What’s wrong with being a small-business owner?

By: Simon Wicks

Date: 18 November 2010

Because this is Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) and because I was intrigued to see the interior of Coutts Bank in the Strand in London, I went to a panel debate on Wednesday organised by the Sunday Telegraph.

Titled ‘The time is now for entrepreneurs’, the debate featured a line up of the great and the good in UK enterprise – Brent Hoberman, Julie Meyer, Sara Murray, Joe Cohen and the man behind GEW, Tom Bewick.

These are influential people. Many are direct advisers to Government on enterprise and entrepreneurship. They are genuinely keen to help the powers that be develop an enterprise culture in the UK and to turn entrepreneurship into an aspiration for many of our young people. Some would like to see enterprise introduced to the curriculum as a formal element, alongside science, English and maths.

There was talk of rapid growth, high turnover, capital investment, economic output, and so on – all good stuff and the panellists seemed to mostly agree on everything. There wasn’t much in the way of debate going on. I was lucky enough to be picked to ask a question. To paraphrase, I said:

“We’re all talking about entrepreneurialism and high-growth business here, and all the political lobbying and Government policy and media conversation seems to be geared towards these firms. But the majority of people running small businesses in the UK don’t think of themselves as entrepreneurs. They’re small-business owners. What are we doing for them?”

The panel was perplexed. You could almost see them thinking “NOT high-growth? I don’t understand the question.” And it’s true, perhaps I didn’t make my point as well as I might. But I was surprised none of the panel took up the opportunity I gave them to explore the distinction between an ‘entrepreneur’ and a ‘small-business owner’ and think about the needs of a range of different kinds of business owner.

Instead they talked about the need to generate and support high growth businesses. Julie Meyer was somewhat withering about ‘slow growth’ firms (as she had been earlier about ‘lifestyle’ businesses); Sara Murray pointed out that the “majority of those businesses are corner shops” and that the Government wants to help create the next Tesco. “Tesco,” she said, paraphrasing Vince Cable, “is a bigger driver of economic output.”

This, I suppose, was the salient point. To be fair, Sara Murray also observed that Tesco had actually ruined hundreds of small businesses, so she didn’t necessarily agree with Vince Cable. But the panel as a whole seemed to find the idea of anything other than rapid growth alien and undesirable.

This is a shame. Let’s be realistic about this: the vast majority of the UK’s 4.5 million small businesses are not high-growth and will not become the next Tesco. What’s more, their owners don’t want to be the next Richard Branson, either. But they continue to employ people, pay their taxes and provide essential goods and services, year after year; they, too, provide ‘economic output’.

So why focus all of our attention on the tiny proportion of firms that will grow rapidly and make mega-millions? Why encourage all of our young people that it’s a realistic aspiration. It’s not – and X-Factor provides a salutary lesson here: for every Will Young or Alexandra Burke, there are innumerable other aspirants who now make a small living crooning on cruise ships or in pubs, or who have gone back to whatever they were doing before. Sure, they’re not as glamorous or as eye-catching, and they’re not making as much money for other people, but they are still valuable.

There seems to be something in our culture at the moment, where we consider only the spectacular and the highly lucrative to be deserving of attention. But tradespeople, enthusiasts who have turned their passion into a livelihood – yes, even corner shop owners – they are the meat and drink of our economy, and they all need a little thought from lobbyists and policymakers.

So while we’re blowing the trumpet for enterprise during Global Entrepreneurship Week, let’s remember that even though ‘now’ may well be the time for entrepreneurs, it is ‘always’ the time for small-business owners.