Releasing data could help Britain’s entrepreneurs scale-up

The celebrated entrepreneur, investor and adviser Sherry Coutu CBE has just released a detailed report on scale-up businesses. Scale-ups are defined as enterprises with average annualised growth in employees or turnover greater than 20 per cent per annum over a three-year period, and with more than 10 employees at the beginning of the observation period.

The Scale-Up Report explains how “a boost of just one per cent to our scale-up population should drive an additional 238,000 jobs and £38 billion to GVA within three years”…“[I]n the medium-term, assuming we address the skills-gap, we stand to benefit by £96 billion per annum and in the long-run, if we close the scale-up gap, then we stand to gain 150,000 net jobs and £225 billion additional GVA by 2034.”

The report identifies key issues for helping these companies grow:

  • Finding employees to hire who have the skills they need
  • Building their leadership capability
  • Accessing customers in other markets / home market
  • Accessing the right combination of finance
  • Navigating infrastructure

Twelve recommendations are put forward, but the first (arguably) offers the biggest bang for its buck:

Recommendation 1. National data sets should be made available so that local public and private sector organisations can identify, target and evaluate their support to scale-up companies, and evaluate their impact on UK economic growth.

The specific data required includes:

  • Company registration number
  • Revenue (UK and export)
  • Location of headquarters and plant
  • R&D tax credit (recipients and amount)
  • Employment data (number of pay slips issued in a given month)

It is suggested that data “should be made available on a real-time basis openly or to a cross-departmental scale-up support unit within government. This would allow both public and private sector organisations to target scale-ups accurately to make sure support is offered at right time to the right leaders.”

Releasing this data wouldn’t add to the bureaucracy faced by entrepreneurs. As the report explains, companies are already required to submit turnover data annually to Companies House, report on PAYE in real-time, file quarterly VAT returns, and report on the amount the spend on R&D (if claim R&D Tax Credits). However, as the report acknowledges, releasing this data raises questions around data privacy. To counter this criticism, the report uses the example of the Cambridge Cluster Map, where this sort of data is already collated, and 59 companies have asked to be included in it since its initial launch.

Also, following a YouGov survey, the report reveals: “83% of scale-ups were in favour of the government sharing information on their company growth with other government departments or agencies, and 72% were in favour of government sharing this externally.”

But this leaves a minority of companies unwilling to open up their data willy nilly. The report doesn’t offer any guidance on how to deal with these concerns but there should be a way for companies to opt out. If, as the report reasonably suggests, these companies are then better targeted for support, those that have opted out will surely be all too ready to release their data too.

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.

Mazzucato versus Worstall and Westlake

Marianna Mazzucato’s 2013 The Entrepreneurial State is the most influential book on innovation. Although Mazzucato’s arguments in the book and beyond are many and varied – for example, I’m particularly sympathetic to her scepticism of the uncritical financial support for small businesses – the arguments gaining the most traction are the least convincing and potentially most damaging.

In short, Mazzucato’s thesis is that the state has been the key driver of “innovation” and should therefore take a more active role than they currently do. Central to this, is the policy suggestion that government agencies that fund this innovation should take a cut of the profits from the inventions. Two writers have convincingly unpicked this – the Adam Smith Institute’s Tim Worstall and Nesta’s Stian Westlake.

First, on the point about states driving innovation, Worstall cites William Baumol, who makes the crucial distinction between innovation and inventions. In reference to Mazzucato’s observation that the key technologies that went into making the iPhone were state funded Worstall explains: “Baumol’s point is that the private sector could have come up with these technologies, even though it was the state that did. But only the private, or market, sector could have come up with the iPhone.”

To put it another way, the iPhone is more than the sum of its parts. In an excellent article (worth reading in full), Westlake cites the work of Jonathan Haskel, which “suggests that for every £1 that British businesses spend on R&D, they spend £8 on other intangible investments of the sort that Apple used to make the iPod a success: design, new business models, marketing and software development.”

But perhaps Mazzucato’s biggest mistake is one of policy. As Westlake explains elsewhere, in The Entrepreneurial State Mazzucato suggests that “the state should find ways to share directly in the profits of companies that benefit from government innovation spending. A repayment system needs to ‘reward [the government for] the wins when they happen so that the returns can cover the losses from the inevitable failures.’”

Westlake outline three convincing reasons why this wouldn’t work: “it would be nightmarish to administer; it imposes costs on exactly the wrong businesses, creating both a presentational and a practical problem; and it’s worse than an already existing option – funding innovation from general taxation.” Westlake’s last point cuts to heart of the problem. As Worstall has pointed out in a response to Mazzucato’s response to his criticism of her work:

That governments sometimes produce public goods should not be a surprise. That’s what governments are for in fact. To provide collectively those things that cannot be provided through voluntary cooperation. To then complain that government doesn’t get extra rewards for doing the very thing we institute it for seems most odd. That’s why we pay our taxes in the first place: in order to get those public goods. Why should there then be some extra appropriation when all government is doing is what we asked it to and paid for it to do in the first place?

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.

Size might not matter but age definitely does

It’s ironic that politicians are so obsessed with creating jobs, given that many interventions – such as employers’ national insurance contributions and a politically determined minimum wage – achieve the diametric opposite. Yet it remains a key metric for determining political success and failure, and it drives much that passes for entrepreneurship and enterprise policy.

When it comes to job creation there is a debate about whether small or large businesses contribute more. Those representing small businesses can claim that micro businesses account for around 95% of all private sector companies, while those representing large businesses can counter that despite making up less than 0.1 per cent of the total private sector stock, large businesses account for more than half of all turnover and more than 40% of UK private sector employment.

It’s a complicated debate. Nesta research suggests a small proportion of businesses are responsible for the majority of job growth, with the data showing that “just 7% of businesses are responsible for half of the jobs created between 2007 and 2010.”

Elsewhere, Nesta suggests focussing government resources on supporting what was then “the vital 6%” . But it isn’t obvious that this is the right conclusion from the data. It’s entirely possible that current polices are limiting the size of this so-called vital 6% job-creating companies. If this were the case, instead of focussing on those businesses and sectors already succeeding, the right policy would be the exact opposite: focusing on increasing that 6% figure by targeting companies not in the 6%.

Although the ideal ratio of small to large businesses might be indeterminable, we do know one thing. Size might not matter but age definitely does: we want new businesses. As the Kaufman Foundation explains: “Policymakers often think of small business as the employment engine of the economy. But when it comes to job-creating power, it is not the size of the business that matters as much as it is the age.”

Therefore, politicians and policymakers should want the entrepreneurial process to happen quickly; they should want to make sure regulations don’t inhibit the process of business creation and destruction; they should, to paraphrase the lean startup, want entrepreneurs to start fast, grow fast and fail fast.

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.

The tax system is the biggest barrier to growth

Outside of academic papers that too rarely see the light of day, most “research” is unremarkable in its optimism about the state of entrepreneurship in the UK. That’s why the RSA’s Growing Pains: How the UK became a nation of “micropreneurs” caught my eye. It paints a stark picture.

The UK, according to the report, has become a nation of micro businesses, while the proportion of high-growth businesses has plummeted: “UK businesses are becoming increasingly micro in size – reducing the overall potential for economic output and future growth, and increasing the economy’s reliance on a relatively small number of larger businesses.”

Since 2000, the proportion of businesses classified as micro (0-9 employees), as a share of all UK businesses has grown from 94.3 per cent of all private sector companies to 95.4%. This represents an additional 1.4 million micro firms and an increase over the same period of 43%.

“At the same time, the proportion of high-growth enterprises has declined sharply, falling by more than a fifth in the majority of regions since 2005.”

Although the number of high-growth firms is expected to rise over the coming years, the report cautions optimism: “performance is expected to remain below 2005 levels in all regions except London”.

So how can we solve the problem? According the entrepreneurs, the tax system (44%) is the biggest barrier to growth – ahead of a lack of bank lending (38%) and the cost of running a business (36%).

Another problem highlighted by the report is that entrepreneurs don’t know what the government is up to:

“Around three-quarters (73%) of small business leaders also say the Government must make it easier for SMEs to access the right information and support for growth. While several of the Government’s recent incentives to support SMEs are designed to address the top-cited barriers, perhaps this information is not reaching the people who need it the most.”

Two polices are put forward in the conclusion to help entrepreneurs. First, “continued reform of the apprenticeship scheme could help micro firms to grow out of this business size category”. Second, “more tax relief like the National Insurance holiday could also pay real dividends.” It would be worth exploring the former in detail (something I plan to work on), but I don’t think another NI holiday goes nearly far enough: Employers’ National Insurance should be scrapped entirely. And no just for small businesses.

Being an entrepreneur is tough. As the report points out, “the majority (55%) of new businesses don’t survive beyond five years.” Scrapping Employers’ NI is the logical place to start.

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.

Tired of London?

Samuel Johnson famously pronounced: “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. This isn’t the end of his statement though, he added: “for there is in London all that life can afford.” But what if you can’t afford life in London? Surely then it is time to up sticks and move to a cheaper city.

According to a poll from the Supper Club, the network for entrepreneurs turning over £1m or more, 40pc of London-based business owners have considered moving their operations.

More than a third claimed that the cost and inefficiency of London’s public transport system is holding back businesses, while 40pc said that the cost of housing is driving away the best talent. With house prices in London reaching an all-time peak, business owners have warned of a “brain drain”.

The Supper Club, which represents 330 entrepreneurs from a range of sectors, found that 79pc of respondents fear a skills crisis within five years.

Of course, for as long as London remains a leading world city – at the cutting edge of finance, business and culture – it will remain a pricey place to live. After all, there is a flipside of the economies of amalgamation – some stuff, like housing becomes more expensive. And yet, there can be no doubting that house prices are hitting crisis point. For Generation Y, many can’t foresee how they will ever be able to own property in the capital. London’s big divide is between the owners and the renters and successive governments’ failure in allowing more houses to be built is squarely to blame.

To give you a sense of the crisis, Shelter’s model predicts that fewer than 1 in 5 of London families will be able to become owners by the age of 65 if prices inflate as they have done in the past.

As the LSE’s Paul Cheshire points out, politicians haven’t stepped up to the plate. The coalitions’ Help to Buy policies are doing little (except pushing up prices), while Labour’s suggestion for partial controls on rents, increased security of tenure, and elimination of agent’s fees for finding housing for renters, will probably just decrease rental supply as fewer people want to become landlords.

Cheshire believes “nothing short of radical reform will improve housing affordability. But radical reform, like intelligently loosening restrictions on Greenbelt building, is frightening.” Affordable, more stable house prices should be the policy goals of all political parties. This requires a more liberalised system, whereby the demand for housing would impact its supply.

This generation of successful entrepreneurs may be able to live in London but their employees increasingly can’t. And crucially, for the wealth of this nation, the next generation of entrepreneurs may have already moved to a city where the cost of living isn’t prohibitively expensive – and my first pick wouldn’t be the UK.