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.

Monday, October 24, 2016

accidentally becoming a 'specialist masseur'...

Over the last few weeks, I've been slowly moving bits of furniture, crates of files, and boxes of books by hand across Todmorden's town centre - not (just) for the exercise, but because I've recently taken on an 'office suite'!
My "working office" is now not only 2 rooms, but also a corridor and exclusive toilet (up to now, I was renting a single room on a 3rd floor with no lift and shared everything...). 

So why the move and commitment to additional costs at a time when according to various surveys business confidence is low, owners are looking to cut costs, and the general scene is gloomy for most small businesses - especially in my home town where many enterprises are still struggling to recover from the floods that hit us 10 months ago?

Well, there's a few reasons I thought it was important to invest in larger premises at this time:

1 - the room I was renting was getting a 'bit full'...

2 - if other businesses are struggling its because people aren't spending money. And people aren't spending money because they see other businesses struggling... by making a public show of 'moving up', I can hopefully help instil a little more confidence in the wider business community

3 - the premises had been vacant since the start of the year. In being based in the middle of the town, empty properties make for unappealing vistas for people and visitors, which makes it a less enjoyable place to live, work, and visit (see point 2)

4 - it's an excuse to hold an office warming party (invites going out soon...): a reason for some impromptu networking and unashamed self-publicity

5 - I have an idea that these particular offices also enhance my brand of being "not your typical consultant": the previous tenants used the rooms to offer specialist massage therapies, and the windows are largely still signed to reflect this... there was something about being named as one the of the UK's top enterprise advisors and apparently working out of a massage parlour that seemed too good an opportunity not to pass on...

There's also a 6th reason, which I suspect only some of you will get if you can spot the reference from what my 'new address' is... 

Monday, September 26, 2016

debt, decommissioning, and death - the dark side of social entrepreneurship...

As a sector, social enterprise always seems to be talking about upbeat and positive stories - you never really hear about chief execs running off with pension funds, administrators foreclosing the business causing the loss of hundreds of jobs, or things like the government having to bail them out...

And I've an idea that that's because as a sector, there's a lot of political agenda being acted out, and that's led to a sense that we can't talk about failure or difficulty - because that would go against the narrative that the sector is trying to present to the wider world.

But that's surely a dangerous thing? If we're not open about the 'tough stuff" that goes on - the failures, the losses, the pain, then how can we hope to develop a generation of social entrepreneurs who are truly realistic about the marketplaces that they're leading their ventures into, and what may be asked of them personally if they're to be able to make a success of it all?

There are signs of hope though - the rise of "FuckUp nights", a model of support to help entrepreneurs recover from failure, that we've imported from our American cousins. And I was also greatly encouraged from recently being able to participate in part of a 12 month national programme of support for social entrepreneurs: all the ventures being supported through the programme meet together once a month and the first thing they do is share what they've been struggling with - not as a ploy to gain faux sympathies, but as a powerful model to build supportive relationships through showing vulnerability, and allowing opportunities for their peers to reciprocate by sharing in turn when they've faced similar and how they tried to deal with it.

And the struggles people share aren't what you might expect based on the messages and stories usually coming out of the sector - it's a hard shock to some to hear about:

  • how fellow entrepreneurs have found themselves taking on debt that they now can't repay; 
  • how despite the push for us all to pursue public sector contracts, those services we win and deliver are being increasingly decommissioned, leaving ventures with a business model that no longer works and no obvious way to continue the support they've been able to offer; 
  • and the loneliness of being an entrepreneur when a close family member dies - working the grief and pain that's felt, while at the same time trying to also keep a fledgling venture running and support its staff and clients...

Social enterprise, like any other form of business, is tough. And we're surely only setting up future social entrepreneurs to fail if we don't encourage each other to be more open and honest about how tough it can really be sometimes?

Monday, September 5, 2016

How far is my social impact reporting really 'fit for purpose'...?

Most people may be aware that to my knowledge I’m the only freelance consultant globally to openly and annually publish a social impact report on myself. And while it attracts widespread interest and applause every time I do, I always struggle to make sense of how well the framework I’ve developed is ‘fit for purpose’ (there is no reporting standard for sole traders), and how far I should take pride in my ‘results’ (no other freelance consultants’ generate impact reports to hold mine against).

While I’ve started to make some firm plans for addressing the bench-marking of results question from next year, I took the opportunity to take the Social Value Self Assessment Tool to see how well I’ve actually thought through my framework, measures, and overall approach - https://socialvalueselfassessmenttool.org

Like all ‘multiple choice quizzes’ there’s some assumptions and bias in the questions which I recognise – it assumes that you’re incorporated with staff (I’m not), that you have ongoing contact with a core group of customers (I very rarely do), and that you have a small number of activities you offer support through (I have lots…). However, it’s a useful starting point and echoes some of what I already suspected: that I’m highly transparent, but struggle to engage stakeholders over the long-term and so have access to wider data sets to help identify how far my contributions contributed to the final generated impacts clients tell me about:

So – an overall ‘score’ of 56% may not seem great. But the tool allows you to benchmark your overall result against a number of others by sector, turnover, and type of activity.

Bench-marking my result against these others in this way suddenly shows that actually 56% means I’m still showing leading practice in how I’m going about reporting my social impacts:
  • Similar aged businesses to mine = 30%
  • Private businesses in general = 31%
  • Other businesses with a similar turnover to me = 34%
  • Other businesses offering enterprise support = 21%
  • All UK based organisations = 33%

So – all in all, still room for improvement (which stops me getting complacent), but potentially ‘top of the class’?

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..?!