Tuesday, February 21, 2017

does pursuing social investment reveal a weaking social enterprise sector?

As some of you will know, I'm an approved provider for various enterprise support programmes, one of which is Big Potential - funded development support for social enterprises to better explore, and develop their businesses cases to pursue, social investment.

There are various aspects of this programme that continue to impress me, some of which I've written about before, but one that I keep coming back to is its transparency and openness about its data. It's committed to undertaking an annual evaluation of both its performance, and the profiling of enterprises whom it engages with. (It's also started to publish performance data about how well us approved providers are doing as well...)

Last year, I blogged about the first of these published reports, seeking to better understand what it's data might tell us if we compared it to 'typical' social enterprises (spoiler alert: Big Potential seems to be attracting social enterprises who are younger, more ambitious for growth, and more locally rooted than your typical social enterprise). But this years' data gives us a bit more to consider as we can now start to compare year on year data - and my cursory analysis of the data tables while on the train seem to suggest that while Big Potential may either be getting more generous in awarding support or the sector is getting better at targeting whom it should support for support, (there's an increase in initial enquiries from social enterprises who go on to be awarded a development grant: 2.16% vs 0.6%), there are signs that the wider social enterprise sector may be weakening:

  1. enterprises being supported typically have a turnover that's 7% less than last year
  2. typical net profits have fallen from nearly £18,000 to £3,000 (equivalent to net profit margins falling from 6% of turnover to 1%)
  3. assets held by enterprises are roughly half of what they would have been expected to be in the previous year
  4. the self-reported standards of current social impact reporting, and assurances over data used within it, by applying social enterprises has fallen by 9% compared to the previous year
  5. the overall average investment readiness score of applying social enterprises has fallen from 59.3% to 48.7%
  6. and there have been increases in the incidences of poor governance, and poor financial performance on the part of social enterprises being the reason as to why Big Potential hasn't feel able to award support to them
All of this would also seem to reflect a wider narrative and sense of 'struggling' amongst charities and community groups in light of prolonged austerity and recessions...

But... there are also signs that the Big Potential programme is doing what it set out to do - as well as supported social enterprises securing around £3/4m in investment of different types, they are also reporting increases in turnover in the region of nearly £100,000. However, most of this increase seems to be from growing existing services, rather than entering new marketplaces, and the sample on which this part of the data is based is so small - 4% of enterprises supported, it can only be taken as highly anecdotal at best?

For those of us so inclined, there are also some other findings in the data of interest:

But these are only my initial playing with the tables in the report while on the train heading out of London this evening - as with my previous initial analyses of evaluation reports like these, I hope others in the sector will pick these up and explore them further, and in doing so, help us all to better understand this sector, and how we might best continue to support it in the future.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

who should we believe about how great (or not) being self-employed is?

I'm now into my 12th year of being a self-employed enterprise consultant-type. It was never part of a grand plan I have for my life, but rather necessity: I found myself needing to earn money to support my family, and at the time no-one was hiring, but some were offering work on contracts rather than payroll. And I've been hustling ever since.

Some readers of my bog will know how I've managed to use this status to clever effect in influencing national legislation and policy, and others may also recall the other impacts it's had on me (such as struggling to get to all the christmas parties clients invite me to...).

But there were 3 pieces of research published earlier this month that made me pause and reflect on how appropriate it is that we're all being increasingly encouraged to explore and pursue freelance careers, and also the apparent indifference of the government to us in the bulk of business support being directed to companies with lots of employees and such like:

1) being self-employed makes you happier and earns you more money (according to research by Intuit Quickbooks), but...
2) average earnings for the self-employed continue to fall far below that of their employed counterparts (according to data from the government)
3) being self-employed means your relationships with your family will suffer more (according to the Centre for the Modern Family)

so who should we believe if we're considering a freelance career? What sort of life could we reasonably expect in light of the above contradictory research, and what impact might it have on those close to us?

As for me - I didn't feel I had the luxury of a choice, and over the last 12 years I've tried to manage my role as best I can to try and create as much benefit as possible for those I've been supporting, and also the wider world ('cos of how my mum brought me up). It's been tough, but there have been various moments that I can't imagine I could have otherwise created, (many of which I've tried to chronicle here on my blog).

But the challenge with all this research (as I highlighted under 'Q' in my alternative entrepreneur's A-Z), is that it's all generalisations based on the group of people (who aren't you) that the researchers asked. And I have an idea that we're all so diverse and unqiue in our circumstances that any surveys like these can only point to general trends that may or may not be relevant to us - as with everything, we should look behind the headlines, consider if there are findings which speak into our circumstance, work out what we can do about them, and then just get on with it, and continue making our own path.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

You don’t need a fez to Rock (but it helps…)

I’ve held all sorts of jobs and roles in my life so far, and yesterday added ‘roadie’ to the list!

But as you might expect from me, not a conventional roadie for a band, but one of a small select band of handpicked leaders in our respective fields, to support the 3rd annual #MicroBizMattersDay – 8 hours of streaming video recognising, celebrating, and supporting, micro business owners everywhere. 

It’s the brainchild of Tony Robinson and Tina Boden, and is increasingly attracting a lot of interest from national businesses to government advisors, and this year, plumbers! Not just any plumbers, but the famous Pimlico Plumbers, who went well out of their way in letting us all take over their building to stage the event from, while also trying to continue to run their business around it all!

Loads happened throughout the day, and there are all sorts of stories that people have been sharing across various social media channels using the hashtags #MicroBizMatersDay and #IGave13 (a pledge that micro business owners will offer 13 of something insupport of their peers). However, I thought in the morning after the day before, I’d take time to share what some of my highlights of the day were:

      -  Meeting the fabulous Ed Goodman in person: there are all sorts of people we meet through social media and start to build an idea about, but he’s far more impressive in real life: not only a similar height to me, but turns out we also share a fondness for pocket fob watches too! (and all my other fellow roadies were equally fabulous too - you can find out all about them in the day's 'souvenier programme' at http://microbizmattersday.rocks/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/MicroBizMattersDay-Souvenir-Programme-2017.pdf)

-  Meeting the ScanSnap crew who embraced the enterprise rocker’s dress code of “hats whenever possible” with aplomb (although there were more than passing resemblances to the Village People at times..) 

-  Seeing how Charlie Mullins, ‘the millionaire plumber’ behind Pimlico Plumbers whom, despite having the ear of lots of very influential people, prefers to spend his time ‘on the shop floor’, joking with his teams and personally making sure everyone is being looked after

-  Seeming to be have not made too much of a mess of sharing about how Todmorden and the Calder Valley have been recovering from last year’s devastating floods in an impromptu interview on camera (starts about 35 mins in from the start of the video)

-  Being part of something that hit the no2 trending spot on twitter during the day!

-  Getting hands on involved in putting up, and breaking down, display stands, and making up goodie bags for guests and supporters who joined the event for lunch: I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed doing events

-  Discovering chocolate covered crackling…

…and of course, giving my fez it’s world debut!

It was great to be able to spend day to share stories, commiserate, and challenge fellow micro businesses. And to have done it all in the shadow in Prince Charles taking a bath just seemed to somehow make it perfect…

So, to all my fellow micro businesses out there, my fellow roadies, and the powers that are Enterprise Rockers - #yourock

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

more time capsules from entrepreneurs

It seems to be that whenever I'm asked to be part of some business event where there's a panel of "successful entrepreneurs", questions from the audience tend to dry up very quickly and usually relate to either very specific/technical questions that are of limited interest to most people there, or are so general that most people would struggle to be able to relate to them...

However, as some readers of my blog may recall from previous posts, I've various 'standby' prompts for most instances, and in this one, its a question that entrepreneurs on any assembled panel seem to enjoy: "what one thing, with hindsight, would you want to impress upon your younger self when you were launching your enterprise?"

My most recent opportunity to wheel it out came as part of a startup bootcamp for students at the Univesity of Salford that I was supporting the delivery of. And the 'life lessons' that the panel of entrepreneurs had to share with these bright young startups of tommorow were:

  • get better at managing time - things usually take longer than you think they will, and remember that you'll need to sleep at some point...
  • spend more time at the start of a job agreeing the scope of work - it'll help with managing client relationships later...
  • lock the door more (!) - working from home can be fraught with lots of distractions...
  • breathe - don't forget to take time out to enjoy yourself (and watch netflix...)

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

statistically speaking, turns out I really am "better than your average consultant"!

As someone who’s self-employed with no line management, one of my challenges is trying to figure out just how good I really am – client testimonials are great feedback (and always appreciated), but I recognise they’re also very subjective. For example, not everyone likes marmite – and I’m aware that not everyone appreciates my approach at times (as evidenced by the rare occasions when my bendy people[1] have been thrown back at me during training courses I’ve delivered…)

And this desire to reflect truly on my ability isn’t just for vanity’s sake – as a freelancer I need to know how I can best pitch myself to clients, and I also need to know where I should focus the investments I’m able to make in myself, to further enhance the service I can offer to said clients.

That’s why I’m always keen to find ways to benchmark myself against my peers and others. Earlier this year, this saw me publicly share the results of my having my approach to reporting my impact compared against the internationally agreed principles of social accounting[2] – pleased report that compared with other consultants, and enterprises of a similar size to me, I seem to be well ahead of most others out there doing work around impact reporting.

It’s also why I try and offer my services through third parties and funded programmes – having an impartial project manager or broker between myself and a client can offer a more objective view of my services and performance. This is because they’ll have similar pieces of work to that I’ve undertaken to compare me against. One such programme is Big Potential[3] – offering awards to social enterprises to allow them to ‘buy in’ specialist support from the likes of me, in their ambitions for growth and in exploring the relevance of social investment as part of those aspirations.
Unusually for such funded programmes, Big Potential annually publish a ‘performance table’[4] of all us consultants who it engages with, in supporting social enterprises. While this is a relatively simplistic table of measures (the number of our clients we’ve support to apply for awards from the programme vs. the number of those clients they’ve agreed should be supported by their chosen provider), it’s nonetheless a useful reference in offering another of the types of benchmarks that I’m looking for.
And the latest table reveals a few interesting themes when I looked at the figures – I seem to be the only active freelance consultant on the approved provider list (the others being larger firms), and there’s no correlation between how many clients a provider supports the applications of, and the likelihood of them being awarded support for them:

Oh – and running the numbers to create some simple averages, it seems that I’ve supported more than the typical average number of clients to apply to this programme, and they’ve had a greater than average success rate when I have!

So – as well as (most of) my clients saying nice things about how much they enjoy my working with them, there’s also a growing body of statistical data that shows I’ve better than the average consultant.

My mum will be pleased.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Todmorden time capsules

I've always been a strong advocate of story telling as a great means to help share ideas and learning, and also of local networking - local businesses supporting each other. So the recent meeting of the Todmorden Business Network was doubly exciting for me, as a range of businesses based in and around Todmorden came together to share their stories of what they've learned in running their businesses that they wish they could go back and tell their younger selves about.

The Futuro House in Todmorden, 1971
I thought it would be useful to capture these as a snapshot of the wisdom of the local business community I'm part of. Sharing it here hopefully means that others will be encouraged and supported, but it's also something that the Network can revisit in future years to see if the lessons we're learning are changing, or if despite the new management theories that always seem to be coming out form some university or other, the way we do business together, and the issues we face remains consistent.

So - our advice to our younger selves:

  • listen to your gut more - be bold!
  • you don't need a business plan (I've always argued this one too) - it's OK to make it up as you go along
  • it's a roller coaster (and will make you feel sick at times...) - dare to be brave!
  • don't be afraid to ask for advice - don't let your pride get in the way of letting other people help you
  • you'll have more bosses that you did before in the form of all your customers
  • don't be too cheap - don't undervalue yourself, and recognise the full extent of the time you're spending on making your products and running your business
  • don't waste your money on consultants - pick and choose who to spend your money on, and what's important to you (rather than them)
  • understanding basic bookkeeping and accounting is far more important that you realise
  • just because you have a passion for it doesn't automatically mean other people will pay for it
  • your friends won't tell you the truth - they're there to encourage you, not to be your customers
  • always be kind - compromising isn't a sign of weakness
  • success doesn't come overnight
  • don't believe what letting agents and landlords tell you - if you're taking on retail premises, check the local footfall for yourself
And what we'd tell our younger selves to avoid doing at all costs:

 - Don't pay for (online) advertising; use networking, social media, and PR instead
 - Don't try and work from home: there are far too many distractions
 - Don't waste time trying to get government funded support: the best advice you'll get is from other businesses
 - Don't be afraid to stand your ground with larger customers who want to start to change agreed terms
 - Don't try and do it all yourself
 - Don't go anywhere without a spare pair of trousers/skirt (that one's mine...)
 - Don't work with family or friends
 - Don't put off having tough conversations with people

The Network currently meets the first Tuesday of every month from 6pm at the Fielden Centre in Todmorden, and thanks to sponsorship from others has no charge for membership or attending its events - 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

why your business should try and pay more suppliers by cheque

I'm aware that this blog's title is likely to make most people think that I've definitely lost the plot when it comes to business sense, but bear with me and I'll see if I can suggest a few ideas that will make you at least pause to reconsider...

As with some of my other posts here that I'm inspired to write, this one started with something that someone else posted on their blog about why as businesses we should all stop paying by cheque. When I questioned them on twitter, they threw down the gauntlet and challenged me to come up with why we should, in fact, stick with this old fashioned payment mechanism.

So, Ed Goodman, here are the reasons why I always try and continue to pay my suppliers by cheque. I've offered them as response to each of your arguments on your blog, so our readers can follow our debates more easily:

1 - it can hurt cashflow
Ed's right to say that if we pay by cheque we've no control over when/if the supplier will cash it, and that might mean our cashflow hits some very tight moments if cheques aren't paid in quickly. 
However... if we're on top of our business' finances, we should always have at least a rough idea of what our available bank balance is (which would include any uncashed payments), what we're owed, what we owe other people. 
As such, we should have some idea of any suppliers who don't seem to have drawn on our payment which can offer us an excuse to ring them up. And such a conversation would surely rekindle and strengthen our relationship with them - after all, how many of your customers do you know who take an interest in your financial health?

2 - it still costs money to pay
Again, Ed's on the money with this point. Most business bank accounts charge for you to write a cheque and stamps aren't getting any cheaper.
However, any business should always be striving for a good, close relationship with their bank, so you can likely 'renegotiate' (haggle) some of the charges that your bank would otherwise be applying to your account.
As for the price of a stamp - everyone would agree that the royal mail is a vital part of our local communities and home lives, so why should we try and avoid using it to help maintain the service for the wider good of all through making sure posties wages can be paid and sorting offices kept open?

3 - think of your supplier
Receiving a cheque means a trip to the bank to pay it in. It's an excuse to visit the high street, offer some passing trade to fellow local enterprises while we're there, and to help make sure that our local bank branches stay open by keeping them in use.
However, just as it's important to try and engage with customers on their preferred terms, we also need to try and maintain good relationships with our suppliers. To that end, I always ask them how they'd like to be paid, rather than make assumptions about them.

and one more thing (maybe two)...
And my reason number 4 as to why I like to keep writing cheques - it's an elegant tradition, like the meeting for coffee or introducing contacts to each other at networking events. In an increasingly ever changing world, it seems to offer some familiarity and custom that we can all agree on, and traditions are important to maintain as part of our shared identify and values.

Finally... when was the last time you got an envelope through the post that wasn't a bill? It's always a little exciting to get a cheque with our name of it!

Ultimately, this will come down to personal choice for everyone running their own business as to how they choose to manage and administer it. People like Ed and I can offer our views and ideas, drawing upon our own experiences and insights, but ultimately it's your business, not ours. What I try and hope to do through posts like this is to help offer some debate and alternative perspective to help you make better informed decisions.