Small Talk: It's vital to remember that not all small firms are the same
Chuka Umunna, Labour's high-profile shadow Business Secretary, is trying to stick to a new year's resolution that may surprise you: he has promised not to utter the phrase "small and medium-sized enterprise" (or even SME) during 2013. It's not that Mr Umunna and the Labour Party aren't interested in small business; his argument is that the phrase is so generic that it is both meaningless and misleading.
He has a point. The Office for National Statistics said last week that the number of people describing themselves as self-employed rose by 367,000 between 2008 and 2012, a period when the number of employees didn't rise at all. All of those newly self-employed folk are, in theory, SMEs, yet they represent huge diversity. The vast majority of them will be miles away from the scale of the largest small and medium-sized enterprises. The European Commission, for example, says any business with fewer than 250 employees or an annual turnover of less than €50m counts as an SME.
Does it matter that the phrase SME encompasses everything from a taxi driver to a manufacturing business with 249 staff, or from a freelancer scrabbling around for work while looking to get back into employment to a multinational advertising agency with annual sales of £40m?
The answer is yes. The diverse range of businesses in the SME sector have very different needs, and require very different solutions from policymakers. If you lump them together and take a one-size-fits-all approach to policymaking, there's a pretty good chance many businesses will miss out on the help and support they need most.
The most talked-about issue in the public sector in recent years has been access to funding. That's not unreasonable, given the problems many growing businesses have had securing borrowing. Yet for many thousands of businesses just getting off the ground, credit isn't an issue at all – they're not ready to borrow yet, or have no need to do so. Their concerns are quite different, and not addressed by the endless Government schemes launched with SME funding difficulties in mind.
Some issues are concerns for many small businesses. The scourge of late payments is adding to the cashflow woes of everyone from one-man bands to quite large companies. The difficulties of getting work from the public sector, with its still-laborious procurement arrangements, are similar for all but the largest of small companies.
Sky-high business rates affect companies trading from commercial premises. HM Revenue & Customs' introduction of real-time information for tax reporting is causing problems for businesses with employers. Start-ups aren't sure where to get help and advice now that business support networks have been cut back. Freelancers are struggling with the complexities of the IR35 tax rules,.
The list of difficulties that affect only sub-sets of the SME sector is much longer than the list of widely shared problems. Yet our policymakers invariably respond as if they are dealing with a homogenous group.
Some members of this group are more powerful than others. The largest businesses in the SME universe have better access to representation from effective lobbyists. Micro-businesses are much less likely to be heard.
Mr Umunna is right. It is only when we reach a better understanding of the different segments of the SME sector – their aspirations, motivations and problems – that we will be able to offer more tailored support. Small businesses have many things in common – not least the fact that we depend on them as engines of economic recovery and growth – but they are not all the same.
Events firm Pinnacle raises £2.65m
Who says it's impossible to raise finance in this volatile economic climate? Not Scotland's Pinnacle Technology, which has just picked up more than £2.65m in a heavily oversubscribed placing – the new stock begins trading on the Alternative Investment Market today. Paisley-based Pinnacle, which specialises in telecoms services for small businesses, is best known for its work providing broadband internet access at events including the Olympics, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the Chelsea Flower Show. The company wanted the cash to accelerate its growth strategy, which is based on up-selling to its 3,000 business clients. Pinnacle is due to unveil its full-year results next Monday, with analysts forecasting rising sales and profits.
Iron ore miner Afferro and investor IMIC poised to close deal
International Mining & Infrastructure Corporation (IMIC) is closing in on its prey: the Cameroon-focused iron ore company Afferro Mining. The two Alternative Investment Market-listed businesses have been in talks for months, with IMIC understood to have made an indicative offer of 140p shortly before Christmas.
Now Afferro has terminated talks with Jindal Steel and Power of India, which has also been flirting with the company. Although Afferro says it is still considering strategic partnerships with other parties, IMIC, which already has a 5 per cent stake in the company, now appears to be the sole bidder.
The investment company's cause will have been done no harm by the appointment of a new chief executive, Ousmane Kane. Until joining IMIC at the end of January, Mr Kane was a non-executive director at Afferro. Shares in Afferro closed at 77p on Friday.
Small businessman of the week: Alain Desmier, managing director, OrSaveIt
I've spent a lot of my career working with price-comparison sites – my gripe with them is that while they always tell you how much you're saving when you buy, say, insurance, it's not a real saving that you can actually bank. Last year, we started looking at how it might be possible to make that kind of saving real – there were some apps in the US doing something similar, but we thought we could do it better.
"We secured backing from an angel investor in order to build our app. It allows users to record on their phones every time they make a saving, even if it's just avoiding an impulse buy like that coffee you get every morning. At the end of the week, we tell you how much you've saved and you transfer that money into a savings account.
"People start by setting a savings target – they want to save up for a holiday, say – and that's how we'll monetise the site. We're working on deals to provide tailored advertising to users, based on the objectives they've set.
"We've seen 5,000 people download the app and we were 20th in the download charts for finance apps last month. We're working on version two of the app, based on the feedback we've had.
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