Why is most free business support so terrible?

One of the things that first got me interested in supporting other social entrepreneurs is how bad our experience of free business support was. I'd better not say Businesslink or they might get uppity - oh bugger I just have done it! I mean in fairness, they are not all bad and there are some fabulous business advisers out there. But it's like kebabs - there are fantastic kebabs and kebab shops out there but most of the ones I have had at 4am on a Saturday night in Manchester were terrible (even allowing for the copious quantities of Irish cider in my belly). Free business advisors are like that - for every one that is fantastic (in all they kebaby and extra chilli sauce glory) there are dozens that are really really awful.

The first time I went to a social enterprise conference and met other weirdos like me (or social entrepreneurs to the uninitiated), I realised that nearly everyone had had the same experience. Especially in the bar, there was hardly anyone who had a good word to say about them. The other week I met a social entrepreneur who said one of their life's ambitions was to find a social entrepreneur who had had a good experience with free business support. Even ministers and senior national people would admit that the service is "patchy" (which is about as damning as they ever get)

So why is this?

Well I think there are 3 main reasons:

1) Most free business advisers have never started a business

I have never found any firm statistics but it seems that the majority of business advisers are ex-bank managers. Maybe this is the holy grail in banking that you work for years in a bank and one day (if the god's smile on you) you may be elevated to the status of business adviser. Or maybe it's the bank restructuring that is throwing lots of talented bank managers out on the street. Either way, very few business advisers I have met have ever run a company, let alone founded one, let alone founded a social enterprise. Now I am not saying that people who have never set up a social enterprise have nothing useful to offer social entrepreneurs but their advice does sometimes across as virgins trying to teach people how to have better sex. People who have been involved in established businesses are ok but they still don't really understand start-ups (they are still virgins but at least they have sat and watched people have sex). Often their view of business comes from textbooks or courses and as we know, running a business is very different from how it is presented in books.

2) They have a complete monopoly in any given area

One of the most frustrating things is that if your local business support is rubbish, you can't go to another one. It is the worst kind of monopoly. There are about a dozen different areas I could easily travel too and I would happily travel to a really good adviser but you aren't allowed to. They get shedloads of cash to provide local services and if your service is bad - tough! Now I am not a huge advocate of market forces but if business support was funded on how many people used them and those people could choose from a number of alternatives, then gradually the really awful ones would get starved of cash. They would then either have to improve their service or get out of the game entirely.

3) The research says that they provide a really excellent service

This is the one I really don't get. I have seen presentations at conferences and workshops where people present surveys showing that over 90% of people rate the service as excellent. In my generally-rose-tinted-view-of-the-world don't think they are lying, so I really struggle to understand why nearly everyone I meet across the country thinks the service is awful but the customer surveys say they are excellent. Maybe they only survey people who keep coming back and who presumably find it useful, or maybe there are small business (rather than social enterprises) who really do find it useful? Or maybe people are just too damn polite? Or maybe they are liars, maybe they manipulate the survey results or maybe the questions are phrased like:

Question 1 - How would you describe your local free business support?

a) Amazing
b) Fabulous
c) Great
d) Really helpful
e) Patchy

Question 2 - Would you rather receive free business support or have a rusty poker inserted up your anus?

a) Yes I would definitely rather have the free business support
b) Yes I would probably have the free business support
c) Just how rusty is the poker again?

So ...... so ..... so what? So did I fill in the recent survey on business support to social eneterprise? No. I suppose I should have but to be honest I don't think it will acheive anything. Free business support is a multi-million pound industry and there are too many people making too much money for there to be any serious challenge to the system. The people who use the service have no power and no choice and the funders have never been on the receiving end of the survey, so there are no real levers for change. I did go to recent event with social entrepreneurs, Businesslink people and the Office of the Third Sector and in fairness the Social Enterprise Coalition did reflect the experience of many social enterprises (in much politer language than me) so you never know. But I am not holding my breath :)

On a more positive note though, if you do find a really good free business advisor the treat them like a cherished lover - value them, use them and pump them vigorously for every last drop of knowledge and advice. Also tell your friends about them and spread the word that you have found a good one. Feel free to post their contact details in the comments section and I will do whatever the opposite of "naming and shaming" is to them.

By the way, if you are coming to the Voice 08 conference this year (which is a really great conference by the way), then do your own straw poll and if you can find 5 social entrepreneurs who have had a really positive experience with business support, then I will buy you all a pint. It would be nice if you came up and said hello anyway but I will be on the lookout for groups of six entrepreneurs searching for me and looking for a free drink the way social entrepreneurs do.

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