StartUp Britain: Beyond the soundbites

Beneath the mountain of hype, plenty of questions remain unanswered

As a piece of flowery oration, David Cameron’s speech at the launch of StartUp Britain was near-perfect. Each sentence carried a theatrical call to action, spraying the crowd in a hail of soundbites. We heard that “the time is now,” that entrepreneurs should “get on the ladder and give it a go,” that “the government is backing doers and makers,” and “we need to get behind industries that haven’t even been born yet.” It wasn’t quite Churchill, but it was fairly compelling nonetheless.

But when one pulls back the PR curtain and examines the StartUp Britain programme objectively, one can’t help but feel a little cynical. Once all the soudbites served up by Cameron, Peter Jones, George Osborne and the rest of yesterday’s all-star cast are swept away, serious questions remain.

First of all, one must ask, how much support will the politicians really offer? Since taking power, the coalition has sought to scale back public support for business – witness the abolition of the RDAs – and while ministers have championed private firms at every opportunity, they’ve made few firm commitments to help them.

Significantly StartUp America, the US-based campaign which partly inspired StartUp Britain, is explicitly labelled a White House initiative, run via the White House website and fully affiliated with the Small Business Administration (SBA), the government agency set up to help small firms. David Cameron may beam down from the homepage of StartUp Britain, but neither he nor his government has any formal ties with the programme; they can easily move away from it if the political wind ushers them.

That’s not to say the people backing StartUp Britain aren’t an impressive bunch. The likes of Rajeeb Day, winner of the O2 X Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2009, Jamie Murray Wells, previous recipient of the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion, and Duncan Cheatle, founder of the Supper Club, offer a wealth of contacts and expertise. Yet one can’t help but feel that, if the likes of George Osborne or Vince Cable were on the board, it would give the venture much more clout.

Funding is another major issue, and again it is instructive to look Stateside. StartUp America pledges that the SBA will commit $2bn as a match to private sector investment over the next five years, channelled into promising high-growth companies.  One billion dollars will be channelled into funds that invest growth capital in companies based under-served communities, and a further $1bn will be ploughed into an early-stage innovation fund.

In contrast, StartUp Britain offers no official funding. This is hardly a surprise, given that the government is not officially linked to the campaign, and, as David Cameron told us yesterday, it hasn’t got a penny to spare. But still, it would be nice to see a little money offered as part of the new initiative.

Perhaps one shouldn’t be too critical here. A range of lucrative incentives are offered as part of StartUp Britain, including free IT training from Microsoft, free adwords from Google and free mentoring from the Supper Club. Furthermore, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the government has recently announced a number of measures which will bring financial benefit to small business, including a doubling of entrepreneurs’ relief and a vast increase in R&D tax credits. Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph claims chancellor George Osborne is planning to introduce a new 50% rate of tax relief on money invested in start-ups.

So there is financial assistance out there for Britain’s startups. It would just have been nice to see a little of it channelled into StartUp Britain.

The third, and perhaps most crucial, issue is a lack of clear information. StartUp Britain is supposed to provide a one-stop shop for small business information – its tagline is ‘Your questions about starting up, answered right here’ – yet the vast majority of its links go straight to external sites. Entrepreneurs looking for quick, simple advice are funnelled through to other sites, such as HMRC, which they probably know about already; StartUp Britain purports to provide a simpler alternative to such portals, not a conduit to them.

Whereas the StartUp America website contains an exhaustive FAQ page, Startup Britain skips this section altogether. There is little or no information on the background to the scheme, or the type of companies it is targeting, and some of the links don’t even work. With half the landing page given over to affiliates, the site looks more like a blue-chip catalogue than an independent advice portal.

But, again, there are important things to bear in mind. The web developers have had only weeks to turn the site around, and it looks much more impressive when the time constraints are taken into account. Startupbritain.org.uk is clearly a work in progress – the homepage proudly proclaims that lots of new features are coming soon – and there are several links to useful sites, which most people will never have heard of.

All in all, it’s hard to reach a definite conclusion on StartUp Britain. The potential is there for all to see; if the site is developed with clarity and conviction, it could become a vital catalyst for UK commerce. However, given the spin and hype which engulfs every government policy these days, it’s hard to view the campaign with anything more than cautious optimism.

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