Where have all the good entrepreneurs gone?

Will Evans asks why there's a slump in start-ups in Britain

Britain has always punched above its weight, considering its size, location and its questionable stance on empire building. This is no longer the case, sadly, and we have since become the weathered elbow patches on America’s jacket of power: incapable of producing our own energy, a minnow in industry and an academic lead swiftly losing ground to both India and China.

Our former strength was built and maintained through entrepreneurs and their activity, which lead to market dominance and phenomenal experience and knowledge – the legacy of which has grown London as a global centre for consultants. Now, though, we seem to be out of entrepreneurial types.

Where have the daring and creative entrepreneurs disappeared to? We still have young, well-educated, ambitious and imaginative people, those we would expect to do exciting and inspirational things, but in recent years, they’ve flocked to the less imaginative career paths. Though our blossoming community of accountants, surveyors and lawyers do keep London on top of the international pack for commerce, the cost of this was a profound slump in entrepreneurial activity, most notably in areas that are nationally and internationally scalable. But can we blame them for their choice?

The corporate world offers undoubted benefits, like career progression, job security, a degree of power, and, of course, money. It is made accessible by the kind of good education that the bright and talented tend to receive, and it is an ideal framework for the hungry to thrive and a similarly convenient shell in which the incompetent and lazy can hide.

It all means that the incentive to take a risk, assume responsibility just for uncertain reward – to be an entrepreneur, in other words – is limited. Where in the past people with nothing embraced the opportunity to succeed, our generation is now too comfortable to plunge into the world of entrepreneurialism – a loss felt by the absence of passionate competence in a market governed by spirit and flare.

It’s not all bad. SMEs still make up a large part of our economy and social enterprises are beginning to evolve into feasible businesses. Beyond this, London’s global position lends its businesses excellent stability and will support successful endeavours well, so the villainous hijacking of talent is not entirely without benefit. We have also seen a considerable growth in support for start-ups, a clear sign that the embers are still burning.

Early on, the support offered to entrepreneurs varies enormously, both in context and quality. Over time, I am sure things will stabilise and we’ll have a better idea of what’s best for fledgling firms. For now I fear there is much activity without enough achievement – possibly a result of the high visibility the schemes are given and the subsequent thirst for reportable ‘progress’. Combine this with the fact that many start-up projects are overly keen to fill their places and therefore take on either the wrong people or the wrong ideas, and you can see why the success rate is not high.

It can be optimised. At the moment, support is offered to these young businesses regardless of their direct need, which leads to a proliferation of snazzy business cards and swell websites but also a lot of critical flaws and poor ideas. There is a base now, though, and a desire, but it must not be forced and manipulated, and it must have flexibility and expertise.

Fostering interest in the ‘lost cohort’ of our generation’s accountants and hedgies is a longer-term and more subtle endeavour, though. A scheme like Teach First offers a proven model that can entice talent and build credible and transferable experience – and it works well for the City. We should be trialling a similar model for entrepreneurs, and combine it with a support network focused on building a market income pipeline, and selecting the supporting products and services appropriate to each unique business. The long-term practicality of a scheme such as this would rely on the success of its participants, but evaluating this would not at least be too tough.

Entrepreneurialism is a dream for many, but fear of failure holds too many bright people back. This is where investors’ effort should focus: the time is right for more, and we are well placed to learn from past attempts. Hopefully, a new group of focused businesses can contribute to a renewed economy. All we need now is that fresh infusion of people with the drive, desire and determination to galvanise a new entrepreneurial revolution; let’s hope they aren’t all too busy surveying, accounting and soliciting to take part.

Will Evans is MD of Amery Brothers