I had a privileged upbringing – surrounded by books and a loving family that were articulate in spoken and written word – particularly around political and social change. That’s probably why I chose marketing and communications as a career in the not-for-private-profit sector.
A worrying large number of the young people I work with have poor communication skills when it comes to answering and talking on the phone, taking notes when listening to people giving advice, shaping and presenting ideas within their peer group, and a reluctance to read anything more than a couple of sentences. This is not about learning disabilities (which are also common), it’s about (not) learning basic skills in schools, or losing what they learnt in school – like writing by hand.
Some have coping mechanism for hiding areas of weakness (don’t we all?) but, when starting a business, the inability to communicate with a certain level of competence is a massive barrier. The sooner issues are identified and addressed the better; not always easy when the young people themselves don’t acknowledge there’s a problem.
Some young people think they can run an online business from their back bedrooms without ever having to leave the house. They look at me with horror when I tell them they’ll need to go and talk to people face-to-face to get their businesses started.
‘Quick and dirty’ may be the best way to start
The idea of the MVP (Minimal Viable Product) and phrases like ‘fail fast’ are familiar in the world of business start-ups, particularly when they are of the techy variety. I’m talking about something different here… ‘try to strike while the iron’s hot’ might be a more appropriate cliché.
Sustaining interest and motivation is young people with ‘complicated lives’ is not easy. We know that the longer the time lapse between a young person applying for business support and that support actually materialising is critical for determining how much energy they bring to the process. When real life gets in the way, the dream can fade surprisingly quickly. The ideal scenario is enquiry one week and support the next, but this is not always possible and a 4 – 6 weeks delay is more likely between first contact and hands-on support.
In a similar vein, delays while writing a business plan can result in a rapid decline in commitment to the finished product; so ‘good enough’ may be the watchword here. An idea being explored is to fill the immediate time after first contact with an involvement activity – around market research maybe, or even the early stages of drafting a business plan. Watch this space.
The delay in ‘getting started’ might be self-imposed as well. We all know that sometimes we procrastinate – putting off doing something through lack of confidence or whatever, making it bigger in our imagination that it is. This happens quite a lot with young people who find reasons for not starting a business; the search for ‘the right premises’ in one case. My reaction is to query the delay and suggest ways to get ‘test trading’ as soon as possible.
The role of the side hustle
Objectively, and procrastination notwithstanding, the ability to devote a full working week to business development is likely to get a new enterprise up and running the quicker than doing so alongside a part time job. The advice is always ‘don’t give up the day job too soon’ – test the viability of your new business idea while having a steady income to help pay the bills.
Not everyone has the luxury of having regular income while starting their businesses and, as mentioned in a previous blog, many young people are setting up businesses precisely because they can’t get someone to employ them. That said, I am increasingly attracted to the idea of the ‘side hustle’ which seems to have a raised profile in recent years. And it’s not just my imagination – the Henley Business School reported on the rise of the side hustle as recently as July 2018. Doing a ‘bit of business on the side’ sounds dodgy, but it needn’t be; having a way to test an idea without undue financial risk is a responsible route to take and, depending on the nature of the full-time job and the very part-time start-up, could be a sustainable combination.
Businesses are getting more social
I have a personal passion for a business model described as ‘social enterprise’ – it’s been a part of my professional and personal life for almost two decades. I see it as mixing the best of the charity world with the best of the business world to create an income-generating enterprise with financial, social and, often, environmental objectives.
I’ve consciously not pushed the social enterprise model to young people, not least because it’s a difficult route to go down with built-in business disadvantages before you get to the starting line. Despite this, I’m quietly pleased that an increasing number of people with whom I work come to me with business ideas that I would broadly define as social enterprises.
On the plus side, their commitment is likely be a given – they are often motivated to set up a business to meet a need they have personally identified – as someone with mental ill health or as a struggling young mum. That passion however can also be a negative – personal involvement can often blur the line between the heart and the head. Early on, agreeing the primary purpose of the enterprise is important – is it about furthering a cause or making money – often requiring some difficult decisions, with some compromise at least in the early stages.
And on a broader point, and in praise of the young people I advise, all the would-be entrepreneurs have been sensitive, sociable and considerate to each other – a million miles from the monsters we see on TV in The Apprentice!
Next – what have I learnt about the support needed