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A voice for UK’s entrepreneurs

January 26th, 2009 by Mitch

Within the past several months the government has rolled out a number of policy measures targeted at helping the nation’s small businesses: DCMS ‘Digital Britain’ initiative, BERR’s plan to guarantee up to £20bn of loans to small and medium-sized firms, and UKTI’s support of Web Missions, to name a few.  Others are still on the drawing board, such as NESTA’s proposal for a £1 billion fund to help address the increasing paucity of funding for early-stage companies.

As an occasional policy analyst focused on this space, and now as an entrepreneur, I have more than a passing interest in such interventions and discussions.  While I certainly welcome the government’s continued efforts to facilitate the development and growth of innovative early-stage firms, I occassionally wonder how much input they are getting from this very consituency which they aimsto support.

Bytes of the Roundtable

At the close of last year, I had the opportunity to discuss this, albeit very briefly, with two different government ministers.  In doing so, I made the suggestion that the government could probably make use of an “Advisory Council of Entrepreneurs” to help provide a sounding board and discussion forum for the government’s innovation and entrepreurship policies.  In those and subsequent conversations with others within government and the start-up community, I’ve become increasingly convinced of the usefulness of getting entrepreneur voices to the government table.

Now, as the head of a digital start-up (and one devoted to enabling policy and public engagement) I recognise that this suggestion of an Advisory Council is rather ‘old school’ and limited in what it could achieve.  Nonetheless, several years of operating within the policy realm taught me that frequently it is such old school approaches which are what works best to get things moving.  It is a time-tested mechanism and one which the current policy and political apparatus is familiar.  “When in Rome” and all that jazz…

What might it look like?  My gut is that it would consist of 15-20 UK innovative entrepreneurs – individuals who not only have an interest in the strength of the UK’s start-up environment, put an interest in actively engaging government to help bring it about.   It would be a roundtable, oriented at providing practical feedback to the government’s current policy proposals, as well as concrete suggestions for new policies.

While the number physically surrounding the table might be limited in a number, we could certainly apply some new media approaches (a la my own venture,  polyWonk) to engaging the larger community of innovative entrepreneurs to pool ideas, opinions, etc, and using the Roundtable to aggregate, filter, and channel these to government, in a means and format with which they are comfortable.

Entrepreneurs’ Guild

Of course, if there is really significant interest, then I see no reason that we couldn’t step it up a notch – forming a proper trade association.  Last week’s packed OpenSoho showed me that there is certainly no shortage of digital entrepreneurs around.  Again, while recognising that this may be a bit of an ‘old school’ type of institution, there are reasons that the western world contains thousands of them: they are useful, and broadly accepted, mechanisms for aggregating a set of organisations or individuals with a common purpose or interests, and representing those interests to government, the press, and society.  The UK has associations ranging from Pet Food Manufacturers, to Gin and Vodka producers, to a trade association of trade associations (One of my favourites back home in San Francisco was the Northern California Korean Dry Cleaners Assocation, with membership not just determined by profession, by geography and ethnicity to boot.  Talk about selective.).   In the start-up-related world, VC’s have one (BVCA).  Business angels have one (BBAA). Even one of London’s favourite entrepreneurs, Paul Walsh, directs a trade body for new media agencies.   While the FSB exists to represent all small and medium enterprises (from kabab shops to small factories), I believe that the needs, ambitions, and approaches of the UK’s innovative entrepreneurs are sufficiently unique to justify their own voice.

Whether such an entity should focus just on digital entrepreneurs, or more broadly to technology and innovative entrepreneurs writ large, I’m open.  Similarly, perhaps it also makes sense to leverage an existing activity or network, such as Amplified.  Again, I’m open.

So, anyone care to lobby with me?

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