As a society we are very supportive of people when they are learning. When we open the new Christmas game we take a few dummy runs at it so the whole family can learn the rules. When I was a kid we even had a “doggy’s chance” whereby a younger player might be let off losing the first time so they could stay in the game.
At school, students take mock exams to get themselves used to exam conditions and to practise the dark art of examination technique. When we start a job we go through a probation period so that employer and employee can work out together and safely whether the job is really for them. We even practise our wedding vows.
And most classically we have the L plate (now of course renamed the P plate?). Under the protection of a flimsy square of white plastic emblazoned with this “P” we allow a complete novice to get behind the controls of a lethal machine and drive onto to the public road with only the supervision of another driver who has no means to control the vehicle, no training in driving instruction and no legal responsibility!
It is of course a calculated risk. We accept that the leaner cannot possibly learn how to drive without actually practising on the road. The key skill is not how to control a car – that after all could be learnt on any piece of empty tarmac – but how to guide that car smoothly, legally and safely to where you want to go amidst all the other competing road users and the vagaries of our road system with its bewildering array of signs and instructions.
So at all these key stages in life from examinations to driving, from jobs to weddings we are allowed, even expected to practise.
But there is one area of life, one area so critical to our individual future and I believe to the future of our country and our economic well-being where we are given no space to practise and where we, society, assume complete knowledge from day one. And that area is starting a business.
Of all the new things that we do in our lives, setting up a business is perhaps the most alien, exceptional, and complex activity we will embark on.
There is no rule book like there is for a new game, there is no teacher guiding you on exam technique, no employer to tell you how you’re doing and above all no toleration for mistakes that the P plate driver might expect when he or she stalls at a busy junction (at least sometimes!).
Instead it is quite the reverse. The new entrepreneur is expecting to learn everything immediately. In addition to knowing everything about the business product they plan to make, they need to understand that mysterious thing called the market and how to sell to it. As a new kid on the block they get few discounts on supplies and no credit. And then on top of all these business challenges they’re expected to be fully compliant with all the laws and regulatory requirements of their field of endeavour. They are, of course, born with the knowledge to meet the tax-man’s demands and those of Companies House. And if you’re on benefit you also have to navigate through a judgemental and inflexible system that will stop your income at the slightest breach of any of its myriad, opaque rules.
From this point of view starting a business looks like a very daunting and risky way for an individual to earn an income and feed the family, yet it is increasingly the only way many people will be able to earn a living.
Is it time then, for an Entrepreneur “L” plate? Could we create a window of tolerance for first time start-ups that would be designed to support their journey into the world of business?
Essentially, the wannabe business person would register for the L plate and once armed with their registration would get a number of reliefs, discounts and deferments for a determined period (at least one year). With the L plate on, if you stalled at a compliance junction you’d get patient support rather than hostile demands to get off the road.
For instance, Companies House and HMRC could allow an extra three months’ grace on production of first accounts and could provide tele-mentoring to L platers on completing the documentation and first tax return etc.
The L plate could also trigger specific one to one guidance and advice on tax and benefit issues with a dedicated adviser. It would be recognised by the Housing Benefit system and a bespoke system of assessment and support could be introduced for them.
The Treasury could even offer a tax relief for L platers first year’s income.
At a local level, business rates, local authority market fees and a wide range of licences and permissions could be offered at a discount to encourage L platers.
The L plate concept could also attract more established businesses – they could offer discounts on a whole range of services such as bookkeeping, banking, insurance, premises, IT and IT support, stationery, utilities.
It is even conceivable that L Plate Entrepreneurs could be cost-neutral to the government. Sponsors such as banks and insurance houses are sure to see the tremendous brand benefits of supporting people working to do their own thing. Indeed, the government could auction the scheme to business and offer exclusive rights for a set period. Successful bidders would bring all their marketing talents to encourage more people to look at enterprise for the first time.
Let’s bring entrepreneurship in from the cold and stop expecting them to work it all out for themselves. Introduce the L Plate Entrepreneur and help fresh entrepreneurs get started just as we would help anyone else starting down a new road.