Although there is no such thing as a stereotypical entrepreneur, one thing these enterprising individuals have in common is that we are investing our hopes for future economic prosperity in them. And, along with sportsmen, musicians, artists, and even the occasional politician, successful entrepreneurs are joining the ranks of the nation's modern-day heroes.
So what really matters to the self-made business class? Management Today and leading accountants Baker Tilly have conducted a survey of 350 owner-managers of growing businesses to find out what makes them tick, and what really ticks them off. What makes their business successful, and what gives them sleepless nights? Both predictable and surprising, their answers send a number of clear messages to the Government on how levels of enterprise in the UK can be improved.
MONEY. First up is the question of motivation. Why do people choose to run their own company? The desire to 'be my own boss' is, it turns out, much stronger than the urge to get rich quickly. Even if money is an incentive, the instinct to be in control is tantamount. As Stephen Morris, partner in marketing communications business Haygarth Group Worldwide, puts it: 'Once you are reasonably comfortable, you have no mortgage and you've paid the school fees, money becomes less important. For me the satisfaction of winning new clients is just as strong a motivator.'
And Richard Savage, owner of Specialised Travel, which flies orchestras and rugby teams around the world, says: 'This is a thin-margin business, so I'm never going to see shed-loads of money. But being your own boss does allow you to fulfil your own needs and desires - in my case a love of music and travel.'
Another fallacy is that most entrepreneurs want to float their business. The majority don't. Our owner-manager is six times as likely to cite a long and enjoyable working life, or a prosperous retirement, as his or her ultimate business goal. Some see themselves as serial entrepreneurs, others plan to pass the business on to staff or children.
HEROES. When it comes to a role model of their own, there is little doubt who the entrepreneurs look to. Richard Branson wins their undisputed accolade as 'the ultimate entrepreneur'. As one put it: 'I respect Richard Branson for the extraordinary work he has done on the brand. He has really created something extraordinary.' Another said: 'He sails close to the wind, but always pulls through.' Second in the admiration stakes comes Bill Gates, while other candidates such as James Dyson, Alan Sugar and Anita Roddick each win only modest backing.
In the political field, the Iron Lady retains an iron grip on the sentiments of the entrepreneurial class. Margaret Thatcher is without question the 'ideal prime minister for business', more than three times as popular as Tony Blair. William Hague barely registers.
EUROPE. In spite of the general anti-stance taken by the associations representing small business, in reality, owner-managers are split on the issue. They are almost as likely to identify with the pro-European views of Tony Blair and Ken Clarke as with anti-European champions such as Margaret Thatcher and William Hague. Moreover, the strength of the pound and uncertainty over the euro do not worry our entrepreneurs. Whatever their personal view, they probably see these issues as ones of principle rather than ones that will seriously affect their business.
What does bug them is the perceived growth in regulation that is emanating from Brussels. As Haygarth's Morris puts it: 'Because of the Working Time Directive, we now have to log every hour that every one of our employees works. It's ludicrous.'
REGULATION. Red tape, from whatever source, is undoubtedly a major bugbear. Interference from Brussels and Whitehall ranks second only to late payment as a source of irritation. Entrepreneurs want government to maintain a stable economic environment, and to reduce regulation and taxation. They're unimpressed by grants, information or advice but they would like to see government help facilitate investment in smaller companies.
They regard the Inland Revenue as the government department most obstructive to their success, although HM Customs and Excise and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are not far behind. There is a definite feeling that, for all the rhetoric, politicians and civil servants have little idea of what it is like to be at the coalface, running a business. As one puts it: 'All members of government should be trained in business skills to enable them to understand how the country works.' Another says: 'It seems that public servants put their common sense in a 'do not use' bag when they get to their office.'
PROFESSIONALS. The entrepreneur does invest some trust in professional advisers, particularly when finding out about regulations. But he or she has little time for banks, whose efforts to sharpen up their act vis-a-vis the enterprise community have passed unnoticed. 'The banks do not have a business culture. Even in their so-called business units they do not understand risk or opportunity,' is how one owner-manager puts it. Another adds: 'Banks do not understand business in any meaningful sense. Our bank is interested in us now we are turning over millions, but it showed no enthusiasm for helping us when we were developing.'
Entrepreneurs believe they get far more encouragement from their family and colleagues than they do from their bankers or even their accountants.
TRAINING. When it comes to qualifications and training, our entrepreneurs present something of a paradox. On the one hand, they are likely to be pretty well qualified. They will probably have 'O' levels (or GCSEs) and 'A' levels, and the majority have a university degree. They are more than likely to have some other form of management or professional qualification, although a relatively small proportion have an MBA. The MBA, together with a 'business strategy programme', is the qualification they consider most important for tomorrow's owner-managers. But although entrepreneurs bemoan the lack of quality staff as the most important factor in hindering their enterprise, they see the contribution of training to their success as almost negligible.
One manager sums up this ambivalent attitude: 'Everyone talks about training as a way of retaining people and improving their skills, but it's a Catch-22. You need to provide staff training but in doing so you are effectively making them a better catch for your competitors. Employees see it as a need which should be fulfilled by their employers, while employers see training as part of the remuneration package.'
STRESS. It's more stressful, most entrepreneurs believe, to run your own business. But while most say they experience above-average stress levels, few believe they are at the point of burn-out. The reason is not hard to fathom: it's hard to keep so many balls in the air at one time, plus the sheer responsibility of knowing that many people's livelihoods - including your own - hang upon your decisions. 'If I got it seriously wrong, 130 people and their families would be put in jeopardy,' says one.
Dave Klein, owner of chartmoves.com, which markets a board game of the same name, finds himself frustrated by trying to get his product into retailers who are unwilling to deal with an independent. 'The main thing I worry about is the ideas I've had; others will get to the market first, simply because they've got the right connections.'
Savage of Specialised Travel believes he suffers less than normal stress. He puts this down to the nature of his business. And although employees, funding and the fear of failure are among the top worries shared by entrepreneurs, Savage says he is more likely to lose sleep over the prospect of a lawsuit. 'The nuclear threat to this business is litigation. In travel there is a history of pursuing the tour operator - they are usually the first target for recourse if anything goes wrong.'
SUCCESS. Finally, there's one factor that entrepreneurs are not slow to take credit for - the success of their business. In the vast majority of cases, owner-managers nominate themselves as the main source of their success. They rate hard work as the main factor in that success, although excellent products and services are not far behind. Luck, most believe, has got little to do with it.
For a full set of survey results visit www.managementtoday.co.uk
ON MOTIVATION AND ADMIRATION
- Why do people run their own businesses? Three out of four entrepreneurs simply want to be their own boss. And more than one-third aim to enjoy working for as long as they are able. Money is not the prime objective.
- So what do they need to make their business succeed? Hard graft and product or service excellence, say over 70%. Themselves, say three in four.
- Government can help. Over 50% of entrepreneurs want it to maintain a stable economic climate, while one in three suggest cutting red tape and taxes.
- The Inland Revenue is thought to be the most obstructive government department. Bank managers are seen as pretty unsupportive, accountants fare little better. If it's encouragement you're after, look to your family, say more than half the respondents.
- No one comes close to Richard Branson as the entrepreneurs' undisputed business hero.