“They are not quite like Mother Theresa of Calcutta” says Simon Biltcliffe, a judge at the NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards, describing most of the entrepreneurs he knows, “but neither are they anything like the media portrayals of the Philip Greens or Mike Ashleys. Nine out of ten of the people I know who run businesses are decent fair-minded people, who don’t do it just for their own wellbeing they try to help people.”
It’s a common observation. Entrepreneurs are not saints, very few consider themselves or their fellow business founders to be heroes, but neither are they just in it for the money. Simon explains: “if an entrepreneur’s main motivation is to make money, then I would say you are going to find it a lonely, difficult journey”. They must be passionate about what they are doing, even love it. Because you need that desire when it gets really hard. There will be times when you want to give up, but your motivation to make money for yourself does not transcend to others; they don’t care about how much money you make, or what you do for yourself, it is what you do for them. So, you need to have a deeper passion than just making money.”
Simon is in the print business, the founder & CEO Webmart. “We don’t physically print,” he says, “but manage it on behalf of clients, like a management consultancy in the print space. We understand print. Onscreen has fantastic instant value but does not have a residual value, whereas we look at using digital channels to acquire customers, and expand that to get lifetime values using offline. You get much better residual value by engaging people in an offline context, and print is a vital part of this.”
He describes himself as a “relatively straight forward blunt northerner, who tries to be as honest as he can to everyone ‘I work with’.” He sees himself as an innovator, always looking for angles and opportunities, “not just for ourselves, but the wider community.”
We turn to the topic of education and silos. These days, in the era when digital transformation is a topic on the lips of many business people, silos have become something of an anathema, a digital firm is more integrated. Yet schools still teach that way – in departments, Maths, English, History, Science. But Simon as full of praise for a model being used in Finland: “Where they have abolished subjects, because subjects are silos. Instead they will do things by project, by teams, so you do things collaboratively. The results, in the international education league tables, show it works.”
And teaching entrepreneurism forms part of that – a new start-up – even a tiny one that be carried out at school requires presentation skills, writing skills, use of computers, maybe some science, and above all, collaboration.
Returning to the theme of giving something back. Simon’s entrepreneurial heroes are the likes of Titus Salt and Robert Owen, pioneers of the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th century, “Quakers who realised business success did not mean you have to abuse or exploit people. Titus Salt was not perfect, he did not like people drinking, but believed in good sanitation, giving people holidays. It a lesson that applies to today: if you look at good business, you realise that they have to look after people.”
You don’t always get that impression from the media, which “is failing us, not showing what it’s really like being an entrepreneur – hard work, but rewarding. I can’t bear watching these things [TV shows such as The Apprentice] – they are damaging UK plc.”
Yet Simon believes in the UK and most certainly in the Great British Entrepreneur. “I have been all over the world, and there is nowhere better than the UK to be an entrepreneur. We work well as individuals, we work well as teams, we are very open minded, we are mercantile by nature, it is very easy to set up a business.”
He talks about the benefits of the UK’s time zone– “I can talk to Australia first thing in the day, and by the end of the day, we have LA coming in.”
As for Brexit, “ignore it, what will be will be: We need to build on our intrinsic abilities, which is a well- educated, stable country, which is very open and very inclusive. We have a 60-70 per cent head start for founding a business compared to the rest of the world, because we don’t have all of these barriers to trade. The UK is a fantastic place to be in business.”
But the UK is more entrepreneurial than it used to be, Simon agrees with that, but why?
Simon sees ownership, or maybe lack of it, is a key part of this. “I saw a campervan in Australia and it said: ‘less stuff more freedom.’” There is view among the younger generation that we don’t need to own more stuff – people don’t want cars, necessarily, they will share, collaborate, upcycle, recycle, much more freely. For the younger people, rent is the only option, so you become more transient. They think ‘there is no way I can have a mortgage, so I have freedom,’ and also the tools are available and free to collaborate and come up with new ideas quite quickly.”
Simon says: “It is liberating.”
“If you said to someone over 40, ‘would you like to put an expensive asset, which will heavily depreciate, on your drive, sitting there doing nothing for 90-95 per cent of its life?’ They would say ‘why would I want to do that?’ But look at a car, and that is exactly what they do. This is part of our ‘always been there’, culture. But for someone living in a town where there are parking issues, they are more likely to think it is a liability – and the sharing, collaborating and fractional ownership of anything, be it a person’s time, so the gig economy is part of this. “He cites online tools – for £10 a month you can get most things – unlimited music, unlimited storage, unlimited computing power, so why would you want to own anything. Why would want space taken up in your world lugging things around.”
And that, says Simon, is the key driver for younger people becoming more entrepreneurial.
For older people, he says that the motivation is different. “There are a lot of start-ups where people have been made redundant, or their roles have been eliminated through progress and technology and have to re-train or retrench as a self-employed person: So, for the over 40’s you see the reluctant entrepreneur.”
And finally, what is Simon’s advice for a budding entrepreneur? “I would ask why? What is your motivator? If it is thought through, and you are passionate about something, and you love what you are doing, then absolutely. If it is to make money, maybe not so. And when you speak to younger people they generally do have this – money isn’t their main motivator, it is doing something they enjoy and with people they enjoy working with, there are much more collaborative than the archetypal, angry, nasty, grumpy business people we often see in media.”
The UK is emerging an entrepreneurial success story – but more needs to be done, and one way to achieve this is to shine the media spotlight on entrepreneurs, their challenges, their failures and of course their successes.
The NatWestGreat British Entrepreneur Awards are currently open for applications, and entrants can apply here.