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?
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.