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
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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.