Jim Duffy: One-size-fits-all policy holds back start-ups

I'm going to be bold and suggest that when politicians talk, posture and make policy on or about 'business', they ought not to think of the word as a 'catch all' phrase.

'Can any political party create a minister for early-stage or micro-business?' asks Jim Duffy. Picture: Ian Howarth
'Can any political party create a minister for early-stage or micro-business?' asks Jim Duffy. Picture: Ian Howarth

Business is much more than the FTSE 100 Index. Business is much more than a VAT collection tool and corporation tax generator. The problem is that our politicians, and especially the ones who get invited to big dinners and meetings with corporate CEOs and the like, believe that this is the be all and end all of business. And this then colours how they think about policy and law. The trouble with this lazy approach is that it misses the point.

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Business is complex. Businesses need somewhere to start and people to start them. Sure, they then grow into bigger entities and then acquire or are acquired, or merge or go public… but they need to get started and the first five years is crucial in shaping them into “real” businesses.

It is at this delicate stage that any legislation passed can have enormous ramifications for how things go. So, let’s get real and instead of introducing blanket business policy – as the various political parties line up their general election manifestos – perhaps we need to think about staging at when policy kicks in.

If anyone has ever started or knows someone who has started a business, then they will fully appreciate and dig where I am coming from here. A start-up or early-stage venture usually has a founder or co-founders. It then hires new people in critical key roles.

These new hires don’t simply come in and swan about during a 12-week honeymoon period. They must pay for themselves and provide a return on their salary as quickly as possible. Otherwise they represent wooden dollars and, quite frankly, a waste of time. These people are important to the plan in either on-boarding new customers, building out systems and processes or selling stuff to bring in revenues and a lot more.

The culture of start-up in business is one of all hands on deck and all grafting away with no distractions elsewhere. This “all in” attitude gets the start-up through the early days as so much can (and does) go wrong as it navigates the unknown.

Think of it this way: Captain Kirk and the Starship Enterprise left Earth and went on a voyage of total discovery. They had no idea what was out there and despite all the training, ship weaponry and leadership, a whole ton of problems arose. In every episode, shields were deployed to the Enterprise, warp speed was engaged or phasers set to stun. Chaos everywhere it appeared as Jim Kirk and his crew came upon new opportunities and dangers. This is what business start-up is like. And if they take a wrong turning they can end up fighting the Klingons!

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Start-ups don’t have unlimited resources to implement government policies at manifesto time and our political leaders need to be more cognisant of this, I would argue. Otherwise they in fact become the Klingons… and that cannot be good for anyone.

Business therefore is not homogeneous across the spectrum and amenable to a one-size-fits-all on policy. And I wonder sometimes who is guiding our politicians when they make manifesto pledges and announcements. Whether it is raising corporation tax, giving people more time off when family members are terminally ill or tinkering with paternity leave, start-ups – the backbone of economy and the future of our growth – need to be treated differently.

Remember, they are “all in” already and with little or no capacity for anyone in the team to drop the ball. So, imposing even more onerous legislation on business, without taking into account the segments in business, can be debilitating.

As we hit crunch time in this year’s general election campaign, I am calling again for an initiative. Can any political party create a minister for early-stage or micro-business? If you do you’ll get my vote and a whole lot more.

• Agitator and disruptor Jim Duffy is head of #GoDo at Entrepreneurial Spark