You can’t eat consultants

A friend emailed me the other day about an awards event he’d been at for innovative early stage social enterprises. As seems to be increasingly fashionable these days, the “prize” was “support” rather than money, and in his closing address, Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society glibly said “Innovation doesn’t flourish when there’s money about.” The audience wasn’t impressed.

As an occasional judge in innovation competitions, I find the trend to providing competition winners with “support” rather than money is worrying. All too often, this means that after a laborious process of filling in forms and attending distant interviews and awards events, the winner is “rewarded” with some free advice, marketing exposure and “networking opportunities”.

I was pretty shocked the other day to find that NESTA, The National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts, with a £300M endowment from the Lottery and a mission to make the UK more innovative, no longer gives grants to innovators. Instead it writes nice reports about innovation and when it does run a competition, offers the winners mentoring.

The problem is that advice is only useful if it’s genuinely wanted and the person giving it has real and relevant expertise, but bringing these together takes time and effort. The best example of this that I know of is the Sheila Mckechnie Foundation which runs an annual award providing a support programme for emerging and grassroots campaigners working across a wide range of issues. It works really well because they put a lot of attention into developing a tailored support programme for each awardee and have the contacts to find them the right mentor. Sensibly, they have also arranged a grant programme for award winners that don’t already have financial backing. One young awardee told me “It was brilliant.. I had a mentor I could phone up whenever I needed them …… You couldn’t buy that sort of support”

All too often however, the awarded “support” is the services of a consultant who’s being paid a fee that would be more usefully given direct to the recipient of the award. It’s particularly frustrating for impoverished innovators when it’s clear that they’re really only cannon fodder in an activity that’s mainly designed to benefit everyone else.

Many innovators struggle with getting attention paid to their ideas, so in theory help with marketing and networking should be a useful prize. The problem is that it’s often a gimmick, turning out to be no more than an opportunity to share a glass of cheap wine with a lot of other disappointed contestants in a windowless conference suite, and to provide content for the sponsor’s unread newsletter.

It’s very different of course if the sponsor really can help an innovator access relevant markets. Smart entrants to Dragons Den know that the real prize isn’t the chance of selling a 40% stake in their company for £100K or so, but the opportunity to explain their idea to a TV audience of 3.5 Million.   This was the making of Rachel Lowe, a former London taxi driver with an idea for a board game based on driving a taxi: “Destinations”. She got roasted by the Dragons, but the publicity helped her turn it into an international success and make millions.

I’m sure Essex based Richard Blakesley & Chris Barnardo had just the same idea when they pitched their sensational Magic Wand universal remote control to the Dragons earlier this year.

Even when money is on offer, things aren’t always what they seem. The headline story of British Gas’s Green Streets competition had looked good: “£2M available for 14 community groups” but one of the winners told me the other day that winning it was “a bureaucratic nightmare”. As a small voluntary community group, their award meant that they were effectively forced to work for free administering a British Gas grant programme. The award included absolutely nothing towards their own costs in doing this, so all that was happening was that their volunteers were burning out while British Gas was getting lots of good publicity for something that it was contractually obliged to do anyway.

It’s encouraging that the coalition government recognises the importance of innovation and enterprise. But if they are serious about this they need to spend our money in ways that will work, and that doesn’t mean commissioning endless strategy reports from management consultants or subsidising multinationals.

The best way of supporting innovators is to provide business opportunities for innovative companies.. and often the most innovative are smaller companies. That’s why the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) programme is so good  in which small companies compete to get contracts from government departments to develop innovative ideas in strategically important areas. This is not only very cost effective for the commissioning departments, but gives small innovative companies the funding and contacts they need to make useful ideas real, growing their businesses in the process.

As innovators, maybe our rallying call should be “give us contracts, not consultants”