Business is broken - and better communication is the way to fix it

New research reveals that over half of new businesses used personal credit cards to get off the ground - as lending to new SMEs tumbles by £400 million in a single month.

Last month, Business Secretary Vince Cable declared that the Government’s Funding for Lending Scheme was not working. He warned that the Treasury had to make considerable changes to the scheme to boost lending unless financing to credit-starved small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Britain shows imminent improvement. His call to action was underpinned by figures, out in the same week, which revealed that mortgage levels had soared to a five year high as consumer confidence returned. However, net lending to SMEs tumbled by £400 million in September.

A day later, Experian released its own research, a survey of 600 SMEs which discovered that almost one third of those that used personal finance had used a mortgage to fund their business, putting their home at risk. Almost half had used personal credit cards to fund their businesses. Resourceful? Maybe. Does it leave them vulnerable? Definitely!

All this news has broken in the last fourteen days, but I wouldn’t say it was a fortnight out of the ordinary for these kinds of headlines. I’m continually seeing reports and articles which highlight the struggles SMEs are facing as they look to recover from a crippling recession.

However, while these stories all highlight serious challenges for the SME sector, it’s not the main problem it faces today. The inability to connect with other organisations, especially enterprises, is proving to be the biggest impediment. Collaborating with other businesses and their respective processes, whether it be procurement, payment or lending, has become a mammoth task. It’s putting a major strain on SMEs’ time, resources and funds and, put simply, it's breaking business.

The lack of connectivity is genuinely hurting SMEs’ ability to access cash – they aren’t getting paid, and with no cash, they cannot evolve their respective propositions. The fact we are seeing, for example, this criticism of the Funding For Lending Scheme, demonstrates that this connectivity needs to be addressed. When you add further challenges into the mix, you can see that SMEs need all the help they can get. Look at Wonga’s unfair rates, which clearly don’t have the interests of SMEs at heart, or the claims that the Royal Bank of Scotland deliberately pushed SMEs to the wall, so they could get their assets on the cheap.

So how have SMEs found themselves with these numerous obstacles and what can they do to overcome them and flourish? All aspiring SMEs aim to form business partnerships with larger organisations in order to accelerate their evolution. Yet they have failed before they start, as all too often they are strangled by large inoperable procurement and finance systems.

For too long, enterprises have demanded all their suppliers adhere to these clunky, inflexible systems, leaving SMEs with two options – spend valuable time and money adopting the systems that the bigger players insist on, or pass up the opportunity and never realise the goal of working with large organisations. Naturally, the SME often ends up bending over backwards and opting for the first. However, once they are finally on their new partner’s system of choice, they are locked in. There is no reason for vendors to improve the software, so SMEs continue to struggle with archaic, expensive processes. They essentially become prisoners, not suppliers. I know a small business that was being forced to pay $9,000 to send an invoice, or, to put it another way, being forced to pay $9,000 to send a 10 kilobyte email. In today’s social, open world, this is a ludicrous situation.

It’s still happening today, but it’s not just SMEs feeling the pain. Today there are so many incredible, innovative start-up businesses that can bring considerable value to an enterprise. However, these larger organisations are missing out on working with these dynamos, which could see their businesses suffer and their competitors prosper. And all because they insist on carrying out business processes “their way”.

What’s needed, both for SMEs and enterprises, is an agnostic approach, to communicate better with each other. Connecting on one platform, which removes barriers to business and facilitates better communication, will allow SMEs to build partnerships with their bigger counterparts. It will enable them to do so much more than just get paid quicker. They will be able to create apps to improve processes, transact faster and more efficiently and discover new partners and customers along the way. This will ultimately boost collaboration, increase revenues and improve business bottom line.

Business secretary Vince Cable. Photograph: Getty Images.
Christian Lanng is CEO of Tradeshift
Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.