Letter from Uncle Sam

In his latest column for Growing Business, renowned entrepreneur William Berry gives us his lessons from across the pond.

I’m going to do something unfashionable… I’m going to stick up for America. Businesses in Europe, the Far East, or even the outer Hebrides can find some great lessons from our US cousins… if we listen. For the last two years I’ve been decamped in California launching my new business P6.com, and it’s helped me take a fresh look at the way we operate in the UK.

The first thing that struck me is how inflexible employment law is here. I’m all for employee rights, but my time in America made me realise the laws in hiring and firing in the UK make human resources a minefield – enough to put any growing business off the idea of employing somebody. There is just too much liability on the employer in hiring people, too much legislation just to give someone a job. For a business start up, this is a nightmare.

In America, it’s far less risky to provide jobs. That means there’s more to go around.  More jobs creates a ‘can do’ attitude, the idea that anything can be done. That belief is essential in making a new business thrive, and it’s something that seems to be lacking in the UK – and in the drive of the nation.

When people wake up in the morning in California it’s not just the sun and OJ that get people motivated. The UK always ribs the US for the fact that it doesn’t get sarcasm, irony or cynicism. But it’s not they don’t get it – it just doesn’t feature on their radar, not even on their horizon. They just don’t see the downside. The default setting is ‘go for it’, not ‘don’t bother, it’s bound to fail’.

For a long time I tried to work out why there was this fundamental difference between the Union Jack and Stars and Stripes. We share the same language, music tastes and overindulgence in fast food, so why the different business mindset?

One obvious answer:  the class system.  Let’s not pretend it’s not there in GB, or that we’ve moved on from the past centuries. In the UK, we’re still locked into the idea that wealthy and successful people have gained it by entitlement. Even more unfair is the assumption that entitlement originates from doing something dishonest. It breeds the idea that the affluent are to be mistrusted, and the upper class enjoys its elevated position at the expense of the serfs who do their bidding and hard work. So, therefore, it’s culturally engrained that the rich should be resented by the mass.

And can you necessarily blame them? What happens when the average Brit gets a bit of wealth? They go all nouveau riche. They audaciously adopt the customs, accent and dress sense of the upper class and disown their roots into the bargain. In reality, they can’t pull it off for long without looking like a fake and a bit gauche, re-confirming the suspicion that the rich are not to be trusted. The cycle begins again.

In the US it’s a different story. Here in Uncle Sam’s America, the belief is that the wealthy are there because they deserve it. That they’ve put in the hard work. People like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, as well as being philanthropists, have earned admiration for their success. They took risks, and went for it, even when nobody else believed in them. Steve Jobs was initially fired from his own company, Apple, before they begged him to come back. His own company.  So you know I’m not joking about those employment laws being flexible.

His reaction was to come back armed and ready with the ideas that make Macs and I-Pads what they are today. Google was set up in a garage.  Colonel Sanders drove his frying machines around in a van. So, if the laws are against us, what can we do to replicate this? One word: enthusiasm. Given a choice between employing someone with experience or someone with all-guns-blazing enthusiasm, I’d employ the enthusiastic person every time.

Enthusiasm builds great countries, and it re-builds them, no matter how deep in recession they’ve become, and it’s that sense of enthusiasm we need to re-inspire again and again.  If we can’t change the law, let’s at least change our belief.

William Berry is a serial entrepreneur and in 2006 was named a Young Gun by Growing Business. He is the founder-director of accommodationforstudents.com, conferencevenues.com, and Vincentbond.com. William is also CEO of the new video start up p6.com, based in California.

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