Friday, June 9, 2017

bank holiday mondays?

time to bust another of the romantic images about freelancers and the self-employed...

some may recall that in some of my previous posts on this blog, I've shared some of the uncomfortable truths about how difficult and challenging it really is to be a 'digital nomad', the pressures being self-employed can place on relationships with family and friends, and such like.

This time, it's the turn of Bank Holidays - you know, those occasional days in the year when everyone seems to be talking about looking forward to taking time off work, having lie ins, spending more time in the pub...

But for many of us who are self-employed/freelance, it's just another day (albeit one where the phone doesn't ring quite so much, and there are a few less emails received in our inboxes). 

Don't believe me? Check out this tweet I posted on the last BH Monday: 
It's been one of my more popular tweets, with well in excess of 2,000 impressions, over 50 engagements, and a lot of responses from people sharing that they'd rather not be working either.

Freelancing and self-employment can be very rewarding in lots of ways. It can also be really hard in lots of ways that people don't seem to want to tell you about... I'm not saying you shouldn't do it - just go into it with your eyes wide open...

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

compared to what..?

There are lots of reasons banded about why we should try and be capturing and reporting the social impact/value of our enterprises - and that's not just something which is confined to the social enterprise or charity world: the private sector have been pioneering a lot of clever approaches to it to over recent years as well (Puma's environmental Profit & Loss, the international impact accounting standard, and McDonald's own infographics to name but a few...)

However, one of the key questions that any impact or outcomes reporting should answer is "so what?" - what difference has achieving this reduction, or engaging that number of people, made? But within the context of impact reporting, I think the "so what?" question also needs to be extended to be framed as "compared to what?". If an enterprise reports that it's reduced carbon emissions by 10%, is that good or bad? It might compare itself to its performance last year, but that's not really that objective or honest of a measure - it's surely only when we can compare that 10% to what comparable enterprises have been able to achieve that we can fully appreciate if that's a score to be scoffed at, or to be applauded.
And yet, how many social impact reports seek to reference any external benchmarks or comparisons in presenting their findings?

As ever, I'm not one to suggest something without being willing to try it myself - so this year I've sought to source external benchmarks against my own social impact reporting framework.
And I wanted to see what people thought about this before blogging about it, so published the report via twitter, and various LinkedIN groups, sat back, and waited for a week or two, before sitting down to draft this reflection.

And what the wider world seems to think based on engagements and comments to the post about the report is that while my doing an impact report on myself is a good idea, no-one really engaged or picked up on the fact that I'm starting to benchmark it externally to see if what seems to be a 'good' figure is really good, or if its outstanding instead.

For myself, I think that in finding I'm contributing more in taxes than my counterparts in regular employment is an encouraging sign that I'm still sticking to my principles of wanting to support public services, and my investing more in my ongoing CPD to keep myself 'on top my game' should be a great reassurance to clients (as well as all the awards I seem to keep winning...)

And while it's not perfect by any means (kudos to Liam Black for keeping me grounded as ever with it via his latest tweet), it's surely a start in furthering the conversation and encouragements for things like this to become more commonplace and therefore useful in helping us make better informed decisions about how we're approaching trying to make the changes in the community / society / world we seek to? 

Friday, May 19, 2017

not just for a Sunday..?

While I've never been an 'in your face' type of person when it comes to my personal faith and beliefs, I've never made a secret of them (one of my first ever blogs talked about how I try and reflect my faith in how I approach my work with clients).

And its always seemed to me that as a society, we seem to have a cultural norm of handling 'faith' and 'work' as two separate spheres: 99% of all the church sermons and teachings I've exposed myself to over the years have never offered me any direction in helping me reflect on how my faith should inform my work, and various special interest theological journals and groups that I subscribe to seem to take as their starting point that you're a middle-manager or business owner. But an awful lot of us out here are self-employed and freelancers...

However, I was inspired to take this pic of a wall hanging at St Peters Church in Walsden, where I recently attending their service as the guest of my oldest son who attends there regularly. And then I shared it on my various social media channels as it's very rare that I see such examples of an explicit recognition and encouragement of how God is present in all things - not just the Sundays, or in the 'green and pleasant lands'... As such, I wanted to celebrate this, and social media seemed the easiest way to do that.

And I was greatly encouraged by the responses - it's become one of my more popular posts; to date:

Instagram - over 100 impressions
Twitter - nearly 350 impressions
LinkedIn - over 1,000 views (and a dozen likes)

all of which seems to suggest to me that as a community of businesses, entrepreneurs, and freelancers we're also hungry to explore how we better connect our faith and belief with our work.

So in the great tradition of all the best teachers through history, I'm not going to leave you with what we do about this, or try and draw some deep mystical meaning, but instead invite you to continue the discussion below in the comments to this blog, on instagram, twitter, and LinkedIn...

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

maybe social investment isn't that different after all..?

I was able to make it along to this year's "Working Capital" conference that was recently staged in Sheffield - a day to immerse myself in reflecting, arguing, sharing, and further exploring the wonderful world of 'social investment'.

Depending on who you speak with, Social Investment is either the next big thing (and has been for a few years...); is a market that's suffered failure in the past and needed interventions from government; or a smoke screen for covering the cuts to grants that sustain many charities and social enterprises...

money might not grow on trees, but these desktop garden
pots from Key Fund mean you can grow most other things 

The day offered a range of perspectives and stories: Cliff Prior of Big Society Capital stating openly what many are starting to whisper in hushed tones - social enterprise should be moving more towards retail and consumer markets because public commissioners are very tough nuts to either crack, or to change their behaviours; and Hazel Blears encouraging those same commissioners to do more to learn from each other to progress the social value act (but in doing seemingly having forgotten previous national initiatives over the last 20 odd years that were designed to do just that...).

But the impressions I'm left with (initially at least - as always, I'm open to others coming back to me to challenge me on these points) are:

  • most of the specialist lenders to social enterprise make it difficult for the sector to borrow from them because they usually have repayment terms of only 5 years maximum. But in the private sector its not uncommon to 'refinance' a loan - it can often be hard to get a loan because you've no history of repaying debts; but once you start to, you can flip your loan to another lender on better terms... So what's to stop social enterprises getting what seem initially expensive loans in comparison with the high street banks who see them as being too risky, showing they can manage repayments, and then transfer the loan to their high street bank on better terms?
  • the things that are important to those seeking investment (quick decision, affordable terms, flexibility), are the same as for any other type of organisation in any sector seeking a loan
  • as a general movement, social investment seems to be a little bit too 'introspective' for my liking: NESTA undertake regular national surveys of social and alternative finance, which no-one referenced today. Without understanding how different 'flavours' of social finance compare to other finance types in how widely they're being used, how can we hope to make a best informed decision about where we should be investing our time in pursuing investment?

But but in all, a good day to reflect, see some friendly and familiar faces, and hopefully the start of most other enterprises' journeys into investment that will ultimately help them create bigger and better impacts on, and for, their respective communities.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

breaking freelance taboos...

regular readers of my blog will know that I can be a little unconvential at times in how I think about, and approach, issues and ideas (including how I've structured my being self-employed);

with that in mind, I've taken the most of the opportunity of being featured as this week's 'national freelance hero' (a national programme to promote and encourage the self-employed) to challenge some of the taboos about freelancing, and what the reality of it can really be like sometimes...

but some of these sentiments aren't new - some may dimly recall the first global interview I gave as an 'ethical entrpreneur' 10 years ago where I talked about my love of pound shops, and the desire to have food fights in the House of Commons...

(with thanks to Ed Goodman for managing this series)

Monday, March 27, 2017

the reason I blog

We're encouraged to start and run blogs for all sorts of reasons - build a following, enhance our brand, maintain a position in our industry, and such like;
and many people who blog share their posts across social media sites, encouraging us to 'like', and sign up for their latest posts via email or similar.

But there's a lot of people I know who have blogs that maybe shouldn't - not because they're not genuinely interesting people, or have valuable things to say, but because I get the impression from what they post (and how infrequently they post), that they've not thought about what the purpose of their blog is for. And I've always held that unless you know why you're doing something in your enterprise, then you're probably wasting time and energy that could be better spent on other things.

So - in the interests of trying to encourage others who blog (or are thinking about it), a recap of why I blog (all of which could be seen as aspects of "I'm a freelancer and it gets very lonely sometimes"):

  1. Most social media channels make it difficult to be able to present a reasoned idea in them. Readers of a blog are more self-selecting in wanting to spend more than 3 seconds on my latest update, which means although there may be fewer of them in comparison, they're more likely to want to engage in the debate and discussion I'm seeking;
  2. I've no regular team of colleagues who I get to hang out with in the office/kitchen/lunch/etc on a regular/frequent basis - people whom I would otherwise use as my 'sounding board' to reflect on experiences and ideas to make sure I wasn't starting to loose touch with reality. A blog acts as my surrogate 'chat while the kettle boils' - in essence, I'm looking to you all to help me spot if I'm starting to 'loose the plot' in how I think about, and approach, the work that I do;
  3. As a freelancer I have no formal or regular appraisal or line management. I've therefore created what many see as an extensive and envious/commendable CPD framework for/around myself. My blog forms part of this - giving me a space to critically reflect on aspects of my work, and how I approach it;
  4. I have an idea that many enterprises suffer because of hype and spin in the wider sector - making poorly informed decisions because they're not aware of the 'bigger picture', or possible alternatives. I'm always keen to challenge this when I come across it, and my blog is a route through which I can do this (don't believe me? check out some of my previous posts about CICs, and why we shouldn't be listening to our sectors' leaders...)
In all of the above, I'm always keen to get comment and response from people to help me:
  • better develop my own understandings and approaches to issues
  • assure me of my (relative) santiy
  • make sure my knowledge and skills are as current and relevant as they can be for the sake of groups I support
  • (make sure I'm not becomming libelous...)
So there you are - the 4 reasons I try and blog at least once a month.
I suspect many of these won't be shared by other bloggers, but if they are - please let me know where I've gotten it wrong in the comments below!

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.