Hate something? Change something... Can you influence the governmental policies that affect your business?
Making an impact on the world is largely to do with knowing where best to put your energy. So when I get the opportunity to do something that has a potential impact on not just my business but those of my clients and peers I grab it with both hands. Last week I was thrilled to be invited to an event run by The Entrepreneurs Network, a think tank set up to give entrepreneurs, small businesses and the self-employed a greater collective voice. It was called ‘A Parliament Fit for Entrepreneurs?’ and aimed to understand what the government needs to do to support entrepreneurs better.
I was excited to go, and at the time the discussion was absorbing and inspiring. The overwhelming message from the panel, made up of Baroness Susan Kramer, Andrew Dixon and Gilian Keegan MP was that the way to change government policy was to ‘get involved’. Lobby, speak to your MP, play your part in discussion groups and forums. ‘Great’ I thought, I’m here at this event, getting involved, changing things – that’s a start.
They made it sound so easy – ask and you shall receive. And to an extent I don't think that you can complain that nothing changes unless you’ve made your voice heard. BUT, and it’s a big but as I sat typing out a whole blog about how we should put all of our collective energy into changing government policy I felt unconvinced, especially when I spend a lot of time supporting overwhelmed, stressed out business leaders.
It turns out that my hunch was right - all that well-meaning advice about getting involved might just result in us all feeling like we’ve wasted our time. I had the chance to attend another TEN event yesterday – this time a discussion about how the government can better support female entrepreneurs. And instead of a panel of politicians, there were two successful business women (Julie Dean of the Cambridge Satchel Company and Alison Cork, Founder of Make it Your Business) and a politician who has also had a 30 year career in business (Gillian Keegan MP). One of those business women, Julie Deane from the Cambridge Satchel Company, was asked personally 4 years ago by David Cameron to write a review of government support for the self-employed. In her report she offered 10 simple suggestions, all relatively cheap to implement and cost effective. Where is that report? In her words ‘it’s on a shelf’ - it’s also here, and it’s worth a read. But understandably, she’s incredibly frustrated.
It’s no great surprise when you think just how much turnover there is in government that things fall between the cracks and down the list. Add that to the fact that in Gillian Keegan’s words ‘government moves around 5 times slower than business’ and throw a bit of Brexit into the mix and you’ve got the perfect recipe for only the big things getting done. And the big things, as well as Brexit, as we all know at the moment are the national security threat, the NHS and political uncertainty worldwide.
HOWEVER, to set your minds at ease, there was broad alignment from both the panel and the audience on several points from both events. The current tax system is unfair – investors get way more tax relief than the small businesses they’re investing in. Childcare is too expensive. The self-employed have been missed out of the mat leave policy entirely. And national insurance contributions are unfair if you work for yourself.
All of these are on the government agenda, and there is significant pressure from various groups on each of them. It’s still worth getting involved and adding your weight to the mix and there are various options including The Entrepreneurs Network.
On reflection, the other points that prompted the most discussion whilst, I imagine would be of interest to the government were not about what needed to change from a governmental policy point of view but all far more to do with how we can help ourselves. And don’t you just love that about a room full of female business women – without even saying it we pretty much decided to take things into our own hands. Because as Alison Cork said ‘when you’re an entrepreneur, you’re a doer, you wake up each morning and want to get things done’
So what were those things?
We’re holding ourselves back
I used to find it incredibly patronising when I heard the same old list of confidence, resilience and mindset as being the things that hold women back but the more women I speak to both as clients and peers, the more I see these things manifesting themselves. And this came out in spades. Our tendency to hold back, assess the situation and think before we act is often a huge asset but when it means we’re waiting until we’re completely bullet-proof before we act, it means we’re missing opportunities. Alison Cork runs events all around the country with Make it Your Business and sees it time and again. Her advice - ‘You don’t need to be the finished article from day 1’.
This was the discussion that refused to die! I won’t bore you with the details but the summary is that people who have mentors do better. There is a HUGE need for strong, skilled, capable mentors to advise not just young entrepreneurs but also peers, and to share specialist knowledge. For all the coaches in the mix, there was no mention of coaching as part of this discussion. The general consensus was that people want to feel that they are working with people that have been where they are, that they have experience that they can draw on to help with the issues that that person or business is facing.
Investment, funding and support
I’ll be honest, this is where I learned the most. Both of the successful business women on the panel built their businesses with no external investment. But there was still a large discussion on why (and where) investment is important, but moreover why women typically get less investment than men. The conclusion… we’re not building businesses with an exit plan in mind. Women want to build businesses they can run, not businesses they can sell. Most investors want to know the exit plan.
Isabel Oswell, Head of Business and Research at the British Library suggested this is where crowdfunding may be a a better option for female entrepreneurs looking to scale and grow their business. They support a huge number of female entrepreneurs each year - typically 60% of the businesses they support in their business hub are run by women vs. a national average of 22% and she believes that businesses are 4 times more likely to succeed with the support offered by their Innovating for Growth Programme.
And there is also a huge amount of government loans and support available still but there was a general sense that it's all very difficult to find. Enter the Institute of Directors who's entrepreneur programme IoD99 is working to help navigate what's available. Additionally there are many different schemes from the banks and as this grows they’re putting even more support in place to attract the ever growing number of small businesses, start ups and scale ups. I spoke to Jamie Black from Nat West who shared a huge number of different initiatives with me, not least their business growth schemes and last week I had the pleasure of attending an event called Be More Gazelle at which one of the panel members was Thomas Mahon VP of Barclays High Growth and Entrepreneur.
Real events and networks
All of this helps build networks and there was a large consensus that social media doesn’t help with all of those feelings that hold women back specifically. Many of the schemes above are from trusted sources which, for me at least takes away some of the perceived risk of shopping in a crowded and overtly competitive online market place. It became clear in all of the discussions that loneliness is a huge issue when you're starting a business and so those hubs and support networks help. I certainly felt that spending 2 hours in the company of so many bright and successful women nourished my soul!
My conclusion - there's a huge amount of support and energy out there to help entrepreneurs and an incredible amount of that is for female entrepreneurs. No, the government hasn't got it right in all aspect of the support needed and the barriers to success that we all experience are very real. It's certainly worth adding your weight to those discussions where you can but honestly, I would focus on getting as much support as possible and building a successful business first. All the successful women in the room at both events had faced exactly the same, if not more hurdles, it is possible to succeed and it's possible to do it without funding.
In my next blog, I'll be talking about 5 ways you can grow your business without funding - if you'd like to be the first to see it, sign up here for my weekly newsletter.