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.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-  Discovering chocolate covered crackling…

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

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

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