Thursday 12th June, saw the fifth Digital Leaders North East salon and attracted the largest attendance yet. Some forty individuals from a wide variety of sectors gathered together to discuss the topic of small business support and what model can be developed to best support SMEs.
The sheer abundance of information online, and the vast number of different deliverers of business support initiatives was described as a fundamental downfall in the provision of business support.
Business support programmes run by several different organisations has resulted in “atomised” business support that lack of a single point of access where you can get information about all the support that is available.
One small business owner said: “I used to go to Business Link if I had a question, but now I can’t find the information anywhere. There are so many different initiatives about, for instance on support and training, but nobody seems to be able to pull it together.“
With so many business support schemes coming and going many small firms miss out on opportunities that would have been valuable to their business.
“Peer-to-peer - the right person asking the right question to the right qualified person has to be the bedrock of business support.“
So whose responsibility is it to provide this support? Are small business owners most likely to trust the public sector, the private sector or their peers when seeking support and advice?
There was almost universal agreement that business owners are most likely to trust the advice heard through peer-to-peer networking. There is an assumption that business owners want to receive support and advice online, when in fact what most business owners want is face-to-face contact with somebody who can offer expert advice.
One business owner described how they had moved their business forward and had tried different things because of the networking they had done and the people they had met.
One salon member proposed the need for an affordable, time-efficient ‘Business Link-type’ service, which would enable businesses to have a face-to-face discussion with an expert. Another salon member suggested that intermediary networks, such as accountants, company secretaries and lawyers, could take on a key role of providing information to businesses.
Overall it was felt that business support is not focusing on the needs of businesses and delegates suggested that business support should be delivered with the “SME journey” in mind. This would enable the development of a better understanding of the process that an SME goes through, from registering the business to finding an accountant or relevant partners.
Content and context
Effective business advice should be accurate, relevant, up-to-date and given with context. This was considered as the essential elements of sound advice. The original source of advice and its accuracy is also of paramount importance.
One salon member said that she regularly finds inaccurate information on the websites of regulators, government and councils.
Frustration and apathy
There was a general feeling of frustration and apathy amongst the salon members towards public sector business support. It is often a similar experience to public sector procurement. The fact that applying for public sector programmes and contracts is extremely time consuming also caused frustration amongst a number of the salon attendees.
There is also a frustration with public sector support because when a new government comes into office, previous business digital platforms are simply switched off. This creates instability and a constant moving of the goal posts which is enormously challenging for businesses.
The business support industry
A number of attendees agreed that the business support system was often funding or provider-led, rather than business led. This matched with the diversity and complex needs of the SME community makes it near enough impossible to ‘simplify’ business support and make it generic.
Top-down decision making is hindering business support at a local level. “Local Authorities are saddled with funding that otherwise we’d lose from a locality, but there are so many restrictions around it, it makes it quite difficult to deliver something that’s meaningful.“
Private sector business support was also mentioned. People always appreciate advice more when they have to pay for it.
Business support past, present and future
In terms of past models, Business Link received some praise because it provided business owners with the opportunity to speak to an adviser face-to-face.
Government is not necessarily the best mechanism for business support: “If you ask 100 businesses about UKTI, you’d be lucky if ten of them have heard of them let alone used them.“
And current digital platforms can be difficult to use, unintuitive and a solo experience, which often disconnects people from the rest of the internet. One member proposed that business support could be delivered more successfully using project visualisation, which allows you to embed image, video, text, media content, CAD data, Powerpoint and spreadsheets into a singular virtual space.
In terms of future business support, the idea of one digital hub that houses all business support information generated mixed opinions from the salon. One contributor said the idea of a platform where business gather to trade information sounded “fantastic”, while another explained he’d witnessed platforms like this come and go.
In general, there was a degree of optimism toward the Local Growth Hubs that are coming into force. The main appeal appeared to be the fact that each locality can tailor their Growth Hub to meet the needs of businesses in their area
So perhaps the answer to the initial question is: Bring back a better Business Link style concept. Create a new one-stop-shop where business advice is both digital and face to face and a destination that provides meaningful support that each individual business actually needs and values.