, the government also launched an initiative to encourage investment in the famed Silicon Roundabout, the closest thing to a startup haven that we have (though some would disagree and point to Cambridge instead).

If this is not a government that's actively working to help entrepreneurs, I don't know what is.

The final nail in the coffin of this debate comes from David Cameron, Prime Minister of Britain, himself, in a soundbite (about 6 minutes in):

I think this all comes down to one thing: making the dream of enterprise more accessible to everybody, and driving the wealth creation and job creation that we so badly need. That's why I passionately believe in what you're doing, and over the coming months and years, this government and this prime minister will support you every step of the way.

And before I take your questions, let me just say this: None of this, none of what the government is doing, none of what StartupBritain is doing, will mean anything unless people take up these opportunities. To drive our economy forward, we need thousands of people to make that very difficult, very brave first step and strike out on their own.

So I want to make a direct appeal, to everyone who's sitting at home, or sitting at their desk, and thinking about starting their own business. Now is the time to do it. If you've been turning over a good idea for years, now is the time to make something of it. If you're working for a big firm, but you know you could do a better job on your own, now is the time to make that leap. If you've been dreaming about starting up the next great British brand, now is the time to make that happen.

What more do people want from a government? There's clear, unambiguous talk, there's visible action, there's substantial money, there's information - all in an effort to encourage entrepreneurs. What more do you want?

Conclusion

Seen in isolation, of course, StartupBritain is not enough. But it does not exist in isolation. It exists within the larger context of a very real, concrete, and useful drive by the UK government to help entrepreneurs to start businesses in the UK - tech startups, coffee shops, IT services companies, or anything else that can create jobs and make a profit.

And within this context, it is one more step forward in a march that, on the whole, seems to be in the right direction.

Instead of pouring scorn on it, every entrepreneur worth his salt should, at the very least, nod approvingly, if cautiously, and wait to see what this resource evolves into.


More from the library:
Startup sales: #6: Pre-qualification and triage
Advice for a young entrepreneur
How to find a business cofounder that doesn't suck
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