Thursday, August 25, 2016

48 hours in London

We’ve all had the same offer from people – “it’d be great to chat some more, let me know the next time you’re in town...” But how often do we actually follow up on those invitations? And how many contacts do we have on LinkedIn and Twitter were we only know the person by the thumbnail picture in their profile? (and would you recognise those people when they subsequently grow beards or shave their hair and don’t update those same pictures… you know who you are, Ian and John ;-) And yet we’d all agree that businesses succeed or fail on the quality of the relationships that they (we) have with others.

So this summer I tried an experiment (as is the prerogative of being self-employed). I arranged to be in London for 48 hours, and started to put out word to some of those contacts on LinkedIn and Twitter to see who might be around and interested in meeting up for a chat and drink.

And just about everyone I reached out to directly replied – some to say that they were sadly away on their hols “but next time you’re in town…”, others to say that their diaries were already overflowing with other commitments, and some to suggest times and places.

I did a running commentary of each of the meetups on twitter and Instagram as I worked through my ‘dancecard’, but now I’m sitting on the train back to Todmorden to resume ‘normal service’, I’m reflecting on the experience and a few things seem to have stuck with me:

- It was cheaper to do than I thought it might have been: advance train tickets, budget hotels (which included breakfast!), and travel cards for the underground all came to about just over £200. And in being able to meet up with 9 people in that time, that seems to be a good cost ratio.

- Asking people I was meeting for their suggestions meant that I got to discover parts of London that I never knew existed (who knew that there was a ‘museum of happiness’ in Tower Hamlets?). And I never thought I’d ever find myself having lunch in Canary Wharf alongside some of the country’s ‘big city bankers’…

- It can be very isolating being a freelancer, so the opportunity to ask peers about their experiences with certain types of client or work is a useful ‘sanity checker’. However, there are some conversations that are difficult to have by phone or email unless you’re sitting with the person over a pint...

- It is possible to engineer serendipity: through ‘chewing the cud’ in general, conversations started to spark ideas and options that would otherwise never have occurred to us separately, and they in turn start to lead to new things emerging in the world that benefit far more people than myself and person I was sharing cake with at the time

- There were some surprising moments where my reputation preceded me: people I was meeting with had invited others who had heard such tales about me that they wanted to have their picture taken with me to mark the occasion! (don’t worry – I still don’t knowingly allow a serious picture of me to be taken…

- Having a backup battery pack for my phone was crucial: maps and other apps for navigating myself, snapping pics, and such like can quickly suck your phone’s battery life

- But sadly there wasn’t enough cake by a long shot…

And now it’s back to catch up with emails, messages, post, and such like, I find myself asking the question “was it worth it?”.

I think it was, and judging to some of the tweets and comments to my Instagram posts by others during the 48 hours, others seemed to think so too. 
The chance to step back from the usual day to day distractions and chat with others without an agenda was also very liberating and allowed me to reflect on some of my own ideas and approaches in ways that I wouldn’t normally have had opportunity to.

So would I do it again? 
I’m already wondering which 48 hours next year might be a good time to come back so if you missed me this time, I’m open to suggestions…

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Is ‘The Full Monty’ a promo movie for social enterprise?

I currently have the fortune to be supporting a group of South Korean social entrepreneurs who are studying for MBAs – as part of their international syllabus, they’re spending a week with Sheffield University (apparently Sheffield is one of the unofficial UK capitals of social enterprise – who knew?), and it’s there that I’m sitting on pitch panels and offering several days of mentoring support, along with other luminaries of sector support (including Laura Bennett, Morgan Killick, Andi StampDave Thornett, Jamie Veitch, and Nick Temple)

And while sitting in on one of the students’ sessions which offered them an initial orientation as to the history (and possible futures) of social enterprise in the UK, I got to reflecting on Sheffield's role in the wider landscape of social enterprise.

Sheffield is famous for many things, but perhaps most memorably, a movie called ‘The Full Monty’. It charted the fortunes of a group of unemployed steel workers who form a dance troupe and do strip routines… and I got to wondering if this made it a contender for being a movie that promotes the social enterprise model more generally?

Social enterprise is about people harnessing their available resources, skills, talent, (and sometimes baravdo and bluster – see some of Tim Smit’s ‘confessions’ in his books about his journey as a social entrepreneur…), in order to overcome challenges being faced by people (such as the poverty and deprivation caused by long-term unemployment).

And the ex-steel workers who formed their dance troupe were part of a community that faced economic decline and increasing deprivation caused by widespread long-term unemployment and a loss of employment opportunities.

Through their ‘market offer’ they not only created employment, but also attracted more investment into that city through customers coming in from outside the area, spending money to see their shows, and brought hope back to those who had seen only hopelessness before.

So – The Fully Monty: required viewing for anyone wanting to learn about social enterprise in the UK? (and what other movies might be similarly disguised propaganda for social enterprise..?)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The challenge of staying responsible when your enterprise has been hit by a ‘business disaster’

Despite what some people may protest, it’s actually quite easy to be a ‘responsible business’ – thinking about options for energy use, how to respond to the ongoing requests for sponsorship for local charities, and such like…

But what happens when things get tough – what happens when your business gets hit by an ‘official disaster’ such as the flooding that swept through a lot of the country over the Christmas of 2015? There isn’t the time, money, (or patience!) to do the ‘nice stuff’; the focus surely has to be on getting business premises rebuilt, stock replaced, bank managers pleaded with for extensions to loan repayments, and such like? And what if as the owner of the business you’ve been doubly hit because your home flooded too?

And yet, it’s such crises that can actually help us be even more ‘responsible’ as businesses in how we manage our recovery. And that’s because like thousands of others, I too was hit by the floods at the end of last year[1] – with my family and business having to move out while restoration works made repairs to our home and office, and I drew national interest in how I responded as a business.

Some of you may recall the huge expressions of support that the wider country made through donations to the flood recovery funds that were quickly set up – but along with the business recovery grants that local authorities started to offer businesses, none of these could be applied to if you were self-employed or home-based. The prospect for recovering the livelihoods for both I and many of my fellow freelancers and micro businesses seemed very bleak…

But what can an individual business do in the face of such need and economic devastation[2] (especially when they’re also trying to make their own home habitable again so they and their family can ‘go home’)? The answer is surprising a lot: the following list briefly outlines what I did, and it’s offered not as self-congratulation, but rather as encouragement and inspiration for others to realise the impact we can all make if we try and be ‘responsible’ as businesses at all times:
  • I set up a facebook group[3] for people like me who weren’t eligible for any of the business support grants. It was meant as a peer support network and saw lots of tips and suggestions of advice being shared around temporary cheap or free workspaces, and such like. But excitingly it was also picked up on by the local authority and others who used its existence and membership to allow them to successfully argue a change the eligibility criteria for the business support grants.
  • I contacted national enterprise support networks I’m part of to ask if they may know of anything we could apply to: one made an immediate cash offer which was used to enable a number of local enterprises to gain IT and office supplies[4] to enable them to continue working from temporary locations.
  • And I shared updates on support like mad across twitter and facebook groups to make sure that fellow local businesses didn’t miss out on opportunities for further support as it was announced and identified.

The above may not seem like much, but it was a lot more than many other local businesses were able to do owing to the respective impact of the floods on their businesses and homes (and thanks to the joys of social media I was able to largely do it all at the end of each day after I’d delivered client contracts and dealt with my own immediate issues).

And I wasn’t the only one thinking like this – there was also the world’s first collective crowdfunding campaign[5], and others are re-staged the Christmas[6] we lost for the benefit of local retailers who’ve suffered loss of takings over what should have been one of their busiest periods.

Being responsible isn’t just about ‘buying the right things’ or treating your people right. It’s also about stepping up to do what you can for the wider local business community when we’re struck by something that affects us all[7]. But it doesn’t have to take a widespread ‘business disaster’ to motivate us to do this – we should surely be looking out for opportunities to help out our neighbouring businesses all the time anyway? 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

spending money locally probably won’t save local economies…

'buy local' and the Totally Locally campaign is based on a very compelling and emotive idea – if we value our local shops, facilities (and therefore our local economy in which these things exist and operate), then we should support them by using them: “buy local”, and spend with local retailers rather than distant online stores such as amazon… after all, money makes the world go round, so the more we can keep locally, the more our local community can keep things going around for the benefit of us all?

But there’s a small wrinkle in this idea which means that ‘buy local’ may never really have the transformative effect on our local communities we dream of: scale.

The Totally Locally campaign is focussed on getting us as consumers to make choices about where we buy our stuff from. That’s the retail element of the economy. And collectively we spend about £378bn a year buying stuff in it. Sounds a lot, but the UK government spends about £754bn a year. There are also the various service and manufacturing and construction industries, agriculture, and so on – all of whom are also spending money that has implications for our local economy… implications like:
  • if/how people are employed, and so able to have money to spend
  • who owns the properties that shops rent, and we live in, (usually landlords aren’t locally based)
  • the extent to which we have options about where we bank, sign up to phone contracts, access health care and other services…

So you see, I’m not convinced that getting more of us to buy locally as consumers will have the transformative effect we all dream of, as there’s lots of ways in which money gets spent that we can’t keep local, and the spending decisions being made by others that dwarf the impact we can create by choosing to do so…

HOWEVER… what if the idea of Totally Locally started to target businesses in the same way is does to us as consumers? What if as well as encouraging us as individuals to buy local, we started to encourage each other to buy local when it comes to purchasing decisions in our various places of work as well - using the local stationary store instead of placing an order with Viking; going to a local insurance broker on the high street instead of using a price comparison website for our employer liability insurances? We could lever so much more money into our local economies, making them even stronger and more resilient…

But how to create such encouragement and celebrate it? Well, Totally Locally already makes various awards of recognition, but what if it started an award to businesses who manage to source the most of their purchases from other local businesses? As a local enterprise, I’ve been tracking the extent to which I’m able to procure goods and services for my businesses from with the local economy (which I count as being a 10-mile radius around where I live in Todmorden) – over the last 10 years, this has been 29% of all my spending(which given I travel throughout the UK to deliver my services to clients seems pretty good). 

Anyone able to top that?

Thursday, June 16, 2016

latest research suggests CICs are still trying to make their way in the wider world of social enterprise

So - as some of you know, I can be a bit of an anorak when it comes to sector governance, and statistics. Not just because my brain seems to enjoy doing it, but because I think that sometimes it's hard for us to get a proper understanding about what's really going on in our sector unless someone looks at published data afresh and offers an alternate view. (David Floyd and Nick Temple are both great at this, and also much more thorough too - I tend to look at headlines only here on my blog)

Anyway - every so often, someone publishes a survey about their part of the sector, and inevitably they never benchmark their charts against other peoples findings... This makes it hard to understand what might be really going on in the context of the 'bigger picture', and therefore how we can best support and celebrate each other.

So in spare half hours, I try and find a comparison against which to try and make sense of such published surveys.  Last time I did this was on the Big Potential programme from the Social Investment Business. Comparing their report of social ventures supported against the wider sector suggests that they've been very successful in engaging a 'new breed' of social enterprise.

But this time I'm interested in CICs, because the CIC Association has recently collated and published its 10 year survey of this form of social enterprise. Now, I want to be very open and honest here in that I've never been completely sold on the idea of this legal form for various reasons, but I've always been open as to why, and also supported some clients to gain this legal form (see other posts here tagged with 'CIC' for more).

The CIC Association survey contains lots of charts and headlines, and in trying to make sense of if these show this type of social enterprise to be in 'good health' or 'having some cause for concern' I've compared it to the wider Social Enterprise UK 'state of the sector' report.

But - a few words of caution before proceeding further:
1) the CIC survey was published in spring 2016, and the SEUK survey in autumn 2015 so there's bound to be a little 'drift' in the sector over that year
2) the CIC survey is concerned with CICs only; the SEUK report includes CICs as part of the wider response base, so there's also some variance and risk of some 'double counting'

However, for my own purposes and interests in trying to stimulate some wider discussion, I'm not too hung up on such technical variances as I think the 'broad brush' comparisons are what are interesting:

  • CICs are more likely to be trading directly with the public (75%) than other forms of social enterprise (30%)
  • CICs are more likely to fail in their applications for finance (43%) than other forms of social enterprise (20%)
  • CICs are more reliant on grants - 25% have them as their main income compared to 11% of other forms of social enterprise
  • CICs are likely to be smaller than other forms of social enterprise - most have turnovers under £10,000 compared to in excess of £50,000
  • CICs are more likely to be structured to have share capital (private ownership) than other forms of social enterprise (34% vs 11%)
  • Both CICs and other forms of social enterprise prefer grants as the preferred option for financing growth
  • Both CICs and other forms of social enterprise are likely to be micro enterprises (less than 10 employees)
  • Both CICs and other forms of social enterprise are growing year on year in similar ways (60% and 52% respectively)

So there's potentially some clear markers here that make CIC very different to their wider family of social enterprises (more public facing, more open to having private ownership), but also a lot of common ground too (size, growth, and preference for grants to support growth).

However, might there also be some contradictions emerging within this latest survey of CICs too? Potentially they could be seen as a weaker form compared to their 'cousins' in the wider sector, based on their being:
- more likely to be reliant on grants,
- seen as a riskier proposition by investors (based on the extent that they're able to access finance applied for),
- more likely to be marginal businesses (based on most having turnovers below what the average salary in the UK currently is..,)
- that 28% of CICs saying that this form has not had a positive effect on their business.

But its still relatively early days for CICs: while their 'honeymoon' period looks like it might be starting to wane, other forms of Social Enterprise have been around for a few hundred years longer, so investors and funders are probably still getting to grips with the CIC form.
And as I caveated earlier, the above are very much 'broad brush' findings that I've drawn out in a half hour over a cuppa.

However, my hope is that this will help to contribute to the wider discussion, debate, and further analysis. The aim of which should be to help us to better understand how to best support and encourage this (and other) form of social enterprise, so that they can realise their full potential. And in doing so, help bring about a slightly shinier, fluffier, and groovier world for all of us to enjoy.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

rebirth of a super hero?

3 years ago, I decided to try an experiment. As part of my overall approach to my personal CPD, I asked a selection of contacts what they thought my superpower was. Not because I wanted to be Batman (well, OK, I do - but who doesn't?), but because I'm genuinely interested in how I'm perceived professionally. And that's not for the sake of vanity but better understanding my 'personal brand', and what makes be special in an already crowded marketplace of advisors, consultants, and trainers.

3 years on, and I thought it was time to repeat the experiment - but this time with a twist. Not only did I ask people what they thought my superpower was (that thing which I can do better than anyone else, or makes me the first person people want to call in certain situations), but also what my 'kryptonite' is. What are the things which I'm powerless in the face of or which can seem to paralyse me. Some may see asking such a question as foolishness, but as part of my CPD I need to know what things really are beyond my reach, and what things I should invest in myself around.

So - 3 years on, and are my powers changed (necessitating a new costume perhaps?) or have a remained a constant 'professional'?

As before, I've collated and anonymised people's responses below, but the headlines seem to be:

- being a 'babel fish': able to translate complex ideas and technical jargon into simple to understand terms and concepts
- acting as a 'human google': having a breadth and depth of knowledge on a range of subjects (but it seems that none of them ever relate to the topics in pub quizzes)
- clearly living out personal and professional values that people admire
- having high ethical and professional standards, but also being able to be pragmatic
- I also liked the response of one particular person: "you're bloody awesome"!

- sometimes not making myself vulnerable with others (which could limit opportunities to build trust and deeper relationships)
- occasional risk of over-egging written documents (something I'm going to try and work on by tightening up my written prose in future!)
- nerves (although I tend to manage them well by doing things like dancing on tables when giving key note addresses...)

So - what do the rest of you think: are these a fair summation or are there things that I should be more aware of about myself? After all, it's only through being honest about who we are (the good and the not-so-good) that we can offer the best service and support, and ultimately do our bit to bringing about a slightly shinier, flufflier world for everyone to enjoy.

All responses - 

1) Clued up with the sector, seeks out collaberative approaches - toned down networking approach in informal settings, best to use in warm lead situations - Self-aware, genuine and positive attitude, which comes across.
It's apparent to me that you have worked incredibly hard to put your worldview/philosophy out into the soc ent world. I have an understanding that you have areas of knowledge and specialism that are in high demand e.g., intellectual property, and that you are incredibly giving to folk who ask (there must be limits of course). You are a straight talker.

2) Help people find answers for themselves, rather than doing it for them. Regularly reflect on your work, and that of others to learn and improve. Not setting yourself as 'the expert that knows it all'.
Your super power is your ability to take the complex process of setting up a business and to explain and break it down for people in an accessible way. You don’t use jargon, you meet people where they are at and you are incredibly approachable and generous with your time & expertise. People leave meeting you reassured about their next steps.

3) I'd say your super power is a hard one to put into words but a your wide breath of knowledge and ability to communicate it effectively to the audience at any chosen time with effective tools and examples. When I talk with you I see more things clearly and am able to absorb what you are saying without any barriers, understanding comes about naturally. I think this comes from many different skills that you have as an individual to long to list here.
Kryptonite - I struggle to think of something. Perhaps having only seen you do one or two workshops. But I'd say perhaps vulnerability...just a random one as nothing particularly stands out. An ability to trust in those you are communicating with deeper things about you. 
I would say as someone who is the font of knowledge and often the one in the know it would be good to know more deeply who you are and be able to connect with that on a more personal than just professional level. But you're bloody awesome and don't go changing 

4) Superpower? I don't think there's a single factor, more a combination of things. You are someone I feel I can work with - I put this down to the way you combine high ethical and professional standards with a pragmatic view of the work itself. Your own social impact reporting, CPD and overall commitment to the job is impressive and inspires trust. At the same time you recognise we're not in an ideal world, and can adapt to meet its imperfections and those of clients in order to get the best result.
I've also appreciated the fresh thinking and ideas you bring to our work.
Kryptonite? I don't think so. I can't think of any situation where you would flounder or panic. If you're looking for improvement ideas, the only thing I might suggest - and it's very minor - is written drafting. I have to confess that I've found a few of your drafts a bit wordy. I say this knowing I'm influenced by a one-day Plain English course I did several years ago. May be worth looking at if you've not already done so? Or google 'Gunning Fog Index' if you're not familiar with it. 
As I say this is a very minor point, and overall I've greatly appreciated working with you - mainly because we think in the same way and almost always come to the same conclusions independently. Thank you for what has been, and I'm sure will continue to be, an enjoyable experience

5) Knows everything yet keeps it simple. You don't over complicate things to make yourself look clever but the knowledge and willingness to help is outstanding. Sorry, no negatives.

6) Superpower: super enthusiasm! I have previously called upon you because you are super reliable, jolly,  you use your imagination and creativity to come up with ideas to inspire and develop the knowledge of others. You're also really well informed and I see you as an expert on co-ops.

Kryptonite: Hmm not sure what that is. But I remember you saying you were a little nervous at a high profile event ahead of the sessions and debate. Though you did also stand on a  table - to calm your nerves..?! 

Monday, May 23, 2016

what I've learned from being an enforced 'digital nomad'

As some of you may recall, along with thousands of others over the last Christmas period my family and I were hit by flooding. We had to move out of our home while it (and my 'home office') were restored.

5 months on and we're now back in, the furniture's out of storage, and we've nearly unpacked all the boxes, so it feels like a good time to pause and look back on what I'm taking from the experience of having been an enforced 'digital nomad':

- its easier to set up than you might realise
given the bulk of the work I do, I don't need much by way of specialist equipment or stock. I 'upgraded' my laptop and invested in a few extra toys, so can pretty much work anywhere now. I was initially worried about printing but realise that we print a lot more stuff than we need to out of habit and using cloud storage and such like, haven't been hampered by not having a printer to hand 24/7.
Now we're all back in the house, I realise just how many distractions there can be here, so am intending to remain as mobile with my 'office' as possible going forward.

- clients and other people can be very generous and patient
there seems to be an expectation that we're not allowed to hold up our hands in the business world and say we're struggling. But when I have (framing it in the context of recovering from having flooded), clients, collaborators, and suppliers, have all gone out of their way to try and lend a hand. That's even more true of fellow businesses who were also flooded.
The 'macho' image we present can sometimes get in the way of relationships in our business. I've found that taking the risk to show some vulnerability actually only strengthens links between us all.
I should also name check Gareth Nash of CMS here - at an event we both found ourselves at during this period, he took it upon himself to make sure that I got well fed and watered from the catering that had been laid on at it, in light of my not always knowing where my next meal was going to be...

- libraries can be great places (with the emphasis on 'can be'...)
there are countless hotdesking and coworking facilities out there, (and some offered me discounted rates on the basis of being flooded and wanting to show support). And while they can be fun places, I found libraries to be overlooked great places to work: big tables to spread all your notes and files out across, comfy chairs, good heating (and toilets!), and free wifi too. On the down side, heaven help you if you need to take or make a phone call, and the wifi usually blocks any file sharing or social media sites (unless its a private library like the Portico in Manchester).
On the issue of overlooked places I should also put in a mention for the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce members' lounge, as in addition to the tables, chairs, heating, free unrestricted wifi, and toilets, they also have sofas and free coffee! 

- hotel chains usually aren't worth it
I've found myself staying in a lot of hotels as I've bounced around the country over the last few months. I wish I could say that I picked them on the basis of their being independent local guest houses as part of my commitment to supporting local economies, but I'm afraid it was more pragmatic on the basis of relative location to train stations and client premises. And my experiences of having stayed in big brand chains to local cheap B&B's is that usually paying the extra for a posher stay isn't worth it. On the whole you seem to get better local knowledge, services, and value from the small local hotels that don't look as highly polished, but do at least seem genuinely interested in getting your feedback (and acting on it!)

- you get a lot fitter
I didn't have access to a car while the house was being restored (my family needed it to help with getting kids to school each day, shopping, etc) so I walked a lot more. And being a 'digitial nomal' meant carrying my office with me as well as my wardrobe for the week (up to 4 bags in total!). 
It meant I took up a lot more space on trains, but also made me realise how much stuff we usually carry around with us that we never use... But walking from train stations to clients premises and other venues isn't that arduous so as long as it's no more than about a mile and a half, so I intend to try and continue this habit.

- its more lonely and stressful than people let on
While my house was being restored, my family stayed with relatives, and my travelling around to meet clients and such like meant that it was only usually at the weekends when we got to properly spend time together as a family.
Being self-employed is stressful enough at the best of times for all sorts of reasons, but add to this being technically homeless, not knowing when your house will be ready for you to move back in, not being able to be around emotionally for your partner and kids... 

- you're always looking for the next plug socket...
There's an old saying amongst travellers that you should always eat well because  you never know when your next meal will be. As great as mobile devices and laptops are, they can't last as long without being topped us as we can go without food. And just as with hotels, it seems the coffee shop chains aren't as good as local independents when it comes to being able to offer us opportunities to 'plug in'.

- you can get away with a lot more...
and finally, using the rider "I've been flooded" means you seem to be able to get away with a lot more than you might otherwise feel able to. That's ranged from suggesting to clients that we meet in a pub, to getting suppliers to offer extended credit terms at no extra cost.
I've always been aware that I've pushed the norms of accepted business etiquette, but this will only encourage me to do so even more in the future!

I've always argued that it's important to allow ourselves opportunity to reflect on our experiences to see what we can take from them to our (and others') benefit in the future. And while everyone always agrees with the sentiment, its very rarely done.
Part of the reason that I committed to starting this blog 7 years ago was to allow me such opportunities for reflection - and to do so in way that is open in inviting your comments and contributions to them.

Given the severity and impact of the flooding that's had a massive impact on this valley, I hope that many of my fellow freelancers, self-employed, and other enterprises will find ways to similarly reflect on the experience of recovering their businesses as they start to get back to 'normal'. That's not just to help them think about how they build their resilience for any future knocks, but also as a wider encouragement to the rest of us too.