Scaling up: a challenge for Innovate UK
A new report identifies the challenges that the UK must meet if our SMEs are to underpin economic growth to the substantial extent that they can.
Seldom has a piece of business research been designed to be so authoritative. Inspired by arch Angel Sherry Coutu, sponsored by Barclays and executed by the Business Schools of Oxford and Cambridge, its findings hit hard.
The research addresses a problem that has been relatively hidden – by the vibrancy of Tech City and the startup scene. While hi-growth SMEs generate 20% of all jobs growth in the UK, recent evidence from OECD shows that the UK has the highest number of start-ups compared to the OECD average, but we also have the lowest proportion of hi-growth SMEs. The biggest problem for the UK is not in starting companies, but in growing them.
The report focuses on two closely linked obstacles to their successful growth. It seeks to identify the things that characterise successful hi-growth SMEs – with a view to stimulating them. And it seeks to make recommendations that would improve their financability.
It portrays their problems in terms of a series of challenges that they need to recognise and handle at the right moment, in particular:
- aiming high – ambition
- building a strong team
- establishing partnerships
- putting effective management systems into place
- identifying core competences, and
- articulating competitive strengths and new market opportunities.
While there may seem little new in these challenges, several of the recommendations emphasise the role of stakeholders in supporting scale-ups; and the research illustrates the importance of two factors: the timeliness and firmness with which the relevant issues are tackled; and the value of support in doing so.
In the financial capital of Europe, it is surprising to read of as many recommendations to tackle the financial support of these SMEs as there are about the management of the business – which seem to have caught the City unawares. These recommendations are about:
- increasing the number and quality of VC funds
- growing the number of experienced investors with sector and market experience
- developing a UK venture debt market
- establishing the UK Stock Exchange as the European leader in this field
- enhancing the liquidity of private company equity
- collecting better data on VC financing.
The report says little about how these objectives might be achieved, but the researchers participated in a new programme for such hi-growth companies at the Cambridge Judge Institute, which brought together the CEOs of all the participating companies at a series of six bi-monthly workshops, each of which addresses one of the classic challenges that early-stages ventures progressively face (eg shaping the value strategy/marketing and competition/developing the team/future finance).
These were structured so as to help each participant work with all the others: to assess progress, gain insights into and articulate their problems and opportunities, problem-solve collaboratively, set objectives and develop plans and ways to implement them. And a dedicated member of staff makes regular visits and contacts with each participant.
I have come across several programmes in the UK structured in this way (which I will discuss shortly in my blog). Innovate UK is ideally suited to enabling well-established and located incubators to set up targeted programmes of this kind, and this report should help ensure that it does so. For the full report, see home.barclays/scaleup
John Whatmore, May 2016