Scotland's Covid recovery: Amid growing business confidence, a real-life Dragon's Den could be a big help – Finlay Kerr

You don’t have to look too hard for doom and gloom at the moment. Whether it’s political statements caveated with warnings of caution and variants or predictions of strain on public services, everyone seems pessimistic.

TV show Dragon's Den made stars of Duncan Bannatyne, Deborah Meaden and Peter Jones, seen rehearsing for Comic Relief, and could also be adapted to provide practical help for budding entrepreneurs in Scotland (Picture: Zak Hussein/PA)
TV show Dragon's Den made stars of Duncan Bannatyne, Deborah Meaden and Peter Jones, seen rehearsing for Comic Relief, and could also be adapted to provide practical help for budding entrepreneurs in Scotland (Picture: Zak Hussein/PA)

Everyone, that is, except Scottish businesses.

Buried in a report by the Scottish Government is a survey of more than 1,100 businesses carried out in the first two weeks of June.

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It shows only two per cent of firms have little or no confidence they will survive beyond the next three months. Earlier on in the pandemic, the rate was more than treble that, with the equivalent of thousands of firms fearing imminent collapse.

But now we are seeing a surge in optimism. The Business Insights and Conditions Survey (BICS), which is based on Office for National Statistics research, found 65.8 per cent had “high” confidence about the future, while 24.7 per cent were moderately confident.

That’s the highest it’s been since Covid-19 hit our shores, and shows that hardworking firms of all sizes are now standing ready to drive Scotland’s recovery.

The positive scores vary between sectors. Confidence is particularly strong in the information and communication industry as well as wholesale, retail and the repair of vehicles industry.

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Others, like accommodation and food services, have a bit of catching up to do, which is understandable given the path out of lockdown the UK – like virtually every other country – has chosen.

The trend is clear, though. Scotland’s workforce is ready for recovery.

But they won’t be able to do it alone, and that’s where a range of bodies from government and councils to universities and the country’s entrepreneur community must come into play.

Many of these businesses who are now finding reasons for cheer have been in survival mode for the last 15 months. Some will have diversified, others will have sprung up from the ashes of an unprecedented global recession.

But these are often the times when the very best ideas are born, whether it’s the restaurant which has devised imaginative ways to get meals to customers, or small, independent stores who’ve found new frontiers on the internet having previously relied on high street footfall.

The thing is, the individuals who drive these businesses have been too busy doing their job all these years to think about taking the next step.

They won’t know how to pitch for investment or lucrative grants, or how to get together the sort of presentation that persuades an investor to part with serious cash.

Some of these people are “accidental entrepreneurs” who were simply forced into the world of business either through redundancy or extended furlough. Many of these people could well be in their 50s and 60s, and probably had ideas closer to retirement than entrepreneurship.

Now they hold the key to recovery.

To capitalise, we need to see a ramping up of activity from business schools to get these people through the door to learn how to scale up, create jobs and boost the economy.

They must call on the brightest and the best to pass on their tips and educate these brilliant people to move their operations up a gear.

Some of this is already happening in the form the recent E2 Programme, which was hailed by the likes of Sir Tom Hunter and business minister Ivan McKee. It flipped things on their head somewhat, teaching entrepreneurs to become better teachers and, in turn, helping the innovators of tomorrow. But it shouldn’t stop there.

Local authorities and their economic development partners should be staging summer school-style crash courses in growing a business.

These don’t have to be laborious or complex programmes – it’s just a case of passing on key tips when it comes to attracting interest from angel investors, and priming business owners for what bidding for investment actually entails.

Because let’s not forget, Scottish entrepreneurs tend to be people who like putting money into their local area and keeping their new-found business interests close.

It’s not just about the hard cash for them – many take genuine pleasure in seeing the local boy and girl making a success of themselves. If they can pop in and take a look for themselves to see how progress is going, all the better.

They stand ready to invest, and that’s where a mass link-up operation has to take place between new businesses with potential and those who can help them realise it.

Recently we wrote to every council in Scotland suggesting a range of ways in which this could be done. One option would be small events akin to the Dragon’s Den format, where new ideas in the area can compete in a contest for funding.

Such things can seem gimmicky, of course, but they would also create a buzz in towns across the country, and pique the interest of those looking to invest.

If the Covid crisis has proved anything, it’s that funding can be made available for things that are hugely important.

As we gradually emerge from the pandemic, with the vaccines appearing to be addressing health concerns, attention will now turn to the economy.

With that in mind, what could be more important than ensuring development bodies, business schools and universities have enough money to support all of these ventures?

Ultimately, government would benefit enormously from super-charged local economies, both from the jobs created and the positive impact that has on public health and society generally, on top of the not-inconsiderable matter of increased tax receipts.

The latest studies of Scottish business confidence show they are ready to turn the corner.

Now it’s time for everyone to work together to turn this newly discovered feel-good factor into hard results.

Finlay Kerr is managing director of marketing agency Frejz

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