The entrepreneur is a growing breed in the UK. Last year, over 600,000 businesses launched thanks to a government-backed national campaign – Start-up Britain – and in 2016 we can expect this to be many more. But how does society view entrepreneurs? Although the government has never been more encouraging, more needs to be done to help small businesses get off the ground.
From public to private
I have a different perspective to many on ‘being an entrepreneur’; most of us don’t start working life in the NHS. But that was my beginnings; I left medical school focused on becoming a professor of pathology, and ended as an A&E doctor driven by genuinely wanting to help people and make a difference to their lives.
But I soon realised that making a real impact in that way, wasn’t just about front line care. In fact, there was a real need to address some of the issues in the way the organisation was run – and to champion creative solutions to those challenges, rather than expensive quick fixes. During my role at the NHS, I ran a series of ventures including international medical training courses, a doctors’ representative group and a health-focused social network that became the fastest-growing health social network in Europe, proving that innovation in government-funded healthcare was indeed possible. So in 2009, when doctors were facing a change in hours regulation, I spent time looking for an alternative answer.
By this point, the excessive wastefulness in overspending on agency and temporary staff had become an escalating crisis – a crisis that has always been dealt with by just troubleshooting on a daily basis. But those of us ‘on the ground’ could see that a radical change in staffing processes was what was really needed; an upheaval of the rigid, old-fashioned paper-based system, so that existing resources were being used in a far smarter way, while also giving medical staff the flexibility in shifts that they craved.
This was the genesis of my current company – a tech platform that intelligently uses data to address staff scheduling challenges. And by 2014, having been approached by retailers, hospitality and leisure companies time and again, I was persuaded to commercialise this more broadly. For me, it was also a jump into the private sector, which was very new to me.
Why is this relevant? Firstly because, for me personally, the desire to change people’s lives has always remained my driving force. And secondly, because I believe this shift into the private sector has made me acutely aware of how the entrepreneur fit into society.
It’s all about perception
How and where entrepreneurs fit into society starts with how they are perceived. A country’s attitude towards entrepreneurship hugely impacts the prosperity of those individuals, as well as whether small business and start-ups are likely to succeed.
In the UK, we are quickly moving away from the idea that ‘Dragons Den’ is the only route to entrepreneurship; or that it’s a risky business only for the fearless or the slightly maverick. Instead, we have new role models in Zuckerberg, Bezos, Branson and Musk – a much better example of what we are looking to achieve. Having these role models is hugely important for young (or old) entrepreneurs today.
What all of these entrepreneurs have in common is that they’re disrupting an industry – and are quite literally changing the way we live; shop, travel, communicate and socialise. My view is that ‘entrepreneur’ is a title that you earn by virtue of achieving something, rather than a title that you decide to select and declare to the world. I would rather be judged by results than expectations. My job is to build a great team, give then the support and freedom to make great decisions and ultimately to solve problems for big businesses that impact the way people work.
Where perception and reality meet
So the perception of entrepreneurs has changed for the better – this idea that dynamic teams are looking to disrupt stagnant markets and make like easier for the person in the street is easy to buy into; we have already seen this with companies such as Deliveroo and Uber. And the government has also boosted schemes that support SMEs, like the (S)EIS scheme that offers tax incentives for investors who fund small businesses.
However, in some areas the reality still lags behind the perception, and we are missing key elements to help promote an entrepreneurial society. While there are great benefits to becoming an entrepreneur such as independence, being your own boss and the challenge of building a business from scratch, there are negative implications in areas of society that haven’t quite caught up.
For example, I recently found out I can no longer get a mortgage, because I own shares in my own company. Any of my team however, can get a mortgage. Despite a perfect credit rating, regular income and a deposit, banks see business owners as risky gambles. Without resolving issues like this, more experienced founders will be discouraged from starting businesses.
As well as this, we need more support on top of what’s already available to allow entrepreneurs to get the advice and support they need to be successful in the wider world. There needs to be a focus on supporting later stage funding, offering EIS-type schemes for convertible loans, and improving SME access to large public organisations.
While we’ve already made great progress in how entrepreneurs are perceived in society, we still have a long way to go in providing small businesses with the resources to grow successfully. Entrepreneurs are fundamental to our economy, creating new jobs and opportunities; but there are never enough of them. The more we can show that there is support for entrepreneurs and small businesses, the less risky starting your own business will seem. And the higher the chances that those start-ups are successful and in turn, ensure that entrepreneurs play a bigger role in society.
Chris McCullough is CEO and co-founder of RotaGeek.