How the Business Online Voucher should work

At the end of February the Irish government announced announced the Action Plan for Jobs and as I listened to Minister Richard Bruton it was apparent how integral technology was to the plan, in particular its seven disruptive reform measures,  one of which is the Business Online Voucher scheme. The voucher will be granted to companies who aren’t selling online and is aimed at industries where digital adoption has traditionally been weak and “where the prospect for real gains in competitiveness and growth is established.”  On Down To Business on Newstalk we chatted about this last month and Bobby Kerr put it well, asking me would the voucher ‘become currency’. I think yes, so how will companies get awarded this voucher?  And what can and should they do with their currency? In the last Parliamentary debate on the topic Minister Pat Rabbitte responded to a question from John McGuinness on the position of the introduction of the voucher explaining that:  “Working with Mr. David Puttnam, whom I have appointed as Ireland’s digital champion, I intend to engage with industry service providers with a view to assisting small businesses in realising the full benefit of this initiative. I am aware that the commercial sector has been actively working with the business community on a variety of online initiatives and I look forward to working together to help Irish businesses gain competitive advantage by maximising online opportunities for trade.” When it is activated the potential for this voucher is significant. 2,000 companies selling online who aren’t doing it today; it will stimulate business for providers of design and marketing, it will increase shipping requirements by SMEs, 3,000 jobs or more could be created – and Ireland will keep more of the €4 billion in online revenue that mostly goes overseas now. The fear I have regarding the administration of this scheme though, is that the voucher could be swallowed up by the companies or consultants working with SMEs to get them online. In the same way that the first-time buyers allowance was ‘factored in’ to house prices over the last decade, the starting price for quotations from companies getting you selling online could be inflated by a couple of thousand euros. Cynical perhaps, but I’m thinking of the search and social experts who promised small businesses the world and vaunted social and SEO as saviour of small businesses: “You can compete with best in the world, just give me 10K and I’ll show you how”. There was too much of this – it got the industry a bad name, and it drove me mad. I had my own experience of this, fortunately easily side-stepped, but small businesses new to selling online may not know any better than to fork out for over-priced services. So, quickly some things I’d suggest :

  • Appoint a knowledgeable, respected body to administer the scheme. This may be an industry body but more likely a state or statutory body
  • The body should authorise voucher grants to SMEs who engage with providers from an approved list
  • This approved list of consultants & service providers will consist of tax cleared businesses with proven expertise and solid reputations, ideally in geographical proximity to the SME  getting the voucher
  • The body must define the parameters for charging and publish it – in an a la carte form. An SME needs to know what they should get for a specific investment
  • Don’t pay 100% of the voucher grant at once – 2 stages, commencement and completion
  • Ensure everyone(!) is thinking mobile

Pricing I’ve had a conversations with SME owners about the value of the voucher and a couple of them have said it doesn’t sound a lot, citing quotes they’ve had for €5,000 or more for an e-commerce site. This is part of the why we find ourselves with this problem as the laggards of Europe in regards to online selling. Please, web people stop trying to fleece potential customers! Web developers can get hosting for a few euros a month, an open-scource shopping cart for free and have someone online in a couple of days – many probably do, but still think there’s a fast buck to be made.

“A report commissioned by the European Commission estimated that traditional enterprises with a strong online presence grow twice as fast, export twice as much and employ twice as many people as those who do not. In Ireland, Irish consumers spend almost €4 billion per annum online and yet the proportion of SMEs trading online is estimated to be as low as 23%.”

— Minister Pat Rabbitte : Dail Debates, 30-April-2013

The investment by the state and SMEs for this initiative should be around getting the business working online rather than the technical set-up costs. TWiT Podcast. They have a beautiful way to give you a beautiful website for around $10. They have now partnered with Stripe, who provide payment processing and Squarespace has a built in store that manages shipping, offers and tax information. Unfortunately the payment piece isn’t yet working in Ireland but Stripe is being beta-tested in the UK at the moment – so hopefully we’ll get it here soon. Stripe was co-founded by Irish tech entrepreneur Patrick Collinson and funded by the likes of Facebook investor Peter Thiel and Sequoia. His frank views on why Stripe  couldn’t have been started in Ireland on his personal website, are well worth reading – particularly one of the most interesting start-up event of the year, Start-up Dublin opens tomorrow. So with companies like Squarespace and Stripe and PayPal and others there isn’t a high entry cost for SMEs anymore. And adding the crucial mobile web element isn’t expensive anymore either. I’ve spoken this year on technology for SMEs at some business events for Fingal Enterprise Week and Vodafone and the reaction of SME owners when you plug their site in to Duda Mobile or something like it is remarkable – and I’m struck by how we as an industry can get the message to SME owners that technology is available, it’s cost effective and it’s ready. Paypal, Google and Facebook have all been supportive of start-up programs and Sage have just this week announced a roadshow supported by the Irish Internet Association;  the eCommerce message is eventually being heard and now we have some financial assistance to get it moving. €2,500 of a grant is plenty – we need less moaning and more motivation to make this work, but I think it will.

  1. Action Plan for Jobs: 2013 [PDF]
  2. Department of Jobs, Enterprise & Innovation : 2013 Action Plan for Jobs
  3. Single European Payments Area & ireland
  4. Dail Debates : 30-April-2013, Business Online Voucher
  5. Australian Innovation Grants Portal
  6. EU Science & Technology funding @ EUBusiness.com
  7. Action Plan for Jobs 2013 launch : RedCert.com
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