What price learning?

There’s a famous Mahatma Gandhi quote “Live as if you’ll die tomorrow, learn as if you’ll live forever.” I love it because it puts learning in its rightful place – at the heart of our lifelong journey.

This love of learning in its widest sense is exemplified by a social enterprise in Cambridgeshire – GAP Learning. The two creative sisters who run the enterprise sent me their newsletter some time ago and, with permission, I’ve reproduced it for this blog.

Austerity hits hard

Local authority budget cuts are visible everywhere. Brilliant organisations that provide meaningful social impact and community cohesion are lost. For example, more than 350 Sure Start children’s centres have closed in England since 2010; 45% of councils have cut provision for young people by around 30%. Public spaces are closing, social and essential services are experiencing crippling budget cuts. Closer to us, the Cambridge & District Volunteer Centre closes its doors tomorrow after 26 years; HOPE Social Enterprises in Huntingdon, a Craftworks venue, closed last month with the loss of their volunteer programme and shop. Everyone we partner within the training, advice and support world seems to be affected.

And Adult Learning (our world) will be doubly hit. Due to Brexit, the UK is losing the European Social Fund which part-funded almost all our free courses such as Fullspoon and Craftworks. What money there is, is increasingly difficult to secure with lengthy applications that, even if you have the fortune to win, have so many limitations attached the people you are trying to reach and support are knocked back by the sheer force of documentation and data gathering required for them to access the help. And if you’re a small charitable business, like GAP Learning, it’s tough out here with no credit rating or specialised departments. We’ll even have to say goodbye to our office in October.

But that’s what’s happening to us as a small business, it’s nothing compared to how some of our fellow humans are suffering and there will be no means to help them if things continue as they are: people facing cuts in welfare and benefits, people facing mental health challenges, people living with disabilities, people who are lonely and in need of a friend. There’s never been a better time for people to get together in their community to support one another. Teresa and I identified that people feel better when they make or create and that space to think is enough to see that changes can be good and necessary. We set about building a business that provided the means for people to get together to have fun, build passion and confidence and inspire hope in a future, whatever that may be.

Cambridgeshire County Council have been instrumental in enabling our work thus far and we will always be grateful for the opportunities they provided for us to support learners hardest to reach. We may have no contracts upcoming but we will not give up on our mission [see manifesto below]

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________

GAP Learning Manifesto

We will make positive change for the vulnerable, the unheard, the overlooked to give those without voices a means to communicate

We will create a sustainable business that puts people first – not the profit. We don’t give two hoots if you ticked the financially unviable box. We all have value

We are the change-makers, activators and will enable others via non-threatening, empathic, loving and caring means to open new ways to breathe

We are not commercial – we are utilitarian. We use sustainable materials to make products that will last. That have meaning. A purpose.  A beauty

We celebrate diversity. Not just recognise a random festival once in a while

We will not stand for racism, sexism and all other everyday isms that belittle, degrade or maintain control over others

We stand for Equal Opportunity for All.  The same mirror for each reflection – full and bright and clear

We recognise, support and partner individuals and companies that want to make a positive change in society

We value sisterhood. Family; Love; following your dreams; the small, quiet voice in the corner, in the shadow; the darkness

We value the symbiotic, natural world around us

Our language is clear (for those over eight years old).

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

A hopeful future

Our idea is to become sustainable as quickly as possible by selling goods and services. We’ve been getting the Craftworks Rocks ready – with new branding and everything and are actively looking for venues to host a box for us.

We will develop more corporate and paid-for workshops but of course we will still look for small grant pots to run stand-alone projects. In fact, we’ve got a new project The Fixing Shop funded by Santander Foundation starting over the summer.

*     *      *      *     *

If you take a look at the Gap Learning website (http://gaplearning.co.uk) you’ll get a good idea at what’s at stake here. And while you’re there, check out ‘She Loves him tho’’ for another demonstration of the sisters’ creativity.

As Teresa and Amanda point out, what’s happening at GAP Learning is, sadly, nothing special. The current cuts have no respect for quality. But I’m sure they would love to hear your thoughts on possible ways out of their current sticky patch. I know the sisters won’t be giving up and you could be part of their fight!

STOP PRESS: A recent [ 7 July 2017] newspaper headline confirms how budget cuts are hitting local services for young people –  Council plans to scrap four dedicated children’s centres in Cambridge and 15 others across county in bid to save £1million www.cambridge-news.co.uk/news/cambridge-news/childrens-centres-cambridgeshire-county-council–13291759  and there’s a petition against the closures  www.cambridgelibdems.org.uk/no_childrens_centre_cuts

Read more about Teresa and Amanda at:

https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2016/03/01/gap-learning-a-growing-family

https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/fast-food-for-hungry-learners

https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/putting-a-price-on-hidden-talent

By birthday bucket list – part 1

My mate is thinking about his mortality. ‘Not in a morbid sort of way’ he says, and I don’t think he has a fatal illness or is contemplating suicide. He’s a couple of years older than me and he’s been retired for a few years. He’s busier than ever, but we find time to meet up for a drink and a chat at least every other week.

We’d been in the pub and I said I thought that watching sport of any kind (live or on TV) was never a waste of time. Said friend is probably more interested in sport than I am (but not more sporty; something different) but he disagreed with my view about watching sport, that given his limited lifespan, he was already thinking about the best use of his time.

This revelation comes hot on the heels of a piece by writer Oliver Burkeman on the current view that happiness comes from buying experiences rather than things, and a powerful (moving and amusing in equal measure) TED Talk on why having a bucket list is a bad idea.

Which brings me to my birthday bucket list.

Over the past year I’ve unintentionally compiled a short list of four things I want to do in August. Doing one a week during the month seems logical but it might not work out like that. The experiences are free or low-cost and I have no doubt the level of pleasure will bear no relation to the price. They are, in no particular order (as they say):

Visit Scott’s Grotto: Scott’s Grotto is a semi-subterranean ‘chapel’. Apparently its walls are lined with thousands of sea shells – something that’s not as unusual as you might think.  It’s only open certain days of the year, is off the beaten track, but it’s just 18 miles from my home and I’ve been meaning to visit for the past 23 years. Better late than never?

Sleep under the stars; This is not a first for me, but it’s quite a unique experience to hear the animals shuffling around you in the darkness, getting woken by birds long before dawn, and discovering how wet dew can be if you don’t have a tarpaulin cover.

Discover Hitchin Lavender; I’ve lived 17 miles from Hitchin for more than 23 years. I’ve visited Yorkshire Lavender in a place called Terrington many times, but never Hitchin Lavender. Enough said?

Watch badgers: This, badgers permitting, is potentially the most exciting. I only discovered it was possible to do it in a semi-organised way this year. I’m not going to tell you where it is in case you get there first on the very night I want to be communing with the nocturnal wildlife alone.

So that’s my birthday bucket list – no ‘challenges’ – I really don’t think pleasure increases with effort. No thought of death – if anything it’s a celebration of life.  Watch this space for part 2 of this blog in September when I’ll let you know how I got on

Further reading and listening:

Oliver Burkeman on happiness www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jul/21/can-buy-happiness-spending-experiences

Edward Readicker-Henderson ‘Kill your bucket list’ www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4HMflefoF0  

What makes a great business plan?

There’s no right and wrong way to write a business plan. It’s about getting the job done – which is probably to make the best case to readers (investors, collaborators, potential customers) to persuade them to support you and your business idea.

Below are 10 questions that most business plans should aim to answer…

  1. Why are you the right person to be setting up in business? What’s your personal and professional situation – relevant life experience/ relevant training and work experience. What are your interests outside of work but relevant to your business success? 
  1. Why is this business particularly attractive to you? What’s the source of your passion – personal and professional? Why you will put in the extra effort and time to succeed when the going gets tough?
  1. Who will buy your products or services? Define your target market/s in a meaningful way (their demographics, attitudes, behaviours)
  1. Why will people want to buy your products/services? What ‘needs’ do your product/ service meet? And what ‘wants’ will you satisfy such that people will buy from you rather than your competitors?  
  1. How do you know that there is demand for your products and services? Explain your market research – show real, meaningful evidence of there being enough people willing to pay for your product/service. The views of your friends and family don’t count! The best market research is test-trading
  1. How will your business plan show the figures add up (with more income than expenditure)? This is your best estimate to show there are enough people willing to spend enough money to allow you to pay your bills (use your market research and cost/sales estimates to make the case ) 
  1. What is ‘plan B’ if things don’t turn out as planned? Will you … Scale down? Slow down? Do something slightly different? Do something completely different?  
  1. How do you know the overall business idea is realistic? Can you point to others doing the same thing successfully? How self-aware are you about your strengths and ways to compensate for your weaknesses? 
  1. How will you monitor the performance of your business? How will you know how well you’re doing? This is about more than just money – the ‘bottom line’. Will you set targets and milestones, identify relevant measures – outputs and outcomes – over the short/medium/long term.
  1. What will success look like? Imagine yourself in 12 months – what will a typical day / week look like? What‘s your vision for the period covered by your business plan?

 General advice:

  • Show development stages in your business plan. Targets for month 3, month 6, and month 12 perhaps
  • Make your plan sound certain (be positive but realistic and honest) even if some elements are not very fixed
  • Keep it simple – write for a 12 year old with no knowledge of you/ your business Quality is more important than quantity
  • Know where your figures come from (and explain the main assumptions in your plan)
  • Add other materials, such as photos, at the end if it helps the reader get a better grasp of you and your business idea.

Further reading:  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/04/28/the-business-plan-paradox/

Green and Grey Repurpose – hanging around

In early May I was in York waiting to meet a group of former school friends (yes, some of us are still in touch after over 40 years) for a meal. By chance, opposite the restaurant I noticed a shop  that was closing down – everything must go etc.

I’m always one for a bargain and, it being a camping and outdoors outlet, I was sure I’d find something to match my interest in running and walking.

There were some great discounts – the shop was due to close in a matter of days – but it was a box of wooden coat-hangers being sold off in bundles that attracted my attention. Five minutes later I was poorer by £6 but richer by 30 wooden hangers. I’d already seen ideas for re-purposing them on the internet and, at 20 pence each, I could afford to make a mistake or two.

Anyone can look online for inspiration and there are some great examples of how people have made weird and wonderful creations from this humble, but well-crafted piece of kit. They may look mass produced but I soon discovered that many of the coathangers I’d bought were slightly different which adds interest and a challenge.

My first bargain souvenir creation from York is a ‘hanger-hanger’. Based on one I’d seen elsewhere I’ve added my own design feature. I’m happy with the way it’s turned out but functionality has always been my test for re-purposing projects and it works particularly well on that front.

Next up is a simple small table using four hangers, but I’ve also seen lampshades made from coathangers, a plate rack, and even a coathanger chair (I hope it’s more comfortable than it looks!)

 

So, next time you’re hanging around keep your eyes and mind open – you might find inspiration for a creative project in the most unlikely place when you’re least expecting it – I did.

For other re-purposing projects go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/green-grey-repurpose 

Get real

Reviewing Create Special – a new book on entrepreneurship

Writing a book for would-be entrepreneurs is not easy if you care about the people with the business ideas more than your reputation as a writer.

It’s easy to write a book along the lines of ‘if you care enough and want it enough you’ll get there’ and bookshop shelves show that many do – no doubt reflecting the famous-for-15-minutes-talent-show-con that pervades our TVs (ably assisted by series like The Apprentice)

It’s harder to write a book about the reality of starting a business – with all the pain that can inflict – because you risk putting off the very readers you hope will be inspired by your writing to rise above the barriers, reach for the stars, and be the best they can be (see, I’m getting carried away with that sort of bullshit myself).

Yes – passion and self-belief are important ingredients in any business start-up (why else would you put in the necessary slog to give your enterprise the best chance of success?) but it’s certainly not enough.

I come to be writing this review of Create Special by Jim Duffy though my day-job helping young people explore the world of enterprise and to start their own businesses if that’s the route they chose to take. I should declare an interest here – author Jim Duffy founded Entrepreneurial Spark – a network of business start-up incubators powered by [as they say] NatWest Bank around the UK, and I’m pleased and grateful to have access to one of those incubators, in Milton Keynes, for working with some of the young people who may become business owners of the future.

Ultimately, I feel it’s a disservice to anyone with a business idea to pretend that everyone can be successful if they try hard enough. There are able and less able people out there, and there are certainly good and bad business ideas. Even the best people with the best ideas can fail for very good reasons. For young people who lead complicated lives and have more obstacles than most to achieving business success, it’s dangerous to set them up to fail. Equally it’s also unhelpful to dismiss their abilities, as many authority figures have probably done already in their short lives.

So, in reviewing Create Special, I have a particular interest in assessing how well Jim Duffy has walked that tightrope – to balance inspiration and information – and whether this is a book for young people whom the system has failed and sent to the back of the queue.

I’ve already mentioned business bullshit and I think Jim Duffy scores pretty well on that (by which I mean low). As a lifelong bull-fighter against lazy language, I have my ‘red rag words’ – like ‘engage’ and ‘deliver’ which are meaningless without more detail (that then makes them redundant). Another, newer ‘d’ word I dislike is ‘disruptive’ – I think it’s often used to make something (or someone) sound more interesting than it/he/she is – like ‘new’ and ‘exciting’.

Jim Duffy gets as far as page 9 before using ‘disrupt’. I know lots of disruptive young people but you wouldn’t want them behaving like that in your business incubator! Yes – I’m the first to admit I’m a grumpy old pedant when it comes to language and communication.

Another bugbear of mine is the image surrounding entrepreneurs (particularly social entrepreneurs – about whom I’ve written in earlier blogs).  Awards, and not a few TV programmes with self-promoting, young (and often male) presenters are designed to give entrepreneurship (not quite the oldest profession… but one of them) an edgy and, dare I say it, ‘disruptive’ feel. While this is great for attracting young and young-at-heart entrepreneurs to give it a go, we need to guard against raising those false expectations.

While I think Jim Duffy comes close to presenting entrepreneurs as somehow super-human, he redeems himself by suggesting that creativity can be nurtured as well as being bestowed by nature and Channel 4. Also, that once developed, creative skills can be a real asset for navigating life in general as well as the world of business start-ups. I always say that a failed business start-up and the problem-solving skills it develops, can be a great springboard for later life.

In the world of entrepreneurship, case studies abound with the true tales of people who have overcome all sorts of physical and mental disadvantages to achieve business success (often defined as being wealthy beyond belief). And I’m not knocking them; such stories of success in the face of adversity make good copy and give hope to us all.

But whether you measure achievement in £-s-d or in some other way, I suspect that most successful businesses start from positions of relative privilege –  in university settings, in families where business is in the blood, in households where friends and family support – with contacts if not cash – in the early years.

A generalisation perhaps, but when working with young people who have an overlay of disadvantages such that turning up to a business advice session at an agreed time is itself an achievement, that starting point is important. In a section on focus, Jim Duffy suggests readers  could ‘lock yourself away in a remote cottage’ as one way to avoid distractions. Since even having a quiet space at home in which to write a business plan is on a wish-list for some of the young people I know, I’m delighted that Duffy also suggests you can shut the door to your study [or bedroom, or kitchen?] He also makes the case for having a notebook (and not necessarily one of the Mac variety…)  in which to write the right kind of #GoDo to-do lists; high-tech is not always best.

They say that parents should give their children ‘roots to grow and wings to fly’ and I think that in Create Special Jim Duffy just about gets the right balance between information for growing and inspiration for flying.  I regret that I came to entrepreneurship, and the creativity and problem-solving skills that places like Jim Duffy and NatWest’s Entrepreneurial Spark can unlock, relatively late in life. But it’s never too late to start – go create!

If you order a copy of Create Special online from Hive, you also support high street bookshops… http://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Jim-Duffy/Create-Special–Think-and-Act-Like-an-Entrepreneur-to-Change-Your-Life/20820428

On social entrepreneurs  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2013/12/21/slowing-the-spin-about-social-entrepreneurs

When John Noakes came to dinner

The death of a ‘TV personality’ who has been out of the public eye for a long time inevitably brings out reminiscences that have lain dormant for many years. Not so with John Noakes, a presenter with the renowned children’s TV programme Blue Peter from 1965 – 1978.

It was only last week I was thinking about Noakes when discussing after-dinner speakers with a group of young would-be entrepreneurs developing ‘elevator pitches’ to describe their business ideas.

Back in the late 70s when at university in London, I was involved with the Geographical Society –  an excuse for having fun rather than doing anything particularly geographical. Inviting John Noakes to speak at our annual black-tie Geography Society Dinner had started as a joke…  No one was more surprised than the organising committee when the great man agreed to attend (I seem to remember we discovered a connection with one of our fellow geographers which may have helped).

All went according to plan and he performed well, as you’d expect from a professional, although I now learn he was really quite shy and regarded each public appearance as ‘a performance’ as befits the trained actor he was. Four decades later I can only remember he spoke about his love of sailing. This was some years before his two failed attempts to circumnavigate the world. The second attempt in 1984 included a planned three-day stopover in Majorca where, instead of taking to the high seas, he stayed for the rest of his life.

Remembering that John Noakes talked about sailing is more than I can say about an after-dinner speaker at another Geographical Society Dinner. This time we had invited a professional public speaker (I don’t know how we could afford to have him there). To be fair, he did promise we’d remember nothing about his talk just moments before doing his party piece – clearing a space on the dining table in front of him before performing a headstand. His name was Gyles Brandreth and he’s quite right – I remember nothing other than his headstand!

I use that headstand as an example of a hook to grab audience interest when making a presentation. I suspect that the young entrepreneurs with whom I shared it will not be imitating Gyles Brandreth to grab attention at their next business pitches, but even something a little less dramatic will show they were listening to mine.

Is teamwork overrated?

“It takes three weeks to prepare an impromptu speech” Mark Twain

One of my hobbies is preparing ‘off the cuff’ responses to jargon-ridden (usually in business) bullshit. I already knew the “but there is ‘me’” response to the classic “there’s no ‘I’ in team”.

Now, thanks to writer Steven Poole, I know two more retorts – “but there are five in ‘individually brilliant’” and (as Poole puts is) a more forthright response “but there is a * in c*nt” (I’m saving the blushes of more delicate readers here)

I once worked with someone who, four years after leaving the Air Force (where I’m sure they go large on teamwork) had set up a successful social enterprise to meet a local need. He’d bypassed the local community and, when asked why he hadn’t involved other people – the politically-correct, textbook thing to do –  he replied “If I had, a committee would still be trying to agree a name for the enterprise.”

Throughout my career, my instinct has been to go down the collaborative route – probably related to my pacifist Quaker upbringing that advocates consensus as the route to conflict resolution. I still believe we can ultimately do more together than alone but, in the past decade, I’ve concluded that life is too short and real needs too great to wait to get everyone on board. A more productive approach (albeit potentially less sustainable in the long run) is to ‘just do it’ and bring in others later – on the principle that people want to be associated with successful initiatives and they will follow the ‘early adopters’.

Where I think that teamwork is essential is in bringing companionship into the office environment – mutual support that’s particularly vital when involved in emotionally-draining occupations.

Which is why I despair that some short-sighted policy wonk from on high is wreaking havoc with the morale of health service professionals by suggesting they take their laptops and ‘go mobile’ by working in their cars and at home. While this is no doubt meant to save the NHS on office costs, the result is that workers are leaving the Health Service in droves; it’s making them ill.

To read the worst examples of office jargon  http://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Steven-Poole/Who-Touched-Base-in-my-Thought-Shower–A-Treasury-of-Unbe/15772172