Small Talk: What about trying someone a little older, Lord Sugar?


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The Independent Online

So here we go again. Television’s annual tribute to the great entrepreneurial spirit of Britain arrives on our screens this week. And it is no wonder that the country’s small business start-up rates are running at an all-time high, given the quality, determination and, above all, passion of the candidates making their bid for glory on The Apprentice. We can expect every single one of them to give, at the very least, 110 per cent.

If you detect a touch of sarcasm in that appreciation of Lord Sugar’s show, top marks for perceptiveness. The truth about The Apprentice is that it is about as far from an accurate portrayal of the reality of entrepreneurs launching their own business as it’s possible to get – that’s not a problem, as long as you regard the series as light entertainment rather than the sort of programme that might inspire more of us to go it alone, as its producers like to claim.

One element of the show’s pre-publicity material strikes a particularly jarring note: they all look so young. Further inquiries reveals this is because they are all so young – the oldest of the 20 candidates is just 37 and most of them are well below 30.

Not to accuse the production team of choosing only baby-faced, telegenic candidates likely to entertain us all with the arrogance of youth, but could The Apprentice really not find a single contestant over the age of 40, or even 50? After all, this is the demographic in Britain where you can most commonly expect to find people starting their own businesses.

Research just published by the Post Office makes this point exactly. A survey it undertook of more than 1,000 small businesses found that entrepreneurs setting up in the past year were most likely to be aged between 45 and 54.

There are lots of reasons why this should be the case. Older business founders have had the time to find a niche where they think they can succeed. They may have had an opportunity to build up a modest financial cushion to get them through the difficult early months of their new venture. Many are no doubt keen to be their own boss after several decades of working for others.

In fact, there is plenty of academic evidence that older entrepreneurs tend to do better than their younger peers. One of the best-known studies, albeit in the US, was conducted by the Kauffman Ewing Institute, which looked at 5,000 start-up businesses over a period of several years – while the companies were launched by entrepreneurs of all ages, two-thirds of those which managed to survive five years or longer were founded by people who were 45 or over at the time.

In the UK, meanwhile, the charity Age UK claims 70 per cent of businesses set up by people aged 50 or over endure for at least five years, compared with only 28 per cent founded by younger entrepreneurs.

In that context, it is positively dangerous to lapse into the stereotype portrayed by The Apprentice of the entrepreneur as a twentysomething getting around his or her lack of skill or experience with the gift of the gab. And unfortunately, this is a myth that we often see policymakers falling for too. There are endless schemes aimed at young entrepreneurs – like the Start-Up Loan initiative, which initially at least was off-limits to anyone over 30 – but very little targeted support for their older counterparts.

Of course, like television producers, politicians prefer pictures of bright young things, and you won’t find too many older entrepreneurs in the photo-ops set up for our business ministers. But if we’re  handing over taxpayers’ money, surely we should be concentrating our resources on where they will have the greatest chance of earning a return?

The new series of ‘The Apprentice’ with Lord Sugar (front) starts its new fun-packed series tomorrow

Exports sector receives a small but timely boost 

There may yet be hope for Britain’s export sector despite last week’s disappointing official trade figures. A new report from the Economist Intelligence Unit suggests 75 per cent of small and medium-sized firms either sell overseas or expect to do so within five years to countries with strong political stability, good infrastructure and accessible local business networks, rather than riskier ones with potential growth prospects.

Late-paying customers leave firms in the lurch

Britain’s smallest businesses are suffering disproportionately at the hands of customers who do not pay their bills on time, according to a warning from the debt recovery specialist Debt Guard Solicitors.

Firms with fewer than 10 staff and a turnover below £2m a year are on average £68,000 down on late payments, with 12 per cent owed at least a third of their annual turnover, compared with 5 per cent of larger companies.

Debt Guard’s Mark Burgess said: “It is clear these firms need much greater support.”