Regular visitors to our website or those who follow us on social media will undoubtedly have come across some updates on what’s become known as #SMEcommunity. For those however who aren’t familiar with our group, we’re a social media community that engage on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and offline offering advice, support, mentoring and sometimes just the hand of friendship to those across the country who know the challenges you can encounter during life as an SME.
We’re not an organisation whereby you spend an amount of membership to access services, we’re simply a community who have come to appreciate that networking, helping and assisting others helps you as both a person and a business grow too. And I think most of our members would agree that you get out of it what you put in, it’s your choice and there are no obligations amongst people to contribute either.
Our conversation kicked off in June 2011 and now almost two years down the line, Irish business owners can log in and find somebody to talk to just about every day of the week. On Twitter you simply add #SMEcommunity to your tweet to find yourself in the stream.
Throughout our many conversations we frequently discuss the issues SME’s need to overcome in the course of running their business. Based on this, some time ago I requested a meeting with Minister John Perry who is responsible for Small Business in Ireland. Debbie Harper of Tus Nua Designs came to the meeting with me and together we met with Minister Perry at his office on 30th April to discuss the issues that had been suggested to us from within the community.
Areas we covered in conversation included;
Support for Sole Traders
Many of the state supports apply to those in Limited Companies as opposed to those who opt to become Sole Traders. Generally it’s accepted that there are pros and cons to either set-up, but for those not sufficiently comfortable with a regular income it’s felt that remaining a Sole Trader puts you at a disadvantage when it comes to applying for funding or grants for example.
During our conversation in relation to business types we were advised that it is now possible to have a limited company with one director and directed to what is considered to be one of the biggest changes to company law in Ireland yet which you can read more about at http://www.djei.ie/press/2013/20130429.htm
Cashflow is a serious problem for many small businesses who go under when a third party fails to deliver on payment. Currently within the public sector payments should be made within 15 days, this however does not carry through to the private sector. Within #SMEcommunity there have been reports of people waiting several hundred days for payment, being refused payment outright or being forced to revise their pricing downwards after the job has been completed in order to secure any payment at all. And of course aside from these instances there are indeed many who have not been paid at all as they appear at the end of a lengthy unsecured creditors list when a business folds.
Currently it’s too expensive for many small business owners to pursue an unpaid debt through the courts system. Although many small business owners are now wiser and request either phased payment or cash on delivery, there are instances where this just is not practical and despite legislation which suggests interest can be charged, it’s impractical to enforce.
The knock-on effect of one business not being paid can affect several down the line so we would like to see measures being taken to force business owners to pay on time.
Back to Work Enterprise Schemes
Currently this is available during the first two years of your business set-up and in the early days when cashflow may be tight, it can be the difference in whether you sink or swim. At the end of year two however it’s taken away and in some cases there may well be an argument to extend it for a limited period. A voluntary review process which evaluates progress to date rather than simply leaving the business to their own devices would be a welcome addition for SME’s.
Small Business Credit Union
Many people in Ireland wouldn’t be without their trusty credit union and it was suggested within #SMEcommunity that perhaps a similar institution could be created specifically for the small business sector. When you as a personal customer approach a credit union for finance you must have a proportion of this sum on deposit and it’s felt that if a similar model were adapted for instances where a business owner needed a small sum of money to enable them stay afloat or perhaps to purchase the equipment or stock needed, that it would be a very welcome addition to the options currently on offer to the small business sector.
The Red Tape
Nobody expects free money to enable them to fulfill their business dreams but within #SME Community there have been reports of small business owners jumping through hoops for up to 18 months in order to secure finance. We would like to see a more transparent system that takes the complexity out of the process and ensures for a more efficient process.
It was pointed out during our meeting that in instances where a viable business plan has been submitted to three financial institutions and rejected by same, that micro-finance is the next step in the process to be taken.
Where finance is made available, it would also be welcomed by the group that a window be made available whereby repayments are not made on any finance made available for six months so that the business owner is in a position to deliver a return on their investment before they are required to commence repaying the capital.
Many people within #SMEcommunity have reported difficulties in making contact with the right person within an organisation or department. Debbie Harper gave specific examples of where in her business she had found it extremely difficult to make contact with the right people within the HSE. Minister Perry indicated that where this is a problem the small business owner should seek to escalate the issue.
We would quite simply like to see the various Enterprise Boards and relevant departments facilitate introductions where possible so that the small business owner who does not have substantial backing or the option to trade internationally has the means made available for connections to be made.
Currently these are available to limited companies only and enable them to explore a new area in conjunction with a provider such as a third level institute with the end result hopefully improving and expanding their business. There are no current plans to change the rules in relation to this but it was suggested that sometimes the small business owner needs to be a little innovative in their own thinking and perhaps make direct approaches to local colleges for example where they may find persons willing and capable of assisting them.
We all know they’re located across Ireland and it had been suggested within #SMEcommunity that rather than allow them fall into disrepair, that they be opened for micro-enterprises or SME’s with the business owner contributing towards essentials such as electricity or broadband for example. There are some established hubs at different locations across Ireland while others avail of shared office spaces but given the large numbers of small businesses operating from a shed, garage or a spare bedroom, it would make sense to look at opportunities for using those which are sufficiently suitable for tenants to be opened up whereby business owners can grow their network or perhaps collaborate with others.
Enterprise Ireland and Enterprise Boards
The apparent differences amongst the various different County Enterprise Boards where geography rather than business plan would appear to be a deciding factor in whether support is readily available or not is a frustration for many small business owners. Businesses that are not considered suitable for funding or grants in one location can rightly feel aggrieved when a similar business located elsewhere can secure the necessary support with no apparent differences in offering. We would like to think that going forward the various Enterprise Boards could operate using the same criteria.
Job Bridge was created as a means to train and educate people with the intent of leaving them either employed or considerably more employable than when they commenced the scheme. It’s received mixed responses across the business community with many feeling that some employers took advantage of the scheme replacing actual jobs with internships where ultimately it was the business owners bottom line that gained most. On the other hand there have indeed been reports in the media from some who are now employed having completed the scheme.
Currently you need to meet specific criteria in relation to having your own business premises or a minimum of two employees to qualify. We would however like to have these rules reviewed as there have been instances within #SMEcommunity where a business owner operating alone has had to sub-contract work that they can’t manage on their own when the option to take on an intern would have enabled them to take on the additional workload with a view to growing their business and creating a real long-term job for the intern in question. In many instances what’s currently a one man band could quite easily expand with the right assistance but we would advocate that it must be managed well, that it should be open to inspection and that the business owners concerned must have the real potential to create employment in order to be approved for the scheme.
Overall our meeting was very positive. Minister Perry and his associates were quite positive, very eager to listen to our ideas and quite welcome to further communications with regard to improving how small businesses in Ireland do business.
Debbie Harper and myself have been invited to submit a formal proposal to the Small Business Advisory Group in July so we will be asking all of those in #SMEcommunity to complete a questionnaire so that we can communicate the needs of everybody as effectively and fairly as possible.
The conversation has commenced, let’s ensure that #SMEcommunity and small business in Ireland get the success they deserve!