Love me tender

It’s an emotional business being a sole trader. In a good year there’s plenty of highs, but the tough stuff can be hard to handle when you’re a solo flyer with no colleagues or partners to share the weight with or to dust you down when you’ve fallen on your small business bahookie. 

Perversely, it’s a fuzzy, warm wee word which presents one of the biggest challenges to my entrepreneurial equilibrium. That word is tender. Not the loving, gentle variety, wrapping you in its caring caress, if only. The tender I’m talking about is the public procurement variety. 

As a small nation, Scotland’s prides itself on being ahead of the curve when it comes to procurement. There’s a deep commitment, shouted often and loud, to sharing public sector contract opportunities with the business community. There’s even a national training programme to help us wrap our heads around the labyrinthine processes involved, and a digital portal to find and apply for tenders. So yes, there’s support. Sadly, the system is simply not designed for singletons.

As someone who, whisper it, actually believes in the public sector and is not solely motivated by profit margin, the winning of tenders is A Very Big Deal. What might be considered a teeny weeny contract by a bigger SME might represent a hefty proportion of my annual turnover, so I too want to be in the running when it comes to tenders. And with over 250,000 other sole trading businesses in Scotland, this is hardly a one woman campaign.

Despite repeated efforts to win public sector tenders, success has been frustratingly elusive. But resilience is the business buzzword du jour, so I try, and try again. Still, it was with heavy heart and dragging heels that this lonesome micro headed from the wild west to Murrayfield earlier this month for the annual business bunfight that is the national Meet the Buyer event. Hosted by the Supplier Development Programme, this is where we SMEs get the chance to parade our wares to public sector people with buying power. There’s always positives and plenty of learning to be gained from the event, but it’s always slightly disheartening too. It’s an affirmation writ large that this is a system designed for the big girls and boys.

The electronic Public Contracts Scotland portal does flag occasional opportunities for those of us working on our ownio. However, even the simplest tender bid requires a big time commitment, and that sacrifice of time is disproportionally difficult for those of us who can’t delegate that work. And of course, there’s no guarantee of success. Fair enough.

However, and at the risk of sounding like a foot-stamping toddler, what’s not fair is that we sole traders can access only the tiniest sliver of the procurement pie. The Quick Quote system which flags contracts below £50K is probably the way forward for people like me, but those with the purse strings need to do an awful lot more to get those offers out there where we small fry can actually  see ‘em.

This article first appeared in the Edinburgh Evening News on 11 June 2018.