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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Lord Geoffrey Howe dies, age 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.