Let a thousand startups boom

Robin Klein’s open letter to the UK government about how to stimulate startups got a lot of response from TechCrunch Europe readers. We’ve decided to run two responses to his letter, making their own case for how government intervention should take place. The below is by Simon Cast, (@Simoncast) a freelance Product Strategy/Product Management analyst. The other response is here.

TechCrunch Europe posted an open letter by Robin Klein of The Accelerator Group to the Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling and Lord Dryson Minster for Science and Innovation about what to do with purported stimulus funds. BVCA wants the money to go to large VC funds whereas Robin Klein wants to see the money channelled to supporting very early stage companies (amounts less than £100k).

Robin’s logic and reasoning is sound and I agree with them. But it is not a good use of the money for two reasons.

Tech (web) Focused
The idea is far too technology (read web) focused. There are lots of opportunities throughout the UK for entrepreneurs to create businesses; many, indeed most, outside the world of the web. Why shouldn’t someone starting a lawn-mowing business have access to early stage funding as a technology developer? Both create value. We in the technology sector tend to be myopic about start-ups, small businesses and entrepreneurs. Richard Branson can hardly be accused of creating a technology business and yet he is by most measures the UK’s most successful entrepreneur.

Yes, technology creates long term value and wealth, but the vast majority of wealth is created by companies outside of the technology sector using technology and not developing it. It is created by a lawn-moving business using twitter to alert their customers that their lawn is done and having a website where clients can go and book a visit using something like BookingBug to provide the functionality. The lawn-mowing business is creating value through better customer service and consequently generates wealth. Would a business angle or early seed stage fund invest in such a company? What about if it is located in the hinterlands of Wales?

Relying on Judgement
The mechanism for distributing funding relies on someone making a judgement call as to what is potentially a good opportunity. The act of making a judgement takes time and as many commentators pointed out in response to the open letter, time is very precious at the early stages of a business. Waiting more than a month for a response is a massive drag on very early stage businesses. Small business need responses fast.

More problematic is that a person can only make the judgement based on their experience and expertise. Many great opportunities will be bypassed as the judges’ focus on what they know. Now however is a time to fund companies that are moving into new areas and new ways. It is a time to let 1000 flowers bloom. In the end the only real judgement that matters is that of the market. It would be better to create a situation where those companies can be judged by the market rather than a limited individual. The market is crowd-sourced investment decisions.

In place of co-investing or creating lots of seed funds, I propose that the UK government create a scheme of income-contingent loans. Under the scheme an entrepreneur can take out a loan that covers his previous salary up to a maximum of £50k to £60k. The loan is paid monthly like salary and is re-paid by the individual (not the company) through the tax system (similar to student loans). Other characteristics of the scheme are:

* The scheme would provide loans for up to 3 people per business in the first year, followed by another 2 new employees in the second year
* The loans are tied to the individual and are re-paid by the individual based on the individuals income
* An individual can only take out a loan under this scheme once every 5 years

An income-contingent loan scheme provides funding irrespective of industry or goods and services. It addresses the funding gap that is a barrier to entry for all entrepreneurs and has a lower administrative burden. The loan scheme can be administrated through the existing Government banks and through an online loan application system which are widely geographically diverse, scalable and most importantly can return a fast decision.

One big objection is the potential for fraud. Nothing involving money is without the potential for fraud and venture funding is not immune (witness Tiger Telematics). By putting the liability to re-pay the loan onto the individual reduces the avenues for fraud using this scheme. The other limitations are also designed to reduce the attractiveness of fraudulent behaviour.

Granted, the loan scheme is unlikely to produce the next Google but I would rather see the loan scheme generate 100,000 businesses all employing an average of 10 people. That would be far more valuable to the UK economy as a whole than 1 Google.

Ideally, you would run both an income-contingent loan scheme and co-invest in early stage investments. However, given the realities the loan scheme is more valuable. The co-investment scheme should follow. By the time the co-investment scheme is up and running many of the first lot of companies that have benefitted from the loan scheme will be ready for their first round of funding.