This is a question that has occupied the team at the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding Local Enterprise Partnership since we established in 2011.
It matters because they matter. It matters because we are not like many urban-centred Local Enterprise Partnerships, or LEPs as they are known.
We cover the largest land area of any LEP, encompassing a large swathe of the rural north. This gives us a distinct and rather unique identity. It matters because our work needs to reflect their needs, not the latest Whitehall whims.
We are on a journey of understanding, one that has moved us away from some established economic development obsessions, such as high growth, start-ups, and sectors.
That is not to say these are unimportant, of course they matter, but their needs are often already served by publicly backed organisations.
With limited resources we need to understand where we can make a real difference in growing the economy and providing more jobs in our area.
The conclusion we reached early on was that there was a vast middle-ground of people quietly getting on with running their business, with no expectation of help or hand-outs.
These people are putting food on their tables and keeping roofs over their employees’ heads. These are the stalwarts of our economy, and we want to do everything we can to help them.
The queer thing, as we say in Yorkshire, is that these good folk don’t want our help. They have got where they are through sheer determination. Pressing on. Getting it done. Delivering orders. Meeting deadlines. Serving customers.
When they have needed help or advice they go to friends or family, or spoken to other business owners. “Ask the LEP? Why would I do that? What the do they know?” I paraphrase, but we know this is the sentiment. We have asked. We have listened.
Of course, this is correct. The LEP and it’s staff are not business experts or business advisers. That is not their job. What they are there to do is make the most of the people who are.
When we started out, we established relationships with the professional chartered institutes of accounting, marketing, legal advisers, directors and such. The members of these institutions are demonstrably expert in their fields.
The interesting thing we have long suspected, and that recent investigations have confirmed, is that there is widespread reluctance to speak to these people. The expectation is they will baffle people or give the hard sell of their services.
It all boils down to trust. Who should you trust to advise on your business?
When people are looking beyond friends and family, they often turn to the likes of the Federation of Small Businesses or the myriad of informal business groups that have sprung up in cafes and pubs across the coun- try.
Last year we set out to better combine these trusted peer groups with professional expertise.
We created the genuinely ground-breaking Pop-Up Business Cafes. They worked really well, by making advice local, free, friendly and informal.
So, we will be looking for local business groups and venues across our patch throughout the year to host more of them.
However, this year we will go a step further. LEPs across the country are developing what are being called Growth Hubs.
In essence, these will make the confusing landscape of public and private business help a little simpler.
Our investigations tell us that people will continue to trust the people they know, so our plan over the coming year is to expand that circle of trust, and help more people have more useful and informed discussions with both peers and professionals.
We’re also none too keen on making it all about ‘growth’.
Instead, we would like to help people get what they want out of their business.
That might be a few less grey hairs or the occasional holiday! See, I told you we listen and understood.
It’s hard running a business, really hard. We know that.
Those of you who are making our economy tick are doing a great job, and providing real benefits to everyone living in our part of the world.
So, a big thank you.
Our promise is to help make things a bit easier, by learning what easier means for you, then doing something about it.
To steal a tagline from a defunct bank, we’re the listening LEP.