EXCLUSIVE: Follow up: Entrepreneur featured on front page of #StartUpBritain speaks out

One week on: Reactions and responses, what some of those involved with StartUpBritain really think, and what StartUpBritain really stands for

StartUpBritain is still getting a slating from bloggers and from many on Twitter. In this article, we look at some of the reactions and responses. Aside from living up to its name as a link farm and being found to host malicious software and malware on its site, and the 99 designs link being moved to elsewhere within the links section after a fierce backlash from the design community (more on that below), little else has changed at StartUpBritain.org. This is a comprehensive follow up to our initial article “Why #StartUpBritain is nothing more than a government backed link farm“.

Jessica Ratcliffe

 

We’ve spoken to a number of people about StartUpBritain however, and had a further look at the reaction across the internet. Most importantly, we spoke to Jessica Ratcliffe – an entrepreneur invited to attend the press conference as one of the “best of British”, and who has particularly unfavourable views of StartUp Britain. We’ve also spoken to some of the founders behind the project, including Oli Barrett who gave us an insight in to what StartUp Britain is actually trying to do. Finally, we further analyse what the website tells us in terms of what the future holds for the project – and it doesn’t look particularly promising.

Was the only real entrepreneur featured on the website is pushed out by the founders of the project?

Today I had a conversation with Jessica Ratcliffe, founder of GaBoom, who features prominently on the front page of the StartUp Britain website. She was eager to express her own views on StartUp Britain.

Jessica is someone who is truly the deserving of the title ‘entrepreneur’. She runs GaBoom, the successful service for trading video games founded just last yea. She’s also the winner of last year’s National Varsity Pitch Competition. Jessica told me that idea was conceived when she was just 15, and that until she reached university level, there was really no support available to her to start up her business and put her ideas in to practice.

During her first year at Royal Holloway University, Jessica joined the Royal Holloway Entrepreneurs Society, and this opened many doors for her. It was when she attended talks from inspirational speakers, telling their success stories; people who had already been there and ‘done it’, that she gained the confidence to make the jump and form her limited company and founded GaBoom. In order to focus on her business full time, Jessica put her studies on hold and initially planned to take a year out from her degree in Business Management. Many of those attempting to start up whilst at university will tell you not just how hard it is to balance the two – studies, and business, but also how hard it is to find relevant support. In this case, Jessica was fortunate enough to come across the entrepreneurs’ society – something which isn’t particularly well done across all universities in the UK. She told me how it would be a case of lectures in the day, and researching and planning her business through the night. It was clear to Jessica that her business ambitions would always come before her university studies – it’s what Jessica wanted to do since the age of 15.

Two weeks ago, she officially withdrew from university, and as she put it, “closed that chapter” in her life. Jessica is now working on GaBoom full time where she has plans to up the marketing of the service and establish a team in the UK. In an industry as fast moving as the gaming industry, Jessica was eager to get established as soon as she could. Without those inspirational speakers and mentors It’s unlikely that Jessica would be in the position she is today, and her story is one which really does show that it can be done with the right kind support. This is the kind of thing that many entrepreneurs, Jessica included would like to see become more mainstream, commonplace and widespread.

The NACUE blog has further details about how Jessica funded and established her business last year.

Jessica Ratcliffe

So how does Jessica relate to StartUp Britain? To someone visiting the startupbritain.org website, it would seem that she’s playing a pretty important role – perhaps in her capacity as a real entrepreneur herself, as someone who could represent the needs of others who share the same entrepreneurial aspirations, and are in the same situation – without support – as she was when she was just 15.

This is far from the truth. Jessica initially voiced her opinions in the comments section of our initial article, and when I asked Jessica how exactly she became involved in this project, she told me that it was on receiving an email out of the blue from the agency organising StartUp Britain’s launch event, after being put forward for the project by Emma Jones. Previously she’d only spoken to Emma once on the phone after a contact recommended her as a good person to speak to about starting up in business. Jessica was then invited to attend the launch event alongside 30 other companies who would represent ‘the best of British’ start ups. From this, it appears that those behind StartUp Britain didn’t look far to find the ‘best of British’ start ups, and the selection criteria is unclear other than the fact that they used their existing contacts to invite these people, looking no farther afield than their own personal address books.

Nonetheless this was a great opportunity for Jessica though, who took the trouble to prepare a demo of her product and a small stand which would be there at the event alongside 30 other startups; and hopefully she’d receive some press attention for her product.

To her disappointment, what really happened was far from her expectations. Jessica felt that she was ignored by invited guests, the press and other delegates present at the event, to the extent that on one of the few occasions one of the invited attendees came across to her stand, in the hope that they’d show an interest in her product, it was merely to ask something as menial “where’s the toilet”.  Something like this must be very disheartening, almost offensive, to someone who’s gone to the effort to prepare and create a stand to demonstrate their own product. To add insult to injury, when it came to the press conference in the auditorium, the invited start ups were not even allowed in to watch the speakers. Perhaps this is elitism at its worst; it again shows that StartUp Britain appears to be run by a tight knit group of “founders” who are operating this for their sole commercial gain.

We can only speculate as to why that was, but it’s likely to be for PR reasons. An invited audience only were permitted to be there, and an exclusive, vetted invited audience only were allowed to ask questions which were most probably previously confirmed in an exercise to avoid potentially awkward questions being asked.

StartUp Britain Launch

Jessica told me that her expectations of StartUp Britain were entirely different to what she actually experienced – and not just of the event, but the whole project. She thought that this would be a scheme by which entrepreneurs could meet other like minded individuals, mentors, and contacts through a network of meet ups and local events (especially outside of London) alongside a high quality directory of services. This should be something which was essentially run in the interests of entrepreneurs who are seeking to start up; catering especially to their varying needs depending on which field they are starting up in. Maybe this adds yet more impetus to the argument that those behind it really are in it for their personal commercial gain and do not have an altruistic vision in promoting the interests of the growing popularity of entrepreneurism and enterprise in Britain today.

Despite this, from Jessica’s account we can see that the attitude of the StartUp Britain founders was shocking. Despite being one of the ‘faces of StartUp Britain’, Jessica met none of the founders before the event itself.

Nobody approached Jessica – a real entrepreneur, to ask what she would like to see StartUp Britain to offer, and she felt that none of the attendees acknowledged her at the event itself. According to Jess, just one person, evidently one of the few there with even the slightest hint of a conscience came up to her and briefly shook her hand, in a rushed manner to ask her “what it felt like to be the face of StartUp Britain”. Ironic considering that not once was she asked about her views of the scheme, and ironic considering that she wasn’t allowed even in to the auditorium to see firsthand, her face being shown on the big screen as the “face of StartUp Britain”.

It has even transpired that the first she learnt of what exactly StartUp Britain did was after the event itself in news reports, and, the first she learnt of her picture and her company’s logo being featured on the website was when she saw the website too. They didn’t even ask permission to use her picture and company logo - it transpires that the StartUp Britain website was produced by the same agency (Browser Creative) that developed her GaBoom website and they must have had her images and company graphics at hand. If this is the case, then what we have here is a serious administrative oversight clearly demonstrating the gross incompetence’s of those behind the project – worse still nobody bothered to tell her what the project was about prior to launch – even today she’s had no contact whatsoever with the founders and that she has no more knowledge of the project than anyone else does. Perhaps those behind it though that featuring of Jessica on the front would perhaps go some way to legitimise the whole thing – after all they need to have one real entrepreneur on the website. But are these kind of incompetences reflective of how the project will be run in the future?

Jessica really wanted to get across the fact that it’s “ironic that the people this was supposed to be benefiting the most, weren’t even allowed to hear what it was about” and that even now she “doesn’t really know what the project is about” This seems to be the consensus of everyone I’ve spoken to about StartUp Britain. It seems that these businesses were simply invited along to appear as “testimonials” – it’s all in the attempt to make this seem more legitimate.

It should be noted here that Oli Barrett did make it clear to us that he personally gave great attention to the entrepreneurs invited to attend, he took it upon himself to meet each one of the businesses invited and did urge delegates to visit their stands during his keynote.

Oli Barrett, a founder of StartUp Britain is convinced that the website is useful

We asked Oli whether he felt that it was accurate to describe this as a £1500 package for start up businesses when it is comprised of a multitude of different offers, with many not relevant to all start ups, and all of which can be found elsewhere. He responded, saying that “to see £1500 of discounts, you would have to activate multiple offers”, then rather disconcertingly continuing to say that “I think that most people understand the concept of a bundle of offers…” He appears to be taking it upon himself to convince the nay sayers that StartUp Britain and the offers that come with it, are in fact a good thing.

StartUpBritain.org simply doesn’t represent what the project stands for, and in it’s current state it doesn’t help real business at all

I had a two hour telephone conversation with Oli at the end of last week, and he spent much of it trying to question me as to whether I thought the website was useful- asking me specifically which offers I thought were useful, and which I thought should be removed – and a quick look at his recent Twitter activity reveals that he’s doing quite a bit of ‘damage limitation’; in a reply to @Repskan on Twitter he accuses yet more of those who criticise the fact that StartUp Britain of simply linking to content which you can find easily by searching Google of using a “…very basic argument against curtain ANYTHING?” continuing to exclaim “…What do you think? “Shut the florists, pick your own”?”.

Lanyrd

Unfortunately, it does appear that Oli’s very own line of argument here is a very basic one. He is spending a lot of time trying to convince existing entrepreneurs that these links, which frankly are not hard to find elsewhere, are in fact useful. If they were useful, then people would be talking about how useful they are. If we just go as far as links, then links to resources and services which are otherwise hard to find would have been better, as opposed to links to Business Link and domain search pages. Such links could include something as simple as links to mentoring schemes that lack publicity, and programmes for start ups like Oli’s very own WebMission – or in terms of business events, how about services which are becoming increasingly popular, incredibly valuable but are not yet mainstream – like Lanyrd and Plancast; two services one might not come across straight away when looking for events to attend. Or how about links to some of the top rated and highest reviewed books, or best selling books under ‘starting up a business or ‘entrepreneurship” on Amazon.co.uk – including Start Your Own Business 2011 and the The Financial Times Guide to Business Start Up 2011: “The Most Comprehensive Annually Updated Guide for Entrepreneurs”.

These links are still getting a bad reception – a commenter named Anna on Oli Barret’s own blog makes the point that “…if you ask startups what they need, it’s not reduced mobile phone contracts or city suits – it’s funding and access to networks. And that doesn’t mean funding via award competitions for which you have to pay an entry fee”, and Jessica Ratcliffe, featured above, told us that  “I personally was expecting more than this from the project and hoped that StartUp Britain would help to make the right people, help and support available to startups around the UK.  In my experience, there is nothing more valuable when you are thinking of starting a business to be able to meet with experienced individuals face-to-face and hear their advice and thoughts on your idea and I don’t believe the website currently offers this.” In a similar tone, Howard Graham, from the business support consultancy Made Simple Group told the BBC that “Support worth up to £1,500 has been around a while. They’re deals, not loans, and the firms that provide these services often their own vested interest in providing them.” Tess Harris said that “Start-ups need micro finance, mentoring, practical help- not B*S biz deals. There’s a better way to startup Britain.” Rachel Andrew, a graphic designer, also agreed in her blog post “What do business really need” which was a direct response to StartUpBritain. One Telegraph commenter concurred, this simply seems like a “…government endorsed PR puff for multinational companies, which will fleece rather than support new businesses in the critical early days”.  Further still - Darren Westlake, co-founder of Crowdcube, a website where start-ups can pitch online for angel investment, said there was already no shortage of resources on the internet for those seeking information on starting a business, and continued to say that “…the entrepreneurs we speak to tell us that they need more financial support to get off the ground, not more information”. Should ‘information’ been as integral to StartUp Britain, or was this just laziness on the part of those behind it?

Oli seems to be repeating the phrase “do you see value in useful links and deals? What else would you have?” again trying to convince people that these deals are indeed useful. I can safely make the assumption that most, if not all entrepreneurs or potential entrepreneurs are capable of researching offers and deals available to them, and the bottom line is that for the offers and deals here to be useful to “50% of people who are thinking of starting up but don’t” then a lot of explanation and guidance is needed. What use is it giving someone a deal for business insurance, office space or a business account if they don’t even know what they need? In a handful of cases, I suspect some might find a use for the offers – you can’t argue that they are truly useless, but the point here is that these offers and links are presented on the front page of startupbritain.org on the front page, and at the moment this is all startupbritain.org has to offer. It’s their brand – when you think of StartUp Britain now you most will think of irrelevant offers and some links which seem hastily put together, although Oli would have you believe otherwise. He says that by “by curating these offers”, “we think that we can save others time and effort”.

The offers and links should never have been the core focus of the website

StartUp Britain Offers

I do think that in some ways Oli is getting bigged down in the “links” and their relevancy – the bottom line here is that the offers and links should never have been the core focus of the website – and if they had limited time and resources in which to build the website the least they could have done is offered something more of value – which would have been a clear and transparent road map of what StartUp Britain is. This might not have been immediate value, but there’s nothing to stop them featuring offers or links to resources on a separate page. The fact is, although we may not like it, we all judge a book by its cover. I know that StartUp Britain stands for a lot more than this website, and so do most of those who have taken the time to research and look in to it – but what of the 50% of the population this is supposed to be targeted at? Show a sample of people in the street, and I guarantee every single one will have no idea what it’s about. The front page reads “StartUp Britain is designed to make it easier for new companies and innovations to flourish and encourage people who aspire to start new businesses to work for themselves.” but it tells me nothing about how they are going about that and what they are planning to offer. At the bottom of one of Oli’s lengthy email responses to us, he stated proudly that “The quickest, and most risk free way for an entrepreneur to promote themselves, in my opinion, is to say lots, and do little.” This pretty much sums up StartUp Britain as we see it today. He then said that “We, as a group, have taken the risk of doing something which, believe it or not, we think is useful.” If these people genuinely are entrepreneurs, I find it hard to believe that they really do think it’s useful.

The vision of StartUpBritain is good, but will it ever achieve its aim – to get the 50% of the population who are thinking of starting up, to actually start up?

It’s a shame, because you can’t fault Oli. He’s very passionate about the project, but his passion, and the apparent passion of others behind the project most certainly does not come through on the website. Nowhere does it explain the founder’s motives or aims clearly, and nowhere does it explain the aims of the project.

He explained to me what he called the three main aims of StartUp Britain, which I think are well thought through, and can’t be faulted. It’s just that these are nowhere to be found in any of the media reports or on their website.

He wants StartUp Britain to:

  1. Inspire – so this is inspiring the 50% of the population who are thinking of starting up, to actually start up
  2. Accelerate – to show people what’s helpful and assist people in business
  3. Programs to Support – to point people in the direction of programs like Shell Livewire

The bottom line here – if the site was in any way useful to entrepreneurs then Oli wouldn’t have to be spending his time trying to convince people that they are, and trying to convey the real aims of the project. The site simply doesn’t convey what Oli is preaching to people – two different pictures are being painted, so which one do we believe? What we see, or what we hear?

The aims of StartUp Britain are nowhere to be seen on the website

Olis aims are all valid, but currently StartUpBritain can be seen doing none of these at all. The website doesn’t reflect this vision, and as Jessica Ratcliffe put it, “The aims behind StartUp Britain are excellent but, the website does not follow through in representing these aims.” Yes you could argue that just maybe, some of the links and offers might inspire some people and accelerate some, but given the hype this has been given, and considering it’s backed by the government and the prime minister, the bar is a lot higher. If this were a website in its own right, not launched in such a high profile manner then you couldn’t fault it, but the reason it has been subject to such a back lash is that the website doesn’t seem to be living up the expectations. When I put this to Oli, he literally laughed and said “what expectations could you have if it didn’t exist”. It’s simple. When the prime minister and the government back something and claim to be helping 50% of the population start up, you expect something more than some offers and links – even if as I’ve already said, it’s an outline of what they plan to do.

The website, still, despite the criticism and my personal suggestions to Oli, does nothing to tell people what the true aims and potential of StartUp Britain is – it still, unfortunately looks like a link farm. Oli said that “I would not encourage anyone to see StartUp Britain as a sculpture, which is unveiled and remains unchanged.  This has been put together as our first iteration and will evolve over time.”, but surely if they are planning to build up a sculpture, good foundations are what is needed, and their website which appears to be their foundations to anyone who looks upon what they are doing, are very poor foundations for such an ambitious and high profile project. StartUps.co.uk thinks this is perhaps the most crucial issue with StartUp Britain; “…a lack of clear information”. The go on to describe how “StartUp Britain is supposed to provide a one-stop shop for small business information – its tagline is ‘Your questions about starting up, answered right here’ – yet the vast majority of its links go straight to external sites. Entrepreneurs looking for quick, simple advice are funnelled through to other sites, such as HMRC, which they probably know about already; StartUp Britain purports to provide a simpler alternative to such portals, not a conduit to them. Whereas the StartUp America website contains an exhaustive FAQ page, Startup Britain skips this section altogether. There is little or no information on the background to the scheme, or the type of companies it is targeting, and some of the links don’t even work. With half the landing page given over to affiliates, the site looks more like a blue-chip catalogue than an independent advice portal.”

StartUp Britain YouTube

Getting across and representing the aims of the project should have been their top priority, above and beyond any offers or links which should have been an after thought. It shouldn’t be left to the founders to try and rebut every negative blog post or Twitter comment made about them. Just today I came across a YouTube video of the press conference where Oli Barett outlined the aims of the project. Video is perhaps the bestand most engaging way to get ideas across; how hard would it have been to have the video feature on the front page? The video has just two views (one included myself), which is frankly laughable. It clearly shows that getting across the aims of the project were never on their list of priorities. If you want to discover some of Oli’s aims for StartUp Britain, don’t take my word for it – go and watch the YouTube video.

What else should have been their priority?

JFDI Britain

If the people behind StartUp Britain genuinely were entrepreneurs, would offers really have been at the top of their list of priorities? If the website at JFDI Britain – created by Jonathan Markwell were to replace startupbritain.org, with the publicity and backing that startupbritain.org did you’d probably inspire a lot of people to start up. What StartUpBritain should have been doing from the start is getting across their true aims, and also getting across the fact that to start up in business what you actually have to do is “just do it”. Offers, deals, business accounts, logos, business plans, profit forecasts, should all be second priority to those at StartUp Britain, because ultimately links to banks and offers about business insurance and office space give the impression that in order to start out, that’s what you need. JFDIBritain.com puts it well by saying “Contrary to popular belief, thousands of people create wealth in the UK everyday without great ideas, business plans, startup kits or logo” and inspires people to start up by telling people to follow “three simple steps and applying one golden rule”- and I can guarantee that if you gave that advice to 50% of the population thinking of starting up, and nothing else, you’d make a much larger impact than giving people a bunch of offers and some links to pre existing content which anybody even considering starting up will have most probably come across before by researching on line at a very basic level. This kind of project is also very importantly in dispelling the misconception created by popular television shows like Dragons Den, that business is ‘scary’, and that you require a lot of money to start up. Although many of those involved with StartUp Britain would have you think that Dragons Den is doing great things for enterprise in Britain, it’s likely that it puts the same number of people off because of the negative connotations it creates - and because it’s not a documentary, it’s an entertainment show akin to ITV’s XFactor. Those who appear on the show unfortunately are chosen for their entertainment value, not business efficacy, and those involved with the show care more about selling their books and using the show to leverage their careers – which most of them have already done to good effect.

Of course – disseminating such advice – that you don’t need these offers to start a business, would go against these people’s commercial goals (see below), so it’s unlikely to ever happen

But is StartUpBritain an “Alpha” Product? Should be be judging it so early?

 

The issue here is that it’s extremely poorly executed. They claim to be a “start up” so apparently we should cut them some slack, but what start up would release such a half baked product then invest so much in to marketing and advertising? In the world of startups, this is called a “minimum viable product”, and what they have here is hardly viable. As has been stated before on Hacker News this site is a “This site is a disgrace and an insult to would-be startups.” If they really wanted to make an “iTunes for enterprise” when why isn’t there a built in solution for others to add their businesses to this marketplace? Why is the mentoring section – perhaps the highest value part of this site, nonexistent? If they want to be a Trip Advisor for entrepreneurs, surely the integral, fundamental part of that would be a reviews system – right from the start? It wouldn’t be hard to build this reviews and user rating system for offers and services in from the start – rather like a business Wiki. Self moderation works, but when I spoke to Olly, I got the feeling that he didn’t particularly like the idea. He felt that he wanted links to be curated and put together by people who have “been there and done it”; i.e. the ‘founders’, as opposed to just anybody, and he said that ‘safeguards’ would be needed. At any cost, it really wouldn’t be hard to put in a system of safeguards; moderation, approval and verification – or on the simplest level a submission form for offers and services worthy of inclusion which could then be reviewed by the team. As Jamie Wells of glasses direct said on his blog, he wants to see a map of Britain showing events up and down the country – but why doesn’t this exist from the start, or why isn’t Lanyrd or Plancast integration included? This is exactly what Mike Chitty suggested. What would be the harm in holding off this launch  until they develop such features – then I am sure that they would have received a much warmer reception by those real business people, and probably some excellent coverage and publicity.

As many have said – it’s a nice idea, but it’s completely ruined by poor execution. Perhaps a hallmark of private sector led initiatives, motivated by profits? Jamie Murray Wells is quoted as saying “in true Startup mentality, “we decided to put them out there, as an ‘alpha’ version of the site”, though unfortunately I’m yet to come across any start up that would ever release an alpha product with such media fanfare that StartUp Britain did. It’s frankly shocking that they could say this, and even in software terms an alpha version of software is never released to the public, and a beta version is commonly kept closely under wraps. They’ve had their chance now, and they’ve lost it by having such a big press launch for a product they are effectively admitting is completely unfinished. They’ve made their mark, and it will be difficult to recover from this and dispel the image that all they stand for is a link of offers. As mentioned above, the easiest thing they could have done with minimal effort is provide a road-map as to what their aims are, but they couldn’t even pull themselves together to do that.

A PR disaster?

The Telegraph StartUp Britain

 

Oli, one of the founders also told me something that shocked me. He gave me the impression that he thought mainstream media was so much more important and that the backlash on Twitter and blogs was irrelevant. [We have since made an alteration here after Oli Barett got in touch to say that we misquoted him, though I stand by what I said in that I certainly got the impression he felt mainstream media was a lot more important than what people said on Twitter. Despite the impression I got, Olly told us that he takes "...Twitter and blogs very seriously indeed." He said that our initial article was nothing compared to the overwhelming support they had from the press (despite our30,000 views in 24 hours, and us receiving more ‘Tweets’ than the official website.) He read off an excel spreadsheet to me the list of coverage they received, ranging from Sky, The FT, all of the national newspapers  and a whole list of business publications. But surely this coverage was only existent because of David Cameron heading up the press conference, and secondly only because they pushed a press release out at the same time? We all know that most of the press simply regurgitate press releases (though of course, that’s not all they do), and the newspaper articles most certainly do not always reflect the views of its readers (you only have to look at the comments on this Telegraph article for instance where one commenter even exclaims “I think this article completely ignores the huge groundswell of anger about this effort. Next time don’t just regurgitate the press release!” The coverage in mainstream press directly after launch is perhaps the worst indicator of the real public response, especially when you invite all of the press to a three hour press conference and give them a warm reception. Journalism is changing, and frequently if you want to gauge the real reaction of the public you do need to turn to social media – and you simply can’t ignore what people are saying in favour of a bunch of good articles written by those journalists who were invited to their press event. This will give an incredibly dangerous false sense of security. An FT correspondent spoke of the “congratulatory atmosphere” at the event – no surprises there when you make the event closed, exclusive, and invite just your business associates and high level contacts in the press. It’s not just those on Twitter, or bloggers like Warren Cass who spoke out about this,  The business media and mainstream media won’t feed on the PR they’re given for long though – the Financial Mail have just discounted the whole thing as ‘mere PR’, and it’s won’t be long until others follow suit. StartUp Britain should expect to come under a lot more scrutiny - especially if they can’t been seen to be actively doing anything.

One commenter, on Oli Barrets very own blog made the very valid point that “…it seems lots of papers were briefed about this launch – but no blogs. Is that right? Surely it would have been a good idea to get UK bloggers talking about this?” – Although I’m sure it’s not true – this does make the whole thing seem rather elitist and it makes those behind it seem disconnected from reality at best.

The people behind StartUp Britain need to desperately listen and change the website entirely if they want to recover from the bad reception they got, which they’re still getting. The attitude, that only mainstream media reports represent the opinion of the entrepreneurs StartUp Britain is supposed to help, can only be described as an ignorant one.

A bigger question, however still remained unanswered until today.

How exactly did StartUp Britain get the backing of David Cameron and the government? Was it just good contacts, or is this borderline corruption?

The fact that all of those behind this project already do business together isn’t the only issue with regard to StartUp Britain operating in the best interests of enterprise – it does deeper still.

As the Financial Times reports, Lord Young of Graffham, who last year had to resign from his government role as ‘enterprise advisor’ after saying that the British have  “never had it so good” in this “so-called recession” (see sources – The Sun, and The Daily Mail, The Mirror) – clearly demonstrating how out of touch some elements of The Conservative Party actually are –  has re-emerged as the “linchpin to the high-profile launch of StartUp Britain”, and one of the hidden driving forces behind it.

Lord Young with David Cameron

Oli told me that those behind StartUp Britain were “presented with an opportunity” to launch StartUp Britain alongside a speech to be given by David Cameron at an upcoming press conference, and he told me that those behind StartUp Britain felt they couldn’t miss this opportunity, so they worked hard to get a site off the ground with the contacts and the resources they had – hence why it wasn’t perfected at launch . This is contrary to what The Financial Times reported this week – that Lord Young was “alerted to the initiative”, when one of its founders, Rajeeb Dey, “…bumped into him at the Institute of Directors in London”. Lord Young then pitched the idea to Steve Hilton, director of strategy to David Cameron, who organised an introduction between the prime minister and all eight of the entrepreneurs behind StartUp Britain.

“As a result, StartUp Britain not only got a name check in George Osborne’s Budget speech, but had the prime minister, the chancellor and the business secretary Vince Cable sitting in the front row of its launch event on Monday.”

Their high level contacts have simply given their scheme, which they all have vested interests in, some excellent endorsement. Oli told me how he felt that the government has “the power to convene”, and by this, he means the power to attract the press and media. I’m sure any business would like a slice of press attention that David Cameron attracts, and any endorsement from David Cameron is bound to lead to a great deal of publicity and in turn publicity for themselves and their commercial enterprises (see below for more on their commercial interests).

Was Camerons head-in-the-clouds mugshot a mistake?

David Cameron

Speaking of Cameron, his picture should never have been on the site. It’s the sole reason that many have mistakenly believed that this is government funded, and more to the point, this looks like a partisan project – one which is attached to David Cameron and the Conservative Party. Amongst a sizeable part of the population, David Cameron’s face carries with it serious negative connotations which will undoubtedly impact on the opinions of those visiting their website. One commenter on Oli Barrett’s blog actually said that “… it actually looks less like a government site, and more like a Conservative party website. Really off-putting.” and that commenter couldn’t have put it better. He went on to say “The one thing it *really* doesn’t look like is an independent site. That does you a disservice.” Yes, David Cameron’s involvement in his capacity as Prime Minister was important in attracting media attention at launch, but does his face have to be on the website? It’s simply not necessary.

99 Designs: Buckled under pressure.

99 Designs StartUp Britain

The removal of the 99designs link clearly came as a result of the outcry from the British design community, which we previously reported on – initially provoked by an article in Creative Review earlier this week. Creative Review made an open statement to David Cameron and StartUp Britain, saying that  “rather than backing the design sector that your government so frequently claims to support, your big initiative to encourage hundreds of new businesses funnels commissions to an American website that systematically undermines the values of the very industry you claim to find so important.” They initially publicly claimed that they had removed the link entirely on their Twitter steam – a good PR move –but in essence they told everyone they removed it but retained the link elsewhere on the site. Either way, as one Twitter user said “Surely they shouldn’t have needed to be told it was wrong?” – But then again this is what we’ve come to expect of StartUpBritain? A seemingly shabbily managed and poorly executed project? Ultimately, they are still linking to a multitude of US and International companies in the place of British ones.

 

Rachel Elnaugh speaks out about the commercial interests of those involved

Rachel Elnaugh

We’ve seen how the publicity behind StartUp Britain was garnered through the use of their high level contacts, but what are those behind the project really hoping to do with all of that publicity? Do they have an altruistic vision or are they really in it for the money?

Ironically, Rachel Elnaugh, who specialises in the same old marketing seminars, ‘free eBooks’ and marketing tips and who claims to be a ‘transformational coach’ and ‘professional’ speaker spoke out about StartUpBritain.

She said that “…while the site is billed as a ‘not for profit’ organisation, it’s clearly designed to generate lots of revenue for the participating businesses, many of whom seem to be clients of the PR agency who launched the site” and she went on to say how “…it’s this uncomfortable marriage of the government endorsed/not for profit veneer over a clearly commercial motive which leaves the nasty taste in the mouth.” This is coming from someone who knows a lot about the “advisory sector” as Oli described it to me on the phone.

She continued to take a line which I must say I really do agree with; “…don’t get me wrong, I am 100% behind enterprise and encouraging small business – and there’s nothing wrong with making money but let’s be clear: Start Up Britain is a commercial collective who are using this as a vehicle to make money from the boom in Enterprise – with some rather priceless free endorsement from our PM thrown in.”

Yes, this is a private sector enterprise, and I expect that most people won’t have a problem with them making a profit especially if it is reinvested in the project. There is great potential here for ‘sponsored’ or ‘promoted’ offers and for sponsored promotions of books or courses on starting up in business – as long as these are vetted and considered first. The key is disclosing these interests in an up-front manner – then who can accuse individuals or companies having a commercial interest in the project, if it’s disclosed clearly in the first place? Deception is not the right way to go about it.

Rachel goes on to say “It’s exactly the reason why the old Business Links weren’t allowed to recommend any specific business or product.” The rather sad thing is that, behind all this razzle dazzle PR fanfare from our PM, as a result of the cuts great enterprise encouraging institutions – like the British Library Business and IP Centre where I have been a mentor for the past three years – lose their funding this Thursday, and as a result are having to severely curtail their activity.  Meanwhile, HMRCE together with state owned banks continue to wind up Britain’s existing small businesses on a daily basis.

Transparency

The commercial interests of those involved are becoming ever more apparent. Is the real reason for the offers on the front page, not just a simple oversight, a blunder on their part and a mistake? If this were the case, why didn’t they remove them front the front page? It seems that the commercial interests of those involved are deeper-rooted than we initially speculated.

Paul Lewis Moo.com

We know that all of the people behind this project know each other already; Dan Martin at BusinessZone We know that one of the founders Emma Jones along with Henry Colinge of Regus and Paul Lewis of moo.com, and even Dan Martin of Business Zone (a site giving them very favourable coverage) all attended Emma Jones’ “startup launch kit party” and are all involved in this website and Nick Giles heads up the PR behind the whole project – Seven Hills, who also have some of the founders behind StartUpBritain as direct clients of theirs too.

Emma Jones Startup Kit

Emma’s kit contains “£400 worth of vouchers, for just £25” – It’s an old school internet marketing trick – you know – the £970 worth of eBooks for just £97 kind of thing. Paul Lewis is even quoted as thinking that “…something that costs £25 with over £400 worth of vouchers in it” is a good thing. In all honesty, this isn’t something you come to expect from the founder of Moo.com, Paul Lewis (seen above, at the launch party for Emma’s Startup Kit). This kind of thing is simply not created altruistically for the benefit of those starting up – instead it takes advantage of the vulnerable position of those starting up and many will end up simply wasting their money on products or services they don’t need. I’m also reliably informed that most of the “offers” on StartUpBritain.org are in fact directly pulled from Emma’s start up kit, and are offers which she has a commercial interest in. This is a genuine conflict of interest, which should be disclosed in a clear way.

Oli Barrett actually agreed to me that they needed to be more transparent about the commercial interests that the founders, and other business have in the project.
Speaking of transparency, it’s also concerning that despite claiming to be a non-profit organisation; there is no company registration on the site or registered office address – both of which are legal requirements.

One of the most blatant commercial exercises is the eBook ‘sponsored by BlackBerry’. I actually did download the eBook and had to download some software called ‘Adobe Digital Editions’ just to access the DRM restricted content which is apparently now only viewable on my computer and not on any other device. This is far from accessible – and if, as they are purporting, this venture really is “non-profit” when why not offer it as a freely available PDF download which everyone can access without having to give over their email address?

Start-Up Kit

The reason they will never do that is because of the commercial drive of those behind the project – these people make money from advising start ups. I don’t blame them – like any company, they have to make a profit – and as for these entrepreneurs it’s entirely understandable that everything they do is in the best interests of their business. These people make a living from advising startups and entrepreneurs.

It even seems that ‘Smarta’, a site linked to 100s of times under the “what you need to know” and “resources” sections is directly linked to those behind StartUp Britain, and is a commercial site in itself – again employing scam-like internet marketing tactics including eBook opt-in offers and encouraging black-hat tips

One commercial interest that was clearly apparent was that of Jamie Murray Wells of Glasses Direct. They finally realised their stupidity. Oli told us that “I’m sorry that you felt that the offer from Glasses Direct offer was open to misinterpretation. This offer has since been updated to offer 25 hours of mentoring support”. Jamie Murray Wells clearly didn’t want to be too left out, but equally, I’m not sure how relevant mentoring from a glasses and hearing aids salesman would be – yes, it might be relevant to some, and yes this again could be seen as cynical – but let’s look at the bigger picture. There are literally 1000s of potential entrepreneurs in Britain right now, and what they really need isn’t 25 hours mentoring from a single business owner, but a network of established mentors, on launch.

Even if this project is non-profit, and even if apparently, the funds will be re invested, this doesn’t change the fact that the founders behind this project each have some form of vested interest in the project – they’re all part of this same network.

Can we trust the private sector to do the right thing?

This comes back to the perennial question. Can we trust the private sector to do the right thing? Should this really be an impartial government led service showcasing mentoring and other business services – where those behind it are more accountable and spend the time properly vetting the services on the website instead of thinking up more innovative ways to cash in on them? Ultimately, when businesses are concerned, you can never have an impartial, unbiased view – and this really is precisely what this service should be.

Given the commercial interests of some of those involved, and given the poor execution to date, other than when it comes to presenting the ‘offers’, it appears that there is no real accountability, and no driving force behind it to make it succeed other than the desire for those involved to profit – if they don’t, or can’t see a return on investment they simply won’t both putting any time and effort in to it. This is the perception that you get currently when you visit the StartUpBritain.org website.
Their rebuttal to this would probably be “give us a chance”, but with government backing, the sheer number of entrepreneurs involved and therefore the inevitable pool of funding at their disposal – they really do have no excuse.

StartUp Britain should complement government support and not replace it

One of the reasons this might not happen is that in Jamie’s post he talks about the fact that unlike government run impartial advice services like Business Link they will not be “competing with the private sector” – apparently they see BusinessLink as a threat, as a competitor and they want to take their business away. Yes they might not be “competing with the private sector” and they might want to “take responsibility from the government for delivering some services that they shouldn’t be trying to deliver” but who is this really being given to? Yes, you guessed it – themselves or their affiliated services.

Ultimately, what this group of entrepreneurs is offering is a good idea, with good intentions, it solves a genuine problem and their vision is a good one. It’s clear though, that this shouldn’t be a substitute for government support. It should complement it. Had this been a private enterprise, it could still have got the publicity, and even been endorsed by public figures within government, or those inspirational figures in business – but it wouldn’t have got the criticism because it wouldn’t have been seen as a government initiative, and it wouldn’t have had as high threshold of accountability. If it was allowed to make a profit, maybe this would push up the quality of the service and force it to become a competitive high quality service, and not a sub-par and half baked link farm.

It would have made a good private sector alternative to the existing strong government support – but it should never replace it as Jamie suggests in that they should provide a “better” service “at no cost, or reduced cost to the taxpayer”. If it were a purely private enterprise with no links to government, there would be no risk of compromising this phony “philosophy of not creating the content ourselves”; they could act like a normal enterprise and not a “non profit” company without the negative backlash they get, and the higher bar of accountability they get when associated with the government.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, who run Business Link for their official line on the StartUp Britain Farce

They told us that “…StartUp Britain is a commercial website” with no mention of a non-profit element, “…developed by business for business with two key elements (i) a one-stop shop for discounted and free services on offer to startups and (ii) a directory of startup provision in the marketplace – user rated”As of yet we can see no user rated provisions on the site at all. Interestingly Olly told us firstly that he thought most entrepreneurs have had a bad experience with Business Link, and that a ‘for business, by business’ approach is better – what do you think? He did say however that he had mixed feelings about the scrapping of Enterprise UK, which was partially government funded.

Should we judge StartUp Britain by their actions, not their words?

Jamie Murray Wells is quoted as saying “we have the ear and support of Government, at the highest level” adding that this provides them with an “opportunity to distil and feedback the views of small business to Government”. That’s all very well said, but if they continue in their refusal to talk to any real entrepreneurs outside their own circle, as Jessica Ratcliffe proved to us, then they will never be able to “distil and feedback” the views of small business to the government. The first thing they need to do is listen to what real entrepreneurs are saying – they shouldn’t be ignoring the bloggers, and the noise on Twitter. They shouldn’t be focussing their efforts on getting some good press in the mainstream media – instead they need to get their hands dirty and get people talking about StartUpBritain without the need for mainstream press – then if that happens – the mainstream press will follow. It’s important to reiterate that from what I’ve learnt over the past week, that on paper, and according to their motivations and aims, StartUp Britain is an amazing scheme which will do a lot for our economy and genuinely help potential entrepreneurs everywhere in a significant pro-enterprise culture change. However – and it’s a big however. This is a tall order, so StartUp Britain will be under a lot of scrutiny over the coming weeks – and should be judged by their actions, not the PR they continue to push out. From what we’ve seen them produce to date, and from the decisions we’ve seen them make, and from the way they’ve decided to execute StartUpBritain, it’s really not looking very promising. Time will tell if they actually deliver on their aims, and on the thee main goals which Oli laid out to me – but’s hard to view the whole thing with anything more than cautious optimism.

What do you think of the way StartUpBritain is looking? Do you think it will deliver it’s aims, or is it just PR fluff? Do you think real entrepreneurs are being listened to, or are they just being silenced?

UPDATE: SmallBusinessPro.co.uk has written an article on StartUpBritain entitled “Start up Britain The Good, Bad and Ugly” coming to the same conclusions as we have here, that it’s a “…great idea but poorly implemented” but also raising the issue that to someone just starting out, it offers no “…path to starting up with real guidance and real support”. The author also makes the suggestion that they need to get together “…experts in their field to put offers together and get them on the site rather than a random list of people in the know”, though it’s clear this won’t happen as the offers on the page are heavily influenced by the commercial interests.

Follow the author of this article on twitter: @SamEngland