So how do you start a business in a recession?

Start a business that helps people start businesses, that's how.

Setting up a business during a recession is difficult. So why not start a business during a recession that helps people establish their own businesses? This was the original thinking behind Yoodoo, a medium-sized business based in London's Soho that has grown to provide high-engagement e-learning for all sorts of clients, from banks to dentists.

"Yoodoo began as an idea for a kind of web home for new entrepreneurs", says Nick Saalfeld, head of content at Yoodoo. But like many new businesses, Yoodoo has morphed over the years, and now does things that are far afield from the original – a website that guides users through every stage of the process of starting a business, and making it succeed, with videos from leading business professionals, downloadable documents, quizzes and practical walkthroughs.

What happened, Saalfeld tells me, is that Yoodoo discovered their forte lay in making e-learning work, getting it to produce real outcomes. Where the original may have taught mobile hairdressers, for instance, the basics of business, Yoodoo now powers the way dentists learn about compliance, helps recruitment consultants practice more successfully and gives unemployed people the skills to find work. It’s in providing outcome-focused learning experiences for other established companies that their primary activities now lie, and business is good.

Starting up during a recession, however, has serious risks. But asking Nick why is something of a non-question – he's been an entrepreneur "since before the word ‘entrepreneur’ was cool", and starting companies is just what he does.

On the specifics he is resolute. "In a recession, there’s a depleted pot of finance, which is of course fundamental", Nick says. "But people ramble on about the availability of finance… yes, it’s hard to get hold of, but it’s not impossible. It demands greater fiscal probity and ideally a demonstrably skilled management team.

"The bigger issue now, I think, is that macro-economic issues are affecting the optimism, outlook and visible horizon for small businesses. All of a sudden people were (and are) thinking: what about Spain, what about Ireland? These huge macro-economic issues can affect me and my little company. That’s the real issue with starting up in difficult times."

But Nick insists that difficult conditions have hidden opportunities. "Change means opportunity in business – it just does. Evolutions in markets, disparities of income, location, access to raw materials, technologies… all these disruptive breaks represent new opportunities. Don’t get me wrong, times are tough, but there is still room for ventures that can absolutely pay off. Don’t expect an easy ride – you’ll need to get used to living on fresh air – but fortune still favours the entrepreneur’s key skills: resilience, doggedness, and sheer hard graft."

What can government do to help small and medium sized-businesses to succeed? "The problem for the government", Nick says "is that it only has two tools - money and laws, and they’re both pretty blunt instruments.

"There’s a big hoo-ha about red tape. Frankly that’s immaterial, absolutely meaningless. For small businesses – and 95% of British businesses have fewer than 5 employees – none of that is a concern and for the massive majority, red tape isn’t the problem."

In Nick’s experience, the major problem for small businesses that government ought to concern itself with is education. "Modern education has brought us a generation that is ill-equipped to conduct business, and that makes me very, very sad indeed.

"Problem-solving, ambition, the ability to comprehend long term strategy and construct an argument - these skills are not being taught, and it is crippling SMEs who are still finding it easier to recruit abroad, for example."

If you look at the figures, he says, Britain has dropped several places down the world education rankings, and it shows. "If the government really wants to help small and medium sized businesses," Nick says, "the best thing they can do in the long term is put their effort into education."

What currently hinders entrepreneurs? From Yoodoo’s experience, the problems entrepreneurs face are universal – finding the right idea and sticking with it. "There are entrepreneurs who are eternally glass half-full. That’s fine. But the real trick to being an entrepreneur is doggedness. Not doggedness to the point of stupidity, not re-mortgaging your house for something that’s never going to happen, but a determination to find new solutions to problems. Keeping that up is the main engine of entrepreneurship, and always will be. It’s a great British tradition – from Brunel to Dyson – to ask, 'Well, that’s not very good, so why can’t we do things differently?’"

Despite the economic uncertainties, Nick is full of encouragement for self starters. "I would never say to someone: don’t start your own business," he says. "Look, if I lose a client I might lose 10% or 20% of my income. If I’m employed and I lose my client, I lose 100% of my income. It’s madness to say that running your own business is so much riskier."

That seems to be Yoodoo’s message: if you’re self-employed it’s all up to you. But at least it’s not up to someone else.

This article originally appeared in Economia.

Photograph: Getty Images
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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.