Andy Willox: Time to smash the myth that Scots are not great entrepreneurs

I remember once addressing a room full of secondary school pupils about becoming an entrepreneur. I spoke about the rewards, the ups and downs, the sense of achievement, and the risks and burden of responsibility. I could see they were enthused.

Then, thanking me for an “interesting talk”, the headmaster told the assembled impressionable minds: “You now know, that if you don’t get into university or find a job, you can always go and work for yourself.”

Thankfully, these attitudes are beginning to look as outdated as our high street banks’ IT systems. And now we have the evidence to prove it.

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Fascinating research by Strathclyde University’s Hunter Centre for Enterprise, released this week, found that the proportion of working-age individuals in Scotland who expect to start a business in the next three years has risen significantly – from six per cent in 2010 to 9.8 per cent in 2011.

In contrast to previous years where in Scotland we lagged behind, Scottish entrepreneurial attitudes, activity and aspirations now match the UK as a whole. Further, 2011 saw a record high for start-ups across the UK, with over 450,000 people setting up a company.

This is good news.

As the proverb goes: give a man a fish you feed him for a day; teach him how to run his own aquaculture enterprise and he’ll support himself, his family, employees and community for years to come. Glib paraphrased proverbs aside, becoming over-reliant on a small number of large private and public employers has narrowed Scotland’s economic base and left communities vulnerable to those employers’ own fortunes. We need a broad-based, diverse Scottish economy.

With the proportion of employment provided by the public sector likely to decline over the next decade, we can’t just look to inward investment and growth in established businesses to create the jobs, revenues and innovation we need.

New enterprises providing employment and opportunities are therefore going to be crucial. To put it in some context, there are more than 90,000 businesses which employ more than one but fewer than 50 employees. In total, these firms employ more than 560,000 people. So, a ten per cent increase in the number of firms of this size could mean creating jobs for everyone in a town the size of Livingston.

So how do we encourage more people to take the plunge? And, once they’re in, how do we help ensure our new entrepreneurs don’t drown? Primary, secondary, further and higher education institutions all have a role in encouraging their students to consider enterprise as an option.

There’s a reason why lawyers tend to give birth to lawyers and doctors give birth to doctors. That’s because, for those kids, they have knowledge about how a career path into these professions might look and they are therefore a realistic option. It’s the same with business.

Thus, we need real, practical support in our schools, colleges and universities to educate people about career paths available. The Hunter Centre research also points out entrepreneurial individuals are prized by all sorts of organisations.

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While education is our best tool to boost Scotland’s business birth and survival rate, it’s not the only one in the box. Entrepreneurship can liberate, excite and inspire. But, all too often, good stories go untold, the pessimists’ narrative takes hold and potential ideas lie unexplored. That is why the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has launched our Real-Life Entrepreneurs campaign to help everyone encourage, support and celebrate the real businesses on which we’re pinning our hopes of recovery. By celebrating the businesses doing well, we can inspire the next generation. Considerably better, one might argue, than screening endless reality TV shows portraying business as a series of wacky challenges.

If you are considering starting up, your first of port of call should be a visit to the local Business Gateway service. Your second stop, naturally, should be joining the FSB.

• Andy Willox OBE is Scottish Policy Convener for the Federation of Small Businesses

Toast of the town

Sir Tom Farmer is not the only Lothian entrepreneur to hit the business heights. Here are six of the best of the rest.

1. Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne founded Genius Foods, making gluten and wheat-free products, including a loaf now bestselling at Tesco.

2. Fraser Docherty began his jam-based business empire, SuperJam, at the age of 14. He has won a number of prestigious awards.

3. Shaf Rasul, from Dragons’ Den Online, leads Europe’s largest storage media distributor. A Sunday Times rich list put his wealth at £82 million.

4. Schuh founder Sandy Alexander launched his footwear outlet at North Bridge in 1981. Schuh now has 76 stores across UK and Ireland.

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5. Erica Moore founded her Eteaket tea boutique in Frederick Street in 2008 and now plans to open outlets UK-wide.

6. Shaheen Unis CBE set up Mrs Unis Spicy Foods in 1998.