I’m lucky enough to have a decent-sized orchard at home where we grow all manner of fruit, berries and nuts. There’s nothing I like more than a summer-session of apricot jam making or an intense mission involving heirloom-variety apples and a dehydrator. One thing that growing our own fruit for a few decades has taught me is that the size of the fruit isn’t a good indication of its quality. Those tiny crab-apples or undersized (by commercial standards) Cox’s apples pack a flavorsome punch.

I was reminded of this “small is sometimes better” example recently when I read a comment on LinkedIn. The person who wrote the comment works for an Economic Development Agency in provincial New Zealand. The region he works within is close to a major city but, other than primary production and a small amount of manufacturing, isn’t really a business powerhouse – I guess if you’re only a short car trip away from a big city, with all its attendant infrastructure, it’s easier to build your large-scale enterprise in town.

The essence of his opinion was that all of the various business-growth agencies, be they initiated by central government, local government or NGOs, share a common perspective. That perspective is, as he put it, a desire to capture lightning in a bottle by assisting startup businesses who have the ability to go large. The natural consequence of this is that focus is concentrated on high tech startups, the ones that traditionally have a greater ability to scale hugely compared to what the sector would see as more prosaic businesses.

As he pointed out – 69 percent of New Zealand businesses have zero employees. These businesses, witnessing the various development agencies focus on businesses of a different ilk, cannot help but assume that what they do is somehow seen as less worthy, certainly less worthy of support, than other businesses. As he, quite rightly, pointed out:

Not everyone wants to start a world spanning empire, and if I can help one person to set up their own small home business then I get an enormous amount of satisfaction. This is helping someone achieve their dreams and build the lifestyle they want.

As he points out, distributing help more widely is a fairer model and helps to deliver outcomes which balance economic growth (which is, after all, what EDAs were set up to do) with softer deliverables around helping people to achieve their dreams.

But while there is certainly an equity perspective in all of this, he want on to point out some very good reasons why support for businesses is better distributed more widely. In a world where picking winners is the theme du jour, the difficulty in picking those winners is ever more difficult:

Many of the large successful businesses in the world started with someone in a small business finding a new way of doing something, and many of those ideas were (at the time) seen as ridiculous.

I’m not saying (and, I assume, neither is my correspondent) that we shouldn’t concentrate on the big shiny projects – they are important. I am saying that we should also invest the time and energy to help people with the small projects.

I’m lucky enough to be a Beachhead adviser for New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. Beachheads is a programme where a hand-chosen selection of the companies from New Zealand with the best prospects for growth are connected with experienced and well-networked individuals, myself notwithstanding. The idea being that the Beachead advisers can accelerate the growth of this elite group of companies.

Beacheads is an awesome programme and I love the time I spend advising NZTEs chosen ones. The only disquietude I feel, in keeping with the comments that first inspired this article, is with the fact that there is a chosen group of companies at all. In the sort of world my naïve and idealistic mind envisions, every company, from the self-employed electrician to the Xeros and Vends of this world, would have equal access to support and assistance.

As is often the case, I don’t have the answer to this conundrum. Like many things in life, from the provision of health services to a world-class education, distribution is sadly inequitable. At the very least, it is important for us all to recognize and acknowledge this inequity and strive, however possible, to counter it.

Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. He’s a big fan of heirloom apples and tomatoes.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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