05 October 2020, 08:49 AM
  • As the head of Enterprise Nation, Emma Jones has a unique understanding of Covid’s impact on the UK’s SME ecosystem
Viewpoint: Emma Jones, Enterprise Nation

Food has always been a part of my life. Growing up, I lived above and worked in restaurants run by my mum, and the experience I gained was invaluable when it came to running my own business later in life. Admittedly, I didn’t go into the food and drink industry partly due to that experience – I found out early on how intense it is! People in the food and drink sector have attractive skills which all industries can take inspiration from; Mark Dixon, the founder of the huge business IWG, once told me that when recruiting he always looks for people with food and drink experience – he explained that they’re used to working while others are enjoying their leisure time, and that this reflects their strong work ethic.

I studied law and Japanese and was all set to travel down that path, but was offered a role at professional services provider Arthur Andersen. I was there for five years and learned a wide range of skills; wider than I would have developed had I gone on to become a lawyer. I left there when I was 27 and started my own business, called Techlocate.com, with a business partner. It was 2000, very much in the height of the dot com boom, and after 15 months we got an acquisition approach from Tenon. I started to build my second business while working through my lock-in clause for Tenon, and this experience influenced my decision to launch Enterprise Nation in 2004 as well as my 2010 book, Working 5 to 9: How to Start A Business In Your Spare Time. I could see that across the pond in America there was a growing culture for ‘side hustling’ – working on something alongside your salaried job and potentially turning it into something big. At the time there wasn’t much business advice around and the Government didn’t have much time for self-employment, so there wasn’t much of an infrastructure for entrepreneurs to grow businesses. I was confident that there was a demand for this in the UK, too.

I was doing consulting work for regional development agencies – economic bodies in different regions around the UK, focusing on how they could build the entrepreneurial conditions in their region – then got involved with the Start Up Britain campaign, which I ran for three years. In 2012-2013, the market conditions were becoming ideal to help small businesses. In the next couple of years, the number of start ups in the UK began to boom; half a million people started a new business in 2013 – a record for the UK – and we’ve maintained this buzz ever since.

Today as a company, Enterprise Nation is a team of 28 spread across offices in London, Manchester and Bristol – although a lot of us are currently working from home – and this year alone we’ll support around 600,000 small businesses through our platforms. It’s a pleasure to support them in their bid to grow and develop.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the entrepreneurial wheels are still very much turning. By the end of 2020 there will have been an estimated 700,000 people starting their own businesses this year. There has been huge amounts of support offered to new businesses across the UK by local councils and central Government; in the past six months – since the start of the Covid crisis in Britain – we’ve seen the Government lend 50 billion in bounceback loans and large sums in the form of CBILS, and the furlough scheme has been massive help, alongside self employment income support schemes. There have also been cash grant programmes for those in food offering a retail or catering service.

I’m proud to say that Enterprise Nation has played an important role for new businesses in the past six months. We consider there to have been three key phases, and we have been involved at every stage. The team has worked very closely with businesses seeking out professional and financial support, and consider business owners to be currently be in the third phase of the current crisis.

The first phase was what we refer to as the dash for cash, where we had thousands of businesses coming onto the platform and asking questions around eligibility for those Government programmes. They were asking questions like, ‘how much can I get in cash?’, ‘How do I apply for a loan?’, ‘If I’m a director, can I furlough myself?’, ‘If my staff are furloughed, can I ask them to work?’. There were huge volumes of questions as business owners wanted to know how they could get money in the bank. By early May, most businesses had their financial rescue packages sorted – they’d applied for loans and figured out their eligibility – and were now looking for advice around maximising online opportunities. In response, we worked with Amazon to build the Amazon Small Business Accelerator – we’re training 200,000 small businesses in how they can improve their digital skills and confidence, all completely for free.

We’ve seen a lot of necessity entrepreneurship this year: situations where sadly people may have lost their jobs and they’re going self employed because they have no other option. However, we’re delighted to see that there’s a much bigger amount of opportunity entrepreneurship around – where people spot a gap in the market, have some time and a budget on their hands, and start a business. We’ve particularly seen this flourish in food and drink, gardening and athleisure. A lot of these businesses have been starting from people’s homes, and they then plug into a range of support networks.

We’re finding that a key question for entrepreneurs to ask is: will there be a market for my business beyond Covid? In food and drink, we have witnessed more confidence than elsewhere: people will always need to eat, and will therefore always – literally – have an appetite for new products.

We’re now in phase three which very much feels back to business, now that kids are back to school and the businesses which have spent the summer learning how to build a fitter business are being proactive in pivoting, finding new customers and creating new products. Within the food and drink sphere, we’re seeing a lot of optimism from everyone ranging from home bakers to bigger businesses, and are spending a lot of time connecting food businesses with platforms and services that can help them.

In the past 10 years there has been a steady decline in the number of businesses seeking out advice and support. Covid has completely bucked that – at Enterprise Nation, our traffic and engagement is sky high. At this stage, business owners are largely feeling stronger because they’ve made it through, and I like to think that having reached out for advice and support has helped with that. From my perspective, I would hate to see business owners going back to the way it was before – I’d like them to continue to seek out help so they can keep on growing. In food and drink the support network is thriving; it’s just a case of maintaining the message and business owners continuing to access the resources available to them.

I’ve found that there’s an incredible feeling amongst the small business base at the moment. Founders themselves tend to be very resilient people; they’ve forgone the safety of a job to pursue their passion and turn it into something real. There’s definitely a feeling at the moment – not for everybody, but for a number of entrepreneurs – that ‘if I’ve managed to get through this situation, you can throw anything at me and I’ll make it through’. There are a number of stronger businesses coming out of this very challenging situation. While there have been a number of business owners who have thought, ‘if this hasn’t knocked me over, I can take on anything’, there were also some that considered Covid the final nail in the coffin for their business.

That is one of the benefits of being an entrepreneur, as you have the flexibility to give up when you think the time is right. One of the things that stops a business owner from shutting up shop is feeling responsibility for their employees. There is no official research out yet on the number of closures that have occurred as a result of Covid, but I would hazard a guess that a large number of business owners have decided to battle on through because they’re aware that it’s not just their own mortgage that they’re paying, it’s those of their employees also.

Looking forward, The Office for National Statistics have shown the increase in start ups and also a reduction in insolvencies – this could be a result of the furlough and bounceback schemes keeping businesses, in a way artificially, going – and we are going to see trouble when businesses need to pay back bounceback loans, and when the Government stops paying furlough payments. The next six months will be critical for a number of businesses, but the agility and resilience of business owners is a huge inspiration.

Although we’re in a time of great change, and things are tough for many of us, it’s important to remember that opportunities are still there and ready to be taken advantage of. From the new food and drink producer’s point of view, there’s a growing number of platforms where they can find a place to promote themselves and sell their products.

Websites and apps like Amazon and Deliveroo are still very much on the lookout for new products to excite their customer base with, and there’s a lot of support out there too. For example, we recently ran an event called The Food & Drink Exchange, where we connect young and early stage businesses with buyers from big retailers. Government is still offering incentives for large businesses to be seen to be supporting young businesses, so the door is very much open to small suppliers. For independent and small-scale food and drink retailers, my advice – and plea – is to keep on stocking and supporting new and developing producers and their products.

Independent retailers have a vital part to play in the ecosystem of the food and drink industry, and by supporting the new generations of businesses coming through they’ll be helping to safeguard the sector.

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