As George Osborne prepares for next month’s Budget, he will already have told his speechwriters to provide a strong section on supporting entrepreneurship. The Conservatives made strong play throughout the election campaign of the importance of startups for the country’s future. David Cameron went so far as to say it was the willingness of entrepreneurs to take risks which “pumped” him up in his fight to remain in Downing Street.
I strongly share the view that the countries that prosper are those which enable entrepreneurship to flourish. But unlike the government, I am far from convinced that the skills needed can, or should, be developed in schools. In fact, I worry that this might have the opposite impact.
Cameron has called for schools to inspire the next generation of Richard Bransons. Lord Young, his adviser, believes that the skills required should be embedded in the classroom. The problem is that the formal education system was something which many entrepreneurs could not wait to leave – not least because they were often classed as failures.
We have to be careful in suggesting that entrepreneurs are identical. We are each individuals, with our own life experiences. In my own case, dyslexia – which ruled out a career in the established professions – brought the early realisation that creating businesses was my best way to make a living.
But entrepreneurs also have certain qualities in common, including ambition, risk-taking and a desire to stand on their own two feet. Dyslexia on its own would have simply been a disadvantage, had it not been coupled with a determination not to let it hold me back.
These are not qualities that can necessarily be taught. After all, entrepreneurs tend to have an unusually strong belief that they are in control of their own destinies. They believe that they stand or fall by their own talents and efforts, don’t expect to be bailed out but, at the same time, can have an almost evangelical belief that they have the right to enjoy the rewards of any success.
It is not surprising that those societies where the entrepreneurial spirit is stronger are likely to have lower taxes, a smaller state and less of a welfare support system than exists in the UK and Europe. Indeed, some entrepreneurs argue that it is this welfare safety net which breeds a sense of entitlement among young people, sapping risk-taking.
It’s also the case that, while entrepreneurs believe that failure can’t be feather-bedded, they also don’t see it as the career-ending disaster that it’s often viewed as in the UK. Failure is seen instead as an inevitable part of risk-taking. The trick is to bounce back, learn from what went wrong and start again quickly.
All of this also explains why, before politicians go overboard in celebrating the values of entrepreneurs, they have to understand that they might not like all they see. An economy run by entrepreneurs might be extremely successful financially, but one in which they took all the major decisions would be a good deal less gentle than the kind most of us – including myself – would want to share.
Of course, there are many entrepreneurs who have become major philanthropists. But in the early days, at least, the same people were often characterised as ruthless and unforgiving. I am not the only entrepreneur who has – I hope – mellowed with age.
The challenge is to create an environment and provide the encouragement so that entrepreneurs can succeed, but in a society which is not too harsh for those without the qualities to start their own businesses. In a world that’s becoming ever more competitive, and successful economies more entrepreneurial, I don’t believe we have got that balance right. It is politicians who need educating, not our children.
What the experience of more successful nations teaches us is that it is not the classroom but culture as a whole that counts. Without the right conditions, individual entrepreneurial spirit will be stifled.
So let’s worry less about teaching enterprise skills in our schools, and more about ensuring that we have the conditions in place – the right incentives to succeed, the lowest possible bureaucratic burdens on small companies, labour flexibility, a skilled workforce and world-class infrastructure – to create a country where entrepreneurs can set up and grow their businesses.
This is the challenge for Osborne and Cameron next month. Get these basics in place, and then watch a new generation of entrepreneurs fly.