Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Looking for jobs or creating jobs! We need the jungle cry of a new Tarzan!

There had been a perfect storm in the 1970s, just as the UK economy had started to recover in the post war era. The perfect storm included the oil crises of 1973 and 1979 when the price per barrel of oil shot up by 400%. The Coal miners went on strike and this led to a 3-day week. I can remember that quite vividly, as I started my working life during the cold winter months, working in the office with lanterns and coats on!
This led to a sense of an urgent need for a new agenda and Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979 on a strong right of centre agenda to reduce government’s role in industry and to take back control from the Trade Unions. Privatization followed and capitalism took root. There is another story to be told another time. The point here is that the decimation of the publicly owned dated industries in coal and  steel (in particular) meant that something had to be done to cope with the mass unemployment that resulted from the new policies.

With a strongly held philosophy of individual responsibility, the Government, together with big businesses began to establish support for start-ups. They also introduced subsidies for small established firms to assist them with marketing, training and various Awards were also born at this time to help create a positive atmosphere and help celebrate success (however it was defined).
At regional levels Agencies were created to direct the funding from Government towards all the various campaigns of activity (I can recall evaluating 22 of them), while social enterprises were created such as Business in the Community; Prince’s Youth Business Trust and Shell Livewire.
The Government’s iconic Dept of Trade and Industry was led by Michael Helestine who was very active in promoting a strong message. His demeanor and golden hair bobbing about in interviews earned him the nick name of Tarzan. There was no question – his drive and passion pushed along the free market agenda and support for SMEs, as did the energy of Lord Young and numerous others.
The point here is to learn from the lessons of history – and for Government which is being amazingly proactive in supporting firms to hold on to talent and families’ survival – might consider directing some of the unemployment benefits and regulations towards enabling individuals into self-employment or the creation of new businesses.

Owing to the effects of the period of austerity (by the Conservative Party) we have been left with Agencies that are dehydrated and lacking anything other than boxes they can tick. From national agencies that existed in the 1970s and 1980s, policies changed to go regional and have since been further localized with Local Enterprise Partnerships. So, we are now in a position when no one can take a big picture view of what to do. For local, I also read parochial and this is where the disconnects can arise between what we need now to recover from the shock of Covid 19 and what exists as infrastructure to help solve the problems.

Employment protection and shielding the economy from bankruptcies is crucial for now but I suspect we will all change the way we do things and so entrepreneurs need to be encouraged to come forward with creative and sustainable solutions.

Over the past few decades Universities had become hubs for new venture creation through investments in the Higher Education Innovation Fund and a variety of other resources being directed to them. But – the main source of funds have been international students and that is going to be very hard hit, compounded by narrow views on the issuing of student visas. This means that what would otherwise be strong regional institutions with the capacity and capabilities for stimulating new venture creation are vulnerable.

The Government, especially the Chancellor seems to be jumping from one policy tree to another on job retention but who is there are the senior policy level to put out the Tarzan like jungle call for job creation? Does the Government expect job creation to be from state and established enterprise. What will fuel their growth to create those jobs? We are back to the debates of the later 1980s when Business Growth became the focus on policies – in search of the magic 4% of firms that were so-called Gazelles. These were due to create the jobs, but in reality as policy makers abandoned the search for Gazelles and more recently for unicorns, private sector business angels, accelerators and incubators have been filing the void. And they too are now challenged by what has happened to financial markets and rental incomes.

Having checked with the Chairman of Enterprise Educators UK – Gareth Trainer – we agreed that it is time for a flagship business creation agency or campaign to go beyond enhanced career prospects. The reality of trying to find apprenticeships with companies struggling to survive just seems unrealistic if worthwhile.

As Gareth pointed out: “The Government has rightly identified that youth unemployment and career glass ceilings are going to apply. Why not stimulate youth entrepreneurship?  They commissioned the Prince’s Trust to review youth entrepreneurship policy ages ago and the Government still haven’t allowed their report to be fully published… what are they waiting for? Meanwhile Ofsted have removed from the inspectorate the role of national lead for business, economics and enterprise, leaving the remaining subject heads to “look out’ for enterprise in schools… I think we know how that will go. I guess in summary there doesn’t seem to be the same support from the power that be on individuals to make change as there was with Thatcher.”

There is some good news on the horizon, in the sense that policies are going to be put in place for a Green agenda that is going to make a difference. We are also likely to see other measures for the enhancement of science and technology and perhaps various rescue packages for certain industries.
We clearly need new ideas and solutions at this time. This would be good news at macro levels together with any fiscal and economic policies to support the movement.

At meso levels we need regional and industry sectors to be strengthened to cope with what happens on the ground. Many of the agencies that exist – just exist. Austerity has affected them all and we need them to be empowered and skilled up as well as scaled up to cope with what is needed.

And at a micro level, COVID 19 has made us look both inside and outside for how we not only come out of the crisis, but how we recreate the future. At Universities(for example)  – can placement years in universities be converted to self-employed placement years; fewer businesses will have the funding or environment to support traditional placements so this seems like a fix that could have broader impact.

We need fresh insights in policy and a new discourse needs to be created from the Billions being put into the economy for job protection towards job creation, turbo charging the agenda through new venture creation and appropriate work experiences.
And, can we get a modern day cheer leader, a new Tarzan, whose word counts for something working with a community of people who know what they are talking about.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Business Angels and Investors need to step up, not run for the hills!!

Covid 19 is hitting all of us really hard. On many levels we are in a period of uncertainty. While we struggle with supermarket shopping or going for walks in our favourite locations, the (dare I say it) tsunami of distress is yet to come in countries that can barely afford regular health care. The projections from Imperial University of possible deaths in the region of 40 million on current trends and with no mechanisms to halt the spread of Covid 19 are scary to say the least.

Governments can do what they can do. In the end they are slowed by their procedures, political posturing and various bottlenecks.

So, is it time for investors and business angels, perhaps with philanthropic organisations and individuals to step up and provide the resources and inspiration to make a difference – at speed?

From what I have seen and heard recently; investors have run for the hills. They have discounted valuation on new investment opportunities because all they can see is risk. Fair enough – but they are not in as much trouble as the average homeless person. Come on, guys show us that empathy and a long view is possible and that at a time like this we can show some vision. Some VCs and Business Angels may well have stepped out on to the streets and clapped and cheered for the NHS. How about giving us a reason to clap and cheer for you?

I could make this a really long and reasoned blog (or rant) but let us stick to some basics for UK for now and make it wider for other countries.

How about – as part of fiscal reforms the HMRC looks at making SEIS and EIS even more attractive for Business Angels. Sharing risks a bit with them. Afterall for many it could be their pensions we are asking them to risk.

And how about Business Angel groups coming together to raise a single fund to address the needs of Covid 19. These could be with diagnostics, ventilators, social enterprises and physical infrastructure. And not just for UK needs – but look more widely at global requirements.

But here is the thing guys – let us set IRRs and terms and conditions that look more like grants than they do for mythical Unicorn returns.

How about setting a modest target of £100m to call for 10 – 15 potentially breakthrough innovations in cracking the Corona Virus.  There is an entire community of scientists and researchers who have potential solutions and nowhere to turn.

Let us see some leadership – not so much running for the hills as stepping up to the plate.