Young people need far more than this new StartUp scheme

Why the government's small loans are hardly the answer to mass youth unemployment.

On the face of it, today’s launch of the StartUp small business scheme for under-25s looks like a good news story in an otherwise depressing economic landscape. The aim is to increase entrepreneurialism and reduce unemployment among young people (currently standing at a disastrous 22 per cent) by offering £2,500 loans and business mentoring.

Whether you imagine a legion of sharp suited young people pitching in the Dragons Den and fighting it out for Lord Sugar’s approval, or the astronomical wealth of the flip flop wearing Zuckerberg, the Prime Minister's idea of "a whole new wave of entrepreneurs who start small but 'think big" is uplifting and exciting.

But there are a couple of problems with this picture. The first is that while entrepreneurs learn a lot from starting businesses, and that learning might well offer real benefits to young people (particularly when compared to stagnating on the dole), the failure rates for new businesses are very, very high. Take this observation from Carmen Noble, writing for Harvard Business School:

The statistics are disheartening no matter how an entrepreneur defines failure. If failure means liquidating all assets, with investors losing most or all the money they put into the company, then the failure rate for start-ups is 30 to 40 per cent . . . If failure refers to failing to see the projected return on investment, then the failure rate is 70 to 80 per cent. And if failure is defined as declaring a projection and then falling short of meeting it, then the failure rate is a whopping 90 to 95 per cent.

The second is that starting a business doesn’t necessarily mean living above the poverty line. Twenty-five per cent of families with one or more self employed member are living in poverty. And in areas of high unemployment, there is evidence that new startups may just displace existing businesses, rather than increasing the number of businesses and jobs.

So, is StartUp some good news in a bad news week? Yes. Is it the answer to massive youth unemployment and stagnant local economies? Not by a long chalk.

The Prime Minister talks to young entrepreneur Lenique Louis on Monday 28 May. Photo: Getty Images

Nancy Kelley is Deputy Director of Policy and Research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.