A note from Marty Reid: Widening access to support new entrepreneurs

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How to ‘build back better’ through an economic recovery has been at the forefront of the minds of many of our region’s business leaders, policy makers and community organisations in recent months.

In what seems a lifetime ago back in May, we spoke about encouraging progress, as cross-sector groups came together in facilitated sessions to take a pro-active approach recovery planning. We are now reaching the stage of seeing some of these plans being published, including this month’s Bristol One City Economic Recovery Plan, and needing to take steps to make tangible progress.

One critical area is the need for us to broaden access to support for individuals who are trying to start new businesses.

Economic crises are often a catalyst for a wave of new entrepreneurship. Much of this is ‘necessity entrepreneurship’ with job losses and less employment opportunities pushing people to go out on their own. There is also the emergence of new opportunities; in recent months we have seen a rapid adoption of online and digital services, and sector expansions like healthtech.

In pitching competitions that I’ve recently been part of, where startups show off their businesses in the hope of attracting investors, a common discussion topic amongst organisers has been how many founders taking part are new to entrepreneurship.

If a boom in entrepreneurship is coming, we should prepare to give the new founders the best chance of success and therefore the best chance of creating the jobs to play a part in reinvigorating our economy.

Thankfully, this is something we know how to do. Our region has a broad range of established startup programmes with a proven track record of success, including our own SETsquared Bristol programme which actively supports over 80 technology businesses at any one time. The University Enterprise Zone at UWE has programmes and facilities covering robotics, health tech and a specific space for graduate founders, and the regional NatWest team have been hosting cohorts of growing businesses in their accelerator for a number of years.

This ecosystem has grown tremendously in recent years and is brilliantly collaborative once you are part of it, but there remains a relatively high barrier to entry for very early stage or first-time founders.

Firstly, the economic challenge of funding an incubation programme (namely that it’s not feasible or desirable to have it funded by the actual users), means that the majority of incubators are designed for startups who have been around long enough to evidence a greater likelihood of success or afford to pay for space/facilities to offset the cost of a programme. As a result, there are not currently enough affordable, accessible ‘pre-incubation’ programmes which help new entrepreneurs take the first steps on the journey, from idea to incorporation to investment.

Secondly, the current social restrictions have also greatly reduced the opportunity for new founders to engage with existing networks. Prior to Covid, Bristol and Bath had more tech and founder meetups per head than any other cluster in the UK. The proliferation of digital events has been welcome, but these don’t offer the same opportunity to engage with specific people in the network who have the relevant experience and contacts to help someone new. The “I know just who you should talk to” moment is infinitely harder to find on Zoom than over a coffee.

This is a market failure that we have the capabilities to address. With the right financial support and oversight from our regional policy makers, an accessible, inclusive and targeted pre-incubation programme could be delivered collaboratively by existing ecosystem partners with a proven track record of venture growth and network building and be up and running in a matter of weeks.

Not all these new ventures will succeed, and the life of a founder won’t be for everyone, but we should be willing to embrace this. A 6-month entrepreneurial journey would be better training than a traditional course to help someone find a new career. Either way, it would seem a relatively straightforward step to take in a broader plan to start building back better.

We would be interested in hearing from city, community and incubation network partners on how best to meet the pre-incubation needs of new entrepreneurs – please do get in touch.

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