Why we need more corporate-backed enterprise schemes

5 years ago

Paul Lancaster (Content & Social Media Specialist, Sage One UK & Ireland)I like to think of myself as a bit of a champion of small businesses having spent 4yrs working for Shell LiveWIRE, one of the UK’s longest running youth enterprise schemes, where I helped give free advice and support to thousands of small business owners and over £190,000 in cash funding to early stage start-ups in their first 12 months of trading.

It was a wonderfully inspiring programme to be a part of and there’s no doubt that we made a positive difference to the lives of many of the young entrepreneurs who entered and won a Shell LiveWIRE Award, then grew in confidence and entrepreneurial ability as a direct result.

However, none of this would have been possible without the support of Royal Dutch Shell plc, the petrol company which has been funding the LiveWIRE programme for over 30yrs since 1982.

No matter what you might think of Shell from an environmental point of view, I believe they deserve a huge amount of credit for backing such a pioneering scheme since the early 80’s when the idea of a ‘young person’ choosing to start their own business was considered highly unusual.

What’s more, in my 4yrs at Shell LiveWIRE, I didn’t meet a single young entrepreneur who had a problem accepting funding from Shell if it meant they could start or grow a business, and the people we reported to at Shell always seemed genuinely passionate about the programme.

Money for nothing (or at least very little)

One of the things I like most about the Shell LiveWIRE programme is that you never see an advert for oil or petrol on the website www.shell-livewire.org. Shell aren’t trying to sell anything to visitors – they’re just offering much-needed help, advice and funding to small businesses in return for a regular dose of positive PR which comes their way via the monthly £1,000 award winners. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.

Since Shell LiveWIRE began, countless youth enterprise schemes and business start-up competitions have sprung up over the years and the idea of ‘being an entrepreneur’ has never been so popular as it is right now, particularly amongst young people still at, or fresh out of, school, college or university with the ideas, passion and self-belief to give it a go for themselves.

Feeling inspired can only be a good thing but I’d love to see more big businesses follow in Shell’s footsteps, to learn from their experience and to provide similar and alternative enterprise schemes which last for years, not just days, weeks or months at a time.

There’s still a place for programmes like Shell LiveWIRE and The Prince’s Trust which purely focus on ‘young’ and ‘disadvantaged’ people respectively. That’s there core proporsition and what they are very good at doing. But who is going to help support all the other entreprneurs and businesses that don’t fit into this criteria?

In my opinion, we need more corporates to use some of their profits to help widen the focus and support people of all ages who wish to become self-employed, or to tailor their services towards these businesses. Incubators are the latest trend and generate lots of buzz but they still only benefit a handful of start-ups. How can we reach the masses, quickly and effectively?

Indeed, one of the main reasons I left Shell LiveWIRE to join Sage in November was the opportunity to help support an even wider range of start-ups and micro-businesses through their Sage One service. A lack of financial skills and knowledge was regularly cited as a problem for people in the surveys we did at Shell LiveWIRE, but now small businesses owners everywhere (regardless of their age) can get easy-to use accounts and payroll software with free 24hr telephone and email support from Sage’s highly-trained advisors from as little as £5 per month.

Confidence = success

At Shell LiveWIRE, award winners would regularly tell us that although the funding was nice, it was the extra confidence and belief they gained in themselves and their business which was the most beneficial aspect of being involved. At Sage, it’s this increased confidence we’re aiming to give all our customers through our 24hr Sage One service, and although funding isn’t something we currently offer, we have already started to explore it through activities like the Thinking Digital Startup Competition which we sponsored in May. (Watch  a video of the final pitches here).

Do you agree that more corporates and big businesses should step up to the plate and support start-ups and small businesses? If so, which British businesses would you like to see start an enterprise scheme or competition and what would it look like? As always, please leave your comments below or Tweet me @lordlancaster.