Most people who talk about Welsh independence focus on politics. But politics is only part of the equation. The other part is economics, and arguably that’s the more important part.
Having political freedom without economic growth is like having the freedom to shop at a top-end store when you have no money: you may as well not have the freedom at all.
So let’s talk economics—I don’t mean economic theory, but ground-level economics that impacts real people.
We need to ensure a solid standard of living for everyone in Wales, but a healthy economy needs more than that.
Let’s talk about how to build that economy starting with an important fact: 70% of working Welsh adults between the ages of 18-24 say they want to start their own business.
I started my first business when I was 16. Since then I’ve started TRTLE, a fitness company, and Rugby Warfare, a clothing brand. Both are based in Wales, and both bring money into the Welsh economy from around the world. Rugby Warfare has sold products to over 44 countries globally, and the two businesses bring in a combined total of 1.5m revenue per year.
Photo: just moved into our new joint HQ in Cross Hands, Carmarthenshire
Nothing is more empowering than owning your own business—than being on your chosen path, setting your own schedule and owning your most precious commodity: your time. Owning a business means following your own initiatives, chasing your own dreams—and doing all of this with the knowledge that you’re helping build an independent Wales.
Imagine a Wales in which 70% of Welsh people follow their dream of starting a business, where young people are encouraged to be creators, solopreneurs, and entrepreneurs living lives on their own terms, where privately owned businesses dot the economic landscape, bring money into Wales from around the globe and bring the Welsh people greater job satisfaction and life satisfaction than they, or their parents, or their parents’ parents ever enjoyed.
That’s the Wales I’m hoping for, and you should be hoping for it too. We should all want a Wales that’s outward-looking and forward-thinking, that’s not just proud of its past but optimistic about its future, with a hive of excited youngsters looking to make the world a better place.
What it’ll take to get there
To thrive economically, Wales needs to become a country of creators, not just consumers. We need to champion entrepreneurship and empower individuals to make a living on their own terms and be their authentic selves.
Some people associate entrepreneurship with monopolies like Facebook, but that’s a mistake. 96% of businesses in the UK are micro-businesses with fewer than 10 employees. These businesses form the backbone of the economy. They are true examples of what entrepreneurship means, and of what Wales needs to promote to secure the brightest of futures for its sons and daughters.
Building a creator economy in Wales isn’t a pipedream. It’s happened before in other places. Silicon Valley was an obscure region in the San Francisco Bay Area. It wasn’t any place you’d expect to become an economic powerhouse. But it did. How?
One company—Fairchild Semiconductor—became an incubator for innovation. Fairchild’s 8 founders went on to found other smaller companies in the same region whilst providing money and mentoring to other employees who did the same. This hub of creativity ended up nurturing thousands of companies ranging in size from small to huge.
Today 70% of Silicon Valley’s largest firms are linked back to Fairchild.
Wales can create an environment that encourages innovation and economic growth the way Silicon Valley did—one that supports and mentors entrepreneurs. It doesn’t have to be in tech; it could be anything.
The important thing is to create a system that cultivates talent and skill and that provides young people with direction.
Systems like this already exist. Take one example: rugby!
The New Zealand All Blacks are the winningest sports team of all time. Their win percentage has been 78% since they first began 129 years ago.
How can a team maintain such dominance when its roster of players is always changing? They have a system that casts a wide net and that cultivates and recruits talent from a young age.
Photo: Meeting Ofa Tu'ungafasi of the NZ All Blacks to give him some Rugby Warfare stash before their game against Wales!
That system starts children at age 5 with a form of rugby that develops basic skills, and then teaches them further skills all the way into adulthood. It also gives everyone a chance to play, and it separates games into weight categories too, so that smaller children are matched with peers who are the same size. It’s a system that encourages as many kids as possible to play, and that develops the skills of all players, not just a select few.
Wales can learn from The New Zealand All Blacks
A country doesn’t develop specialised skills and know-how by accident. To compete successfully in a global marketplace, a country needs a system that generates talent, skill, and direction like the NZ rugby system.
A system like that has at least 3 components. It starts with hubs and support networks that foster an entrepreneurial mindset in youngsters.
When I was struggling to start a business at age 16, an entrepreneurial club would have been a Godsend. My life would’ve been much easier if I had a place to dream of a better future together with other entrepreneurs, test ideas, explore local opportunities, and make connections with potential investors to turn my dreams into reality.
Wales used to have youth clubs: volunteer-led clubs that met one night a week and gave kids a place to use computers, play ping pong, Yi-gi-Oh cards, karaoke, and whatever else they wanted to play. I remember one really silly game (I believe called "Munch him"): a person had a ball, and the rest of us would attack till they let go. Whoever held the ball longest won. Imagine if our determination to resist the buffets of our peers had been channelled in ways that fostered skill development and innovation! Wales can re-establish youth clubs that do precisely that.
Local entrepreneurs could join forces to deliver talks, host interactive sessions, and teach skills. The best way to learn is to teach. Local entrepreneurs would sharpen their skills by helping local kids, and in return, they’d benefit from gaining insight into the minds of highly motivated and skilled youngsters.
Local growth clubs like this could be established and interconnected, not just in cities, but across Wales. Casting a wide net is essential. If Wales is going to be economically independent, we’re going to need to tap the creative potential of everyone in Wales, not just people in the cities. There are creative people with great ideas in rural areas. We need to empower them as much as we empower people in cities. I myself was from a rural area, and know firsthand the importance of encouraging rural youth to dream, to learn, and to reach.
A network of clubs like this will foster a mindset that anything is possible, and give the youth of Wales the support they need to start generating and acting on their ideas. You only need a spark to start a fire. The same goes for a network of growth clubs. They would teach kids across Wales valuable life skills that they won’t learn in school: risk-taking, finance, entrepreneurship, public speaking, idea pitching, growth hacking, trying and failing without fear, and lessons about the successes of similar people from around the world.
When people need a loan, they think of going to a bank. The problem is that banks aren’t in the business of loaning money to start-up businesses. In fact, 80% of bank loans are for mortgages. Banks often don’t support business development at all, and when they do, they encourage a mindset that aims at selling the business as soon as possible.
Consider the Development Bank of Wales. Their loans aren’t designed to help entrepreneurs get a business off the ground. To get a loan from them, you need to have a commercialization strategy: a detailed plan for converting your ideas into pounds. The problem is that often the best commercialization strategy becomes clear only after you’ve started your business. Facebook, Google, Instagram, Snapchat—some of the largest businesses of our times—didn’t have a commercialization strategy. They started simply by focusing on providing a great experience for their customers. Google took 2 years to develop a commercialization strategy, and Facebook took 3 years.
To support small businesses in Wales, we need an alternative funding model like the cooperative model used by Y Combinator. It invites entrepreneurs to share their ideas and then nurtures them through the process of developing a commercialization strategy on the way to building a company that lasts. We can study other organizations that fund and support entrepreneurs, like Floodgate Fund and Boost VC, to get inspiration.
But supporting early startups is only part of the equation. To build the Welsh economy, we need to ensure that those companies stay in Wales when they start to grow. Silicon Valley was successful because companies stayed in the area, nurtured talent and grew the community. This points to another problem with the loans that development banks currently offer: they require a clear exit strategy, which is a plan for selling the business as soon as it becomes successful.
Requiring an exit strategy promotes a build-and-sell mindset that goes against the long-term development of Wales. We need businesses to stay in Wales and foster communities the way Fairchild did in Silicon Valley. That means we need banks to cooperate with small businesses—or we need other organizations to invest in those businesses. We also need the government to promote long-term growth over short-term gains. We need to play the long game and invest in companies that compound benefits for the community over time.
Group photo(I'm in the middle in the black tee) after I put on a Touch Rugby tournament between Google, Apple, Facebook & Tesla in Silicon Valley! Nothing drastic but a small step in putting Wales on the map by creating.
The Welsh government and Welsh businesses need to work together to build a brand for Wales.
A company’s country of origin has a profound effect on the company’s perceived quality and likability. It lends credibility, respect, and status to the products and services it offers. This is the country of origin (COO) effect.
Germany, for example, is known across the world for precision engineering and high quality—so much so that German car manufacturers, such as BMW, use “German engineering” as one of their unique selling points. To achieve this global brand positioning, Germany ensured that it trained the best engineers and invested in cutting-edge research and development facilities. The government also offered regulatory help so that German companies could emerge as leaders in precision engineering.
Singapore presents another example of the power of COO effect. It has managed to evolve from a third-world country to a first-world trading port in under 50 years due to its positive image as a leading global economic hub. Today, over 70% of its exports are service-related, with 13.3% of GDP contributed by the financial sector.
When a nation has a strong and positive brand in the international arena, it is more attractive to skilled workers, investors, and tourists. It is also more resilient in financial crises and better able to sustain higher prices. Individual businesses also benefit from a positive halo effect and have greater success exporting their products.
Wales once had one of the strongest brands in the world. During the Industrial Age, it was known globally as the place to go for the best coal, steel, and slate. Admiral Lord Nelson paid a personal visit to the Cyfarthfa ironworks in Wales—the wealthiest in the world at the time—looking to boost the quality of his weaponry and boats, and his main rival, Napoleon Bonaparte, also sent iron ore to be smelted in Wales.
We now live in a post-Industrial age, Wales produces less than a tenth of what it used to, and more than one-third of graduates leave Wales every year for a better life in London or elsewhere. We need to position ourselves to be a place where people want to live and do business. We need a brand that influences people’s hearts and minds.
What is that brand? We don’t have an answer at the moment, but the examples I’ve mentioned teach us some important lessons. First, it only takes one industry to create a positive COO effect. Second, discovering a national brand starts with the youth of the country.
Within 10 years, the system I’ve described could start yielding results for a newly reformed Wales. With a new mindset, motivated youth, and young startups sprouting across the country, Wales could elbow its way onto the global stage once more.
A creator economy will empower people to make a living doing what they love to do while benefiting Wales as a whole. To move forward Wales needs to be innovative, and innovation comes from entrepreneurs: it comes from having a growth mindset, and from a strong and focused educational system. We need to foster this as a nation. If Singapore can leapfrog from a third-world to a first-world country in 50 years, imagine what Wales can do!
P.S On July 7th, I'm doing a talk for Focus Carmarthen Enterprise Hub. If you're based in south-west Wales then make sure to join that session to hear my story and the advice I have for businesses trying to improve their digital presence.
More info: Wales.Coop
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