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?