Finance for small businesses – problems

Aside

Better financial support for hi-growth ventures In identifying finance issues faced by hi-growth young businesses, new research has set a number of targets for the British Business Bank, for which it faces immense difficulties.

 The government’s British Business Bank, established in 2014, is focused on smaller businesses, and its main remit is by working with and through private sector delivery partners to increase the supply of finance available in areas where markets do not work effectively.

It reports that over 10,000 smaller businesses are now benefitting from finance supported by the bank compared with a year ago, and from a wide range of sources, but with no specific focus on hi-growth businesses, where there are evidently significant problems.

The recent Scale-up Report, sponsored by Barclays and the work of the Judge Institute in Cambridge and the Said Business School in Oxford has identified six major needs for smaller businesses with hi-growth potential:

*         increasing the number of large VC funds

*         growing the number of experienced investors with sector experience and         international networks

*         developing a venture debt market

*         establishing the LSE as the leading stock market for scale-ups

*        developing new approaches for creating liquidity in private company shares, and

*         collecting systematic data about financing scale-ups.

Many of these fall into the lap of the Bank.

Its CEO feels that London is now well supplied and the bank has recently started to focus on the less well supplied areas of the country such as the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. It is currently aiming to set up funds there for which it is seeking tenders for fund managers, who will bring with them their own local ecosystems of supporters (on the lines typically found in Cambridge.)

Secondly it has sought to bring together under a single head the dozen or so sources of financial information that growing businesses need (in a publication entitled the Business Finance Guide).

And it is now giving growing attention to the complementary need for mentors/advisers to give specific help and advice on finance to early-stage ventures. At present experienced finance mentors for hi-growth businesses are not easily found. The source booklet, just published, is very different to good advice being on tap just when it is needed; small businesses have neither time nor inclination for research.

The bank already seeks to ensure that its startup loans are also accompanied by the appointment of mentors (as it does loans made by the Angel Co-investment Fund – which it funded.) It is seeking to do this on a national basis and in an enduring way – with organisations like the UK Business Angels Association and the Institute of Chartered Accountants.

It has a challenging task in that while its aim is to enhance the more entrepreneurial part of the economy, it seeks to do so through other organisations, and through a number of them.

In working with small businesses the bank also faces a disconnect: it exhibits all the trappings of a major financial institution, while its direct links with small business are tenuous.

The Barclays Scale-up Report has identified some very specific targets for the British Business Bank. They depend very much on the influence it can bring to bear. As a brand new organisation, it has a mountainous challenge.

John Whatmore, July 2016

Advertisements

Scaling up: a challenge for Innovate UK

Aside

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

 

 

 

Accelerators getting more choosy and more targeted

Aside

Accelerators attract quantities of applicants, a number of whom have ideas for new businesses that are very evidently non-starters, some even barmy; many have ideas of limited scope, some of whom present poorly. A few have an immediate appeal as really disruptive, or as having an innovative approach to a big issue, though not necessarily demonstrating outstanding entrepreneurial qualities. How are selection processes trying to deal with these issues?

 

  Accelerator Academy originally opted for a computer-based test for applicants (about entrepreneurial potential) together with application form and interview; but it now relies more on having two of its staff hold Skype-based interviews  with candidates that aim to explore how well the programme suits the candidate and vice versa.

Imperial Innovations’ student Accelerator has adopted a two-stage application process, the first of which is simply a single line pitch and 500 character description, designed to force applicants to think concisely about the problem being solved and who are the potential users. Workshops once or twice a week during the following two months on various topics including funding sources, legal, and perfecting the pitch, and next year also time to work on their products (technical or business aspect) help the students to focus on each area of their business (value, customer relationship, cost structure etc). And then students are invited to complete a more in depth application based around their learnings and using the business model canvas as a framework. Finally the top 20 are invited to semi-final pitches and 5 go through to pitch for funding and intensive mentorship.

Newcastle’s Science City incubator is currently planning to hold sessions at which experts in the field in question talk about topical problems that are ripe for solution – in an attempt to get candidates to tackle issues of significance.

      Bethnal Green Ventures has cast a wider net: regional meetings have been canvassed; and candidates are invited to meet and talk about themselves and their work. Some assessment can then be made of those who later make formal applications about their progress and their entrepreneurial capabilities as well of course as their project.

Biocity in Nottingham runs three-day Bootcamps for aspiring entrepreneurs to develop their ideas for new businesses – that might find a place in the Biocity Incubator, the Nottingham Cleantech Centre and Antenna – two other specialist incubators in Nottingham.

The Royal College of Art’s incubator consciously takes candidates who have identified issues that entail significant engineering or IT Development. Oxford’s Said Business School has provided an opportunity for people to identify commercialisable opportunities from among a portfolio of IP from the European Space Agency and from CERN, in the hope that some of those people will choose to work together, perhaps taking space in Harwell’s Science Park, to develop a business of the IP.

The latest Wayra Lab cohort of 16 were invited, along with as many other candidates, to Wayra Week, where they were helped to identify the special focus of their proposed business and to learn how best to pitch it; and where at the end of the week they made their submissions to the seven assessors.

The 16 who won places in the Accelerator started off with a week’s Bootcamp – of instruction in essential aspects of business, and surgeries with experts. The week included a pitching session with mentors, at which each new team hade 2 minutes to pitch to the hundred or so mentors present and each mentor had 45 seconds to pitch to the teams, after which they were left to make their own contacts. It is the quality of the contacts that seems to be the most valued aspects of Wayra Lab.

Like other Accelerators EntrepreneurFirst (which is sponsored by several leading corporates) whittles its c600 applicants down – to 35 – by a three-stage selection process. But EntrepreneurFirst has adopted a year-long programme of periodic development and support for its potential entrepreneurs prior to its 6-month progamme.

Over the course of the summer, they have participated in team building selection and development days, including a 2-day session in which three teams of 5 had to make a 3-minute film on a theme around the Year 2022, and then get as many people as possible to view it – all in two days. Two months later, when in early August their university exams were over, they had a fortnight’s residential bootcamp, where they received training and support from entrepreneur mentors on how to build a lean startup. This also required them to test their early startup ideas with customers – a task designed to help understand product communications and the difficulty of getting heard!

At the end of  the programme that starts in September, while some teams will pitch to potential funders for ongoing support, others will be helped to find different roles in some of the more successful teams.

 

So who will fund an extended process of this kind?  If the Knowledge Transfer Networks were to take up the challenge of encouraging Accelerators on behalf of their different sectors, they might find that the benefits were worth the cost of providing support of this kind. The TSB has already identified areas associated with social or economic need where emerging technologies are likely to be able to contribute; and has run competitions for significant grants. Perhaps in addition, it should fund Accelerators in each such area.

 

Copyright 2013

John Whatmore                                                                                             May 2013

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity

London