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Building Up Business: tackling the small business finance skills gap

Jasmin Dhaliwal outlines Business Debtline’s new Building Up Business programme to help small business owners navigate their business finances.

Jasmin Dhaliwal

Public Affairs and Policy Officer

Posted June 13, 2024

As campaigning for the general election heats up, a subject that often receives less of the political limelight is small business and the self-employed. With 5.5 million small firms in the UK, small businesses make a vital contribution to the UK economy. But as we see at Business Debtline, with rising prices, and for some, the impact on trade from the pandemic continuing to be felt, the last few years has been particularly hard for many small businesses. 

Ongoing challenges with late payments and reductions in trade are common issues we see. Navigating these and other business challenges, however, is tricky and can have a significant bearing on a business’ income and viability. As the only free, independent provider of small business debt advice in the UK, we have a unique insight into these challenges.

Our insight shows that:

  • Half (51%) of Business Debtline clients surveyed were not confident constructing a business plan before they started trading.
  • Two in five (40%) did not feel confident calculating cash flow and profits.  
  • 35% did not feel confident producing a business budget.  
  • Two in five (40%) were not confident in understanding their tax obligations; and a higher proportion (44%) did not feel confident completing tax and VAT returns.

The crucial role business management skills play in ensuring small businesses not just survive, but thrive is often an important component of a business continuing to trade. For many of the business owners we help, they cannot afford the costs involved in accessing professional support, beyond an accountant, and may lack  confidence or skills in this area.

Closing the business skills gap

As part of our new Building Up Business programme, supported by Aviva, we want to understand more about the skills and confidence gap among lower-income small business owners, and the challenges they face in navigating their business finances. We know the world of business finances can feel like a maze, and so we want to develop stronger evidence on the impact of these challenges – including on the increased risk of financial difficulty and business failure. We’re particularly interested in hearing people’s experiences accessing support, to help inform our own recommendations.

But we don’t just want to set out what others need to do, we want to play our part too. That’s why we will also develop and pilot a virtual learning offer for small business owners, drawing on our wider training expertise, to support owners in managing their finances. 

For the research element of the programme, we are working with the University of Bristol , who are engaging with Business Debtline clients, as well as looking at the wider experience of small business owners across the UK.  

We are also running a steering group, made up of  the Small Business Commissioner and representatives from Aviva, Low Incomes Tax Reform Group, UK Finance and the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE). The group will provide insight, advice and constructive challenge to ideas and concepts relating to small business finance skills. Early conversations with both the Steering Group and Business Debtline advisers have helped to identify the issues that small business owners are experiencing on a day-to-day basis – including around business budgeting and tax liabilities.  

Next steps

Our Building Up Business briefing outlines in more detail the need for this work and the key areas of focus for the research, but that’s only the start. In early 2025 we will publish our final report, including recommendations on how to improve support for small business owners. This will be accompanied by the launch of our virtual learning pilot. The pilot training, designed for and alongside small businesses, will run for six months, during which we’ll gather feedback to help shape the final free training resource.

If you have any thoughts on our programme plans or you’d like to find out more, we want to hear from you. We are particularly keen to speak to organisations with insight and expertise into the difficulties of navigating small business finances, to hear a wide range of views on how to tackle these challenges and improve finance skills support. You can get in touch by emailing

Jasmin Dhaliwal

Public Affairs and Policy Officer

Jasmin is the Money Advice Trust's Public Affairs and Policy Officer. She joined the charity in October 2023, having previously worked in policy and research for a housing association.. View all posts from Jasmin Dhaliwal.

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