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Starting a business: the dream, and the reality…


Many people have a dream of starting a business. Separate to the idea itself, expectations are often framed by the positive, glossy, upbeat versions people consume from successful business people and media. But, let me tell you, the reality rarely matches the dream. I’d go so far as to suggest that helping people not lose sight of the dream, when the sometimes dreary reality of starting a business bites, could make a big difference.

My personal experience lies in creating OneFifty. We are a digital and social media consultancy fusing the emerging fields of behavioural data and digital marketing. In our second year trading, we have a ten strong team composed of bloggers, Instagrammers, consultants and data analysts, with clients who range from the world’s biggest brands to cool start-ups. In short, I, and my co-founder Katie, are living most business people’s dream: our idea has proven appealing, we’re commercially successful, and growing fast.

Getting here, however, saw some dreams prove tough to hang on to, in the face of the cold reality. Here are the top three we faced:

Dream 1: If I devote myself to finding customers, the business can thrive.
Reality 1: Actually being able to receive payment from these hard won customers can be tough: getting VAT numbers takes weeks and weeks, and getting business banking is surprisingly difficult, and has surprising restrictions.

Dream 2: A great vision is what matters - the idea is the business.
Reality 2: Finding info on how to set up the business is seriously tough. Full stop. As in the basics of registering, what structure to use, where and what to register, what insurance you need, working capital requirements, tax obligations… No one-stop shop, no real advice from government which is detailed enough to navigate your way through. Great for professional advisers and experienced business people, less useful for those stepping out for the first time.

Dream 3: We’ll deliver the plan.
Reality 3: You spend hours sweating out your business plan… then reality strikes. Events overtake you, for better and worse, and what you’re left with is the pragmatic plan. I.e. what you can execute within available opportunities, time and resources.

So, what could interested parties - such as the Government - do to help more entrepreneurs be able to retain the dreams, and not get put off by the reality? Well, I’d start by simplifying, streamlining and changing the support to be focussed on small, not big business. That way the reality can match the dream - the passion people have for building their business, providing services and goods to customers, not trying to understand legacy byzantine systems, struggling to work out whether they even apply, let alone how to pay taxes larger businesses can navigate with ease, or suffering the pain of working out the actual cost of hiring people… Of course, the old saying “if it weren’t hard, everyone would do it” remains valid.

In essence, I’m proposing helping people deliver and live the dream, by making the reality come closer to the rosy expectations everyone sets out with.


Alex Pearmain is the Co-Founder of OneFifty, a consultancy which uses data and models of human behaviour to drive purposeful digital interactions.

Alex was one of the early UK pioneers of brand social media adoption. He has built awarded social media, service, communications, and digital marketing teams for consultancies, agencies and within major brands. His work at O2, as the first head of Social Media demonstrated that it was possible and desirable for major organisations to utilise social media at scale across customer services, sales, retention, brand and communications activity, blazing a trail for other brands to invest and adopt. He brings together analytical data and creative strategies.


Earth to Davos: the world’s entrepreneurs need a forum that speaks to them.


I can’t help but feel that we’ve been here before.

It’s the first day of WEF 2017 at Davos, and tonight, major political leaders and the business elite will be boarding their private jets and heading to exclusive hotels by the ski slopes, discussing the world’s economic challenges behind closed doors. But once again, it looks like entrepreneurs, start-ups and growing businesses – the engine room of economies around the world – will be left out in the cold.

I can’t help but feel that we’ve been here before – because we have. Last year, I called out policymakers at Davos for not giving small businesses a seat at the table or considering the issues that affect them as part of the agenda, and said that Sage, as their champion, would not attend.

And this year so far, unfortunately, not much seems to have changed. A read of the Davos agenda shows no evidence that the everyday issues facing the real business builders have been taken into account – indeed, one of the first sessions at WEF on Tuesday 17th is titled ‘Size matters: The Future of Big Business’. When you see this, it’s no surprise that 60% of start-ups and small businesses haven’t even heard of Davos. It just doesn’t speak to them. We think this is a crying shame when you consider that in most economies, it is these entrepreneurs who enable prosperity and social cohesion.

So, what are we doing about it? Today, we are proud to be launching the Sage Forum for Business Builders - a platform for entrepreneurs around the world to be better represented and heard by decision makers on the issues that impact their ability to succeed. With it, we’ve undertaken a major piece of global research that reveals some startling truths – not least that only 1 in 3 of the entrepreneurs we surveyed felt represented by their elected politicians. Are you listening, Davos?

And there are real, tangible things that these leaders could do to help – the data also showed that 18% of small businesses globally see too much government bureaucracy and legislation as the biggest challenge for their business in 2017.

I am a big believer in the power of politicians, policymakers and big business leaders to enact positive change. That’s why this year, we have met with heads of state, and wherever possible, given business builders a direct channel to speak to them, from Ireland to Australia, on issues including the EU to business red tape. I would urge decision makers to bring this spirit into the room at Davos. At every Davos meeting, keep an empty seat for the business builder who is working flat out. In a year following major political changes from the Brexit vote to the US presidency, entrepreneurs need to be heard and represented now more than ever.

True to form, business builders aren’t spending time complaining or stopping in their tracks – they’re too busy pursuing their passion, and the data reveals much to be hopeful about, with 34% of small businesses globally planning to grow by launching a new product or service in the next year.

It is in this spirit of hope, giving a voice to the business builders and a desire for action that we are launching the Sage Forum. Have a look around the site, and keep an eye out for much more to come over the following year and beyond – the Sage Forum is an ongoing commitment to work inclusively with experts, business federations & partners to campaign for tangible, real-world change that creates the ideal environment for businesses to flourish. I personally look forward to championing your noble cause and working with political decision-makers to make this change happen.

In his introductory video to WEF 2017, founder Klaus Schwab states that Davos “revolves around the idea that the only way to address big challenges is to talk to all groups in society and all members of the international community”.

An admirable sentiment. And it’s great to see that in some ways, this year’s Davos looks set to be more diverse than ever – with sessions on ending racism, tackling mental health issues and creating environments where LGBT people feel safe and proud to come out.

If this same attitude of inclusivity could be extended to the world’s start-ups and small businesses – who provide 2/3 of the world’s jobs – these events could become much more than talking shops.

Hats off to entrepreneurs everywhere – we’re firmly, proudly, in your corner.

Join us on Twitter as we continue to call for better small business representation with the hashtag #EarthToDavos

Brexit, Trump, recession: meanwhile, entrepreneurs keep calm and carry on


2016 will surely go down in history as a year of great political uncertainty. And for historical documents on public sentiment, future historians need look no further than social media, the breeding ground of speculation and – occasionally – navel-gazing.

Many have joked about jumping their respective ships – after Brexit, British citizens claimed they were set on moving to France, Spain or Germany. Over in North America, the Canadian immigration website crashed from excessive traffic as Election Night unfolded and it became clear that Donald Trump would take the White House. But amidst these dramatic reactions, we’ve seen some genuine threats to economic confidence: the scaremongering from bigger business, which I’ve written about before, with companies like big banks, Samsung, Vodafone and easyJet threatening to move headquarters out of the UK.

But what of the entrepreneurs? The sole traders and small & medium business owners who together provide 2/3 of the world’s jobs? These business builders don’t have time for navel-gazing. Nor do they have the luxury or the inclination to react to political uncertainty by relocating or withdrawing investment. Your Main Street deli simply doesn’t have the funds to pack up shop and cart their business across the Canadian border. Instead, they build on – ‘like boats against the current’ – and we ought to be immensely grateful for this resilience; this constancy that props up the global economy.

Keeping calm and carrying on, however, certainly doesn’t mean that business builders aren’t affected by political turmoil, or that they don’t need our help. Last month, US small business uncertainty hit a 42-year high following anxiety about the direction of the economy, and a recent NFIB poll showed that only 24% of small business owners believe that the States are on the right track. And following Brexit, British small businesses cited market instability as their biggest concern, topping red tape and late payments.

With elections in France and Germany coming up next year, this upheaval shows no signs of slowing down. Now more than ever, then, it is the duty of companies like Sage to take the time to understand how conditions could be better for entrepreneurs in different countries, and to take these issues and ideas to the ‘top table’ on their behalf. At the same time, it is the duty of governments to find innovative ways to put small business owners front and centre of any economic strategy, with policies that really make a difference. It is also the responsibility of the political class to provide a positive sentiment rather than threatening the sky falling in.

In this respect, I’ve been lucky enough to speak to two heads of state in the past month – Malcolm Turnbull in Canberra and, on Friday, François Hollande in Paris - and was encouraged by what they had to say. At the French Strategic Attractiveness Council, President Hollande and the French Ministers were certainly keen to deliver the message that France is open for business. Business investment in France has increased by 30% since 2012, and corporation tax will be down to 28% by 2020. This is good news for French small businesses, but as always, there’s more to be done – and at the Council, we were keen to encourage Ministers on issues like greater labour market flexibility, extending France’s digital tax capabilities and further promotion of both English and German as business languages to further help France’s status as a global player.

At Sage we are committed to staying in this conversation, and continuing to fight for practical solutions for entrepreneurs. Next week we will hold a Sage Summit in Paris, bringing some 2,000 local business builders together for two days of ideas, inspiration and insight. And in Dublin on the 7th December, we will be joined by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the first in a series of Business Builder Debates, to recognise the contribution that entrepreneurs make to the economy and discuss ways in which we can support them further.

The social media hoopla around Brexit died down somewhat as it stopped feeling like fresh news, and public reaction to the Trump presidency may prove similar. Another week, another 2016 political crisis. But at Sage, we are staying in this conversation for the long haul, and will continue to fight for practical solutions for entrepreneurs everywhere. For the sake of prosperity, job creation, social cohesion and a more equal society, Business Builders, Build On.

All talk, now action: from the Commons to G20, leaders must take a stand for entrepreneurs


With the USA’s Labor Day weekend over, September brings with it that ‘end of summer, back to school’ feeling years after we’ve left the classroom, and this week UK Ministers sharpen their pencils, dust off their books and get back to business, as the House of Commons returns today, under Prime Minister May. In Hangzhou, China, global leaders gather to work towards ‘an Innovative, Invigorated, Interconnected and Inclusive World Economy’ at the G20. And in the USA, the presidential election hots up, bringing with it the next phase of mudslinging and personality campaigning.

Meanwhile, for entrepreneurs the world over, summer certainly hasn’t brought a break from the relentless demands of building a business– our own research at Sage showed that more than 30% of entrepreneurs regularly don't take a summer holiday. These heroes, who create two thirds of all jobs, and represent 99% of all businesses, might well be asking what business-focused policies the new political term will bring.

So what are world leaders – from Washington to Westminster to Hangzhou – doing to support these business heroes, who are the key to propelling global economies?

‘I want to be the small business president.’

‘Small and medium sized businesses are the backbone of our country.’

The language we’re hearing is bang on the money. The former are of course the words of US presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, who has been vocal on her advocacy for over a year now. And the latter is a quote from UK Prime Minister Theresa May, when she welcomed small businesses into No.10 last month to hear how their needs can be met in Brexit negotiations. Choosing small businesses for her first Brexit roundtable over the big brands who dominate headlines is an encouraging sign.

So far, so good. But how do we know this isn’t just lip service? What meaningful commitments are being made to champion entrepreneurs?

Well, two weeks ago, Clinton laid out her plan for small businesses. Her headline promise is to establish a standard tax deduction available to small business, reducing admin barriers to tax relief. She also pledges to create new incentives for state and local governments who take steps to create a fertile environment for start-ups – by streamlining business licensing, for example. And just to prove her door is always metaphorically open, she has guaranteed that small businesses with questions about government regulations will receive an answer within 24 hours. Across the political spectrum, Donald Trump has focused his efforts on one major flagship pledge – to cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 15%.

Meanwhile in the UK, at her small business roundtable, Theresa May confirmed that she would not renege on the promise to reform business rates from the last budget, and assured businesses that funding for small business and entrepreneurs lost as a result of a Brexit would be replaced by the UK government.

A promising start, but there’s more to do, particularly when it comes to encouraging technology start-ups that make up so many new businesses.

I’d urge US & UK policymakers and economists to look for examples overseas – no, not in Silicon Valley, but in Bucharest, Romania.

Romania is the second-fastest growing economy in Europe, and Bucharest has bloomed as a start-up scene over the past five years. Several key factors contribute to its success – not least of which its super high internet speeds. Romania’s peak internet speeds are the highest in Europe and 6th highest worldwide, and last year Romanian cities made up an incredible 9 of the top 15 best cities for fast internet on the planet. The Romanian education system also strongly favours STEM subjects like math and engineering, creating generations of brilliant developers. And in light of the revelation earlier this summer that the UK’s digital skills gap is costing our economy £63 billion a year, this is clearly an area in which the UK could stand to learn a lot. I’d like to see the UK government take action in both of these pivotal areas.

So as the House of Commons returns today, and as world leaders in China continue to discuss how to boost international trade, world leaders must ramp up their commitments to the entrepreneurs that they’ve praised so publicly, and take further steps to show that they’re not just talking the talk. For the US, we would all welcome a shift from the personality contest to tangible policies that land to propel entrepreneurs' success.