Just because you’re small, it doesn’t mean you’re not ambitious. But many early stage and micro companies struggle when figuring out how they can achieve their business goals and expand their enterprise.
As of this week, making the leap to the big time should be a lot easier, with the introduction of a new Government-backed initiative to offer SMEs professional advice on achieving business growth. The Growth Voucher scheme launched on January 27th and is open to companies in England – micro businesses with a maximum of ten employees, and small firms employing up to 50 people. These enterprises could get vouchers worth up to £2,000 to spend on specific business guidance from advisers in the private sector, such as IT professionals, experts in HR, accountants, and marketing and leadership consultants. Firms chosen to participate are then expected to match the funding given through the scheme – for example, an SME that spent £600 of its own money on support would see its available funding bumped up to £1,200. The organisers of the initiative hope to reach more than 20,000 businesses via the voucher programme.
The £30 million project was announced in last year’s Budget, quickly followed by a report on growing micro businesses by the Government’s enterprise adviser Lord Young, which also recommended outside support of this type for the UK’s smallest firms. Young cited evidence indicating that those businesses that have access to advice tend to grow faster than those without.
The Growth Vouchers are intended to obtain five specific areas of business advice affecting business growth:
- Negotiating finance, managing cashflow, and handling late payments
- Developing skills and employing staff
- Improving leadership and management
- Effective marketing, as well as attracting and retaining customers
- Making maximum use of digital technology
The idea was originally espoused by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), which saw the Growth Voucher project as a way both to offer smaller businesses with potential much-needed guidance, and to give support to the business services companies that would advise them. Having canvassed its members, the BCC found that firms wanted business advice that grew out of the demands and needs of real firms, rather than the top-down approach that many previous Government schemes have employed. The new programme will be analysed closely over the next three years to gather valuable information about which types of advice prove genuinely effective in helping small firms grow.
Businesses that are interested in applying for the match-funding advice programme can look at the criteria for eligibility on the official Growth Vouchers website, then work their way through a diagnostic filter to narrow down their particular needs. This latter process may take place online or face-to-face, depending on the complexity of the SME’s situation. Once a business owner has been through this procedure, they will then be told if they can receive help through the project. When they receive their voucher, they can search for an appropriate adviser through an online marketplace that is being vetted and run by business network Enterprise Nation.
Monday proved a big day for small business news. At the same time that the voucher scheme was being launched, David Cameron was speaking to the Federation of Small Businesses’ (FSB) annual conference – the first prime minister ever to do so. He used the podium to reassure business owners that the Coalition is on track to slash more than 3,000 regulations affecting small firms as part of its war on red tape. About 800 rules have already been abolished or simplified, including changes to environmental and construction-related obligations.
The Government is keen to show its support for small firms, and away from its new initiatives, it always offers generic advice to SMEs via its official website, a capture-all source of information that replaced the old Business Link network when it was abolished several years ago. An official Business Support Helpline also exists and can be called on 0845 600 9006. The Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) replaced the Regional Development Agencies in 2011, and these operate on a local level, providing varying advisory services dependent on where a business is in the country. And there are also plenty of services available to SMEs outside of England. Business Gateway offers support for firms operating in Scotland, Business Wales is the official source of advice for companies operating over the Welsh border, while business people in Northern Ireland can turn to their own region-specific site, which is run by Invest Northern Ireland. Membership organisations such as the Forum of Private Business, the FSB, the Institute of Directors, and the BCC also provide their member firms with valuable support and guidance, as well as lobbying on their behalf.
Too many businesses fail to reach their potential and stay smaller than they should for the want of the right advice and encouragement to take the next step. If you’re one of the ambitious ones who sees a brighter and bigger future for your firm, seek out the right adviser or mentor as soon as possible. There are bound to be some lessons that you can learn about how to overcome the barriers to growth that your enterprise faces. However little time you think you have, however hard you find it to admit that there are things that you don’t know, overcome your reservations and take the help that could be available to you. It could transform your business forever.
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