The Business Growth Service itself needs scaling up


Undervalued and undersold, the Business Growth Service itself needs scaling up.

It has demonstrated the value of support for SMEs, but few make use of it; so why doesn’t the service concentrate in a big way on developing its market?

Innovate UK worked with the Business Growth Service to assess the value of offering to its grant winners access to this service free of charge. It showed that they benefitted substantially – in evolving their ideas and helping them in the marketing of their business, especially in filling gaps they did not know they had. The coaching, mentoring and training in entrepreneurial skills helped them to make better use of the grant, achieve higher growth and effect better communications (especially those from academia). However, it is not easy to induce young businesses to take up this offer, says Nigel Walker of Innovate UK; it is only afterwards that they appreciate just how valuable it is.

Accelerators (like Techstars, Seedcamp and Startupbootcamp), VCs (like Octopus Ventures) and the new Business Growth Fund have all highlighted the importance of mentors for early-stage businesses, providing ‘access to strategic support and advice – ideally from someone who had been there and done that and who carries the battle scars of business and has come out the other side. ’ Achieving a high rate of growth calls for support in many different areas, and those needs also evolve and change.

The bare bones of the scheme are these: the four organisations delivering this service:

  • seek out businesses with the potential for high growth
  • select those for whom this support is appropriate
  • provide an initial meeting with an adviser
  • offer from a database (not currently public) a choice of three coaches, advisers or consultants to fit the company’s specific needs
  • facilitate connection to local advisers and other local and central organisations.

The country-wide Business Growth Managers – the initial advisers (c.180) – are employed by the service, and are credible and experienced advisers, who have run their own businesses, and whose job is to reach a diagnosis about the opportunities for the business and the obstacles that it is facing – challenging thinking, identifying goals, and setting out a clear plan; and then to select three people who might work well with the company.

The coaches, advisers and consultants (c.5000) are independent, working specifically on client support and delivering the service. They provide new eyes, advice that is specific to the technical and/or industry context, introductions [eg to users, buyers, sellers etc], and strategic advice. And match-funding up to £2k is offered for leadership and management training for senior managers. One-to-one coaching and third party opinion are the aspects that are most highly valued; and a number of the beneficiaries go on to appoint non-executive directors.

The heart of the scheme is to be found in the help it has provided. Businesses that have used the service have been shown to have benefitted by notching up growth four times faster than the average SME. The highest proportion of barriers to growth are associated with Strategy and Management (53%), followed by Skills and Staff (39%) and Sales and Marketing (38%), and Finance (27%); and support has proved most effective where it has addressed strategy and sales and marketing.

The best sources of high growth SMEs must lie among those that are in Accelerators, Incubators, Science Parks, Innovation Centres and Tech Hubs, of which there are perhaps 15,000, and the service should be offered free of charge to these. In the two years to April 2014, ‘15,000 businesses engaged with the [Business Growth] service’, but the 6% of SMEs (repeatedly identified as the key source of growth in the UK) could number 300,000.

Moreover, we are seeing a geographical spreading of innovation Centres, Tech Hubs and co-working spaces, but their vital mentors, advisers and entrepreneurial communities are harder to catalyse. Coaches, advisers and consultants on the BGS’s database need to be made available online, and accessible either via Cisco’s National Virtual Incubator, or of course via Skype. What is needed is a national virtual network of business growth managers, which could be led by the BGS, to bring the service’s benefits to smaller clusters and local nodes of growth.

Is it time for Innovate UK to offer this service free of charge (or say for 1% of their equity) to all potentially hi-growth businesses?

The service needs to be run by a commercial board; it was set up by BIS and is ‘delivered’ by four organisations, but it has no commercial element to re-evaluate its strategy: when it comes to governance it lies in nomansland. What advice would it give itself?

See also:

Managing support for early-stage ventures – a fast emerging role

In Silicon Valley support is everywhere, and it is increasingly immanent in London’s entrepreneurial world, with some high profile examples – promoted by a new breed of support managers. But there are other areas where it is still a distant prospect.



Our research continues – into what makes for effective mentoring. It is clear that different issues call for different experience eg in strategy, management/team building, technical help (IT the most common), sales and marketing, finance etc. And matching personalities and learning styles is no easy task. We are currently working with about a dozen outstanding mentors and their mentees.





Reversing a topsy-turvy approach to a better world?


Reversing a topsy-turvy approach to a better world

Focusing on major issues rather than relying on people with good ideas is likely to be a good source for the 6% of businesses with hi-growth potential (- and Unicorns)

 Next: the Business Growth Service’s coaches, mentors and advisers are having a real impact for SMEs; it must be exploited.

Following: Five Ace Mentors – you may need all of them

Most of the commercial supporters of hi-growth businesses depend on who turns up with a good idea – for which they search keenly; yet many of those ideas are often limited, ephemeral and even trivial, and many of their protoganists far from suited to the heavy sweat of growing a business. Few focus on issues of strategic, technical or sociological importance – like basic needs, lifestyles or communities.

Among those that have done so are:

Village Capital in New York – which seeks to identify large scale needs in any country throughout the world, and then to match them with experts and funds designed to find and implement solutions.

Syncona Partners, a subsidiary of the Wellcome Trust, which identifies potential solutions to major healthcare issues that are of technical or strategic importance and matches experts (or sets up the necessary management) and funds for delivering their benefits.

BioCity Nottingham which runs a programme whose starting point is identifying major issues of organisations in its area, and then finds experts who may be able to help solve those issues; and goes on to provide them with intensive support for the development of solutions.

The provision by Innovate UK’s for its grant winners of free access to The Business Growth Service is a welcome focus on technological opportunities that have been identified in competition, and thus a well-directed initiative for supporting young businesses that have the potential for high growth.

Innovate UK’s Business Growth Workshops bring these grant holders together and illustrate the analysis that the service’s Growth Development Managers put together, and which they use to offer a choice of three coaches, mentors or advisers to the business involved.

The success of this service must be exploited by making sure that it is adopted for example in clusters and in innovation centres everywhere.

John Whatmore

October 2015

Accelerators attacking bigger issues?

If Accelerators can support hi-growth SMEs as well as startups, can they also be adapted to focus on tough problems and emerging opportunities in all sorts of fields? (



TAPPING INTO A BIG POOL OF HELP AT THE OXFORD LAUNCHPADThere are few places with so many brain cells per square foot as Oxford, so if you use every opportunity in this social enterprise incubator community to say what you do, you will soon hit the jackpot with the help you need!

The Oxford Launchpad is a co-working space for social enterprises within the curtilage of Saïd Business School, set up by the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and the Entrepreneurship Centre at Said Business School in February 2014.

It is open to entrepreneurs from the ecosystem outside of the University and has 1800 signed up members  (made up of students, alumni and other experts and entrepreneurs) 20 hot-desk spaces – able to be shaped into any format, plus ancillary equipment for every kind of meeting; open every day from 9am till 5pm.

It attracts students, graduates and locals alike – because

*    it provides access to talent

*    it is a work-space in the accessible centre of the town,

*   and because of high-level visitors to Said Business School and to Oxford.

And it is one of the very few places dedicated to entrepreneurship in Oxford aside from other Incubation centres.

James, the curator, tells new visitors

  • to sign in every time (for valuable stats)
  • to sit next to someone you don’t  know
  • to tell each other what you  do.

And we try, he says, to get new joiners to find someone to work with them – as co-founder, fellow worker or intern (of which there are now 20, each attached to a different business). You’d want to demonstrate your capability to me, says James, so that I can introduce you to relevant visitors and startups – I am the gatekeeper. And we get a lot of interest and enquiries from VCs and Angels. (Besides having two startups under his belt, he has worked at two universities, running multidisciplinary experimental entrepreneurship events, and he has worked for a policy think-tank).

Everything is done to foster the sense of community – to believe in its collaborative power – by sharing your highs and lows, by being encouraged to ask others, and by sharing your own expertise and successes. As a square space, you encounter everyone readily and form relationships and friends easily  ‘you go out to lunch together and with the interns’.

Every week there is an event of one kind or another – a workshop on such topics as idea generation, team building, marketing, financial and business planning; or on design thinking, the business model canvass or rapid prototyping; or speakers e.g. on Confessions of an entrepreneur, or a Hackathon, with meetings all top-and-tailed with networking. And there are regular networking meetings – “Mix@Six” – which are held each time at a different location in Oxford.

Details of some of the Resident Experts can be found on the Launchpad website, and arrangements can be made to meet them, although these are generally only for students at this time.

One entrepreneur whom I met whose 4-year old business had just come into profit had come by her mentor along with a grant from a charity had enabled her and her partner to take on their first member of staff.

There is an annual Busines2Environment event at which you had to arrive with a team from different disciplines – where a team consisting of a DPhil in material sciences had combined with a frustrated MBA to win a grant, and went on to win a series of funding rounds.

There is a lean-Launchpad programme (or VIEW) run by the Entrepreneurship Centre, of 5 weeks duration, consisting of a day a week of lectures and a home-work programme, which attracted 30 teams last year (each of the three cohorts having a different day of the week of lectures.)

The Oxford Launchpad supports the activities of both the Skoll Centre and the Entrepreneurship Centre at the Said Business School, while drawing together entrepreneurial endeavour from all parts of Oxford, both within and external to the University. It is a place where students, Faculty and the wider Oxford community can meet to collaborate, create and strengthen ventures, as well as to share knowledge, practice and connections. The Launchpad aims to become the focal entrepreneurship space in Oxford, with a large and active membership, a programme of events and a reputation for producing and accelerating a consistently high quality of growing ventures.

See also

Three pieces of Pixie Dust: Bethnal Green Ventures ‘accelerates’ six new social enterprises

The workings of Accelerators may tell us something more general about how better to help to turn ideas into innovations: what is the Pixie Dust?

In the more effective Accelerators, the mentoring is more intensive and more pervasive than it is for example in most incubators; in some accelerators (this one among them), the proximity and interactions between the teams are much closer (‘the kitchen a vital place’); and the pressure to deliver within the given period something of value is the third significant piece of Pixie Dust.

But what about leadership? Empathy, experience, contacts with top people who have ‘done it before’, willingness to force issues, regular meetings and support, and ‘getting people to interact on their own terms’ – all of this in a quietly understated style (‘self-effacing facilitation’): probably a rare collection of skills.

John Whatmore

October 2015