Alison Cork is an entrepreneur, Ambassador to the British Library Business & IP Centres and founder of not for profit Make it Your Business
Faced with mounting job losses and economic stagnation, we are at a defining moment in our nation’s history.
As a lifelong entrepreneur, I believe this is also a moment of opportunity, when Britain should become a nation that champions people to start a business. Entrepreneurs are the job creators of the future, and we are going to need them.
Whilst Covid has triggered the economic challenges which have resulted in job losses, people are now much more attuned to the idea of working independently. As family dynamics shift there will possibly be an increase in the number of women wanting to work.
Whole industries such as retail and hospitality are redefining how they operate. In many ways, Covid has created a perfect catalyst to encourage self-employment as a viable alternative for people who might otherwise have stuck with traditional employment or role models.
The challenge is how we normalise entrepreneurship. Historically we have tended to view my breed as outliers, and it is true that entrepreneurs are a bit different in the way we think, view risk and spot opportunities. What we need to do now is deliver the correct framework to support that mindset, and to understand what entrepreneurship really means.
So often we focus on the huge businesses, the ‘unicorns’ of our economy. But I’m talking about the ‘acorns’ of our economy, kitchen table businesses which may only generate modest sums, but which make a material difference to the economic independence and self-respect of that person or family unit. Businesses which mean those people are not dependent upon state intervention. Margaret Thatcher got it. The daughter of a grocer, she was the poster girl of self-determination, and inspired people like me to go out and give it a shot.
Encouragingly, our current government has already made a very important contribution to this initiative. In the pre-Covid budget there was a £13 million grant to continue to roll out the British Library Business & IP Centre Network. Originated in London, the BIPC is a business advice and information service which anyone can access free of charge. Spanning market intel reports, IP advice, workshops and even one-on-one mentoring, the BIPC has an impressive track record of success, with businesses that use the resource four times more likely to succeed than those which don’t. It also returns almost £7 into the economy for every £1 of public money spent on delivering the service.
The plan is to use central and local libraries to create a hub-and-spoke model of Business & IP centres around the UK. A brand of trust, an existing physical infrastructure, an important civic building often located on or near the high street and heart of the community, libraries are the perfect impartial and non-judgemental environment from which to support would-be entrepreneurs.
In terms of levelling up, library BIPC’s can reach the parts of the country that other initiatives have never been able to reach. They also have a strong track record in encouraging women and BAME-owned businesses, both currently under-represented. Between now and 2030, we estimate the BIPC service will help establish over 150,000 new businesses, contributing over £1 billion to the economy. That’s job creation.
But if we are truly to become a nation that embraces small business, we need to look further back in the entrepreneurial life cycle, to education. Starting a business and understanding the many skill sets needed to succeed in self-employment should be part of the school curriculum. Perhaps it should even be built into our apprenticeships programme? Moreover, the recent furore over A Level results could ultimately impact on how students view career options, leading to self-employment as a more normal choice for school leavers.
Which brings me back to Margaret Thatcher. There are, of course, pieces of the self-employed jigsaw missing, and funding is one of them. It doesn’t matter how enthusiastic you are about starting a business, personal financial risk is the factor most likely to deter someone from going it alone. So, we might do well to revisit a version of the Enterprise Allowance Scheme introduced by her in 1981.
In a nutshell, the EAS paid a sum of money monthly to anyone unemployed who wanted to start a business. You had to show some savings and a business plan, but there was no vetting of the idea itself, just a no-strings opportunity to try something out and create a job or jobs. ‘What could possibly go wrong?’,I hear you say. But research showed that it created 325,000 jobs and 18 months after signing up, 65 per cent of recipients were still in business, and 25 per cent of them were under 25. Perhaps the library business centres could also administer these grants.
In terms of business-friendly legislation, let’s also look at employment law, to facilitate hiring and firing without fear of unreasonable reprisal; maternity pay that doesn’t disadvantage the self-employed; legislation around business coaches and advice – currently not subject to regulation or insurance requirements – and greater rigour around collection of bad debts and dealing with fraud.
The good news is that we have a government taking steps to deliver on the levelling up promise of the election manifesto. The library Business Centre network is an important part of the delivery of that promise. What we need now is a comprehensive suite of services to be the foundation stone of a truly authentic entrepreneurial culture.