Tony Robinson OBE, is an enterprise champion, entrepreneurship speaker, and author of fiction and non-fiction books. He has spent nearly four decades as a business owner helping small businesses in the UK to succeed, having previously held senior corporate positions. He has founded or co-founded four national business support organisations to improve the quality of and access to start-up assistance. He is known for three major national campaigns: #payin30days, #microbizmatters, and 

#ExcludedUK. Tony is passionate about entrepreneurship and co-founded ‘The Micro Business Alliance’. The Alliance works with the government and opposition to improve policy-making and ensure all start-ups and business owners can thrive. He was recognised with an OBE for his services to small businesses and has subsequently received three Lifetime Achievement Awards for Enterprise Support.

In this issue, we catch up with Tony’s latest initiatives to make enterprising lives happier and his latest book, 20/20 Visionaries: Dead Celebrity Interviews.


Tony, it’s been a while since we last spoke. How have you been?

Fabulous, thank you. I’m so lucky. I am still living in sunny Scarbados and running half- and full-marathons for Macmillan Cancer Support.

We’ve survived a global pandemic and, currently, a cost-of-living crisis. What are the main challenges faced by small businesses today?

I call it ‘one strike and you’re out’. Protecting yourself against the unexpected has never been more necessary. For example, a major customer cancelling a contract, not paying you, or paying in sixty days or more; or a costly piece of legislative or tax compliance or energy costs going through the roof. All these one-off events can instantly kill your business if you have not built assets and cash reserves.

You have campaigned tirelessly for the #payin30days or less initiative. Why is this so important? 

Unfair payment terms and practices from about 200 of the largest companies in the UK create a £28 billion log jam that strangles start-ups and often kills 5.2 million micro businesses, which cannot afford an average 60+ days wait for payment. This is not normal or acceptable in other countries.

Do you feel small businesses pay enough attention to cash flow forecasting and managing supplier payments? 

Yes. Generally, they do, particularly if they have had good advice at start-up. Accounting software is excellent, digital transactions are immediate, and everyone knows to get a purchase order number and the right person to submit the invoice to. Many large organisations blame business owners for not doing the right thing with cash flow and invoicing, but these are often excuses for slow payment.

What feedback has there been from the government for #payin30days or less? 

All three Small Business Commissioners have supported it. We have moved the prompt payment code from adhering to pay within 60 days to paying within 30 days. But until the government says to the 200 or so largest, sector-leading companies, “We will not buy from you, contract with you, fund you, licence you, or bail you out unless you pay in 30 days or less all your bills all the time,” there will be little change to our UK cash flow crisis.

You founded The Micro Business Alliance, an organisation dedicated to improving policy-making that affects 5.2 million micro businesses; why did you feel this was required? 

3 million small and micro business owners were excluded from income support, with hundreds of thousands left in serious debt and 37+ suicides during the pandemic. This tragedy should not have happened, and we needed to get into the heart of the government to ensure it could never happen again.

What has been the main achievement of the Alliance? 

Recruiting over one hundred organisations representing over 1.4 million micro business owners means the government and opposition cannot ignore our research and confidential advice on effective policy-making. The support of Liz Barclay, the Small Business Commissioner, in opening doors for us has been crucial. We meet with ministers and shadow ministers regularly. Senior civil servants, such as the HMRC Director responsible for small businesses, have attended Far North’s MicroBiz Unite events to talk directly with business owners.

Through your work as co-chair and co-owner of Yorkshire in Business, you are still involved in helping small businesses and start-ups from Hull to Redcar. What do you find is the main challenge being faced by them? 

The main challenge is that it is all too easy to believe the myths of entrepreneurship that are all around them in the media, from the financial sector, investors, the self-help industry, and government agencies. The world of “getting funding,” “learning from failure,” and “exit strategies”. One in ten start-ups in Silicon Valley survives the first three years of trading, whereas eight out of ten we help will.

You share a long friendship with our founder, Zia Mallick, whom you met during his time in enterprise support; he often refers to you as his hero! Having both dedicated your careers to helping small businesses… What do you find most rewarding about working in enterprise support? 

Zia is a hero of mine. We both agree that it is a tragedy if enterprising people who make something out of nothing, earn their living, and often make a positive difference in their communities, should fail. We love seeing them succeed by giving them access to free, high-quality start-up and test-trading advice.

Both you and Zia support the National Enterprise Network and local enterprise agencies. How important is it for communities to have a local business support organisation? 

It is essential. It must be inclusive, non-judgmental, run by business owners, and especially supportive of those from disadvantaged backgrounds. I’ve come across business support organisations that only work with businesses with five or more employees. That is totally against the ethos of our 40 years of Enterprise Agencies.

You are also a champion for well-being and wrote a book called ‘The Happipreneur’… Tell us more about how important self-care is for small business owners. 

Taryn Lee Johnston, who interviewed the entrepreneur contributors in the book, and I wanted to write the new ‘Small is Beautiful’ as a guide to fulfilment and happiness for all enterprising people. We used my entrepreneurial journey from being happy and fulfilled in my work about 50% of the time to now when it’s 80%+ of the time. I’ve had a few multi-millionaire entrepreneur friends who died young, were addicted, and were sad. I’ve been lucky to be inspired by happy role models such as Tim Campbell, MBE of The Apprentice, who wrote the introduction, and Kanya King, CBE, founder of the MOBO Awards. By researching the values, influences, and skills of happy entrepreneurs, we were able to develop a philosophy and guidance to help everyone.

What are the essential elements of having a good work-life 


My top five values are: 

1. Do what you love and are good at. 

2. Control your own destiny. 

3. Put friends and family first.

4. Be useful to others. 

5. Avoid debt. Try to make ends meet.

You have launched a series of Happipreneur Road Shows. Tell us more… 

It is great fun. I’ve loved doing the show in many diverse venues these last few years. My latest “Be More Happipreneur” show includes two of my favourite entrepreneurs: Jenn Crowther, CEO of Yorkshire in Business, and Ian Farrar, CEO of Far North. The show is an hour long, and then there’s a Q&A session. It’s for all enterprising people and those who want to help enterprising people.

Your latest book, 20/20 Visionaries: Dead Celebrity Interviews, is an intriguing set of fictional interviews with inspirational celebrities no longer with us. What insights do you hope the reader will gain from the book?

Taryn Lee Johnston, and I hope it will inspire others to make a positive difference in the world. These icons and fictional characters discuss issues that are as important today as in their time. Some are funny takes on the topic, for example, Dickens’ Abel Magwitch and Mr. Venus, Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, and Hardy’s Tess Durbeyfield, but the in-depth interviews, such as Noel Coward on celebrity influence, Nina Simone on racism, and Virginia Woolf on equality, strike a chord today.

Which ‘Dead Celebrity’ interviews do you find most inspiring and why? 

Because happiness is a philosophy based on stoicism, I’d probably go for Marcus Aurelius, Diogenes the Dog, and Anne Bronte. However, readers liked the most the in-depth interview with Nina Simone on racism, which took months to research. It’s great entertainment, too.

The cost-of-living crisis has hit everyone in some way. How are you advising businesses to protect themselves during this period? 

That’s an easy one. Some days, it seems like the entire world is trying to sell you stuff and asking you to borrow money to get it. Money worries sap the entrepreneurial spirit, so reduce costs, don’t be afraid to downsize, build multiple income streams, build cash reserves, and above all, do what you love and are good at.

If you could change one thing about how we support small businesses in the UK, what would it be? 

Ensure that no government-funded support goes into #scaleups and that all goes into high-quality and free #startup support.

You are a popular keynote speaker; what has been your most memorable event? 

As you know, I’ve spoken in some big arenas with up to 10,000 people, but I must admit I’ve enjoyed some of the unusual venues for the “Be More Happipreneur” show. At a brewery in South Shields, we started the show at 5 p.m., and we were still all chatting and laughing at 11 p.m.

Finally, what advice would you like to offer anyone reading this issue who is planning to start a business? 

Do these five things, and you will have a much better-than-average chance of survival: 

1. Do what you love and are good at. 

2. Bootstrap; don’t borrow. 

3. Test trade first (preferably while you’ve got a job). 

4. Ask for help from a business owner who understands your 

    prospective customers. 

5. Build multiple income streams.