Is there a new wave of entrepreneurialism?

Dragon's den in action.

Entrepreneur. It is a word that, courtesy of television programmes like "The Apprentice" and "Dragon's Den", conjures up images of a lone wolf or "dragon" with a business vision. When one thinks of entrepreneurialism one immediately thinks of personalities like Sir Richard Branson and Steve Jobs building a brand and a business empire in their own image, hewn from their own industry and wild creativity. Entrepreneurialism appears then to be something wholly individual, almost egotistical, and consumer-facing. It is not a term one would often associate with big businesses and certain sectors – professional services being particularly close to my heart - seen as almost anti-entrepreneurial. 

Yet I believe any good business has an entrepreneurial heart beating at its core. Entrepreneurialism is all about change, creating a competitive advantage so that you can outperform your competitors. It is this urge to create competition and then to beat it that lies at the centre of successful entrepreneurship.

The most successful companies empower people to think in an entrepreneurial manner by enabling employees to feel able to express themselves within a safe environment, to challenge, to be challenged and to talk openly without fear of being derided. Promoting diversity in the workplace, both in terms of skill and background, enables businesses to create what you might term a ‘melting pot of ideas’ capable of producing a regular stream of creative ideas based on the pooling of a wide variety of influences and knowledge. I would go so far as to argue that under the right conditions - a blend of framework, incentives and liberalism - businesses can produce an entrepreneurial spirit capable of matching the most creative of "dragons". Fostering a global community of budding young entrepreneurs is a subject close to my heart and something I am personally involved with, sitting as I do on the board of Youth Business International (YBI), a global charity with members in 40 countries - inspired by the Prince of Wales and linked to the Prince's Trust - whose purpose is to encourage young entrepreneurs. The cultivating of young entrepreneurs around the world not only helps stimulate growth, it also eases youth unemployment, which is a massive global problem.

A big part of entrepreneurialism is based on making calculated risks. For any business with ambitious growth plans it is no different. Companies make calculated risks all the time in an effort to expand their frontiers – be they geographical, operational or cultural. In a post-financial-crisis environment, however, businesses must be able to retain their “permission for entrepreneurialism”. There is an inherent contradiction in political rhetoric which on one hand exhorts banks to lend more so that businesses can grow and on the other enshrines an anti-risk culture. Expansion at this phase of the economic cycle is especially tricky and the importance of a well timed and strategic move plays heavily on the minds of business leaders internationally. After a period of economically-induced relative stasis, I believe we are about to see a wave of entrepreneurial activity, whereby progressive businesses seek first mover advantage. As well as M&A activity, this could manifest itself in the form of investment into new geographies, potentially diversifying further from the developed markets, new technologies or into human capital - providing staff with the support and training required to develop new skills and new ways of thinking.

The appetite to take informed, strategic risks is a cornerstone of growth – and, as the post-crisis tremors show signs of abating, the ability of companies’ to act on this impulse will increase. Entrepreneurialism is not merely something reserved for the gifted individual with an idea and the bravery and perseverance to pursue that idea in a highly competitive marketplace, it is a central tenet of capitalism and an essential component of any sound business strategy. Without entrepreneurialism, businesses stagnate. Perhaps in the UK we need to ramp up what has historically been a strong part of the "national character" - an outward looking urge to trade new items with new territories.

If you want to see Dragon's Den in action, look no further than global businesses and the internal culture they foster and you will find more often than not a thriving hub of creativity and bold business ideas.

Kelly Hoppen. Photograph: Getty Images

Co-CEO of DLA Piper

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.