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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.