You just can't legislate for the will to win

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the received wisdoms about British business is that it lacks the entrepreneurial spirit of the United States. Or rather, that the UK has potential entrepreneurs aplenty but that they lack the encouragement needed to succeed.

This apparent contrast is most obviously illustrated by Silicon Valley, the area close to San Francisco that seems to have spawned just about every US hi-tech company you can think of, except Seattle-based Microsoft. The combination of Stanford University, a foremost engineering centre, and pioneers such as Hewlett-Packard has helped create what must be the most powerful business "cluster" in history.

Envious glances are being cast towards California from Britain. How can they have created this behemoth while we have so little to show for our talent in software development, not to mention more traditional creative industries such as music and fashion?

Nobody could accuse the US - home of free-wheeling business - of being interventionist on behalf of business, though it has not been averse to a bit of protectionism over the years. But there is in that vast and still hugely wealthy country an atmosphere that seems more conducive to business than that in Britain.

Bodies representing small firms tend to make much of the fact that, while we in Britain (particularly the press) tend to regard bankruptcy as failure, in the US it is seen as "a rite of passage". Hence, the emergence of suggestions that the Department of Trade and Industry might be looking at relaxing some of the rules concerning the disqualification of directors.

But it goes beyond that. There seems to be in the US less of the anti- business prejudice still rife in Britain. Silicon Valley is an extreme example that might have a lot to do with talented people being drawn to an attractive place to live, with the result that, as they say, success breeds success. But there are many other entrepreneurial strongholds dotted about the US.

Austin, Texas, another town strong on universities with an engineering bent, has "Silicon Hills", home of Dell Computers; the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina has attracted a large number of pharmaceuticals and science-based companies, including Glaxo Wellcome, to its research park.

In some cases, notably Raleigh-Durham, such developments are encouraged by the local civic leaders. But, by and large, they are the result of people having an idea and going with it. The clustering occurs as a result of the spin-offs or niches created by the original success.

Of course, it helps that the US is so large and, therefore, provides the opportunity for many mini-economies. But Britain does not fare as badly in these areas as people think - the science park originally based on the special expertise of academics at Cambridge University has been hugely successful, and similar clusters have developed around Oxford and Bristol.

Where this country does go wrong is in thinking that such things can be legislated for. A dozen high-achieving entrepreneurs reveal in Jeff Grout's and Lynne Curry's The Adventure Capitalists (Kogan Page, pounds 16.99) how they succeeded largely by acting on impulse.

With Gordon Brown's next Budget still months away, lobbying has already begun. And in the vanguard of petitioners are representatives of the venture capital industry who want the Government to "build upon" the achievements of last year's Budget, which included reductions in capital gains tax and widening of the scope of the Enterprise Investment Scheme.

But in always wanting more in the way of assistance, small businesses and their lobbying groups tend to give the lie to their supposed espousal of the free market. What the US - and the thoughts of Anita Roddick, David Lloyd, Sir Terence Conran and others collected in The Adventure Capitalists - have to teach us is that in business, as in many other things, where there's a will there's a way.

Mr Grout and Ms Curry's book has itself a good chance of success because it has the magic word "secrets" in its subtitle. But inside it reveals the importance of determination.