The Big Interview: Michelle Ovens of Small Business Saturday UK

As the festive season marches closer and retailers vie for a spot on Christmas shoppers' gift-buying radar, the danger of small or independent businesses being overshadowed by advertising from corporate chains and online giants is very real.

Michelle Ovens MBE Director Small Business Saturday

Small business devotee Michelle Ovens, organiser of nationwide campaign Small Business Saturday UK, which takes place across the country next weekend, has built her career around a passion for supporting and promoting companies that are on the petite side. Small Business Saturday encourages consumers to back businesses in their communities by “shopping local”. Created by American Express, the campaign originated in the US in 2010 with the credit card company offering cardholders money back for spending in small shops on the Saturday following Thanksgiving (and the unofficial shopping holiday Black Friday).

“There’s something in the nature of small businesses that we love as a human race,” says Ovens. “It really took off as a sort of grassroots movement. Communities really engaged with it and got excited by it, and in year three it all went a bit stratospheric.” It was helped by the likes of then president, Barack Obama, who was spotted patronising his local bookshop in Washington.

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With wide-ranging support on this side of the Atlantic, Ovens, who at the time was running her own strategy consultancy, Ovens&Co, founded the UK campaign in 2013. Early backers included American Express, the UK and Scottish governments, local councils, the Federation of Small Businesses and Enterprise Nation.

“We really found that we were just pushing on a bit of an open door. People have a genuine affection for local businesses and the high street. It was kind of like sticky back plastic from year one. Everyone came together in this spirit of optimism and positivity which has really run through the campaign ever since,” she says.

Optimism is a key focus for Ovens, around which she has built the “100 per cent positive” messaging for the campaign. “We don’t do negativity. We are about constructive help, support, promotion, inspiration. It’s not like we don’t know that there are challenges in the world, of course we do, but we talk about opportunities to make things better.

“The campaign has snowballed over the last six years as awareness has grown. Everywhere that could engage with small businesses gets involved in some way.”

The campaign has enjoyed a positive reaction from the public, with customer spending at small businesses – those with fewer than 50 staff – on the appointed Saturday increasing year-on-year from £468 million in 2013 to £748m in 2017, the campaign’s fifth consecutive year. “It’s still Christmas, people still want to spend. It’s just about saying let’s be a bit more thoughtful about where you spend that money.”

In the build-up to the day itself, the campaign toured 30 towns and cities in 25 days, including Perth, Inverclyde, Glasgow and Kilmarnock, to provide free support for local firms. As of March, there were more than 343,500 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) operating in Scotland, accounting for 1.2 million jobs and 99.3 per cent of all private sector businesses in 2018.

Research released by American Express ahead of Small Business Saturday indicates that SMEs on high streets north of the Border are faring better than elsewhere, with the number of independent retailers in Scotland set to experience net growth of 5.1 per cent between 2017 and 2023, compared with UK-wide growth of just 0.3 per cent over the same period. However, as 60 per cent of small businesses don’t live to see their fifth anniversary, they “need all the help they can get”, says Ovens.

Small Business Saturday is just one of the support ventures led by Ovens, who was awarded an MBE for services to enterprise in 2015. She is also founder and director of the Do It Digital campaign to highlight digital resources accessible to small businesses, an issue particularly close to her heart, as earlier this month she spoke at St James’s Palace to launch the Duke of York’s Inspiring Digital Enterprise Awards (iDEA) silver awards. iDEA, partnered with Small Business Saturday, helps individuals and companies to develop new skills, digital included.

“At a really macro level the digital agenda for small businesses is such an important one. iDEA is all about accessible digital skills and it’s completely free, which is also part of our ethos. There are so many accessible, inexpensive opportunities for small businesses available through digital channels. Small businesses don’t have lots of cash or time, they don’t have huge depths of expertise or massive teams. And digital tools can be such a big game-changer.

“It’s become more urgent because of the world that we live in. It’s a complex thing to run a business – you might be handling the finance, stock, sales, customer relationships, and digital tools can play a role in all of those things, reducing the amount of time you have to spend on them to allow you to get on with other things,” says Ovens.

She quotes the “gobsmacking” statistics that show around half of small businesses in the UK don’t have a website, 60 per cent don’t do their taxes online, and some 70 per cent have no intention of investing in digital next year.

“This is not right. This is such a great opportunity. Whatever economic shocks there might be for small businesses, they will be in a better place if they use digital tools; more confident and more capable of coping with external shocks.

“Whether it’s Brexit, a downturn in the economy or a more local or sector-specific challenge, it’s about making you more robust as a business in the long-term, which seems like a no-brainer really.”

Ovens adds: “We’ve definitely worked very hard to change that sense that any improvement to your business should have to cost you, which is why we’re doing things like the free mentoring [provided by small business accounting software Xero] on the bus tour.”

She urges any business owner to find a trusted mentor who is “a bit further down the line” to provide tailored support and advice. Despite “the dreaded B-word” Ovens also advocates “broadminded” business strategies and encourages small companies to develop and execute export strategies.

Ovens has been leading the small business world for more than a decade. She is chair of the Small Business Charter, runs small business campaigning organisation Peak B, directs the recently launched Small Business Awards, and set up f:Entrepreneur to gain more recognition for “power women” in UK business.

A keen rower at school, she now competes in endurance challenges such as marathons and the gruelling Ironman triathlons, which she calls “a great stress reliever”.

“If you’re out on a bike you’ve got to concentrate on what you’re doing: you’ve got to look at the traffic and not fall off. Plus, the whole Ironman world is stuffed full of small businesses, bike shops, running shops. That’s when you get personal help and advice and you build a relationship.”

Key challenges ahead for small firms, Ovens says, will be to learn how to best utilise their size and adapt to the changing economic climate, however that may look.

“Small businesses don’t have huge teams to analyse what the effects of a Brexit deal will be, so it is harder for them to respond to macroeconomic activity. But, at the same time, they are incredibly flexible because they have smaller teams and less bureaucracy, so they can change relatively quickly. New opportunities, things that can help you and offer free advice and resources, are open to them.”

Her parting advice for fellow entrepreneurs is simple. “Don’t see the world through rose-tinted glasses – there are challenges and problems, – but put yourself in the best possible situation to handle those and address them when they come along.”