8 June 2020

High-growth entrepreneurial firms, critical to the success of the UK economy, are under intense pressure from the continuing COVID-19 crisis. A new project launched by our colleague Ben Spigel, a leading expert on the geography of high-growth entrepreneurship, aims to show how such firms are adapting to survive.
entrepreneurial firms reacting to coronavirus crisis - image of a Berlin coffee stand

"These firms represent only about 5% of the total firms in the country, but historically they account for more than 50% of new job creation, so they really matter," says Ben, Chancellor's Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship at the University of Edinburgh Business School.

"Working from home or dealing with the loss of planned investment are immediate reactions but already many will be thinking longer-term, maybe considering a pivot to other markets or taking advantage of new opportunities created by the crisis."

Repeated interviews with entrepreneurs over the next eighteen months will track experiences and tactics. The project will tap into relevant networks via the likes of Entrepreneurial Scotland and the ScaleUp Institute. An online hub with advice and guidance for entrepreneurs on crisis management and resilience strategies is being created, with blog posts and infographics based on research findings to illustrate best practices.

As Ben explains:

"Resources currently available to entrepreneurs and policymakers on how to survive a crisis are largely produced by consultants whose goal is to find new clients. There is a dearth of material produced by independent sources that draws on rigorous social science evidence.

"We're hoping to have initial conclusions within the first few months, but we'll have blog posts up sooner than that. The entire point of this project is to make our findings useful to Britain's entrepreneurial and policy community, so we are going to be very transparent about what we're seeing."

The project has been made possible by a grant from UK Research and Innovation, an independent organisation principally funded by the UK government's Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

The project complements work already under way by Business School colleagues Francis Greene and Alessandro Rosiello on how the crisis is affecting entrepreneurial ventures.

Ben says four key sectors will be looked at:

"Advanced manufacturing, business services, digital software, and social and community organisations are sectors that are crucial to the Government's economic development strategy in a post-Brexit economy. But they are uniquely exposed to the COVID-19 crisis due to the sudden loss of customers and supply chain disruption.

"While this may get a bit better after the lockdown ebbs, they are still going to be facing a hugely challenging market where the customers they thought they'd have are no longer there. They will have to quickly pivot to new markets and do everything they can to control their costs."

For Ben, this latest project builds on an area of expertise:

"I've always studied how businesses operate in crisis conditions. My first PhD research project was on innovation in the automotive parts sector, which started four days after General Motors declared bankruptcy in 2008. I was studying offshore oil entrepreneurship in Aberdeen when the price collapse of 2014 happened. COVID-19 is the biggest economic, social, political, and health crisis of the past 100 years, so it's essential that we know what's going on."

A list of potential interviewees is being compiled, with the project team including academic investigators from Stirling, Cranfield, Leeds, Cardiff, and Lancaster universities as well as Edinburgh. Ben's team is aiming for a spread between regions, industries, and types of entrepreneurs to get a clear view of what's going on:

"We can't give entrepreneurs any direct compensation for their time spent talking to us, but this is a great opportunity to talk with an empathetic listener who can help them place their experiences in context. All our interviews are anonymous, so the experiences and strategies will help others facing similar challenges. By communicating back to the community through blogs, email newsletters, infographics, and webinars we will ensure the advice is accessible."

And it's not just those at the sharp end of running a business who will want to see the project's findings, as Ben points out:

"The second big focus of this project is helping policymakers understand what kind of support entrepreneurs need. We're going to identify barriers to getting support and work with our partners and other stakeholders of the British entrepreneurial ecosystem to improve how support is delivered."

Ben Spigel

Ben Spigel is Chancellor's Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship at the University of Edinburgh Business School.