I was recently an external examiner on a Ph.D which examined graduate entrepreneurship and how young people perceived starting a business here in Wales.

A central theme was the challenge of the age old question of “who is the entrepreneur?”, which has been asked by economists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists and even the odd business academic for nearly three hundred years.

Whilst many think the term entrepreneur derives from the French, that fact is only half true. Indeed, it was Richard Cantillon – an Irish economist of French descent – who first coined the term in 1730 to describe someone who organizes and assumes the risk of a business in return for the profits.

Unfortunately, his ground breaking work recognising the important influence of this individual was largely forgotten over the next two centuries and a half as large corporations came to dominate economic and business thinking across the World.

In fact, the UK Parliament became so concerned about the diminishing impact of the small firm sector that it commissioned a seminal report in 1971, by John Bolton, which looked to understand those challenges restricting the role of entrepreneurial firms and develop policies to

A few years later, economists such as David Birch in the USA began to show that, contrary to popular thinking at the time, small firms were significant job creators in the economy.

Since then, various studies have shown that new businesses established by entrepreneurial individuals are major contributors to employment. For example, the Kauffman Foundation has shown time and time again that almost all new net job growth in the American economy has been created by firms less than five years old.

They also stimulate innovation, establish new markets and act as a competitive spur for existing businesses to increase their productivity.

In fact, the social media revolution – which has transformed the way we communicate and live our lives over the last decade – was not created by established multinationals but by young hungry entrepreneurial firms such as Facebook, Twitter, Paypal, Linkedin, AirBNB to name but a few?

And the growing interest in entrepreneurship is showing no signs of slowing down.

Earlier this month, the Centre for Entrepreneurship showed that business formation rates in the UK had reached another record high with a total of 657,790 new businesses started last year. That equates to an incredible 1800 new businesses being created every day in 2016.

More importantly, an increasing number of these new businesses are being established by young people who are educated, are without families or mortgages to tie them down and are not wedded to a career. Most importantly of all, they have a strong entrepreneurial spirit and display incredible drive and enthusiasm.

That is why it is important that universities play an increasing important part in supporting enterprise and developing more entrepreneurial students who could create the growth businesses of the future.

In 2008, a seminal report entitled “Developing Entrepreneurial Graduates” was published by NESTA and the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship.

In the foreword to this excellent work, Lord Karan Bilimoria – the founder of Cobra Beer – said that the UK’s competitiveness hinged on its ability to create business-ready graduates with entrepreneurial skills.

Yet, how many higher education institutions here in Wales can truly say that their students, whether they are studying engineering, nursing, accountancy or fine art, will leave with an experience of enterprise that will change the way they think about the World?

How many can make the claim that they will have helped to develop an enterprising and innovative graduate who will make a real difference to an organisation, whether it is one they work for as an employee or one they set up themselves?

We know the growing importance of entrepreneurship to an economy but Wales is, unfortunately, lagging behind the rest of the UK when it comes to new business creation. For example, whilst 93 new businesses were created for every ten thousand people in the UK in 2015, in Wales, only 60 businesses were established.

Given this, it is time our higher education institutions stepped up and provided not only the academic knowledge to our students but also new opportunities to develop entrepreneurial mindsets, behaviours and skills.

Indeed, as the 2008 report stated, these abilities that will help their own futures but will also make a significant contribution to the UK’s economy and to its global standing.

And with the world becoming a more uncertain place during the last twelve months and significant challenges on the way, this should be a priority for the Welsh economy over the next few years.


One of the real mysteries regarding the current state of UK’s economy is the so-called productivity puzzle. which refers to the fact that labour productivity has stagnated since the economic downturn of 2008.

This is very different to what has happened after previous recessions where productivity initially fell but then recovered and returned to previous levels.

Whilst there has been considerable economic debate surrounding the causes of lower productivity and some attempts by politicians to address this issue, there has been little progress to date to explain what has been going on.

That is why a recent paper which examines the link between management practices and productivity within UK manufacturing businesses makes fascinating reading.

Those of us who have been working for many years within the academic discipline of business and management appreciate the growing evidence between the adoption of management practices and increased performance in terms of growth, profitability and, most important of all, productivity.

Yet most of this research has tended to be ignored by policymakers and therefore this latest study, which attempts to examine this phenomenon in the context of differences in productivity performance, is to welcomed.

By using existing international work on these areas, structured management practices are carefully defined as a number of important processes including continuous improvement, number and monitoring of key performance indicators (KPIs), timetables for targets and how these targets are stretched, employee promotion and underperformance and finally, hiring decision-making.

So what does this research from the Office for National Statistics tell us about productivity amongst UK enterprises?

The first critical finding is that the study estimates that an increase in the management score of 0.1 is (on a scale of 0-1) is associated with an increase in labour productivity of 8.6 per cent. Simply put, an increased focus on management practices makes the business more efficient and effective in terms of productivity.

Of course, as management becomes more formalized as the company grows, it is not surprising that scores for management practices increase with the size of the firm i.e. the more people a company employs, the higher the management practice scores.

Given the link with productivity, the data shows that the average annual output per worker increases from around £40,000 for small businesses (10 to 49 employment) to £53,000 for medium-sized businesses (50 to 99 employment) and £62,000 for large businesses (employment of 250 and over).

The study also looks at the type of businesses that are productive and shows that
multinationals, large businesses (employment of 250 and over) and non-family-owned businesses have higher management scores and are more productive than domestic, smaller and family-owned businesses.

Of course, this study has focused on only one influence on productivity and there needs to be more research that into other sectors and, more importantly, on the influence of other factors on business performance such as innovation, skills and capital.

Nevertheless, given the lack of focus by policymakers on supporting the development of management skills within small firms, there is a clear message here that there needs to be a greater priority given to this vital area if the issue of falling productivity is to be addressed.

This is a particular issue for Wales as the latest regional productivity data shows that it has the worst performance of part of the UK at 80.1 of the average productivity for the economy.  In terms of city regions, only Sheffield does worse than Cardiff across the UK.

Despite this, the issue of productivity and how to improve it doesn’t seem to be on the current economic agenda of the Welsh Government, although it does have the opportunity to address this urgently when a new industrial strategy is drawn up later this year.

However, this is not only an issue for politicians alone and as this column has reiterated on several occasions, there is a real need for universities and business schools to not only focus on supporting traditional students but also to ensure that the latest management practices are adopted by a small firm community which currently seems reluctant to do so.

If that could be done (and done properly) then the impact on the Welsh economy and its future prosperity could be more significant, in terms of productivity, than anything else over the next decade.


One of the key economic indicators regarding growth of an entrepreneurial economy is the number of new businesses being born every year.

As various academic research studies have shown, young firms create the majority of jobs in an economy and, simply put, employment will rise with an increase in the number of start-ups.
For example, a study from the Kauffman Foundation in the USA showed that new businesses account for nearly all net new job creation. Indeed, companies less than one year old have created an average of 1.5 million American jobs per year over the past three decades.

That is why the most recent data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on business births in the UK is to be welcomed as it shows that a total of 1.85 million new firms have been established during the period 2010-15.

Of course, there have also been 1.47 million businesses that have closed down over the same period but the overall growth in the stock of firms means that net effect on the economy (and employment) has been positive for the last five years.

In fact, the situation has been improving year on year and the 383,000 business births in 2015 were the highest recorded since comparable records began in 2000, equivalent to a business birth rate (i.e. new firms as a proportion of active businesses) of 14.3 per cent.

This increase in the number of total business births is probably reflected in the strengthening of the labour market from an employment rate of 70.5 per cent in December 2010 to 74 per cent at the end of 2015.

In addition, the rate of business deaths has fallen to 9.4 per cent, the lowest level since 2006 with firms surviving longer as a result. Indeed, the data shows that four out of ten businesses born in 2010 are still active in 2015, which is a major improvement on the position during the last decade.

In terms of regional differences, London had the highest business birth rate (18.6 per cent) and Northern Ireland the lowest (9.7 per cent). Interestingly, this also seems to be reflected in the growth in the relative prosperity of both regions since 2010 as discussed in last week’s column.

If we examine new business formation by industry, the highest rate of business births in 2015 was business administration and support (20.4 per cent), which probably reflects the ease by which a business can be established in this sector but also the growing demand for such services within the wider economy.

It is also worth noting that in terms of absolute growth in the number of business births between 2010-15, a total of 160,000 business administration and support firms were created. This was followed by management consultancy (154,485), retail (142,265), specialised construction (138,735) and computer programming/consultancy (130,490).

This is not surprising as there has been evidence of an increase in new businesses being established in niche areas by professionals with support structures, such as co-working spaces, being created to encourage such growth.

In terms of the percentage increase in the number of new firms, the surprising growth sector over this period was “electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning supply” which went from 220 new firms in 2010 to 3,220 in 2015 (an increase of 1364 per cent). This probably reflects the increase in smaller scale generation around the UK over the last few years and is good news for the further development of this market, especially in terms of local environmentally friendly energy schemes.

In Wales, the business birth rate was slightly lower than the UK at 12.1 per cent in 2015. The overall number of new businesses had increased by 58,190 since 2010 with a total of 51,970 firms closing over the same period.

In terms of percentage growth since 2010, the annual number of new businesses created in the Welsh economy has grown by 54 per cent. This is lower than the UK average (63 per cent) over this period but considerably higher than either Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Not surprisingly perhaps, Cardiff has created the largest number of new firms (8,645) since 2010, accounting for 15 per cent of the Welsh total. However, the highest growth rate over the six-year period has been experienced in Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent, suggesting that entrepreneurship may be finally beginning to flourish in our poorest communities where it is most needed.

Therefore, the good news for the UK economy is the statistics suggest that an enterprise revolution over the last few years is having a positive effect on jobs and prosperity and whilst Wales is doing relatively well as compared to other regions, there is remains scope for improvement over the next few years in ensuring that entrepreneurial activity develops further.


Whilst there has been much talk about encouraging greater numbers of start-ups in Wales, it is equally important that these businesses scale-up quickly and create jobs and prosperity within the economy.

As discussed in this column last year, business angels are critical in helping potential high growth start-ups to establish themselves in the market.

But whilst such informal investment is important, research has shown that it is more formal equity vehicles, such as venture capital, that really enable firms to grow especially in technology-intensive sectors.

In order to gain investment, firms will normally submit their plans to venture capital businesses who will then, if they are interested in the proposal, undertake a process of due diligence to examine the business model, the products or services and most important of all, the ability of the venture team to deliver.

If they are satisfied with this, then the venture capital firm will invest in the company in exchange for equity. They will also take an active role within the business, usually by taking a place on the board to ensure that the company is meeting key milestones in order to trigger further rounds of investment.

The aim for the venture capital business – which normally sets up a specific fund to make a small number of investments in a limited number of firms - is to make a profit on their investment through an exit, typically after four to six years which is achieved through an acquisition/merger with another firm or a flotation on the stock exchange.

Given that the focus of venture capital is to grow high potential new firms, it is not surprising that it is often associated with innovative start-ups that as they grow require and attract highly qualified engineers, higher salaries, and requirements for service provision from other companies.

The profile of such firms - risky, early stage and requiring large amounts of capital  - means that banks normally run a mile from investing into these ventures. More importantly, the experience, expertise and knowledge which venture capitalists bring to the firm is normally not available from traditional funding providers.

However, this type of funding is important to the economy because technology companies, if successful tend to grow more rapidly than other sectors, creating proportionally more new products and markets than larger companies.

In fact, studies have shown that venture backed companies outperform non-venture backed companies on most operational performance indicators including revenue, productivity, gross income and, most importantly, employment. They also become the launch pad for other innovative products and technologies and they help create a culture of entrepreneurship more widely within the business community.

So what is the position in Wales when it comes to venture capital funding?

According to a study by Roger Maggs, one of Wales’ most successful venture capitalists, the vast majority of venture capital funding in Wales is provided by Finance Wales, the Welsh Government’s funding arm for SMEs.

Unfortunately, his research shows that the vast majority of this funding has largely ignored those high potential start-ups that can make so much difference to the Welsh economy.

For example, during the period 2009-2013, Finance Wales invested venture capital in only nine start-up companies, which equates to just 12 per cent of the total equity funding into Welsh businesses.

Indeed, the majority of seems to have gone into supporting management buy-outs (MBOs) which will maintain successful companies but will not lead to the innovation and growth required by a region such as Wales which is the poorest in the UK. Whilst other equity providers across the UK invested, on average, in 5.5 start-ups per million head of population, the figure for Finance Wales was 3.

Of course, that was the situation under the old mandate and structure of Finance Wales and it will be interesting to see what will happen going forward when the new Development Bank for Wales is established.

It is not a supply issue as research suggests that there seems to be sufficient supply of available venture capital funding. The problem is therefore not the quantity of finance but in how the investment of the available funds is organised and there are concerns as to whether a single, large and centralised entity such as Finance Wales is the optimum vehicle for direct venture capital investments in start-ups.

Instead, should the Welsh Government seek to encourage, as other successful countries have done, the attraction of venture capital companies with the experience, expertise and, most importantly, a successful track record of developing innovative businesses? Certainly, that has been the approach for life sciences in Wales where the Arthurian Fund, led by Sir Chris Evans, is independently responsible for providing venture capital into this sector and there is no reason at all why this model could not be adopted for other sectors.

And with Wales only investing 2 per cent of all UK venture capital funding over the last decade, it is clear there needs to be a radical change to ensure that those firms with the potential for growth are provided with the capital they need to make a difference to the Welsh economy.