Monthly Archives: December 2013

Selling the story behind the product

locally grownIf you’re selling products to the public, do you tell the story behind them? If not, you could be missing a trick…

Many years ago I gave my sister a mirror for her birthday. She didn’t really need one of course, but she still values it more than any other (and not because it came from me) or so she says. I bought the mirror because it was a thing of beauty with a unique back-story. Removed from a pre-loved piece of furniture, it had been hand-painted (a wonderful underwater scene) by an ex-offender, and sold at a ridiculously low price to help sustain a furniture re-use and training scheme.

I knew the social enterprise doing the selling and told them that, if their mirrors had the back-story printed on a label, they could charge more for them. Adding value is important for social enterprises, as is differentiation from the competition. Here was a no-cost promotional opportunity to increase income not being taken; I advised them to do something about it.

I went home, typed up my own label with the story behind the mirror, added the website for the social enterprise, and stuck it on the back.

I actually believe the labels had been left off the mirrors by default rather than by design, but some social enterprises make a conscious decision not to tell the story behind their products, particularly when they’re made by groups of people considered to be ‘vulnerable’. They want items to be appreciated for the craftwork; to focus on the ability, not the disability, of the people who have created them. They want sales to be based on quality, not sentiment, and maybe they think there’s something mildly exploitative about shining a spotlight on the producers.

Another politically correct argument that’s sometimes used for not focusing on the people behind the products is that it protects their privacy. Personally, I think this is a cop-out; it’s possible to preserve anonymity – by using first names and carefully taken photos – while also highlighting how real people benefit from the learning and work experience with the social enterprise.

I acknowledge that people taking such a principled stand are usually well-meaning, but I think they’re wrong. It flies in the face of commercial sense to negate a unique selling point – something to distinguish your offering from the competition and to appeal to the emotional dimension in every buying decision. Sensitively telling the story behind each product – with the agreement of the producers – will not only raise more money to sustain the enterprise, it can also raise the self-esteem of people too often ‘invisible’ in the public eye.

PS The furniture re-use scheme ignored my advice and, for different reasons, went out of business at the end of 2013.

An earlier version of this blog appeared on the Social Enterprise East of England website. Check out the SEEE blog at

A great source of bright ideas

“Life’s too short to make all the mistakes yourself”

In the 15 or so years I’ve been advising not-for-private-profit organisations on funding, marketing and general business development, I’ve constantly been at risk of putting myself out of a job by recommending people look elsewhere for relevant expertise.

Yes, there’s an important role for an enlightened and interested, but disinterested, outsider to probe and encourage reflection, but I’m also a wholehearted advocate of peer-to-peer support. Whenever someone asks me about, for example, registering as a Community Interest Company – it happens more often than you’d think – I suggest they talk to existing CICs (thank you ChildUK for fielding many such referrals over the years).

And I have happy memories of a series of ‘experts by experience’ workshops I organised while at Social Enterprise East of England. Community Cafes and Furniture Re-use Schemes were just two of the days that brought together people who were doing it and others who were ‘thinking about doing it’. The exchanges were stimulating and the learning was far from one-way; everyone picked up new ideas, even the old hands.

Santander-_Logo (2)Which is a roundabout way of explaining why I was so pleased to discover that social entrepreneur support organisation UnLtd and Santander have got together to promote peer-to-peer support through the Spark Award scheme. The website asks Do you have an idea which could bring social entrepreneurs together to support each other? Or do you want to test a hunch for how social enterprises can come together to grow the market place?’

UnLtd-AwardWinner_FullColour_3000px (2)

I’m equally delighted to say that I’ve recently been successful in my application for a Spark Award – to learn and share ideas around enterprise in Men’s Sheds.

So, in early 2014, we’ll hire a mini-bus for a ‘Shed Crawl’ taking people from south-west Herts to visit Sheds in Beds and Bucks (there aren’t any in Herts…yet). I sincerely believe that showing people how it’s already being done is the best way to sell the Shed concept as a potentially-viable business that is already – seeing is believing – tackling isolation and loneliness in older men.

In the spirit of sharing (and as required of Spark Award winners) I’ll be posting our learning in  future blogs and disseminating ideas through the newly formed UK Men’s Sheds Association. So watch this space.

Further information:

Spark Awards –

UK Men’s Sheds Association –

Child UK –

Life, work and fun – career coaching with a twist

Experts by Experience: Profiles of entrepreneurs at different stages on their journeys, identifying and sharing some universal truths along the way.

When I was growing up near Liverpool, we went to the circus when it was in town and I still sense the smells and excitement. But my lasting memory from the big top is not of the performers and animals (yes – they had animals in those days) but of the person gathering up all the coats that had been dropped, intentionally or otherwise, between the tiered seats onto the grass below. It was always a challenge to re-unite the coats and scarves with their owners.

saff_photoThe challenge for Saffron Fidgett is to match jobseekers – from young apprentice school-leavers and new university graduates, to executives looking for a change in their late 30’s – to a career they’ll love. As Saffron notes “Someone starting their career now probably won’t be able to retire until they’re in their 70s, so they have to be able to enjoy it!”

The enjoyment starts with the coaching that Saffron offers to clients who want to put fun back into their working lives. Making work enjoyable also makes good practical sense as humour engages both sides of the brain – the left logical side and the right creative side – meaning we learn better.

A big clue about the source of this fun is in the name of the coaching business in the spotlight here – Career Circus Ltd. This doesn’t mean staff turn up to work with big red noses and baggy trousers, but they do focus on circus skills that transfer across to business success; team-work, risk-taking and the art of performance, to name three.

cc_logo“The circus idea arose because I wanted young people to think of their careers as being a fun element in their lives” explains Saffron. “The approach – working one-to-one and in groups – revolves around pro-active coaching, self-reflection, and action planning. We incorporate circus themes into our workshops with ‘Skills Showdown’ where teams have timed tasks – including juggling, speed interviewing and brain teasers – exploring themes such as collaboration, communication, and leadership.”

For Saffron, the key to career success is for clients to find out what they enjoy (which tends to be things they’re good at) and pursue that. Assuming a client isn’t a lone-working Jack and Jill of all trades, collaboration with others becomes essential. Saffron herself has recently expanded her team to free her up to do the things she most enjoys, leaving finance and administration to those who love that kind of work.

By taking her own advice, Saffron has re-ignited the fun in her own career. “I can now concentrate on doing the bits I enjoy and do well – it’s more efficient and enjoyable for everyone.”

I wonder what that coat-gatherer is doing now…

Follow Saffron and Career Circus at,,  and Career Circus LinkedIn group

Saffron is in the 2013-14 cohort of learners with the School for Social Entrepreneurs on
the Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs Programme at the Eastern Enterprise Hub in

Slowing the spin about social entrepreneurs

I tend to be a little suspicious of people who call themselves social entrepreneurs; I personally think it’s for others to use that description. It’s also been, in my opinion, too narrowly defined as someone who starts a social enterprise. I believe a social entrepreneur is someone who mobilises resources and – jargon alert – empowers others to make a difference, often in a community setting. That mobilisation may or may not be around a business idea.

And I think the School for Social Entrepreneurs [currently supporting me through a 12 month Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs start-up programme at the Eastern Enterprise Hub in Ipswich] would agree with me.

Welldone l1People have written elsewhere about the dangers of would-be entrepreneurs believing the hype that people who start social enterprises have some god-given right to succeed. Some of the blame is laid at the foot of those annual awards ceremonies; the social enterprise sector has its fair share of them. I’m all for celebrating success, but I know of at least one case where a national award winner was out of business less than two years later!

If I sound like a grumpy old git (I’m 58 but not old or grumpy) I don’t mean to and I’m not alone in my views. I was chatting recently about older entrepreneurs with a (much younger) staff member of a social enterprise support organisation. She made an insightful distinction between the views of younger and older entrepreneurs as the difference between new parents and grandparents. The new parent/entrepreneur thinks their baby/enterprise is beyond criticism, the grandparent is equally passionate but tends to be more objective and measured – ‘a different energy’ was how she described it.

Entrepreneurs of all kinds have been around for generations – some are remarkable, most are not.  Maybe it’s time to get our feet firmly back on the ground and get back to basics?

Michael Gerber, US small business adviser and writer, has made a name for himself by coining a concept – the E-myth [where E is for ‘entrepreneurial’]. He has shared his theory in books – I came across his ideas in The E-myth Revisited’ – talks and paid consultancy around the world. Nice work if you can get it, but I’m not knocking his success because I think the E-myth is sound and it’s beautifully simple to grasp.

In essence, the E-myth is ‘Just because you can bake a cake doesn’t mean you can run a bakery’.

Yes – we’ve all heard of people who’ve turned a hobby into a business but this is probably not typical and do we ever hear how long those often home-based (or should that be half-baked?) businesses survive?

Gerber argues that in all his years of studying small business start-ups, the most common factor in determining their success or failure is how quickly the entrepreneur recognises what s/he is not good at, and then takes steps to remedy any shortfall.

He suggests that there are three broad roles in any start-up – the entrepreneur (for vision and ideas), the technician (rolling up sleeves and doing) and the manager (bringing all the different elements of the business together). Assuming the entrepreneur hasn’t got all those skills in equal measure (and unlimited time) they will need to beg, steal or borrow them by bringing in others as soon as they can afford to do so, maybe sooner.

As always, I suppose it’s about balance – being positive and quietly confident, enjoying any sincere praise that comes your way, but seriously listening to and assessing constructive criticisms. How balanced are you?

For more on the cult of the social entrepreneur, see and

Close to homelessness

Experts by Experience: Profiles of entrepreneurs at different stages on their journeys, identifying and sharing some universal truths along the way.

The chief executive of a charity providing supported housing once told me that we are all just three steps removed from homelessness. Like the domino effect, one setback – long term illness, a relationship breakdown – can lead to another and, surprisingly quickly, things can get out of hand and spiral downwards.

And that’s talking about the risk to the average employed, educated, worldly-wise, home-owning adult. So just think how much easier it is for the 16 – 24 year olds that come through Rebecca White’s door (or, more likely, whom she meets while out and about) to become homeless.

Rebecca WhiteRebecca runs Your Own Place CIC – a new Community Interest Company operating across Norfolk, with a long term ambition to export her ways of working beyond the county boundary.

It was her experience as a teacher in London – when she found she was most interested in the classroom trouble-makers – that led her to look beyond the school gates at the causes behind the errant behaviour.

Working with young people in and out of offender institutions, with gangs on the streets of south London, and with those for whom life was simply an uphill struggle, Rebecca discovered the importance of trust and reliability.

“My USP [unique selling point] is how I relate to young people. It shouldn’t be a USP, but I can empathise with them despite my less-troubled upbringing. It’s about being trusted – doing what I say I’m going to do. Reliability is important when other people have let them down. With a relationship you can move forward – but you must build that relationship first.

Once the relationship has been nurtured, Your Own Place makes a range of what Rebecca calls ‘interventions’; a word that probably sounds more clinical than it’s meant to. For most young people, getting their first place is both exciting and daunting. They need to learn new skills in money management, to find their way around the benefit and housing systems, and to understand the rights and responsibilities of having a tenancy. Add to that the knowhow for managing a home – basic DIY, cooking on a budget – and you can see the part that Your Own Place plays in developing skills that, in Rebecca’s own words, “go towards leading a successful life in your first home”.  

YourOwnPlace logoBacked by a Board that share her values, and targeting contacts in key roles, Rebecca is positive about local authority commitment to the principle of early intervention to prevent homelessness and limit the associated costs to society, communities and individuals down the line.

She also believes the Third Sector has a massive, often under-estimated, role to play in working with young people. These people may be suspicious of authority having fallen through cracks in the system; Third Sector provision can help break down some of the barriers.  But collaborations must be high quality to build trust and confidence – a resource-intensive requirement when budgets are stretched and demand is growing.

The talk turns from building trust, and the importance of being a ‘reliable constant’, to the danger of fostering dependency. There is no guarantee that Rebecca will be around when she’s most needed and the answer, she believes, is in developing peer-to-peer support. “Peer mentoring could be very powerful. Young people with their first tenancies could mentor others – learning and growing together to a stage where they run workshops in small groups – people learn best from their peers.”

All entrepreneurs start out with no guarantee of success for their enterprises. For those with a strong social purpose, there’s the added responsibility of providing support for potentially vulnerable people that may ultimately be too costly to sustain. For Rebecca, it’s this responsibility that, for her, makes access to education and other progression routes as important as the peer mentors and social workers. “It’s about knowing who’s out there to support you when you wobble.”  

Follow Rebecca and Your Own Place at

Rebecca is in the 2013-14 cohort of learners with the School for Social Entrepreneurs on
the Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs Programme at the Eastern Enterprise Hub in

The week before Christmas – a marketing tip

Caribbean guidesMany years ago – before mass marketing by e-mail and when the fax machine was in its (brief) heyday – the Royal Mail advised me to do some business-to-business promotion in the week before Christmas. Their argument was that most businesses don’t use this time for marketing so I’d have a better chance of being heard. It worked better than any of my arms-length marketing before or since during a 35 year career!

I was selling books at the time – including a series of ‘alternative’ guides to the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. I wanted to get 50 travel companies (that I knew sent travellers to the countries covered by our books) to send our publicity to their customers.

I hadn’t any money to offer them, so it was a challenge. I decided to make those 50 companies an offer they couldn’t refuse – I sent each of them a fax with three questions:

–          Do you send travellers to Latin America and the Caribbean [Yes]

–          Would you like to reach 5,000 people with a declared interest in Latin America and the Caribbean with your publicity? [Of course]

–          Would you like to send your publicity to them for free? [No brainer]

Within 48 hours (ie still in the week before Christmas) I’d had a response from 24 of the companies – yes, a 50% response rate! Most said ‘I’m intrigued tell me more’ and ‘get back in touch in the new year’ – 24 hot leads and beyond my wildest expectations.

The offer was genuine on our part. We had a mailing list of 10,000 people worldwide interested in books about Latin America and the Caribbean, of whom 5,000 were regular buyers in the UK. I offered those 24 travel companies the opportunity to insert their publicity leaflet in one of our mailings – but quid pro quo. If they would include 5,000 of our leaflets in one of their mail outs, we’d include 5,000 of theirs in ours, if 2,000 then we’d mail out 2,000 etc.

In the end we exchanged inserts with 11 of the 24 companies, still a brilliant response and pitching our £10 paperbacks to travellers alongside the £1000+ holidays they looked particularly good value.

So what marketing will you be doing in the week before Christmas?

Add a comment below to share your ideas – you’ve still got time to plan something!

Repairing communities

Experts by Experience: Profiles of entrepreneurs at different stages on their journeys, identifying and sharing some universal truths along the way.                  

SmallBizSatUk logoSaturday 7 December is Small Business Saturday – a new campaign to celebrate and support small businesses across the UK, and Royston Freecycle Group in north Herts has compiled a ‘Royston Repairers’ business listing to encourage local spending on mending.

One repairer included in the list is Royston Domestic Appliances, started by Tony Squires in 1977 after leaving the army, with son Paul joining his father in January 1984. The business was built on repairs and spares but added sales a decade ago to offer a more complete service. Paul regrets the forced move away from repairs:

“We repair wherever we can but, unfortunately, a lot of new products now have built-in obsolescence. A few years ago you could put in a new set of washing machine bearings and it would be good for a further 3 – 4 years. Now the drums are sealed we have to dispose of the whole thing when nothing is wrong apart from the noise.

Tony and Paul Squires RDAAfter 35 years, Royston Domestic Appliances are positive about the future. Regular customers recommend them to their children and even use them when they’ve moved away from Royston. With free delivery, installation and environmental disposal of old products they’re happy to compete with bigger suppliers.

Are people wanting repairs typically men or women? Paul chuckles: “Women tend to go for repairs because they like the familiarity of their existing machines. The men have a go at fixing machines and, when they can’t, they suggest a replacement!”

*   *   *   *   *

Repairers like Paul and Tony Squires are keen to keep items in use, and the Royston Freecycle Group – with a mission to keep stuff out of landfill – will be linking again with Royston Domestic Appliances and other repair businesses in 2014.

The Freecycle Group is celebrating its 10th anniversary year by launching the Royston Repair Cafe. In early 2014, they’ll be inviting local people to bring broken items (toys, bikes, small pieces of furniture, clothes, electrical equipment, including IT stuff) to the free event for assessment. If the item can be repaired there and then, the person bringing it will be shown how to mend it. If it needs more attention (the Repair Cafe is a clinic, not a hospital…) people will be directed to local repairers like Paul and Tony Squires.

The Royston Repairers list is published 7 December at where you can also keep up to date as the Royston Repair Cafe plans develop.


The community connection

Experts by Experience: Profiles of entrepreneurs at different stages on their journeys, identifying and sharing some universal truths along the way.                 

Authors note: When writing about a transport-related enterprise, there’s a temptation to use all sorts of painful puns about going places and fuelling the journey, about milestones and destinations. When the subject is rail-related the possibilities extend to ‘down the line’, ‘brief encounters’ (shows my age) and reference to ‘plans getting de-railed’. What follows is an attempt to avoid all such not-very-clever word-play.

Station House logo                                *   *   *    *

Call me soft, but I always get a bit emotional at airports and railway stations. I think it’s the sense of occasion and transition – the re-unions and the farewells, all that expectation and excitement. No, I’m not talking about commuting.

Station House Community Connections… the name alone conjures up the idea of chance encounters in a place of calm and cosiness; an oasis in our otherwise busy, often disconnected lives.

In most cases, a community has a station building long after the last train has pulled out. Unusually, Campsea Ashe in East Suffolk has a well-used train service but no station staff, ticket machines nor services, just a large car park. The potential jewel in the crown is the Station House – a private house and public space shared by staff and travellers from 1859 to 1967, and boasting one of the first WH Smith’s in the country.

Station House now

The house has been empty for the past eight years, but now a group of volunteers, led by    Rosamund Webb and fellow Trustees, are breathing life and love back into the old building. The new hub – a meeting, greeting and eating place – will serve communities across 11 parishes (represented by 11 rails in their elegantly simple new logo) and further afield.

But this is not about re-creating the past; Rosamund is quick to point out that online connection will be every bit as important as the face-to-face. “We’re bringing the building back into use with 21st century technology for the decades ahead and generations to come. We’ll have touch-screen information points and internet access to create work stations for businesses and high-tech space for training and business meetings.”

With a hub comes spokes – not just the rail links to London, Ipswich and points north. Plans include the use of community transport to get people to and from the station and, with tourism (the Station House is on the edge of an area of outstanding natural beauty) and  commuters in mind, a new ‘bike and go’ scheme is currently being piloted at a few other stations.

Artists impressionThe vision is to create a place where people will want to linger longer. “People talk about feeling unsafe on the platform and when walking to the badly-lit car park” explains Rosamund. “We’re restoring the platform canopy for protection from the weather and improving lighting. A cafe, map and book shop, and an exhibition dedicated to the history of the East Suffolk Railway Line will make the place more welcoming for everyone – not just travellers and rail enthusiasts.”

The whole project has been 2 years in development, with intense activity over the last 18 months around community surveys and other consultations, registration as a Charitable Society for the Benefit of the Community, getting planning permission, and negotiating with Suffolk County Council – the current owners of the Station House itself. Rosamund knows that to be financially self-sustaining they must create a facility people will want, use and, importantly, be prepared to pay for.

What has Rosamund learnt from the past two years? “Having a clear vision is important, particularly when well-intentioned people are in danger of diverting you. But making sure that vision is one which is shared is also important; the whole consultation process was about taking people with us. For sustainability, that strong foundation and broad backing is essential, as is having the right legal structure with community interest at its heart.”

The strength of the Station House is its location – it has high footfall and a unique position in a rural area. There is great expectation around what the next six months of fundraising activity might bring. It really does seem to be full steam ahead for Station House Community Connections. Drat – I almost avoided the bad rail-related pun.

More at Follow developments at and watch the film at

Rosamund is in the 2013-14 cohort of learners with the School for Social Entrepreneurs on
the Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs Programme at the Eastern Enterprise Hub in

Entrepreneurship – character or culture?

Become wildly successfulAssuming we can objectively define a social entrepreneur, what traits do we most associate with her/him?

‘Passionate’ is a much over-used description, which is not to deny it’s pretty important if you want to give your idea for bringing positive social change the best chance of succeeding.

I would also suggest that a social entrepreneur starting a business is often headstrong to the point of arrogance – a self-belief that something can, and will, work. That may explain the depth of early commitment and effort, other necessary ingredients in a social enterprise start-up.

Where I think the passion and self-belief creates tension is with the collaborative team-approach that my understanding of social enterprise embraces. Do social entrepreneurs take people with them or (intentionally or otherwise) protect their domain by guarding their best ideas and the inner workings of their minds?

This is relevant for the long term sustainability of a social enterprise because most innovative people behind a start-up are not ‘finishers’ – they get itchy feet and want to move on to new challenges. While this is probably a good move for them and the team (‘founder syndrome’ can destroy organisations) it should not be before their colleagues have the tools to sustain and develop the business that the entrepreneur started. Which requires a willingness to share and succession planning from an early stage.

See also: