Philip Salter heads up The Entrepreneurs Network, a think tank advocating in the interests of Britain’s most ambitious entrepreneurs and the Secretariat of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Entrepreneurship. He oversees The Entrepreneurs Network’s research programme, engagement with its community of thousands of entrepreneurs and other interested members, and communications with Parliament. FieldHouse’s Jhanvi Gudka caught up with him to get a measure of current conditions for entrepreneurs as the UK works it way through the long tail of the Covid-19 pandemic.
As we emerge from the pandemic, what does the business environment look like for budding entrepreneurs? Is now a good time to start a business?
Many of the world’s greatest businesses have been started in or after a crisis. Disney was launched during the Wall Street Crash and rode out the Great Depression, while more recently the likes of Airbnb, WhatsApp, and Square were started during the 2008 Financial Crisis. Of course, budding entrepreneurs may need to be aware of whether structural changes in the economy as a result of the pandemic will impact their chances of success, but the pandemic shouldn’t be enough in itself to put people off starting a business.
What are the biggest risks to UK entrepreneurship today, and how can we mitigate them?
The biggest known risk comes from having left the European Union. The EU provided a steady stream of entrepreneurs. When we last looked, 49% of the UK’s fastest-growing businesses had at least one foreign-born founder. Free movement also gave UK firms a ready supply of talent to grow their business. However, as has been shown in the UK’s superior vaccine rollout, the UK can be nimble. We need to keep strong relations with the EU, but we can also be a global champion of freer trade and use regulatory divergence to become the world’s testbed for cutting-edge products and services.
What do you make of the support Rishi Sunak announced last month to support British business?
As we and other organisations argued from the start, governments (including the UK) were right to take unprecedented action in supporting the UK economy. A pandemic of this severity required extraordinary measures – all of which should be unwound when things return to normal. While the Budget included positives, such as the Super-deduction (we have long called for unlimited capital allowances), it felt like there was a premature desire to rebalance public finances. The pandemic isn’t over and the UK government can still borrow at very low rates. Now’s not the time for austerity.
Thinking about your four pillars to make Britain the best place to do business – Innovation, Talent, Investment and Competition – which area needs the most attention right now?
All are important and feed into each other. In terms of innovation, there are reasons for optimism. The so-called “Great Stagnation” seems to be coming to end, with Google’s DeepMind solving the protein folding problem, and the promises of robotics, drones, and vehicle automation are finally coming to fruition. The competition for talent will just get more intense, which is why we will need to be more proactive in attracting the best minds, while maintaining policies to incentivise investment will remain as critical as ever. Competition is one area where the UK risks going too far. Limits to mergers and acquisitions for national security (or other) reasons risk disincentivising entrepreneurship.
If you could create a new policy to better support UK entrepreneurship, what would it be
While not a new policy – but a set of policies – the speed and success of the creation of the vaccines to fight Covid shows what can be done when incentives are properly aligned. We have Covid-sized problems that we’ve learnt to live (or die) with – such as malaria, car accidents, medical errors, and malnutrition, that are solvable through the same mechanisms as the pandemic: money, political will, and regulatory reforms that can speed everything up.
What advice would you give to someone considering starting their own business?
Nobody can build a business on their own, so the main piece of advice is to surround yourself with great people. This is most obviously employees, but also other entrepreneurs who you can call on for advice and just to share the burden with someone who understands the stresses and strains of starting and growing a business.