Get – Site aims at one-stop-shop to set up a business

A fairly big play to help small businesses grow fast launches today in the form of Smarta, an attempt to create a one-stop shop for setting up and growing a business. You’ll be hearing a lot about it in the press because it has a bunch of people behind it with high media profiles, namely two Dragons from the BBC’s Dragons Den TV show. But will it cut the mustard?

It will if the tenacity of CEO Sháá Wasmund is anything to go by. She made her name during the last boom as a director of travel company, and, sold to BSkyB. Most recently she has been at BrightStation Ventures, an investment vehicle, but has since extracted herself to work full time on Smarta, which has nothing to do with BrightStation.

Smarta’s private backers are Simon Woodroffe (Founder of YO! Sushi), Bebo founder Michael Birch, David Saul (Business Environment Group) and Dragons’ Den panelists Theo Paphitis (also owner of Ryman Stationery) and Deborah Meaden. There is up-front sponsor money from NatWest, RBS bank and Vodafone, as well as from law firm Mishcon de Reya and serviced office provider Business Environment, which will both be providing services to users. Smarta is due to be launched today by Minister for Digital Engagement and Parliament’s first blogger, Tom Watson MP.

Get the picture?

So, Smarta is not unlike a sexier, private sector version of Business Link, the government-backed initiative to support small businesses which has been disappointing to say the least. Word on the street tells me they spent £20m on their useless web site, much of it on management consultancies to tell them they were fulfilling their brief. Sounds like your average government department, no?

But with Smarta you will be able to do a number of practical things: Legally register a business online with almost as much ease as you would buy a domain name; actually buy domain names; use the in-built social network to promote your businesses and yourself to other entrepreneurs; watch video tutorials and interviews with entrepreneurs; read how-to editorial features for businesses; ask questions; get financial and legal advice. You can also apply for a business banking account from RBS or NatWest.

They aim to have 200,000 users by the end of 2009. Revenue will be from sponsorship/advertising and transactions (domain name sales, business planning software etc).

Apparently there is a market out there. Here’s their maths:

The 2007 UK Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report found that roughly 2.8 million people in the UK are thinking or have thought about starting up a business. Figures from the Department for Business, Enterprise Regulatory Reform also show that only c.400k business actually start up each year. So therefore roughly 2.4m million people who are thinking about starting a new business never do.

The reasons are simple: professional services and infrastructure are expensive; paperwork; hard to find other entrepreneurs to network with; lack of mentoring. Smarta aims to address all these.

Thus, if Smarta gets 1% more of the 2.4 million to start up a business, that’s 24,000 additional start-ups. If each one has an turnover of £225,028 (according to the UK Dept for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform estimate for UK private enterprises with 0-49 employees in 2007) then the figure that pops out is £5.4bn.

Of course Smarta itself isn’t going to get all that. But it might be able to hook into the market if it’s quick, and, er, smart enough.

However, although the site shows plenty of promise, a couple of things ring alarm bells for me. The site was not built in-house but by digital agency Public Zone and designed by How Splendid. That’s fine, but real tech startups control their own tech. Perhaps they’ll address this later.

The videos of entrepreneurs are good, but you can’t share/embed them. It’s on their to-do list but I do wonder why they needed to build their own video player for this. Also, events don’t have calendar feeds (also on the to-do list).

Smarta will also be hard to scale across national boundaries beyond the UK (but perhaps not impossible?).

Lastly, their biggest challenge is in not becoming Ecademy. And there are other sites out there that purport to do the same thing. Two things help them on this: Smarta is not out to be a personal cult for it’s founder, although the media profile of the backers is going to go some way to differentiating the site from similar-sounding ones. All they need to do is execute on the tech a bit better.

Assuming all the above can come together, Smarta should be a very welcome boost to the UK’s entrepreneurial scene.