What the Seabourne affair tells us about succeeding as a startup

UK readers will have seen this week’s press coverage of Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, awarding a Brexit ferry contract to the UK startup Seabourne, a company who as yet own no ships and have never moved as much as a single truck.

There are many reasons for us in the UK to be upset about this, not least because it reveals — yet again — how disastrous Brexit is likely to prove for the country, and how many light years we are away from being “ready” as the deadline looms ever closer … but most frustrating for me is what this tells us about how to succeed in business in the UK. And it’s not good news for me, or others trying to do business differently.

Seabourne is a UK startup and many have already pointed out that their website has clearly been put together practically overnight and not even proofread, with the T&Cs clearly having been hastily copied and pasted from a local takeaway. I have also failed to find the company registered on Companies House, and its entire social media presence seems to be limited to retweeting the shipping forecast.

Look, I’m all for hustle, and any startup has probably at some point thought to themselves, “OK I’ll just tell them I can do it and figure out how to make it work afterwards” — but generally, we are talking about something like delivering a catered party, or a conference, or some small service we can charge for in order to get some tiny proof of concept or evidence of viability. In this case, though, we are talking about a contract given by the UK government and worth an estimated £14m.

But it’s OK, because, according to Grayling, Seabourne have a credible business plan. Well, that’s fine then — a company with zero traction and no track record, but a credible plan. What could possibly go wrong? I mean, it’s not like startups ever just, erm, make up figures or anything, is it?

Of course this is not, as Grayling claims, about supporting UK business. It hasn’t taken long for the media to identify a direct link between this business and a major Tory party donor. This isn’t a viable business, it’s an old boys’ club.

This is hardly news in itself (white privileged men in bad behaviour shocker, said no one, ever), but it is so dispiriting for those like me, and many others I know, who are grafting away trying to make even a few hundred pounds… The UK needs to seriously look at how it supports new businesses. With Brexit around the corner we need to develop a viable economic proposition based at least in part on UK businesses serving UK customers. There are many such businesses out there, trying to get their hustle on, starting small and local, and maybe making the world a slightly better place. But yet, the data proves again and again that the best way to get funding and support as a UK startup is not to have the most traction or the best business plan, it is to be a white male. This structural inequality in the way we view businesses founded by under-represented groups is a direct consequence of the old boys’ club way of doing business that the Grayling/Seabourne debacle typifies. And until this deadlock is broken, we will keep seeing such examples.

Nancy is the Founder and CEO of Umbrella, using AI to help companies improve diversity and inclusion.