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.

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war