Stuck in the Middle Won't Do

14 August, 2023

By Tricia Fox

There's something about learning that I am in the "missing middle" that's got me stirred.

A recent report published by the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee on Scotland's Economic Performance has highlighted the true level of disparity in levels of support for growth businesses in Scotland.

Don't worry, you're fine if you are either a startup or high growth enterprise, both of whom have extensive support programmes managed and delivered by Business Gateway and Scottish Enterprise respectively. It seems, however, that all those companies in the middle - hundreds of thousands of them - are largely being left to fend for themselves.

And I can attest to that. If you've ever tried to get access to Scottish Enterprise's "Account Managed" programme, you'll undoubtedly get batted back to Business Gateway who, in turn, tell you they don't know how to get you onto the Account Managed programme. The entry criteria may be shrouded in mystery but, anecdotally, you know from friends who also run high growth businesses that this programme opens you up to an immense wealth of support (some of it advisory, some of it financial) that could really make your business soar.

Jackie Brierton, CEO of GrowBiz, is quoted in the report saying that "Once they [businesses] have passed start-up, there is nothing for them unless they fulfil the criteria for high-growth support"

So what's really missing from the missing middle?

If our education system has reading, writing and arithmetic as its three pillars of success, then our entrepreneurial ecosystem needs numeracy, knowledge and networks as its key components.

It's not a lack of ambition holding back our country's entrepreneurs. The report from the British Business Bank that said 70 per cent of companies do not want to take on any funding to grow their business, they would rather focus on stability, is missing the point - debt (or investment) is perceived to be unstable too. It's misplaced cultural pride in the UK (not just Scotland) to "not have any debt" in your business. But if your attitude to debt is singularly holding back your ability to grow, it's foolhardy. Better financial education is a must if we're to unleash a sea of ambition and growth.

The fact of the matter is that there's no one way to successfully scale a business. But the challenges faced by entrepreneurs in all companies and all industries are, by and large, the same. And at the heart of solving the scale up problem is giving entrepreneurs the skills and knowledge they need to overcome the obstacles that owning and running a business will throw at them. We need to give our entrepreneurs the best management education we can, and keep them learning - because what they will do with that knowledge and understanding ultimately has no boundaries.

And the critical success factor? Your networks. Not to be underestimated. You can have all the knowledge and numeracy in the world but it's people who make companies a success and I don't know one successful entrepreneur who isn't well-connected. It's not just about sales, it about access to advice - and, in that, the wider your cast your net, the more likely you are to succeed.

Therefore, I will echo the Federation of Small Businesses' calls to revise Scotland's Economic Strategy and, in so doing, shine a spotlight on the missing middle. Because, as we all know, the middle is where the meat is.

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