Sunday, April 29, 2012

SMEs - why so many start-ups fail

I never stop being surprised at the overall low level of quality of start-up business ideas/concepts in South Africa. Way too many people are being pushed and pulled into the world of entrepreneurship, and yet they would not even survive in a protected franchise environment as a business owner as opposed to an entrepreneur. Research has shown that a clear harvest plan and business model are the two key starting criteria for a successful business. Anecdotal evidence I have accumulated over the years points to the validity of this research. I find it depressing that so many people know so little about starting a business. I think a large contributor to this poor situation is due to the extensive role of government in SME development. Would-be business owners are seldom evaluated properly, mainly because the evaluators themselves are incapable of assessing them. Development capital is handed out by accountants and bankers without any view to the entrepreneurial metrics, and a major emphasis on credit and financial metrics. I believe that the identification of the correct opportunity is half the battle won. A business essentially requires the following activities to occur in order to exist: 1. Sales management 2. Technical skills management 3. Admin management 4. Financial management 5. Marketing management Marketing, financial and admin management can all be outsourced. Marketing consultants and accountants are a dime a dollar. The technical skills and the ability to sell the product or service are however a whole different story. So if the correct opportunity has been identified, the would-be business owner has the technical skills and the ability to sell, who cares whether his financials are correct. Do them for him!! Manage them for him. However the problem is that here we will try to make every SME owner an accountant and business plan writer. No one is evaluating the OPPORTUNITY. This is where they fail - before they even start!!! This is why so many markets are so heavily over-traded. Sign writing, taxis, hair salons, funeral parlours, loan outlets spaza shops, garden services, pool services, etc. That is why so many fail. I do defer here to a number of private sector organisations who do this well such as Business Partners and GroFin. However, they are the exception rather than the rule. There are others that I have not named, so please do not abuse me. We need to change our focus in order to create more success and fewer failures. We will consider the harvest plan in the next article.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Can SMEs deliver on government expectations?

SMEs in South Africa, like those all over the world, are perceived to be the saviours of government economic policy failure. SMEs will save jobs, create jobs, boost GDP growth, and stimulate innovation among a host of other thing expectations. Are these expectations realistic? The following comments are based upon my interaction with SMEs across all race groups in South Africa, and are not an opinion but rather anecdotal evidence of what I see and hear among SMEs. It all depends on how it is contextualised! The first question has to be whether or not SMEs can deliver on these expectations? In my opinion absolutely. The next question is whether there is room for government interventions in order to assist SMEs to achieve these expectations? Once again the answer is a big yes.However, there are two types of intervention, the functional and the selective. Selective interventions do have their place. They are used to boost particular sectors for strategic reasons. But more important are the functional interventions. These are those interventions which help to level the playing field and make it easy for all citizens to be able to enter the market. Here I am afraid the South African government has not delivered what they could have. I am not going to attempt to understand or critique their logic, but will review where the biggest problems lie for SMEs. The first problem is the inability of SMEs to hire and fire. Many entrepreneurs of all race groups deliberately focus on businesses that require no staff in order to avoid the complex labour system and the CCMA. The CCMA guarantees you that whether you win or lose you have to pay the ex-employee money. It is merely a legalised extortion system for workers. The incompetency of many chairpersons often leads to cases going on Appeal to the labour court to get bad/illegal decisions overturned. All this costs money that SMEs seldom have, so why go there. This is forcing more and more entrepreneurs into the import/export or services-based business so they can avoid staff. The impact of this is vast. This whole situation is exacerbated by the fact that you then have to comply with bargaining councils and the like who set wages at levels that are unrealistic for SMEs. This stops SMEs entering the manufacturing sector, where they have traditionally introduced the greatest innovation. There is unlikely to be innovation in importing and exporting or services! The second problem is access to finance. While the National Credit Regulator denies this, I have been informed directly by funders that their reluctance to lend to SMEs is directly related to the National Credit Act. I am not a legal expert, but these organisations have them aplenty, and believe it is a problem. So how was it addressed? They no longer lend on the basis of equity, but purely on the basis of cash flows. By default this excludes SMEs wanting to grow, from accessing growth finance on the basis of future cash flows. So how will they grow if they cannot access growth finance? Red tape in the form of the many forms and returns required. A previous report calculated the cost to business of red tape in South Africa was R70bn. I await their new report with interest. The latest addition was CIPC who now also wants information that they could be getting from SARS, but because SARS will not share information we all have to pay CIPC to capture our own information again. The whole BEE ting has been a disaster from the beginning. A few have got rich, the rules change faster than underwear and is generally a nightmare. The industry that has developed to issue certificates is so rabid that an accounting audit of Anglo American must be easier than getting a BEE certificate for a small business. Unexpected and unplanned outcomes of legislation abound in this country. Even the DTI are not always consulted on legislation in advance. Take the example of the Department of Health. They want to ban alcohol advertising. The industry spends in excess of R400m per annum on advertising. Where will the people get new jobs when this revenue disappears out of the advertising industry. So a few thousand people must lose their jobs and what goes with that, in order to save a few people who quite likely are not worth saving? We all drink and smoke by choice. SO leave us to our choices and their consequences. My father has sugar diabetes, but insists on eating sweets and chocolates. It is shortening his life but it is his choice. Must we now ban sweets and chocolates advertising to save diabetics? No they must make a choice. When this thinking is taken to the nth degree it becomes ludicrous. Where does it end? Banning smoking from public areas such as restaurants and aircraft is fair comment because people who do not smoke have no choice. But people who do smoke continue despite all the inconvenience. I have yet to meet someone who gave up smoking because they cannot smoke in a restaurant anymore. Legislation does not change human nature. Essentially, the environment is not conducive to SMEs existing, developing or growing. Throw in globalisation and the concomitant pressures for SMEs that this brings, and then add in a state that sees everything in terms of race and a big stick. It is time our government shoved the stick into a cupboard, got rid of all the unnecessary legislation, and created a carrot environment. History has proved that governments that use a carrot approach generally fare better than the big stick government, and normally last longer. Our government ignores the fact that while there are 2m workers who might vote for them, there are also 3m businesses who might have voted for them if they made life easier for business in general. A mixed economy that leans too close to the command side invariably results in collapse, one way or the other. Buy some carrots - please.