Helping startup businesses … and ‘GreyForce’

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By Alex Robertson

The news that a UK Startup Loans Scheme is to be set up is a smart move and one to be supported.  It was proposed by David Young, a former entrepreneur and commerce minister under Mrs Thatcher, and will be chaired by James Caan of Dragons Den fame.

Youth unemployment is a truly cursed affair and blights a whole generation.  Enterprise and business is a force for social good, just as much as for any social ill it may be blamed for.

Startup Loans purports to be a source of small loans, repayable within 5 years at RPI plus 3%, not bad, and is available to people banks would not normally loan to even in good times, and certainly won’t nowadays.  The aim is to boost the number of startups by some 30,000.

Now if that comes about, and each of these startups employs just a single person more, then that is 60,000 jobs, which is a fine ambition.  It would be great if the Scottish government set up its own scheme to focus resources into Scottish startups.

Countries like Scotland, a far-flung part of a larger country, are prone to “branch office” syndrome, and liable to be the place a large corporation starts first to reduce expenses by lopping labourforce.  So there is justification for an extra effort here.  But I would even go further.

As a retired serial entrepreneur, I know that the two causes of most small business failure is undercapitalization,( i.e. not enough money), and weak performance in sales and marketing.  The first is solved by good business planning, realistic goals, and a funding scheme like this.  The second is usually ignored.

Most often people set up businesses because they have a product or service to sell, either something totally new, or a ‘better mousetrap’, but with only the vaguest idea of who will buy whatever is offered, or how to reach a market and sell into it.

Most innovators, inventors, and even practitioners or engineers are weak in marketing skills and their startup budget can’t support adding a sales person.  What is needed is a network of mentors who can sit with the entrepreneur while making the business plan and carry on afterwards in its implementation.

Their role is to advise, warn and encourage, to sit beside the entrepreneur and be his/her best and truest buddy.  And there is a skilled resource already there, in place, to provide the mentoring in planning, management and marketing, maybe even selling.

It would cost only the expenses involved and might well be voluntary or close to it.  I write, of course, about the vast army of the retired workforce, who have been there, done it all and have the scars of wisdom to show for it, and would do the work for little or no financial reward.

I call this idea “GreyForce” and it has a triple benefit: first it will help reduce the number of startup failures, second it will be a perfect example of knowledge transfer and retention, and third it will help forge a bridge of understanding between generations, and respect (sadly needed in both directions).

There is very little stopping the government and it would cost very little.  (I estimate 10 million pounds would do the job).  Now that would be a fine thing for Scots to do, practical and with triple benefits, economic and social.