Bootstrapping isn’t supposed to be easy, or everyone would be doing it

by Scott Douglas

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

Edinburgh Council headquartersA version of this article first appeared in the Daily Record’s Edinburgh Now supplement

Entrepreneurship. Bootstrapping. Start-ups.

These are all terms that fairly crackle with energy – exactly the kind of energy that is essential in getting businesses up and running.

New ventures can range from passion-driven specialist shops to ‘next-big-thing’ internet services.

Around a third will go bust within a few short years. A tiny handful will go stellar. The majority will happily remain as ‘small businesses’ underpinning the country’s economy.

Anyone involved in running a small business knows just how much energy it takes. Week after week, year after year. You’ve got the theme by now. It’s all passion, drive, commitment, belief … the personal energy that fuels business.

With the best will in the world, those are hardly the words most people would use to describe their local council.

No doubt there are dynamic people working in local authorities across Scotland, but rightly or wrongly the public perception is of drab institutions hobbled by bureaucracy, officiousness and a lack of imagination. Not much in the way of energy.

So it came as something of a surprise to me that a survey of the public by Edinburgh Now showed that 57 per cent of those asked said Edinburgh Council was not doing enough to support the city’s small businesses.

In fact, only six per cent thought the council was doing enough on the business support front.

Council bashing is a common pastime in Scotland. They get little praise for taking care of the least glamorous aspects of daily life, from emptying the bins to making sure the street lights come on.

But we can’t have it both ways. If councils seem grey, faceless and bureaucratic because they deal with the dreary minutiae of daily life, then how to we expect them to also be the champions of business dynamism?

In fact Edinburgh Council provides support and advice to new and growing businesses though Business Gateway. It took over the running of the local service from Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce last year and created a new Business Development Centre in council HQ.

Having it based in the shiny new council building at Waverley means it is cheek-by-jowl with the officials from departments including Building Standards and Planning, Trading Standards, Licensing, Environmental Services and Transport , all business critical areas.

The website is packed with helpful tips and information on starting a business, finding funding, attracting and dealing with staff and dealing with VAT and tax. All things guaranteed to sap the energy of would-be entrepreneurs.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) says the council aren’t very good at ‘blowing their own trumpet’. Gordon Henderson, senior development manager with the FSB, told Edinburgh Now:

“The council are not brilliant at communicating. If you don’t tell people what you are doing for small business, they will assume you are doing nothing.”

I disagree with Gordon’s assessment. The kind of people who sit back and expect others to take care of their problems might assume the council is doing nothing.

Those with the grit, determination and the will to make a small business succeed would get off their backsides and make a point of finding the information they need. There’s nothing difficult about performing a Google search for “new business advice Edinburgh”, which brings back listing after listing for the help and support offered by Edinburgh Council and Business Gateway.

But that’s a small point. The FSB is resolute in lobbying and pushing councils to do more to support small business on hot button issues like local procurement, the awarding of public sector contracts and rates relief for small businesses – and more power to them on that front.

While I’m on the subject of public contracts, it’s impossible to mention “Edinburgh Council” and “business” in the same sentence without raising the horror show that is the trams debacle.

The irony shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the same council now giving out business advice to start-ups and SMES also oversaw one of the costliest, most business-damaging episodes in recent memory.

But let’s be reasonable, since they are hardly alone in being guilty of poor judgement and financial ineptitude at a time when once trusted banks are being bailed out by the taxpayer.

Which brings me back to entrepreneurship, bootstrapping and start-ups.

It would be nice if councils, banks and all manner of other public and private institutions were lined up to make life as sweet and smooth as possible for small businesses.

But if it was that easy, everyone would be doing it because it would take no energy at all.


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