“For goodness sake Martha, just don’t be an accountant – at least be a bookie, then you will be your own boss and you get to work outside’. This brilliant advice was given to me by my grandfather when I was fifteen and pondering what to do with my life. He was an entrepreneur and some of his enthusiasm certainly filtered down to his family, many of whom became entrepreneurs themselves. My first foray was to start a dating agency at school which quickly crashed and burned as my classmates cottoned on to the value of the data they were merrily handing over to me. Luckily I wasn’t scarred by the experience and so when Brent Hoberman asked me to come and start lastminute.com with him, I jumped at the chance. We were lucky and had the rollercoaster ride of our lives as our business grew and developed. After selling the company in 2005 both Brent and I went on to start other things and I feel immensely lucky to have worked with or in start ups for most of my career.
Now, as policy makers and industrial giants look for ways to kick start growth and millions of people are thinking about how to get into or back to work there is a great deal of debate about how entrepreneurial activity is part of the solution.
Despite the undeniable growing respect for entrepreneurs and the fact that more young people than ever say they want to be entrepreneurs (the RSA recently did some research that showed 30% of people under 30s wished to start their own organisation), UK start-up companies are still falling behind on global measures. Not only is starting a business something that can be one of the most personally fulfilling experiences but it is also vital for our future economic competitiveness.
What should be done? Many experts have looked at this question and focused on the importance of good access to seed capital, overcoming our aversion to risk and simplifying regulation.
So, I have instead drawn up three slightly more surprising ideas that I believe could also help to change the UK’s entrepreneurial landscape.
1. Teach every child to code. In Estonia every single child in Year One (aged 7-8 years old) learns to code. Can you imagine the UK executing such a bold policy? You may wonder why this would help entrepreneurship but if you look at the levels of technical knowledge needed in any business plus the high number of start-ups that are predominantly or only online then I think it becomes clear. There is a much lower barrier to entry for people with tech skills to create a mobile app, build a website or start a new internet enabled business of any kind than a traditional offline business – look at the success of Crazy Frog or Draw Something or even Twitter. You quickly see that a more technically literate population would lead to more entrepreneurialism. Some great organisations are trying to help more children learn programming skills – with Code Club and Young Rewired State amongst them – but it needs to be hardwired into the system. And as most start-ups I know are looking for tech resource none of this knowledge would ever be wasted. Coding is creative and would also help children learn to think through problems boldly which is one of the key skills of good founders .
2. Focus on unlocking the talent in the 2.5m unemployed people in the UK. In a recent report from the Policy Exchange ‘Bits and Billions’ it was suggested that the UK could benefit from a “Silicon Superstar Scheme” run by the biggest companies who would pay at least two recruits a year from each company’s graduate intake to work for or co-found a start-up rather than come to work. The employer would take an equity stake in the start-ups involved, and would guarantee a job for the graduate should the start-up fail within two years. Major public sector bodies such as the Civil Service Fast Stream and the BBC should also be encouraged to participate. This is a great idea that I think originated from Brent but I think it could go further. There are currently around 1m unemployed under 24 year olds in the UK. There are another 1.5m unemployed adults. There must be a number of entrepreneurs within that 2.5m and so I would create massive incentives for businesses that recruited from this pool into the Policy Exchange model.
3. Break down the barriers between sectors to inspire people in new ways. I am constantly struck by how the traditional definition of an entrepreneur falls short. If you look in the charitable sector there are thousands of extraordinary entrepreneurs who face many of the same challenges as their commercial counterparts – constantly raising money, working on shoe string budgets, obsessed with the quality of the product for their users. There are also an increasing number of charities who are selling their skills, knowledge or products to raise extra funds for their charitable aims – for example, Just for Kids Law who provide legal services to children use their knowledge of how to work in complex situations and sell training to professional bodies such as youth offending teams. We should be celebrating all forms of entrepreneurship to help inspire and encourage a more diverse range of people and to help move away from the, undoubtedly entertaining, but perhaps unhelpful characterisation of entrepreneurs in reality TV shows!