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Quarterly Survey: Where do start-ups and growing businesses find support?

Quarterly Survey: Where do start-ups and growing businesses find support?
Enterprise Nation
Enterprise Nation
Enterprise Nation
 

Posted: Thu 23rd May 2013

There's a plethora of business support available for start-ups and growing enterprises. But what are emerging businesses actually using and what do they value above all else? How do they even know what they need to know? Enterprise Nation editor Simon Wicks continues his look at the results of our first Quarterly Survey by asking: Where do start-ups and growing businesses find support?

Entperise Nation | Simon Wicks

One of the most vigorous current debates in the small enterprise world is: how do we provide appropriate support to start-ups and growing enterprises? writes Simon (left). It's something we find ourselves addressing frequently on Enterprise Nation (no surprise, since we provide business support), and it's central to the national debate about business support generally.

It's a debate of concern to everyone involved in the UK small business sector, from the lone freelancer struggling to find a local co-working space to the politicians and policymakers who are wondering how to manifest the potential of our record numbers of emerging businesses. Only last week, for example, the Prime Minister's enterprise adviser Lord Young published a report into how the nation can help small businesses grow and introduced the idea of 'growth vouchers' for small firms. In recent years, governments have replaced Business Links and Regional Development Agencies with Enterprise Zones, a national mentor database and a revamped and rebranded Business Link website, funded various bank-administered lending schemes and offered a National Insurance holiday to firms taking on employees - among other initiatives. Efforts are being made, clearly, and money directed towards helping small businesses. But is it the right kind of support aimed at the right kind of business? Personally, I think it's very hit and miss and regular readers will know that I'm fairly convinced that most policy is based on what policymakers would like small businesses to look and act like, rather than how they actually do look and act.

"New business-owners are by definition short of knowledge and not necessarily in the best position (yet) to judge what they they need to know. Good business support will help overcome this obstacle."

Coffee Club | Group shot

As ever, we reasoned the best thing to do was to ask businesses themselves where they get support and which form of support they value the most. So we did - except there are two complicating factors here: 1. The first was raised by Philip Crilly of Eatibbles, who has been recording his start-up journey for Enterprise Nation readers for the last 12 weeks:  "When I first started the business, there was a lot that I didn't know!" he wrote. "As the 12 weeks have passed I feel like I have learned so much and while doing so I have also identified so many things that I still don't know. There are even things that I don't know I don't know!" Knowledge is critical to all business-owners, whether new or established. But how do you know what you need to know? How can you possibly know what you don't know? New business-owners are by definition short of knowledge and not necessarily in the best position (yet) to judge what they they need to know or whether they're looking in the best places. Good business support will help business-owners overcome this obstacle. 2. The piecemeal delivery/availability of support is bound to skew responses to this sort of question. Our survey revealed, for example, that fewer than half the number of businesses that use online resources use a mentor, coach or adviser. Close to half of those that did, however, described it as their most valuable form of support. If more businesses had access to this kind of one-to-one expert support, they may well have said the same thing. But most businesses don't, so, in a sense, they don't know what they don't know. Where do you get information and support to help you develop and run your business?

Online (eg websites such as Enterprise Nation, Smarta, Gov.uk, etc)

m

69%

Other business-owners

m

60%

Friends and family

m

50%

Business guides, books and ebooks

m

45%

Workshops, classes and seminars

m

37%

Colleagues in your business

m

36%

Membership of a business group

m

23%

Business magazines

m

19.5%

Business mentor

m

17%

Business advisers provided by a government scheme

m

11.5%

Other

m

9%

Business coach

m

5%

Number of respondents: 658

m

'Other_'_ included trade associations, a library, an accountant, a bank manager (just the one) and off-and online networking groups and forums - especially on Etsy. "Etsy teams, a private Facebook group of likeminded entrepreneurs and a friend who is also building a business, which is incredibly valuable_,"_ said one respondent. Unsurprisingly, since this was an online survey, online forms of knowledge and information came top in our poll. But what really came across was how reliant small enterprise owners are on having someone to talk to, whether that's a fellow business owner, a family member, a colleague or a mentor. It's likely most business-owners turn to different people for different reasons (would you ask your mum about health and safety rules, for example, unless she were an expert?), but the point remains - few people start and run a business in isolation. We are virtually all dependent on the networks we build around ourselves. The questions is: how do you ensure those networks are of the best quality for you? How do you know what you don't know? Our respondents appear to have little contact with the 'traditional' advisers, such as bank managers, solicitors and accountants. But a good proportion are accessing information via books and workshops, as well as via the internet. Is it fair to say that these new sources of expertise have all but replaced the figures that small-businesses traditionally turned to for advice?

"The bottom line is that the UK's emerging enterprises start-ups and small enterprises get information and support from a variety of sources, with an emphasis on online and peer support."

Enterprise Nation logo

The bottom line, though, is that the UK's emerging enterprises start-ups and small enterprises get information and support from a variety of sources, with an emphasis on online and peer support. What this doesn't tell us is how valuable this support to considered to be. So we asked an open question:

What's the most valuable form of support for you?

Peers (on- and offline)

m

26%

Friends and family

m

16%

Online

m

15%

Mentor/adviser/coach

m

14%

Colleagues

m

6%

Business organisations/professional bodies

m

4%

Classes/workshops/seminars

m

3%

Customer feedback

m

2.5%

Books and ebooks/magazines

m

2%

Business advisers provided by a government scheme

m

11.5%

Other

m

11%

Number of respondents: 658

m

'Other' generally included responses that don't count as 'business support', such as 'funding', or respondents describing the support they would like to have but haven't actually received yet. When it came to evaluating the worth if support received, our respondents overwhelmingly gave credit to with peers and with friends and family. Online information was still prominent, but there was a big grey area between 'online' and 'peer support' - much of what small-business owners value most in the world of online business support is networking via groups and forums with peers who have 'been there, done that' or who are on the same journey. What's also interesting here is the greater prominence given to mentors/coaches and advisers, the implication being that the minority of businesses that have experienced this support value it highly. If one were to start thinking about what would make the ideal support environment, that reflects how business-owners actually behave, one might go down the road of peer support networks moderated by an experienced mentor/coach - someone who can tell people what they don't know that they don't know and point them in the right direction.

So what can we learn from this**?**

 - Businesses are using the internet in a wide variety of ways to find support, often to access published advice but also to communicate with knowledgeable peers via networking groups and forums.

- Direct support from knowledgeable peers/mentors/coaches/advisers/friends and family is - collectively - the most influential and valuable form of support available to small-business owners.

- Overall, small-business owners tend to rate informal 'been there, done that' sources of support more highly than 'official' or 'professional' sources of advice and support.

- Good business support will anticipate the questions that owners of new and growing businesses may have and direct them towards appropriate knowledge and information. It will tell you what you don't know that you don't know.

The results begin to suggest some approaches to supporting businesses that may be extremely valuable (for example, peer support schemes, as well as improved access to mentoring) and some areas where existing provision may need to be challenged (are support organisations really catering to the overall support needs of people starting businesses **-** emotional support, for example?). Overall, though, our two business support questions in the survey raised more questions than they answered. If we want to build an 'ideal' support environment for start-ups and growing businesses, we need to know more about what business owners actually want, as well as what their 'don't knows' are. We'll be asking more questions about business support in our second Quarterly Survey, due in early June.

Read more small business research articles on Enterprise Nation

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