Roger Trapp: Is the economy being held back by a lack of ambition?

A survey shows that many entrepreneurs would rather spend time with family than make big money
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The Independent Online

One should be wary of reading too much into surveys put out by organisations seeking to sell their wares. However, More Than, the Royal & Sun Alliance's direct financial services arm, might just be on to something with its finding that those starting and running their own businesses are less interested in making money than in creating more time to spend with their families.

According to its Business Foresight Index, published earlier this month, just 16 per cent of those questioned said they started or run a business to "make lots of money". Eighty-four per cent of owner-managers of small businesses said they did it to getter a better lifestyle.

The researchers say: "This shift from ambition to 'fambition' is also demonstrated when small business owner managers consider the optimum future size of their business." Most owner-managers apparently want no more than four employees, with sole traders wanting to take on only one extra employee.

Leave aside for a moment the very reasonable objection that starting a business is hardly a recipe for half days and long weekends and the very pragmatic response that most families would prefer a little money to having the purported breadwinner sitting around all the time. Consider instead the continual heart-searching and hand-wringing about the difficulty of finding more Bransons, Sugars and Dysons amid all the start-ups. And maybe the answer is simply that many of today's entrepreneurs do not have the same desire as these illustrious business people.

More Than suggests that the ageing population may have something to do with this situation. According to the research findings, the older the owner-manager the more lifestyle-focused he or she is likely to be. It also quotes a psychologist and life coach, Dr Sally Ann Law, as saying that events such as the Iraq war and global warming may be driving a fundamental shift in the way we view the world and our ability to influence our long-term future. "There is no doubt that recent significant world events have affected the way people think about themselves and their future," she says.

The report also quotes an owner-manager as saying: "In today's volatile climate you tend to take stock of what is important, and to me my family will always come out on top." He says that running his own business has enabled him to spend more time with his family and take control over his working life.

This viewpoint - if shared by significant numbers of other people in his situation - could be important because it would appear to mark a shift from the old days in which a business owner not unreasonably assumed that the harder he or she worked the better it was for his family in that they were likely to be financially better off. If it came down to time or money the money would win out, they assumed. Moreover, the traditional response to greater volatility would probably have been to work even harder, in an effort to create more of a "cushion" against the bad times.

But the drive to run a business is not just about making your family secure. If that were the case, the Bransons and Sugars would have retired long ago, rather than involving themselves in fresh ventures. They are driven by the desire to see how successful they can be. And every success encourages them to go further.

There are still entrepreneurs like them about. Witness Charles Dunstone and his decision to take Carphone Warehouse into broadband, when many might assume he could just sit back and run a very tidy mobile phone operation. But it could be that all the encouragement meted out to would-be entrepreneurs has created a different - less ambitious, more dependent - breed of business owner.

Entrepreneurs of the past were buccaneering types who succeeded in spite of everything in their way. They neither received nor expected help, but just got on with following their instincts about where money was to be made.

By encouraging people to believe that starting their own business was just another career option, like going into the law or joining a multinational's marketing department, the UK's policy advisers may have unwittingly created a generation of business owners who do not accept that they have to exhibit the drive and ambition that we have tended to associate with enterprise.

It might just be that, while many will continue to want to emulate business heroes of the past, others just are not that ambitious - in much the same way that not every shelfpacker in a supermarket necessarily wants to advance through the ranks.

Reasonable as this sounds, it will not be a welcome view to those in government who have been banking on the start-ups they have been encouraging to provide the UK economy with much-needed momentum.