Why is the Government making life so tough for small businesses?

Rohan Silva
Pioneer: Demis Hassabis, founder of Deepmind, is a London success story: Matt Writtle

I have to admit something. When I used to work in Westminster — in Downing Street, Parliament and the Treasury — I never once had a sleepless night.

Since I started my own business almost five years ago, I regularly wake up worrying about things. It’s nothing like as bad now as it used to be, but a few years back, I was getting up at 3am almost every night. And there’s so much running through your mind as you try to get back to sleep.

You agonise over whether the company will make it, and about all the people who will lose their jobs if you ever went under. You fret that if your enterprise folds, everyone will think you’re a failure and you’ll have let your loved ones down. And you brood about why your business isn’t growing more quickly — although of course, you’ll never be truly satisfied on that front.

But perhaps above all, you feel extremely alone. Because when you start a company, there’s massive pressure to tell everyone that you’re doing brilliantly well. That’s partly about bravado, but it’s also to do with the fact so much about entrepreneurial success is about communicating confidence. After all, no investor will put money into a venture that the founders aren’t ultra optimistic about.

Given all this, it’s no surprise that in east London’s Tech City, there’s a special positive lingo that people use when asked how their enterprise is going. “We’re crushing it,” “we’re killing it,” and “we’re smashing it”.

Rohan Silva

The truth, of course, is often very different. As Tesla founder Elon Musk once said: “Running a start-up is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss. After a while, you stop staring, but the glass chewing never ends.”

Surveys show Musk isn’t the only one who has felt this way. A recent British study found 58 per cent of business owners have experienced depression and anxiety. The truth is, being an entrepreneur is just difficult — it’s incredibly tough to build a sustainable and scalable business that’s creating new products or services that customers want.

However, it’s equally true there are many ways politicians and the media can make life for growing companies more difficult than it needs to be. That’s certainly the case in the UK.

For starters, we have a Government that’s actively hostile to small businesses in all sorts of ways. Trade Secretary Liam Fox described British business as “fat and lazy”, and the former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson reportedly said the political establishment should say “f**k business” over Brexit.

This attitude is reflected across the Government’s policy agenda. Take business rates, for example — the tax you pay for having physical premises such as a shop, pub or office.

This year the Chancellor Philip Hammond doubled this tax for all companies in the capital — meaning the average small business in London now has to find £17,000 simply to cover business rates, which you must pay even if you have zero revenues or aren’t making a profit.

This huge tax increase has piled even more pressure on entrepreneurs in London — and sadly, many small businesses simply can’t take the additional burden.

Across our city, restaurants are now closing at the fastest rate for decades, while London has seen the largest number of shop closures of any UK region in the past six months.

It’s heartbreaking, but until we have a new Chancellor — or perhaps a new Government altogether — there’s no real prospect of change.

"This year the Chancellor Philip Hammond doubled business rates for all companies in the capital"

Another example of how life is more difficult than it should be for British entrepreneurs is the shortage of good advice and support as you grow your business. This is very different to the US, where there’s a much deeper culture of business education — and one of the most prestigious qualifications is the MBA — Master of Business Administration.

What’s more, in the US there’s a proliferation of informative business magazines such as Fast Company and Inc, as well as brilliant podcasts such as “How I Built This” and “Masters of Scale” that feature experienced entrepreneurs sharing their wisdom and experiences. Here in the UK, there is next to nothing like this, which is a real shame. Fortunately, things are starting to change — beginning at the BBC.

The Beeb’s top brass is now really engaged with this agenda — and business programming is fast becoming part of the public service broadcaster’s important commitment to “educate, inform and entertain”.

In the past few months, I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with one of the new programmes that reflects this agenda. It’s a podcast called The Disrupters, which I’m hosting alongside the BBC’s editorial director Kamal Ahmed — and it tells the stories of inspiring founders such as Demis Hassabis of artificial intelligence company Deepmind and Julie Deane of The Cambridge Satchel Company.

The idea is that by sharing the ups and downs of starting a new venture, it will help others going through the same thing. Hopefully it will mean fewer people suffer in silence, if they’re finding it tough going.

In California’s Silicon Valley, starting and growing a business is known as “The Struggle”. As the tech investor and entrepreneur Ben Horowitz puts it: “The Struggle is when food loses its taste. The Struggle is when you want the pain to stop.”

The Government and the media can do an awful lot to make life easier for British businesses — and they should. However, nothing will ever make the pain and hardship of building a company go away completely — and that’s probably for the best. After all, as Horowitz also says: “The Struggle is where greatness comes from.”

  • The Disrupters podcast is available on iTunes, Soundcloud and BBC Sounds