When the Prime Minister first began talking about the Big Society, one assumed he was thinking about volunteers and community groups providing social services, rather than potentially crucial planks of his Government's business policy. As it turns out, some of the most interesting examples of what might be described as big society initiatives are in the latter space.
StartUp Britain is a classic example. Founded 15 months ago by a group of eight entrepreneurs with the aim of encouraging more Britons to start their own business, the organisation has won support from George Osborne, the Chancellor, and Vince Cable, the Business Secretary. But its funding has come entirely from the private sector via sponsorship from a handful of bigger businesses. The group's latest initiative, StartUp High Street, is a really bright idea. It aims to exploit the disjoin between the high rates of shop vacancies on the country's high streets and the increasing number of small retailers starting out for the first time. The former need tenants, but the latter don't necessarily have the revenues, or the confidence, to take on leases.
StartUp High Street will aim to give small retailers an opportunity to try hawking their wares on the high street by placing them into some of these empty premises for short periods, sometimes by themselves, sometimes sharing with other retailers. The shops will get spruced up by John Lewis, one of StartUp Britain's sponsors, while other backers such as Dell and Intuit will provide additional support such as computers and accounting software.
The idea is to give would-be high street retailers some experience of business trading from physical premises without them having to make a commitment to doing so on a permanent basis. For those for whom the experience is a positive one, this will presumably follow in due course.
The scheme makes sense for the landlords of empty commercial premises too. Some shops are empty because landlords can't find tenants, while others are waiting for planning permission from local authorities for change of use or conversion. StartUp Britain will pay landlords a rent to use their shops, plus there's the benefit of shoppers getting used to the idea that a property is trading again. This is a scheme in which everyone is potentially a winner.
But to be really successful StartUp High Street is going to need some public-sector support, which is where one begins to worry about its prospects. That support isn't necessarily financial, it's more facilitative (which is where the state's record isn't always so great). So, for example, local authorities will need to be supportive about allowing these retailers to trade — waiving planning permission restrictions, say.
Let's put it this way. If the state is going to leave it to volunteers to deliver its stated desire of boosting entrepreneurialism, it must at least have the decency to get out of the way. If local authorities play ball, and the scheme gets a fair wind from other public-sector bodies, StartUp High Street is an idea which might just make a real difference.
AIM's new issues raise hopes of recovery
Is the Alternative Investment Market finally glimpsing some light at the end of the tunnel? After a dismal couple of quarters for initial public offerings, the second quarter of the year was better, reports Ernst & Young, with 11 new issues on Aim compared to only five over the three months to the end of March.
The nature of those issues was also encouraging, says the accountant. "This was one of the most diversified Aim performances that we have seen for years," it says. "Nine of the 11 companies to list were non-natural resources companies."
There was also a good geographical spread, with IPOs from companies in China, the US, Canada and Austria, as well the UK. The latter included WANdisco and Zattikka, technology companies which have attracted much attention.
Sirius boss back with gold venture
Richard Poulden is well-known in the commodities sector as the former boss of Sirius Minerals, the potash business that grew in value from £2m to £200m during his stewardship.
Having quit Sirius in January, he is returning to the Aim with Wishbone Gold. He and his co-founders are floating around 15 per cent, they will say today, with the company likely to be capitalised at around £3.4m. It will initially focus on two assets in Queensland, Australia. Neither is yet producing gold, though the initial reports from both are encouraging.
In the longer term growth is likely to be fuelled by acquisitions, which is how Mr Poulden has operated in the past.
Small Businessman of the Week: Oli Christie, chief executive, Neon Play
I founded the business two years ago. My background is as a copywriter and creative director, and I'd spent years creating viral games for corporate clients – then I started seeing people making a fortune producing the same sort of games for smartphones and tablets and I knew I had to go it alone.
"I went on holiday and came up with ideas for 80 to 100 games. We launched in June 2010 with Flick Football, in the run-up to the World Cup, and it proved very popular. We had revenues coming in after just a month.
"We've launched lots more games and business has taken off – we've had 37 million downloads in 150 countries. Only 23 per cent of our sales are from the UK. We've been lucky too – one popular game, Paper Glider, was the 10 billionth download from Apple's App Store, which got us all sorts of publicity.
"Last year I was voted Entrepreneur of the Year by the British Chambers of Commerce and I've been invited to join the board of TIGA, the video games trade association, a great honour. We've lots more to do, but above all our job is to come up with ideas for games – as a job, it doesn't come much better than that."