the grand stitch-up of micro-biz, consumer-producers and work-life balancing acts #euvat

There’s a bit of an issue heaving around the European Union at the moment.  It might even affect you.  If you deliver automated services on a website you own, and you sell to consumers across the EU, this page just might interest you.

It gets a bit complex, so there’s a very handy table here (scroll down – you’ll soon hit it).  I reproduce it below:

Examples of electronic supplies and whether or not they are ‘digital services’

Service E-service? Electronically supplied? Covered by the new rules
Pdf document manually e-mailed by seller Yes No No
Pdf document automatically e-mailed by seller’s system Yes Yes Yes
Pdf document automatically downloaded from site Yes Yes Yes
Stock photographs available for automatic download Yes Yes Yes
Live webinar No No No
On-line course consisting of pre-recorded videos and downloadable pdfs Yes Yes Yes
On-line course consisting of pre-recorded videos and downloadable pdfs plus support from a live tutor Yes No No
Individually commissioned content sent in digital form e.g. photographs, reports, medical results Yes No No
Link to online content or download sent by manual e-mail Yes Yes Yes

As you can see, it’s not easy for people to understand.  When I say that, I mean the underlying philosophy behind the various exemptions.  In my case, I’m a (slightly struggling) language teacher who gives classes in the online presence (ie via video-conferencing systems) of his learners.  The only e-service bit of my product (as per the above definitions) involves sending emails before and after the class – though as this is a manual process, I don’t think for the moment I’ll be falling foul of the rules.

So onto the meat of today’s post: my title talks of a “grand stitch-up of micro biz, consumer-producers and work-life balancing acts”.  What do I mean by this?  Let’s take one of the examples of e-services (or not) which the HMRC page talks about.  In this case:

  1. live webinars;
  2. online courses which are totally automated;
  3. and online courses, with live tutor support tacked on.

In situation 1, we have a highly laborious and expensive process which small biz will do well, and could continue to perform given half the chance, but which is probably going to be squeezed out of the marketplace sooner or later through the demand for cheap or freemium services – almost certainly sooner if extra admin costs such as VAT go through the roof.

This, sadly, at least for a learning nostalgic like myself, is probably going to be the past of learning – where no one except myself wants to continue to be.

In situation 2, we have highly automated and very cheap, even free, processes which universities and other institutions will do better as time goes by – processes which many are already expanding in to through the putting online and delivery of MOOCs.

This is probably going to be the future of learning – where everyone who wants to make tons of dosh will end up scrabbling for positions; and where those who know best are already positioning themselves ruthlessly.

In situation 3, however, we have what I assume is the object of every training organisation’s focus right now.  It’s here where the biggest opportunities lie in the short-term.

This is almost certainly the present of learning, and everyone but everyone must be squabbling over it this year.

Imagine the situation, if the #EUVAT palaver wasn’t happening.  Budding consumer-producers like myself, with a degree of ambition towards growth in their business, might move in to the partial automation of their training – knowing they would not have to reconfigure their VAT status.  In truth, you could argue, the new regulations allow for this in a most constructive manner.

Let’s say, even, that it’s already happened.  I’m behind the times a tad, but there’s plenty of people out there who’ve been training via the web for much longer than I have.

So maybe they were doing just a little too well for the corporate lobbyists who find it easier to bend politicians’ ears.  With the market splintering here and there – whilst micro biz, its owners and shakers and their treasured work-life balances began to construct a tapestry of relationships outside the scope of the traditional companies of learning – who wouldn’t need something to be done to make life more complicated?

Obviously, full automation would be everyone’s medium- to long-term goal – the pause before it happened not so much technological as one of the public’s emotional acceptance of the beast (my judgement, anyway, as someone with quite a bit of experience in automated training …).

So in the meantime, it was to everyone’s benefit to leave EU VAT on learning just as it is.

At the same time, of course, as the future of automated learning would be tied up in the corporates – as well as other organisations prepared to be big enough to make complex VAT-registration workable.

No place in MOOC-land for little consumer-producers, busybee-ing their courses and livings from the comfort of their cheap PCs, SOHO software licences and sheer imagination.  No chance of making a decent living below the UK VAT threshold, if you dared to have the temerity to enter into the world of automated learning.  No opportunity to maintain those treasured work-life balances they used so much to talk about.  No future in the future everyone believed was on the horizon.

And if we’re talking about doing learning for Generation Y, just forget the consumer-producers they could, they themselves, have become.

Of course, there are many more complications on the way.  I only speak from the sector I know.  But I do get the feeling there’s a stitch-up been sewn quite competently here – the unforeseen consequences of which will take quite a while to unspool and become self-evident.

What is self-evident, at least to me, is that our governments don’t want people to have the time to think too much – instincts to work-life balance being almost punishable by sneaky diktat of late.

Our governments don’t want people to work for themselves too much – having one’s nose to the grindstone of working for some big organisation being the tonic these days of almost every other official announcement.

Our governments don’t want an unpredictable cauldron of heaving entrepreneurial-minded individuals, sincerely capable of inventing futures as yet completely unthought of and unanticipated – let innovation remain in the hands of those best-placed to postpone it, seems to be the cause.

They talk the talk of new economies, all right.

But the shoes they wear when they walk their walk are about as hole-riven as any government’s policy ever was.

And if my example hasn’t hit home as it should have done by now, just read this next tweet and weep.

For weep you will, I assure you.

Twitter artwork credit: Heather L Sheppard @DinobotTwit, and at



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