David Cameron launched a new, unoriginally named website (see Startup America) today purporting to be a “£1500 rescue package” for small businesses.
The launch came with much media fanfare, and it focussed solely around a website – ‘startupbritain.org’. To the trained eye, it’s clearly a glorified, government backed ‘link farm’ – a term which is used by those in the industry to describe a page full of ‘spam’ advertisements, which when clicked, earn the owner of the website ‘affiliate commission’. Digging deeper however, it’s clear that the representations made by the website released today are a direct reflection of Cameron’s ‘private-sector led’ policies and proposals regarding start-ups, enterprise and entrepreneurialism in Britain under the Tory led coalition.
When reading an article like this, it’s easy to accuse the author of being a ‘hater’. This is a bit like speaking out against Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ initiative – the thing is – you can’t. You can’t because you’re effectively speaking out about volunteering, community projects and giving power to local people (which are all, of course good things). You can however speak out about the way it’s executed. In this case, apparently speaking out against “StartUp Britain” is speaking out about business and enterprise as a whole. That’s far from what I’m doing here – I’m merely speaking about how Cameron’s government is going about supporting start ups and the entrepreneurs behind them – starting here with ‘startupbritain.org’.
According to the press, apparently we have £1500 rescue package, available right now, for each and every Startup in Britain. Let’s take a closer look at what’s really being offered.
Ultimately, the valuation of £1500 is rather akin to those ‘Tesco Clubcard’ offers you get through your letterbox every other week if you’re a member of their scheme. It’s a good analogy – “£300 worth of coupons” they might say, when in reality it’s comprised of 100′s of 20 pence off deals, and nobody realistically will ever make a saving of £300; not just because half of the offers aren’t relevant to you, but because you’d have to spend £1000′s to take that advantage. As Anthony Cope put it, “Most of these ‘offers’ are too expensive for SMEs to take up.” It’s the same deal here. Maybe the Advertising Standards Agency would be interested in this £1500 claim – because in my eyes it’s impossible to even get a £100 of true, practical and real life savings from this scheme. The ASA already take on Tescos and the like for the marketing of their voucher schemes, which can only be described as false advertising, at the very least.
Looking closer at these ‘offers’ we come across a discount which is “20% off prescription glasses for anyone starting up new businesses.”; this is from GlassesDirect.co.uk, which happens to be a website owned by none other than “Jamie Murray Wells”, one of the entrepreneurs who helped to devise this ‘non-profit’ website. It’s also interesting to note that the promotion code is open to everyone . A quick search for “glasses direct promo code” reveals that you can in fact find the same deals available to all – so stating that these deals are exclusive would be a complete lie. Let’s not forget the biggest issue here either – how exactly does 20% off prescription glasses help any entrepreneur, start up, or established SME? It doesn’t – but like all the offers, it does help the businesses of those ‘entrepreneurs’ behind the site itself.
For fear of being accused of picking out the most tedious of them all, let’s have a look at one of the big players in this; Microsoft. Apparently, they’re giving over £400 to every start up, but after you dig deeper it seems that £30 of this is for some Bing advertising (again, this is the kind of thing that’s readily available, credit for Bing ads fall out of magazines left right and centre, and there are a myriad of voucher codes available for Bing ads available on line). Furthermore, £370 of this calculation comes from a “free 90-day trial of Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online”. Hey, why not make it 180 days then Microsoft can donate £720 to every start up? That won’t happen – why? Just like every single other offer on there, none are specific to start ups, none are exclusive to this website and none are bespoke. Anyone can get a 90 day trial of this software here.
We contacted Microsoft for a comment and asked them if anyone can take advantage of the deals – not just start ups. A Microsoft spokesperson responded promptly to say that Microsoft will offer “…free technology resources worth up to £400 per company. This also includes webinars and seminars to train 5,000 businesses, 90 days of Dynamics CRM Online service worth £370, free Keywords on Bing AdCenter worth £30 and an Office 2010 60 day trial.” This merely reinforces the fact that this is an entirely commercial exercise, and these ‘seminars’ will no doubt conclude that you should buy one of Microsoft’s products in order for your business to succeed. This isn’t impartial support and advice, this is blatantly and openly commercial.
Further examples include a “free guide” to starting up produced by BlackBerry – evidently they’re using that old school internet marketing tactic to get your email address on to an opt-in list for promotional purposes. Nick Linford points out that the 02 offer of “one month free line rental” is again, clearly not exclusive. You can also find an insurance discount of 10% – and again a quick search reveals that these offers are readily available and are nothing new.
Not only are these offers readily available anyway, but public money – taxpayers money is being used to promote these offers. This website gives these companies – many of which aren’t even based in Britain, free promotion, free publicity, and free celebrity endorsement of David Cameron and Richard Branson – who, as inspirational as he is, has been the poster child for British entrepreneurship for over 30 years.
So what it boils down to is a promotional platform for all of these companies involved. No real harm– but when public money is being used to promote these companies – shouldn’t we be concerned? You’d be right in thinking this is privately funded – but it’s not privately promoted. The press conferences and the marketing surrounding this is all being paid for with tax payers money. More to the point, is that most, if not all of these companies involved are based outside Britain. What happened to supporting British business, Cameron? A quick tally shows that three of the five companies listed for “create a logo” for instance are actually US companies.
Does StartUp Britain devalue the whole of the British creative industry?
Creative Review this morning alongside many others in the creative industry on Twitter pointed out that StartUp Britain is pointing it’s users to US companies which outsource logo production, as opposed to supporting British companies. Where they list tip tips to “start on your way” they list “create a logo” – Creative Review points out that instead of linking to a list of “…well-chosen UK design studios in various locations who could all benefit from the work…” it instead points being to “…99designs.com, the US crowdsourcing site where designers compete to knock out logos for ‘from just $295′”
“18 out of the 27 companies involved in the “£1500” worth of offers are actually based in Britain”
When you look site-wide at the offers, just 18 out of the 27 companies involved in the “£1500” worth of offers are actually based in Britain, with 4 based in the US, 1 in Canada, 1 in Japan, 1 in Ireland and 2 in tax havens such as Bermuda. Perhaps one of the most pressing reasons for the government to support British alternatives as opposed to these multi nationals and foreign companies is the fact that SMEs are the backbone of business in Britain. They are the ones paying their rates, and their corporation tax – whilst these multinationals evade tax by operating from tax havens or by using techniques like the “Dutch Sandwich” to evade $3.1 billion worth of tax every year.
Oli Barret another one of the “entrepreneurial” facilitators behind this project said today that he thought “signposting and showcasing” rather than “creating” is key, as is the notion of “for business by business”. That’s all very well said and done, but when one decodes what he’s saying, essentially it means that StartUp Britain is providing nothing at all, except a mere portal to “offers” from a multitude of companies – involving very little up front expense, but hugely benefitting that close circle of ‘entrepreneurs’ or marketers benefitting from the promotion of their businesses paid for with taxpayers money.
In fact, all of the entrepreneurs involved in launching this are those who sell business to business marketing products – to some, these marketers are considered the epitome of internet marketing – selling “make money online” eBooks and marketing seminars that bring no real value to those who are conned in to buying them – and those involved in this generate income by selling to each other developing their own kind of self fulfilling prophecy.
How StartUp Britain links to “Spam ridden, affiliate link filled sites”
The Next Web have also spoken out, saying that “…to launch this as a high-profile, government-backed initiative with virtually no substance is quite frankly embarrassing.” Embarrassing might be the right term –at the present moment in time the website is the biggest single representation of British business on line – especially what with #startupbritain trending on Twitter – yet the word “Inspiration” is spelt “Inpspiration” on the front page at the time of going to press. The site also links to a countless number of spam ridden affiliate link filled sites that are equally sloppy in terms of spelling mistakes; The site at find-uk-accountant.co.uk (filled with affiliate links for ClearBooks) offers a checkbox for “Individual” and “Buisness”.
“This site is a disgrace and an insult to would-be startups.”
Alex Lawford a commententer on Hacker News said that he was “…surprised this is from the government”. He continued to say that “…it comes across as very spammy – like an affiliate marketing site. The copy reads like a content farm and most of the links are basically ads for different services. Surely the government can’t be that strapped for cash?! Good idea, horrible execution.” – he summed the site up pretty much perfectly. Another commenter had stronger words, and said that “This site is a disgrace and an insult to would-be startups.” Brighton Based graphic designer, John White also puts it well – he says that all the government are doing is linking to “5-second-find google links” that “intelligent people would have found ages ago”.
But how do business owners in Britain see this?
I asked David Travis about StartUp Britain; he runs a Usability Consultancy over at Userfocus Ltd. He told us that “…as the owner of a growing business, I was so disappointed by startupbritain.org. Like most business owners, my main drivers are to make money and reduce costs. But the site seems to contain no information about funding and the ‘offers’ are simply marketing freebies that I receive through the post everyday”. He went on to expand on this, saying that “…there is no logic or organising principle behind the offers: it’s just a smorgasboard of logos. I can’t even use some of them (such as the Google Adwords voucher) as it’s for new accounts only”.
David raises many of the same points that are being voiced by business owners using the hashtag #StartUpBritain on Twitter across Britain, especially those internet savvy ones who can see right through these affiliate link ridden sites. As Hacker News London Meetup organiser Dmitry Grabov put it, “you can’t hustle a hustler”. Earlier, he also made a relatively neutral comment on Twitter this morning saying that “Not sure I see the point of @startupbritain. Can someone enlighten me?” to which Sherry Coutu, “angel investor and entrepreneur” responded “its about what entrepreneurs do to help entrepreneurs not about discounts – what will you do to help? what have you done?” He replied saying that he “…set up Hacker News London Meetup. People seem to enjoy it and find it helpful. Does that count? [I can confirm, that it is an amazing meetup by the way]“. This goes some way to show the unfortunate naivety and narrow mindedness of many of the supporters of this link farm, especially given that in this case, she assumed that ‘StartUp Britain’ were the only people doing anything for entrepreneurship and start ups in Britain today – which is far from it. (It should be noted that she later back tracked on the comments).
Mike Morrison of mimomedia.co.uk put it perfectly, he said that “The only people fawning over StartUp Britain are so far removed from the world of small business it’s unreal.” He’s right – the people who are indeed full of praise are either the media outlets bowled over by the tactical press conferences and press releases put out by Cameron’s PR team earlier today, alongside those who might benefit from this – the business consultants who make a quick buck from ripping off perspective entrepreneurs with consultancy and seminars; and others who make money from list building and duping people in to signing up to an email list in return for a “start your own business” eBook full of regurgitated information freely available elsewhere. It’s also interesting, on a side note – to point out that Technology news site TechCrunch is listed right at the top under “ideas”. TechCrunch EU have been one of the most vocal supporters of the website yet – but here we are raising a potential conflict of interest. Should they be disclosing that they are receiving this direct promotion from startupbritain.org? Again – it seems that the only people supporting it, are those involved with it, or linked to it in some way.
David travis, of Userfocus Ltd went on to continue “…turning to StartUp Britain’s favourite links, I was at least hoping to find some useful content on how to market my business using social media sites, like Twitter. But the Twitter link just takes me to Twitter, offering me no suggestions on how best to use this medium”. It’s the same scenario with all of the links on here – and it appears that this website could well have been put together in an hour or two, with no supporting content, no resources – just a link farm. David finished by saying that “…if, as it says in the ‘About Us’ section of the site, this web site ‘is a response from the private sector to the Government’s call for an ‘enterprise-led’ recovery’, then God help us”. I can’t help but agree with David here – if this is what a private-sector led recovery is – then I can’t see much hope either.
Brad Burton author of “get off your arse” also had an interesting perspective to bring to the table; he told us that “…don’t get me wrong something is better than nothing, but today I think we’ve seen it peak…” continuing to say that “…as the media focus and spotlight moves away, those private companies involved over time will move their focus from what pays the mortgages of “start up Britain” to what pays their mortgages”. It’s already looking like this “private-sector led recovery” is going to go down hill just as fast as it came to the surface.
Many have pointed out David Cameron’s prominent picture on this commercial web site – it’s not just a clear marketing drive for the multitude of companies involved , this is a PR campaign for Cameron himself. It’s a way for himself to make it look like he’s getting out there and doing something, and it’s also a great PR campaign for all those involved who take so well to being in the media spot light – these are the people like Peter Jones and Duncan Bannatyne – and again those Business to Business services selling consultancy, and ‘business ebooks’.
What the government should be doing
Admittedly, this has been a cynical outlook so far – but Cameron has been making promises for months about how he is going to support start ups and entrepreneurialism in Britain – and this half-baked link farm really does nothing to actually support start ups. Yes, this project does good things to raise the profile of the start up industry and promote start ups, yes it promotes enterprise in a round about way – and the idea of centralising support is a good thing; but essentially this is “a lot of hot air” as one Twitter user but it, or “smoke and mirrors” as John Rigby on Twitter put it. Martin Bryant of The Next Web sums it up well – he said that “…none of this really helps entrepreneurs in a long-term, meaningful way”.
“One Tomohawk missle – over 100 of which have just been fired at Libya at a cost of £2 million each could have formed a nice start up fund”
So where should governments intervene and assist when it comes to start ups? The most obvious way would be through start up funds. Although cynical and flippant, it should be noted that one Tomohawk missle – over 100 of which have just been fired at Libya at a cost of £2 million each could have formed a nice start up fund. It doesn’t stop at start up funds though, and especially for a ‘cash-strapped’ government introducing new cuts almost weekly, perhaps a more economical option would be to distribute impartial, credible advice which should remain completely unbias – they should not promote the services of companies with an entirely commercial interest.
Google and Microsoft have no interest in the success of your business – they’re interested in your money
It’s doubtful that under a Conservative government that this will happen, but it’s not to say successful business people can’t be involved – it’s more that companies like Google offering £30 free advertising (which remember, is available anywhere – not just at startupbritain.org – and also requires you to be a new user) have no interest in the success of your business, they just want you to open a Google AdWords account and spend more money with them – which you have to in order to be even in the slightest successful with their service.
Starting a business shouldn’t be taken lightly – it’s a big commitment and impartial helpful advice, impartial resources, and impartial information, are the key to starting a successful business. The wealth of information available on the Business Link website does a good job, and revamping that would have sufficed, alongside some impartial links to useful services – indeed like the network of mentors they are apparently proposing. Yell group’s Philip Montague on Twitter carried this point, saying that “…well thought out, bespoke support as opposed to ‘offers’ would be more effective”.
“A poor relation to Business Link”
Richard Baker agrees; he says that this website is a “…poor relation to Business Link (which incidentally the current government wanted to scrap), which has been around for much longer, and quite frankly, does a better job that most of the ‘social businesses’ desperately trying to replace it. He wrote an excellent, lengthier explanation on his blog Conversational UK. Others involved in enterprise, including Mike Chitty, are speaking out about this, branding it as a mere advertising campaign which isn’t accountable with “no way to rate our experience of the providers” – whilst one Twitter user had a more pragmatic view, commenting that “…what has Google, O2 and Microsoft got to do with starting a business anyway? I’ll ask my brother who is a builder” – the fact of the matter is that most of the ‘offers’ on that page mean nothing to the bulk of business owners in Britain – even those involved in web based business.
All in all, any business-savvy individual can see right through this – those that are being duped in to this big scam are those people who are just starting out – those who don’t recognise the bias and the commercial orientation of the project – those commercially vulnerable people precisely those who the government should be protecting, educating and assisting with impartial advice.
It comes as no surprise that there’s even several parody sites springing up mocking Start Up Britain already, over at cockupbritain.org.uk and shutdownbritain.org. So what’s your verdict? Would you trust this “Startup Britain” site to advise you on your business when they cannot even get a plausible or credible service offering up themselves? What does this mean for Cameron’s “private-sector led recovery” and how it will operate? How much longer will the Tory led coalition government under Cameron offer the free impartial advice through Business Link? What are your thoughts on StartUp Britain and the startupbritain.org website?
Follow the author of this article on twitter: @SamEngland
Steve Everhard, director at Dreamstake gave us an excellent lengthy comment about his view on StartUp Britain; and below we’ve published it in it’s entirely.
“At one level I’m pleased to see any initiative that promotes entrepreneurship in this country, especially getting kids to think in terms of defining their own futures. It’s sad that it has to be about named individuals and that obviously elicits a cynical response. We don’t need a high profile beacon to make start-ups work, just pragmatic support. Look, no-one has all the answers to the question of how to make a business successful. There is best practise of course, but business isn’t formulaic or we’d just buy THE book and we’d be done. So online guides are all very well but when it comes down to it people starting new enterprises need trustworthy advice about their specific plans from real individuals and that is hard to find at any price – let alone free! It’s why we started Dreamstake.net almost two years ago.
Clearly there are a bunch of enterprises that will see the PR opportunity and offer meaningless discounts and promo’s which don’t really address any particular problem and should be taken for what they are. Which companies have come forward and offered access to their channels to market, their distribution networks and infrastructure? Exactly.
We live in a world where bright people are prepared to share their ideas through open source and open innovation style strategies, where collaboration and competition blur. This is a fantastic time to start something new, especially if it’s knowledge based, as the infrastructure costs are low. Any initiative that spreads that message is to be welcomed.
Entrepreneurs look to the boundary of markets and technologies and find the disruptive opportunity – it’s what makes them such exciting people to be around. What they need is a government prepared to get out of the way and let them do just that, taking the rewards later just when the new enterprises do. There are signs that the coalition recognises this and I am very pleased they have stayed out of this and other initiatives. I would just remind people that start-up Britain and its supporters aren’t the only folks willing to help entrepreneurs, and some programmes have ben running for a while.”
Follow the author of this article on twitter: @SamEngland