Security, safety

Many of the most successful businesses of recent years, whether in social media, search, or peer-to-peer, could be described as being ‘ahead of their time.’ In fact, these businesses may be so far ahead of their time that they exist in a kind of ‘legal limbo’ — with innovation taking businesses beyond the reach of cumbersome regulatory bodies. The legal battles between Uber and London’s black cabbies, for example, reveal the tensions that may emerge when the law is slow to respond to innovation.

Business owners can’t, and shouldn’t, be slow to innovate simply because innovation may take them into a legal grey area. But this creates another kind of stress for business owners, the very real possibility that changes to the law could potentially put them out of business. If you are a business owner on the innovative edge of an emerging sector, it’s vital that you have a plan in place that will protect your business from unwelcome legal changes.

  1. Get educated.
Regardless of whether or not your business exists in a legal grey zone, entrepreneurs need to become experts in the key ways that the law applies to their business. If your business is prone to legal controversies, then this is doubly important. Set up a Google Alert for every time your sector is mentioned in connection with proposed legal changes, and stay in contact with well-connected individuals in your industry who can help you keep abreast of any developments.

If you do hear of legal changes or debates that could affect your industry — such as the debate on whether the Uber app constitutes a taximeter, or the proposed Tobacco Products Directive that could ban 95% of vaping products on the market — then now is the time to consider getting some solid legal advice if you can afford it.

  1. Get organised
Once you’ve worked out exactly what the proposed laws are and how they could affect you, it’s time to rally the troops. Cast around for your natural allies and see how you might be able to help each other. An organised group is much more likely to be effective than a lone voice shouting against the wind. See if there are any relevant industry bodies that you could join and what their plans are on dealing with legal challenges.

Don’t ignore grassroots effort either, as these can prove effective if you are able to build up momentum. Engage with your customers on what the issue is and how it will affect your industry, both online and in person, as your customers could end up being your sturdiest support base.

  1. Get your facts straight
Along with other members of the industry you are going to have to come up with a strong argument that outlines either why the law is appropriate to your business or why the law would be against the public good if it were applied to your business. Airbnb became legal in London this year because MPs were convinced that the ‘sharing economy’ would provide cash-strapped Londoners with an additional income, despite the howls of protest from the hotel industry.
  1. Get political
There’s a reason why politics and big business have become increasingly inseparable in recent years — decision makers have the power to make or break industries. If at all possible, it’s best to have these guys on your side. Work out who the key policy makers are with regards to the new legislation and try to identify important people that may have a sympathetic ear. A select group of entrepreneurs in a new sector may be asked to act as ‘government advisers’ and provide the government with their expert opinions on the new industry. This will become increasingly common as public spending is slashed and private enterprise is asked to fill in. By being a market-leader and taking care of your reputation you can maximise your chances of being picked for this privilege.

Don’t forget to get in touch with your local MP either. If you can convince them that voters care strongly about this issue, that the public good is at stake, or that there will be substantial job losses in their constituency due to the proposed changes, then you might be able to get them on your side. Use your store, website and social media profiles to encourage your customers to get in touch with their local MPs too. You can also petition the government if you have a particular request. Achieving 10,000 signatures means that your letter will be responded to by the government, whereas 100,000 signatures in less than six months means that your letter will be debated in parliament.

  1. Get publicised
If you want your side of the story told, then who better to tell it than the national newspapers? The press don’t miss much, but just in case it’s worth getting in touch with the various national and local newspapers to make sure that they are talking about your story too. The major newspapers all have a ‘tips’ section where you can email stories, though a flesh and blood contact would be a much better angle. It should go without saying that you need to be extremely careful when dealing with journalists and be wary of things that could be taken out of context! A positive or at least accurate news story appearing in the Guardian, Telegraph or Daily Mail could swell your ranks of supporters.
  1. Get tough
A legal challenge is time-consuming and expensive, but it could be the only way to save your industry. There is a precedent of successful legal challenges in this country, from Uber claiming that it does not count as a taxi company because it doesn’t use a taximeter (it uses an app instead) and e-liquids not having to label their ingredients because they don’t count as either food or medicine — but instead as tobacco products. If you don’t have the resources to mount your own legal challenge, then see if there are ways that you can support someone else’s legal challenge that is being made in your interests.
  1. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst…
Never give up, never surrender. But the law is a dirty game and sometimes the forces opposed to you have greater resources and clout than you could possibly hope to achieve. So while you should hope that the legal situation will improve, your plans must take into account the possibility that things will turn out badly. Draw up an exit plan, or a transition into an alternative sector, that could be implemented in the event of a legal catastrophe.

By Pascal Culverhouse of the Electric Tobacconist