Small Talk: Few entrepreneurial role models for risk-averse British
Monday 19 November 2012
Who are the role models for Britain's aspiring entrepreneurs and small business founders? There are surprisingly few – anyone who works with small and medium-sized enterprises will quickly become accustomed to the same faces used to promote the sector's campaigns.
That's not to suggest there's anything wrong with, say, James Dyson, or the Dragons' Den judges, who have become ubiquitous as champions for small business. Lord Sugar does his bit and Sir Richard Branson is a strong supporter of enterprise. Good for all of them.
There are, however, far too few people in Britain who are known and celebrated for setting up and building successful businesses. Indeed, with the exception of Mr Dyson, the list above comprises people who have become known because of television appearances or publicity stunts – they're feted as much for their celebrity as their entrepreneurialism.
Maybe, though, that reflects the British attitude towards entrepreneurialism: it's something many of us like the idea of, but don't actually engage in. And when others take the plunge and succeed, we're not always terribly generous about applauding them.
Last week was Global Entrepreneurship Week, an annual initiative that takes place in more than 30 countries around the world. The idea is to encourage more people to set up in business for themselves.
There were many successful events in the UK, but new research released at the end of the week was telling. It suggests that people in the UK are, on average, much less likely to take risks than in many of the other nations taking part. We also score poorly on encouraging innovation, and in addition, on average, we do not tend to think of being an entrepreneur as a "respectable" career.
The odd thing, at first sight, is that Britons do say they want to promote entrepreneurialism. The data shows, for example, that we're much more positive than people in other countries about the growing number of policies and incentives which encourage small businesses.
In practice, this is the difference between talk and action. There may be widespread acceptance that entrepreneurs are a vital engine of economic growth, but not too many of us want to be one. Nor are we terribly impressed by those who are prepared to take the plunge.
Why should this be the case? One answer may be the traditional British reluctance to make a fuss about success – particularly financial success.
Another is that shortage of role models. There simply aren't enough successful entrepreneurs out there whom the rest of us would like to emulate.
Fictional portrayals of small business people are interesting too. One might applaud the ceaseless determination of Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses to make it big with just one of his imaginative business ideas, were it not for his incompetence and dishonesty. It's a common message – running a small business is all about ducking and diving.
In addition, our educational structures are not set up to support entrepreneurialism. The relentless focus on the importance of university education and exam success has something to be said for it, but those who make a positive choice to follow a different route, including entrepreneurial endeavour, are widely seen as having failed. Those who stick with convention, meanwhile, invariably have the entrepreneurial spirit drummed out of them.
In the end, you get what you deserve. The shortage of British role models for entrepreneurs reflects our attitudes towards entrepreneurialism.
Until our theoretical desire to promote business creation is matched by practical respect and status for those who do so, we'll be disappointed by the results.
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Small businessman of the week: Gerald Pountney, founder, Unclesmoney
I first got interested in pawnbroking in the Eighties when I was running a builders' merchant and people used to offer me bits and pieces such as jewellery in return for stock when they were short of cash. Eventually, my own business ran into difficulties and we closed it down – it was then that we opened our shops in Birmingham.
"They have been trading since the late Eighties, and two years ago we opened online too, which has really expanded our business.
"This is a family-run firm – my son looks after the internet operation, and lots of other family members are involved too.
"Business is doing well, which reflects the state of the economy. What's really interesting is how much trade we're doing with small business owners who just can't get the finance they need from the banks.
"Not everyone thinks particularly highly of pawnbrokers, but it's these payday loan companies that are really dangerous – they can bankrupt you, whereas we can't. The worst thing we can do to you is sell your item, but in fact 94 per cent of our customers redeem their goods.
"For long term borrowing we are expensive, but for small loans over a short period, we're really good value.
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