Lessons learnt from "The Island"

Posted on the 15 June 2015

Lessons learnt from

By Nigel Mills, Chairman, Entrepreneurs’ Forum

A recent report published by the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute (GEDI) concluded that it was “the local economic infrastructure” that is critical to the success of any given region.

GEDI’s research was based on 14 measures, used to rank all 125 regions in the European Union, grouped under three main headings; attitude, ability, and aspirations.

It was no surprise to see London at number one in the UK and second in the EU. Whilst it was disappointing to find the North East last among UK regions, our position at 59 from 125 across the EU was slightly more heartening.

The report went on to state that the biggest boost to entrepreneurial activity was to unlock the “aspirational premium” of a region’s entrepreneurs. It concluded that, outside of London, entrepreneurs were not displaying the same confidence levels to take advantage of the “entrepreneurial ecosystem”, even if that region’s system was well established.

Whilst I would disagree with this perception of a lack of confidence to some extent, particularly in light of the Entrepreneurs’ Forum’s latest survey, which showed business owners’ confidence in their own companies and the wider economy to be higher than at any time in the past 15 months, the GEDI research cannot be dismissed entirely.

So, what is the cause of this apparent lack of confidence? Looking further into the problem, research has found that more than 55% of adults that wanted to start their own business did not know where to look or who to ask for help.

As a result, only one in eight potential entrepreneurs who were seriously thinking of starting their own business actually acted positively and did something about it. In most of those cases, they knew an existing entrepreneur and asked them for help, or had been encouraged by other support networks to take that all-important first step.

This shows that the ecosystem is all around us, so why does the North East have the worst track record among UK regions for entrepreneurial activity and what can we do about it?

Perhaps we can find some of the answers in the lessons learnt on The Island, the TV survival programme with Bear Grylls. On the show, a group of men and a group of women are left on separate tropical islands, which will sustain life if they find the means to unlock the life-giving resources found in the environment and, more importantly, work as a team.

In order to survive the six weeks on their islands, the teams must master three key tasks:

1.  Find a sustainable source of clean drinking water.

2.  Build a shelter to protect them from the elements, enabling them to rest and conserve the energy they need to carry out life-saving tasks.

3.  Find a sustainable source of food; in this case, learn how to fish.

The teams’ aims are to survive and thrive, which, after much heartbreak and endeavour, they did, changing their attitudes and aspirations forever.

In a similar way, the North East has to change, if it is to thrive and prosper in the future.

We are caught between the aspirations of the SNP and devolved government to the North and the momentum gathering around the Northern Powerhouse agenda in the band of England from Manchester to Hull, to our South. Fortunately, the appointment of James Wharton, MP for Stockton South, to the position as Minister responsible for this agenda, gives the North East a stronger position than might otherwise have been the case.

If we do not help ourselves, learn to work as a team and share experience and resources, we will always fall short of our potential.

In many ways, the three key tasks the Island teams were set to survive and grow are similar to the challenges our region must master to develop a more entrepreneurial economy, with all the benefits in jobs and wealth creation that this brings.

1.  We must invest in education, teach our children and young people that they can choose their attitude, exploit their natural abilities and raise their aspirations to what they can achieve in life. These are the future entrepreneurs: the “sustainable clean water supply”.

2.  We must make more people aware of the entrepreneurial and business support networks that currently exist here in the North East. These networks, such as the Entrepreneurs’ Forum and the Institute of Directors, are ready, able and willing to act as mentors, to hold the hand of someone on this journey. Business is a marathon, not a sprint, and this is the “protective shelter”.

3.  Third, there is a need to leverage the “aspirational premium”, to show people the opportunities that exist here in the North East, both for entrepreneurs and business people within and without the region through the power of storytelling.

As well as being at the bottom off the regional league table for unemployment, on 7.7%, compared with the national averages of 5.5%, the North East has 701 businesses per 10,000 head of population, against the national 1,007. However, our rate of growth in both job creation – unemployment fell by more than 40,000 last year alone – and business start-ups – up 12% last year – is faster than all other regions outside of London over the past 12 months.

The key to continuing this positive trend is to learn to work together as a team. The key lesson that the Island’s survivors had to learn before they mastered the tasks of survival was that their chances of success increased immeasurably if they stuck together and collaborated, regardless of personal preferences.

The world keeps changing and if change is not built into the daily routine of a business, then it is in danger of losing ground to competitors. That is why business and economic networks, based upon mutual learning and support, are so important. That network needs to spread across the North East as a whole, if we are to improve the rate of growth in terms of business and job creation, and if we are to capitalise upon emerging opportunities, such as the Northern Powerhouse and the devolution of powers.