It is not glamorous, it is not sexy, but the top topic for small businesses in the last year, despite the pull of Brexit, is without a doubt late payments.
From the fallout of Carillion, to the new Government steps to crack down on big business bad practice, from the Small Business Commissioner to the FSB’s campaign, the sector has faced up to the reality that has been plaguing small businesses for decades: late payments are the biggest small business killer out there.
According to new research from Xero and PayPal, the average small business is owed £23,360 in late payments on any given day, which has actually gone up by 17% year on year. This problem is getting worse, not better.
Certainly a key priority for any new Prime Minister, it should also be a priority for all businesses, large and small – so says the charismatic Glaswegian entrepreneur Gary Turner who now heads up Xero.
An entrepreneur by destiny not accident, Gary’s youth was a stark insight into the impact late payments can have on businesses and the people behind them. Watching his parents’ small business go under due to late payments among other things, followed by their marriage and losing their home, for Gary this is less a policy preference, more a personal crusade.
Sitting down for a chat with Gary is a total pleasure – this dress-down entrepreneur (there is an actual Twitter account for sightings of Gary in a suit – suffice to say it doesn’t get a lot of action!) is as energetic and up-beat now as he was ten years ago when he left the big business world of Microsoft to work for a tiny start-up.
“I have a fire in my belly. Helping small businesses is a mission for me – I feel it in my bones!” Gary draws from his own traumatic introduction to small business life to look for ways to help other entrepreneurs. “I know that a third of businesses are thinking about giving up due to the stress of late payments. This is always at the back of my mind.”
This is not just a business issue – with nearly 6 million small businesses in the UK, we all either run a small business, work for a small business, or are close to someone who does. The impact of these late payments on physical and mental health is considerable, and it is reaching a crisis. Nearly half of small businesses (44%) said that late payments impacted their mental health. Sleepless nights and stress are building up for small businesses, and something needs to be done fast to address this.
“There is a progressive awakening happening – in the environment, diversity, responsible business – and the next to be added to this is payment culture,” says Gary. “Businesses need to have a cultural mindset shift, with prioritising paying bills more important as a business goal.”
This needs to cut across all businesses, large and small. There is arguably more small businesses could do to help themselves – getting on top of their billing, chasing invoices, and better awareness of what is outstanding and what their cash-flow situation looks like. Digital tools, cloud technology, can undoubtedly help with this and it is a goal shared across the sector.
Legislation can also play a role with Government leading the way in payment terms, naming and shaming big offenders and mandating good practice for major contracts. But legislation on its own is never going to be enough without cultural change. Invoice payment terms are only one part of the issue, with challenging procurement processes, dense form filling, complex Ts and Cs all putting small businesses at a disadvantage when it comes to getting paid.
“Everyone can play a role in shifting this culture. It needs to be universal. There needs to be an awareness in small businesses from their accounting, they need to be smart about what they do, they need to be sending invoice reminders and using all the payment services available to them. Technology, smarter working, education and awareness can really help to solve this. I’m going to be leading the charge on this – I think about it constantly – and I want others to join me.”
I can’t help but feel that his passion will be contagious. Perhaps this is the ideal time for a tide change – a challenge for a new Prime Minister, for a new decade, for a post Brexit business landscape.
For the sake of all current and future entrepreneurs, I can only hope so.