My Week: Oli Barrett of Startup Britain

As co-founder of Startup Britain, Barrett juggles many different projects and commitments that take him all over the world, most of them aimed at getting entrepreneurs to do their thing.

by Michael Northcott
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013

We think there is growing interest in having your own business. We’ve seen a particular rise in the number of young people coming to see us for help over the last year, so I don’t buy the idea that because of economic doom and gloom this is a bad time to start a business. There are many reasons why it is a great time: many suppliers’ prices are lower than they’ve been, tech allows you to find customers more efficiently than ever. I find it a worrying scenario when people look at the economic forecasts and think that nobody is buying anything - they are!

Startup Britain was founded by eight entrepreneurs two years ago. The directors are all volunteers and we have a full time team that runs it day-to-day from Somerset House. We got the ball rolling with some help from Lord Young shortly before he stepped down from his role in government, but it was inspired by Startup America. The idea was to explore how big companies could help small ones get going, and to try and help entrepreneurs get access to all of the advice and information we could have done with when we started our companies.

We do all sorts of things to get the word out: bus tours to universities with walk-in advice for aspiring business people, ‘industry weeks’ where we focus on a specific sector and rally some of the best people to offer their experiences and try to point entrepreneurs in the right direction. We’ve even done popup shops (in Birmingham and London) to give entrepreneurs their first taste of having a shop, and to help them meet each other and share ideas. A recent successful initiative was with with John lewis, called Pitch Up, where young people come up with products to pitch to the top buying team at John Lewis. One of the products concocted has actually been selected by them now and is soon to hit shelves.

I don’t tend to get hugely bogged down in analysing the Budget each year, but one observation about the government generally is that it has a habit of creating genuinely useful schemes and incentives for entrepreneurs, and then for some reason does not promote them as actively as it could. It’s good that the Seed Enterprises and Investment Scheme has been extended for another two years, and the Startup Loans scheme was only recently introduced. These are great things, but hardly anyone knows about them.

As far as my other commitments go, I’ve got a brilliantly varied job. My own company is CoSpA (Co-Sponsorship Agency), which creates new projects with cross sector partners: for example a current project is tying up builders and tradespeople with young Londoners who are out of work to bring empty homes back into use. We’ve just had Channel 4 make a documentary on it called the Secret Millions, which has been great coverage for it. 

We’re also working with Wickes on another project that helps young people to do up their own youth club facilities. We’ve got these projects in Birmingham and Wales, and they are a great example of how larger businesses can do their bit: Wickes are providing all the materials for the ‘do-ups’.

I’ve just got back from India - I help organise trade missions with British companies to help them get out their pitching for contracts and work and I’ve done about eight of these already. Soon, I’m going to Brazil for a similar exercise. It’s what I love about the work: one minute I’m chairing a dinner and talk in London on cybercrime, the next I’m helping firms try to drum up new business around the world.

In terms of where small business is going, I will be keeping an eye on the theme of ‘big helping small’. I think there are lots of ways that larger firms can do their bit, whether it be simply paying up on time, including smaller companies in their supply chain, or opening up their own resources for smaller firms to use. They could even be running investment funds to help the new firms get off the ground. And big business stands to benefit - they can get R&D tax credits, they can get highly skilled apprentices, it’s not just one way.

In future, I would also welcome any efforts from government to make schools more of a ‘learning by doing’ environment. I think that’s where all of this starts. We have to have groups of young people leaving school who are able to conceive of great ideas and make them happen. 

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