City Bites Podcast: Digital + Small Business

This episode of the City Bites ‘Connections’ series is on the evolving relationship between digital and small business – including how local government is supporting Small & Medium Enterprises or SMEs.

Across the UK, businesses at all scales have shifted from wholesale to consumer sales, or from ‘B2B’ to ‘B2C’, while people at risk of job losses have been urged to ‘pivot’ their careers.

Some of that is working: While many large-scale sectors wilt and the ONS shows 247,000 fewer people working in June-Sept 2020 than 2019, the Centre for Entrepreneurs reports a record 570,000 start-ups to date this year, with 29% year-on-year growth in September alone. Many are tied directly to pandemic-related health products, but digital has at least a promotional and logistics role there, and a much larger role in services.

Small and micro business feature heavily in those figures and have always been an economic force. In 2019, some 5.9m UK SMEs accounted for £2.2tr in turnover, or half the UK total, and 16m jobs, or 60% of the total [Federation of Small Business].

In a Covid context, they range from shops which can’t stay open or sell online through digital agencies embracing work-from-home to the Amazons and Etsy makers whose businesses are thriving in relative terms.

As Covid’s one-year anniversary rolls into view, some of the questions to address about digital and small business include:

  • Equal citizen access – How do we include everyone in emerging economic and connection opportunities (and do that better than we have in the bricks-and-mortar world)? This is one of London’s Recovery priorities, and it appears across the UK as an issue.
  • Equal commercial access – Making sure small, diverse and locally based tech companies get a crack at government work, currently procured in silos and shared among a small number of very big players. This is one of guest Onyeka Onyekwelu’s projects.
  • Integrating digital into organisational strategy as opposed to having it sit “over in IT”. This has a major learning component, especially since platforms and devices proliferate so fast. How do we communicate with colleagues, customers and communities? Who are we reaching and what can we do with commercial, place-based or other data? To paraphrase speaker Joe Mathewson, if doing things online automatically creates a record, we should be able to streamline and share better.
  • Resilience: As guest Alison Partridge points out, start-up and survival aren’t the same thing. Are there [digital?] ways to share more support and guidance so that 2020’s record number of business births is sustained over the long term?
  • Security: of systems, of Intellectual Property, of personal data. This podcast was recorded before the crippling Hackney Council breach so doesn’t address cybersecurity, but with home-based digital companies spreading like wildfire, are we protected enough?
  • Format innovation: Can we make hybrid live/online contact work and be inclusive? [As a corollary, will Zoom and Teams become the PowerPoint of the next decade? A bit crap as an experience, but the default when our learning time is sucked away by.. online meetings?]

Today’s guests deliver or support digital services in a small-business world, and cover the above and more… 

Alison Partridge is Managing Director of OneTech, part of the Capital Enterprise family. For nearly 30 years she’s worked across EU cities to support inclusive entrepreneurship and innovation. In 2018 she founded OneTech with colleagues and members at Capital Enterprise to tackle the lack of diversity in London’s tech start-up ecosystem. Alison’s been at the forefront of Covid impact on the tech sector and responses to it.

“I think we can try and turn this into an opportunity and see digital and tech as a bit of an equaliser: you can access new markets, you can access talent, you can talk to people anywhere in the world. These are things we could do for the last 5, 10 years, but probably haven’t done habitually… But there are still a lot of people who are excluded, so one of the things we’re trying to do is to connect under-represented people with the opportunities in London’s tech start-up ecosystem.” – Alison Partridge

Joe Mathewson is co-founder & Chief Operating Officer of Firefly Learning, a fast-growing EdTech platform for parent engagement and learning continuity. Joe and his business partner created Firefly while doing their GCSEs, when the experience was very close to home. In response to Covid-19, Firefly has offered schools free access to the platform through the end of December.

“Our customers are having to take a much more strategic approach to technology than I think many of them have done before. It’s something that senior leadership teams are engaging with more than ever… I think that’s probably just going to grow from here.” – Joe Mathewson

Onyeka Onyekwelu is Strategic Engagement Manager at the London Office of Technology & Innovation. LOTI helps boroughs collaborate on projects that use the best of digital, data and innovation to improve services and outcomes for Londoners. She’s also worked with the UN Women, Equality & Human Rights Commission and the Bar Associations on access to justice, digitisation of the courts, and equality and diversity. During lockdown, she’s worked with colleagues on digital methods for public engagement.

“[Boroughs] are doing amazing work, but they don’t always know what each other is doing. We’re committed to supporting boroughs to share the knowledge and resources being developed, ensure that they’re aligned with the higher-level missions of the London Recovery Task Force, and that they’re replicable and scalable by others.” – Onyeka Onyekwelu

Listen to the podcast to hear their lively discussion…

Further resources and links

  • Federation of Small Business: Digital Skills Initiative – visit the free resource hub.
    Firefly Learning launches a new Parent Portal on 11th November and is offering free access to its Parent Engagement & Learning Continuity platform through 31st December 2020: find out more here.
  • For surviving remote work in all its guises, check out Bruce Daisley’s excellent Make Work Better newsletter & website. The Nov 4th edition shares the concept of a digital commute…the work/home transition you need, without the armpits.
  • London Office of Technology & Innovation‘s main site, with projects, data & resources is here
  • LOTI ‘Thirty3’ London procurement resource – including council tech contracts – is here.
  • OneTech Entrepreneur & Enterprise Incubator: a 12-week programme to give entrepreneurs skills, opportunities and access to get to the next stage and achieve their goals. Find out more here.

Catch all podcast episodes on the Future of London City Bites page.