Small talk: Now is the time for Britain's small businesses to be brave

  • @davidprosserind

Britain's small and medium-sized enterprises have much to worry about as the European sovereign debt crisis spirals out of control once more. When the banks shut up shop again in a full-blown repeat of the first credit crunch – as they surely will if Greece walks – you can bet it will be SMEs that are starved of debt first, whatever financiers say in public.

Moreover, SMEs are more dependent on the eurozone for export customers than larger businesses. According to the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), nine in 10 SMEs that export make sales in the EU. But just a third of SMEs have export customers in the fast-growing Bric economies – the figure for larger British businesses is three-quarters.

In that sense, William Hague's tactless advice to businesses – stop whingeing and get on a plane – is worth heeding, even if you're insulted by it. There is not a great deal SMEs can do about a second credit crisis, though it might be wise for those seeking to borrow to arrange loans sooner rather than later. But they can at least start hunting out new customers from beyond the eurozone that might mitigate lost business in the single currency area if the whole thing comes crashing down.

What's stopping SMEs doing more business in far-flung markets? Well, common complaints include the cultural and language barriers, regulation, export tariffs and political risk. Sometimes it's simple fear of the unknown.

The BCC thinks Government intervention might help SMEs. It wants ministers to work harder on signing free trade agreements, for example. In the longer-term it wants to see foreign languages given greater priority in British schools, as well as in the workplace.

All of which seems eminently sensible. Still, SMEs have to help themselves too. In fact, the Government-backed UK Trade & Investment does more work than it is given credit for on helping smaller businesses break into overseas markets. It runs courses for would-be exporters and even offers one-to-one tailored advice for businesses that are struggling to overcome particular obstacles overseas. However, one wonders just how much hand-holding is needed. Talk to successful British exporters and it's striking how often many of them began simply by cold-calling their first overseas customers, in markets far and wide.

In the end, SMEs have to stand on their own two feet. Britain's lack of an export culture may have left many feeling distinctly uncomfortable about doing that, but now is the moment to be brave.

Cluff back with a new idea

Less than two months after stepping down as chairman of Cluff Gold, Algy Cluff returns to the natural resources frontline tomorrow when his latest venture, Cluff Natural Resources opens for business on the Alternative Investment Market (Aim).

Mr Cluff (above, inset) made his name in the 1970s with Cluff Oil, which made a series of profitable discoveries in the North Sea. He subsequently shifted to mining, launching companies which repeated their founder's first success in oil.

Cluff Natural Resources is a different venture: a cash shell with around £4m to invest. The idea is to take stakes in underperforming, undeveloped or undervalued projects in Europe and Africa – for which Cluff's extensive network of former colleagues and clients will no doubt be invaluable when it comes to identifying opportunities.

Small Businessman of the Week: Fifteen years old and 10 million customers; Alastair Crawford, chief executive,

It's our 15th birthday: we started the business in 1997 in my sister's bedroom with no investment, just a few thousand pounds of my savings. My original idea was to try to create the first alternative to BT's national phone directories – there had never previously been a rival product offering data on both people and businesses.

"The internet was in its infancy then and we paid just £26 for the domain name, while launching our service first onCD-roms. By 1999 we had the first licence from BT to publish its directory data and we were the first to go online. Today, the business has 40 staff and we have 10 million unique users every month.

"The business model is broadly similar: the service is free to most users, but those who need more data – on company results, on the electoral roll, on birth, death and marriage certificates, say – pay a fee. We're very popular with people who have lost touch with old friends and colleagues.

"We believe everyone should have access to data on a national basis – and data that is of the same quality that banks and other businesses have had access to for years.