Opinion

Paul McNamee: Make sure your knowledge is on the money

How’d you get a start? Who’ll take a punt when a computer doesn’t see it?

Just over 22 years ago my friend and I went to the bank. We were in Belfast, a city then not quite settled, and we decided to launch a music magazine. We were very young. He, Colin Murray, was barely 20, I was a couple of years older and we didn’t know what we were doing.

We had been canny enough to overstate the hands-across-the-barricades line that we walked together in still febrile Northern Ireland. That helped us to gently finagle some funding out of organisations like LEDU and The Prince’s Trust. But we were still short. We put together a business plan as LEDU had taught us, put on our best clothes and made an appointment to see the manager of the Ulster Bank on Shaftesbury Square. We made our pitch. Our journalism experience at that point was limited. I’d done a year or two with a local paper. He had similar. Our business experience was zero. And by trying to sound formal we sounded like poorly programmed robots who kept swearing by mistake. It was not going well.

Then the manager asked who were planning on covering. We mentioned Ash, the joyous rock trio who had been making a noise of late. Ah, said our suddenly interested bank manager, that’s young Wheeler’s outfit? I know Tim’s father. He’s commodore of our yacht club in Downpatrick. Great to hear!

Knowledge is power. Let’s get busy

And he gave us the money. Not a lot, but enough to get us started. Blank, for that was the name of the magazine, blazed brightly for a short time. Ash were on the first cover. And Murray and I and a whole lot of our friends got a start that provided a springboard for careers. All because of a personal connection by chance at a bank.

I make this point because such happenstance is close to impossible now. There are some personal connections, but the great majority of such applications are controlled by complex algorithms. How’d you get through it? How’d you get a start? Who’ll take a punt when a computer doesn’t see it?

Had Big Issue Invest been around in 1996 I would have been knocking hard on their door for advice and the start-up funding they might be able to offer. And I’d hoover up any other financial smarts on offer. We are, said MoneySavingExpert chief Martin Lewis, in perhaps the defining moment of uncertainty for our generation. Clearly, this is because of Brexit. The only thing we can be certain of, he added, is our uncertainty.

So here we are to offer, if not certainty, then something that has value. Information. If we know, we can act. We can have some agency in a time of stasis.

It is important this week, as we look towards Social Saturday, a national celebration and boost for small businesses, for social enterprises that are trying to put something back into local communities, that we make noise. And it’s equally important that we uncover ways that, in uncertain times, those of us not in the financial industry can gain knowledge about the financial moves that are shaking down. Whether this is the reality of house building and how land banking impacts on it, the real value of debt to those who hold it or how money exists out there that is YOURS that you can go and find and claim.

It won’t stop the non-doms and the market players and the traders and those who build the algorithms from growing their pots, but it’s a start. Knowledge is power. Let’s get busy.

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