Small business commissioner joins Startups 100 judging panel

Liz Barclay will join an esteemed panel of guest judges to decide the winner of this year’s Just Started award.

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Liz Barclay, Small Business Commissioner (SBC) for the UK and experienced advocate for SMEs, has been announced as guest judge for next year’s Startups 100 Index.

Joining a panel of expert judges, which includes Cheeky Panda’s Chris Forbes and social entrepreneur Karen Lynch MBE, Barclay will help to identify the winner of the Just Started award, chosen from a shortlist of businesses featured in the top 100.

Introduced last year, the award is designed to celebrate very early-stage startups which, despite having been in business for under a year, have already demonstrated impressive growth, success, or disruption in their field.

Commenting on her decision to take up the judge’s gavel, Barclay tells Startups: “I feel strongly that sharing best practice is the way to spread it. Awards like the Startups 100 help to identify best practice and get the word out.

“The winners deserve to get their brilliance in big lights. Being a judge helps make all of this possible.”

Who is Liz Barclay?

If you’re looking for a small business expert, they don’t come more qualified than Liz Barclay.

Even before taking up the mantle of SBC, Barclay has been an ardent supporter of UK SMEs for decades, balancing membership on multiple advisory boards with running, aiming to give SMEs a voice with policy makers.

Now, almost exactly two years into her four year term, Barclay’s drive to support SMEs has far from weakened. As she tells Startups, she only feels more determined that startup owners get access to the resources and networks they need to thrive.

“Given the current climate of inflation, interest rate rises, skills and labour market challenges it’s tougher than ever to startup and succeed,” she notes.

Support for startups needed all times of the year

It would be fair to describe 2023 as a disaster year for startups. The current economic uncertainty – triggered by record-high inflation and a cost-of-living crisis – has hit small businesses hard.

Still, Barclay is at pains to state that the challenges facing today’s SMEs are not a one-off. Yes, events such as the invasion of Ukraine last February have worsened pre-existing issues.

But she believes the idea that we’re simply in a bad trading landscape underplays the crucial need for long-term, sustainable support that small companies – past, present, and future – rely on.

“Even when times are good and the economy is thriving a last percentage of startups fail,” stresses Barclay. “All new businesses need the right support at the right time.”

Instead, Barclay argues that the problem now is finding the right advice, information, and support, “whichever sector and region they’re in, whatever stage of development they’re at.

“Help is out there but the network is complex, the choices bewildering and often there’s a business to run and no time to research the best options for you when you really need it,” she elaborates.

That’s why Barclay has decided to come on board the Startups 100 ship, seeing the important role it has played in celebrating and championing UK small businesses for almost sixteen years.

“Awards schemes that give people support and can point them in the right directions, are invaluable,” she affirms.

Find your people

For new business owners, that first year of operation can be make or break. Barclay repeats one key word of advice for startup newborns: network.

Entrepreneurs often shy away from networking. Particularly for those based outside London, it’s easy to become fixated, and then discouraged, by the idea of spending your hard-earned cash at an expensive conference in the capital.

But networking, as Barclay describes it, isn’t about selling your company to fellow business owners. Developing networking skills, she says, is the best way to build the relationships you’ll rely on for future growth.

Her reasoning is simple. Founding a business can be a lonely road, and everyone needs someone they can speak to about the hurdles ahead. Connecting with like-minded individuals will help new entrepreneurs build up a stable support system.

“Running a business is very isolating and we all need someone to talk to who will understand and help us see the wood for the trees, see a clear route through and plan,” Barclay explains.

Another benefit to networking is the ability to build mutually beneficial relationships and brand partnerships that exchange value, not just a business card.

Being included on a prestigious list like the Startups 100 Index is a great way to attract partner attention. Lee Chambers is a small business owner who appeared on last year’s Startups 100 Index. Chambers has since reported gaining two new clients by collaborating with his fellow listees.

Finally, Barclay recommends networking as a way to source practical advice from those who have been in the game for longer.

“Find a good mentor for your business, someone who understands your sector and is a good fit for you too,” she instructs. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help (we’ve all been there) and people are flattered to be asked.”

Entrants should “tell their story”

When we ask Barclay what she’d like to see from the Just Started entrants, she lists the usual suspects: achievements, growth potential, evidence of sustainability. But she has another request that may take founders by surprise: tell a good tale.

“I want to know about the challenges you’ve faced, mistakes you’ve learned from, and how resilient you are,” says Barclay.

The ability to tell a compelling story is a crucial skill for new business owners. It tells employees, investors, partners – and guest judges – who you are as a leader, as well as establishing your brand identity.

Honest narratives about the trials and tribulations of founding a startup will also help to democratise access to resources and inspire others to follow in your footsteps – a cycle of creation that, according to Barclay, powers the small business economy.

“Most of all, I’m looking for stories through which other people can learn,” Barclay confirms. “People want to hear from their peers about what works and what doesn’t, rather than experts.”

Are you a new business that launched in 2022 onwards? Apply for the Startups 100 Index for a chance to be named Just Started winner for 2024.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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