There are major hurdles facing small businesses, in particular over the last few years of economic turmoil. But for some, there are even greater hurdles and that is just not an acceptable way forward for society.
We have a tendency as a business eco-system to create things that are homogenous, designed for a set idealised version of an entrepreneur. But in the real world, this does a disservice to the many founders that sit outside this mould. With a rapid growth in female founders, over 25% of founders disabled, and a significant number of ethnic minority-led businesses, it turns out we are designing support for the minority if we do not take into account what experience and background founders come with.
We have ended up building significant barriers to entry—not just into the business world, but into support programmes, training, and networking for small businesses.
There might be, for example, a rare but significant grant from an international corporate open to businesses with fewer than five employees—but the application form for it is 50 pages long with no guidance on how to complete it, and a short deadline that’s just not realistic. There might be a training programme for sole traders with a relatively short application process, but with no online option, inaccessible to those with disabilities that prevent them from attending, say, weekly courses in person.
Accessibility does not stop there: care givers (often but not always women) with time restrictions, school pick-ups, hospital appointments, struggle to make in-person activities. Those economically deprived or building a business alongside a job struggle to take the requisite time out of their schedule at a fixed date to attend in person or to drive, park, or travel, and more.
When we design a support programme, we must do it with all recipients in mind: can people access it at a time and place that enables them to take full advantage of what’s being offered? Are they put off by the languages, or stressed by the process, or are they free of built-in expectations and inflexible patterns, beneficial only to a small group of people?
Through the Small and Mighty Enterprise Programme that we recently kicked off again for the third time in partnership with Xero and ARU Peterborough, we are tackling this head on. The six-week course is designed to help microbusinesses take their first steps to scale, filling the gaps out there in the market, particularly as the Government backed Help to Grow Management programme is focused on businesses with five or more employees at a different stage of growth.
Small and Mighty takes place entirely online, allowing entrepreneurs to access the sessions from anywhere in the country, with flexible learning that enables opportunity for all. And it has proven to be hugely popular, with the latest course attracting over 1000 small businesses. The flexible format has also engaged a really diverse audience: two thirds female founders, one third ethnic minority founders, and a quarter disabled founders.
And this reflects similar success we saw just last year, when Small Business Britain teamed up with Lloyds Bank and Oxford Brookes Business School to deliver a pilot programme for the Government funded Help to Grow Management programme, removing the need for classroom participation or any travel to the Business School. Taking it a step further, Lloyds Bank funded the £750 participation fee. Our research showed that these two barriers were key blockers for disabled entrepreneurs, but also a much wider cohort of small businesses. This pilot also proved very popular, with similar statistics for broadening the audience for the programme.
Of course online and free or inexpensive participation are not the only way to be flexible—it often comes down to details, things we can easily overlook if we don’t centre the experience of all founders. The Small and Mighty programme not only offers training and educational webinars for our regular cohorts, but also the opportunity to network and share experiences with peers.
When we talk about support for small business owners, we have to pay attention to the huge demand for mentorship and togetherness. The entrepreneurial journey is a solitary and challenging road, but it can be made smoother with more inclusive communities. In our Disability and Entrepreneurship report, we found that 60% of entrepreneurs did not receive support while setting up their businesses, either financial, training, advice, or other; and even more so, 70% had no role models to guide them.
We can see a clear appetite for both experienced mentors and peers—entrepreneurs need better access to people they can learn from, yes, but they also need better peer communities, people with similar lived experiences, with whom to navigate the complex landscape of starting a business, accessing finance, marketing, and even hiring the first few employees.
Now, with the Small and Mighty programme in its third round, we have first-hand experience of what entrepreneurs need to start their businesses and run them; but more importantly, we know how that support needs to be delivered, and how to empower all business owners to overcome societal and economic challenges.
Policy makers are vital to make this change across society, starting with bringing together all organisations that have a role to play in the success of entrepreneurship in the UK. This will include non-profit organisations, the private sector, and individuals who have an essential role to play in the successes of the small business eco-system.
Making the business world itself more inclusive and widely accessible has been at the heart of Small Business Britain since its inception; it’s a topic very close to my heart.
To make that happen, we have to look at the way we deliver support to entrepreneurs, making sure we include and respect marginalised communities of business founders. By being flexible and open to change all the time, we gain a stunning force in the UK economy; we gain innovation, unique strength, compassion, and skills.
And isn’t that the only way we can become the society we want to be?