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 yoodoo.biz – 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
Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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