Monthly Archives: January 2014

Enterprise essential – Make your meetings count

Sometimes meetings are an excuse for doing nothing. Make sure yours are focused on clearly defined objectives – what you want to achieve – and time-limited. One low-cost airline has their meetings standing up – helps concentration and keeps them short!

Quality matters

quality is the keyI’ve always felt that most social enterprises undersell themselves. Not when talking about social enterprise as a business model or entrepreneurs as ‘social fixers’ – I think there’s too much of that – but when valuing their products and services, and pricing accordingly.

So I’m delighted to have discovered three new social enterprises – all in Hertfordshire – that I think are getting it right. They are being established under the umbrella of a large charity CRI and, while some may say that CRI’s backing gives them a big advantage, I believe it’s as much about attitude as assets.

Future blog posts in the ‘experts by experience’ series will focus on the people behind the three social enterprises – Recover in Welwyn Garden City, The Secret Space in Hertford, and All Seasoned in Letchworth  For now, I want to concentrate on a couple of generic themes I identified in visiting all three enterprises which I think could help other entrepreneurs developing social businesses. Of interest as well is that, while one business is product-based (furniture), one is service-based (alternative therapies) and one is both (catering) the themes are common to all three.

Being care-ful: The three enterprises are working with people recovering from substance abuse of one kind or another. No one is yet claiming miracles – the oldest of the three (Recover) is hardly a year old – but they are bringing some stability to troubled lives, building trust by showing that they are here for the long term. Each volunteer (the term used to describe the trainees) has an individual development plan and they are not expected to move on after a set period. Another great feature of these (and other) social enterprises is that outsiders are unable to distinguish between service-users and support-providers.

Taking time: The same patience is reflected in the fact that CRI are giving the businesses time – a couple of years at least – to achieve financial viability. The expectation is that they will become sustainable but there’s recognition that social enterprise is a hard business model to make work. Taking time to work with people who often lead complicated lives is, I believe, a much under-valued feature of social enterprises that differentiates them from mainstream employers.

The importance of passion: In my experience, ‘being passionate about what you do’ is the single most cited ingredient for social enterprise start-up success. My three interviewees were no exception – all three independently talking about passion. I think they’re probably right when they say that without passion, you wouldn’t put in the hours required and bounce back after guaranteed setbacks. My own passion for the social enterprise I’m developing is yet to be truly tested!

Telling the story behind the product: Regular readers of this blog will know my views on the subject of highlighting the ‘social’ to differentiate the ‘enterprise’ from other providers*. I asked all three interviewees independently for their views on this subject and was intrigued that they felt there was no right or wrong approach. Some had even changed their views since starting the business and were still unsure. That’s fine – we’re all learning as we go along.

Focus on quality: Finally, going back to my starting point, I think all three ooze quality. Recover’s large (and much refurbished) workshop unit is functionally smart but the items of furniture they create there are true works of art, with prices that reflect this. In Hertford, The Secret Space has a calm and relaxing air about it – simple but safe. A look at the All Seasoned menu was enough to take me back a week later to find out if it really was as good as it looked (and it was).

As I wound up my third and final interview, I reflected on how pleased I’d be to work in any one of the three enterprises, and I hope and expect their volunteers would agree.

You can find out more about the people behind each of these enterprises through future blog posts over the next couple of weeks.

* Click here if you don’t know my views on ‘telling the story behind the product’ and want to find out.

Enterprise essential – be a train, not an octopus

The octopus organisation drifts with the funding tide, extending a tentacle in whatever direction will attract a grant – environment, youth work, sport.

The train-like organisation knows where it’s going. With its destination up ahead, all resources pulled in – funds, people, information – fuel the journey. Everyone is heading in the same direction; the organisation is in the driving seat controlling the speed.

What’s in a name? or… Do you judge a book by its cover?

Blind date with a bookWith Valentine’s Day around the corner, I was recently attracted to an entrepreneurial bookshop in the USA inviting customers to have a blind date with a book. Call it a crafty way to shift slow-sellers, a genuine attempt to introduce readers to new authors, or just good book promotion, but I love this idea.

Like all great ideas it’s simple to do. Wrap books in plain paper (could be newspaper?) so that  author, title and cover design are hidden. Write brief details on the wrapping – type (thriller, biography etc), time period in which it’s set, brief plot outline etc. Presumably you also include the price –  maybe it could be discounted.

The buyer/reader then selects a book – a bit of a tombola – and, in fact, I’ve since heard of this being done as a novel way (pun intended) to increase book sales in charity shops and at fundraising events.

This is a long way from my 15 years marketing books about Latin America and the Caribbean – selling them worldwide, many by mail-order (even in the UK) so often people didn’t handle the actual book before buying it.

Working with a small not-for-private-profit research and publishing outfit in London, we agonised over book titles (although some did come straight away). Should we make it sound more exciting than it was? Should we try for a clever play on words, add a touch of humour to a serious subject, or simply say on the tin what it does? How long is too long for a title? Should we have a punchy main title and longer sub-title?

You’ll not be surprised to hear that we concluded that naming books is an art not a science. Some of the most boring, but accurate, titles sold best because with a specialist subject and a short list of books on a similar topic, it became the ‘obvious choice’ (our books were also well-priced). Some titles – ‘Promised Land’ was one I remember – were so common [there’s no copyright on book titles unless you set out to confuse people] we sometimes got sales by mistake – people thought they were buying another book with the same title.

And before I move on from books, if you don’t have a local independent bookshop, order your books online through tax-paying supplier and you support a nominated local bookshop.

Do the same considerations apply to naming a new enterprise?

Personally, I’m a sucker for a clever name and I often like the business before I know anything more about them. And I remember them and talk about them long after – like now. (I wonder how they came up with the name Hive…)

An earlier blog post [] has already shared my admiration for Lofty Heights in Lowestoft I fell in love with their name when I first heard it and nothing I’ve learnt since about this roofspace-clearing social enterprise can shake my affection.

I’m also seduced by jokey names – although I realise that humour is a very subjective thing. My favourites funnies are Complete Wasters – a community recycling organisation in Leicester, No Fit State Circus – which is … er… a circus and social enterprise in Cardiff and Shabitat – a furniture re-use co-operative in Brighton

What are your favourite company names and why?

Enterprise essential – don’t try too hard – relax

Great ideas often come to people when they’re relaxing – in the bar, the bath, and in bed. Few people have their best ideas at their desks! This means you need to carry some means for easily recording ideas as they come to you – particularly if it’s in the middle of the night. A pad and pen can work well.

The Forgotten R – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle… and Repair

The Repair Cafe – a free event to enable people to repair, rather than replace, their broken possessions – comes from the Netherlands. In the UK there are currently eight Repair Cafes; this first guest blog from Katherine Lee sets the scene for the February launch of a ninth – the Royston Repair Cafe in North Hertfordshire.

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The 4 RsEvery hour Britain produces enough waste to fill the Royal Albert Hall. Since this quantity is clearly unsustainable, the importance of changing attitudes towards consumption and waste management has never been greater. Most of us are familiar with the waste minimisation strategies of reduce, reuse and recycle, but there is an important omission, which warrants greater attention: repair.

Repair is an approach recently advocated by Professor David Mackay, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. In our current throwaway culture, there is often a perception that repair requires more effort and is more costly than replacement.  In fact, the opposite may be true. Consumers stand to gain much more than a working item by getting involved in the repair process; they may save money, develop skills, a sense of ownership, and a greater understanding of what makes a good product that is built to last. Often it may seem we have forgotten how to repair, or even that it’s a viable option, but the availability of low/no-cost repair support and expertise is actually increasing.

One example is the Repair Café, a free community initiative where participants learn how to mend their broken items under specialist guidance. Since the first Repair Café in Amsterdam in 2009, many more have been set up across Europe and North America. Another international scheme is The Restart Project, aiming to tackle one of the fastest growing waste streams by specialising in the repair of electronic equipment through free Restart Parties. Repairs may also be undertaken quickly and cheaply at home as help is available online. is a free, open-source repair manual for electronic items and gadgets.  All of these projects have the same aim, to bring communities together to reduce waste by teaching people how to repair.

Whilst reduce, reuse and recycle remain important waste management strategies, given its diverse social, economic and environmental benefits, it is time to recognise the importance of repair.

Further information:

20 reads on repairing, sharing and fixing the planet

Online repair tutorials and guides:

For updates and information on repair and reuse:

Enterprise essential – does it fit?

Assess new ideas and opportunities against your organisational values and mission. Does it tap in to the specific expertise of your team? Is there a high level of enthusiasm and excitement amongst stakeholders, including a cross-section of potential customers if it’s a new product or service?

Enterprise essential – put your plans on paper

In the early stages of developing your enterprise, you should be clear about what you are trying to do and try to capture the concept. Your draft business plan will develop as you go along; putting some thoughts on paper early on will help crystalise them. At this stage this is big picture stuff – don’t get bogged down in detail.

Building a shed – the first 100 days

Day 100Wednesday 8 January and, after some ‘thinking aloud’ with my daughter, I/we come up with part of an itinerary for the President of the Australian Men’s Sheds Association – visiting the UK and Ireland in mid-February.

The visit is important, Australia is the home of the Men’s Shed movement and they have over 1,000 there. It isn’t easy reconciling competing demands; everyone wants a share of the President’s limited time, such is the thirst for learning in the UK about the Australian experience. That camp-following includes me and I might just get an hour or two to find out about income-generation in Australian Sheds (my particular interest) by chauffeuring for a day.

January 8th was also significant as Day 100 in my year with the Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs Programme at the School for Social Entrepreneurs in Ipswich. A good time to take stock, not least because 6 days before I’d met my mentor – a Lloyds banker – for the first time. If meeting my mentor sounds daunting it’s not meant to – it was an entirely positive and enjoyable encounter. I sense that Graham is not only personally interested in the Mens Shed concept, but also professionally on behalf of his colleagues looking at life after banking. Golf isn’t for everyone.

Our first mentoring session is mostly about getting to know each other. Graham is there to help me to plug gaps in my thinking and doing, in a ‘critical friend’ kind of role. I’ve already identified two gaps – my uneasy relationship with figures (handy then that he’s a banker…) and the ease with which I’m distracted by things that I enjoy – like writing blog posts – when I should be concentrating on the grunt work. Right now that means the evidence-gathering, figure-work, and form-filling associated with applications for start-up funding. Success in raising finance will ultimately help build an environmental social enterprise around the Men’s Shed concept – The Repair Shed – if all goes according to plan.

Ah yes, the plan. That’s already gone slightly off course. My day 100 target was to have older men identified and involved as core members of the new Shed. I do have half a dozen names of people who may be interested and I’ll meet them in the next couple of weeks. But I’ll need to manage expectations until I know more about the current fundraising irons I have in the fire. Or maybe they’ll have ideas about new irons we can hammer into shape?

To date I’ve been turned down at stage one for a couple of big grant applications and I’m beginning to think that having very limited start-up funding (the subject of a future blog) might be just the spur to action I need. My current bedside reading is ‘The lean Startup’ by Eric Ries []

One thing I have learnt in my first 100 days – this is absolutely the right time to be part of a burgeoning Men’s Sheds movement in the UK. A recent piece on BBC Breakfast [] generated over 400 enquiries to the newly formed UK Men’s Sheds Association from men and women, and there were also local enquiries – I fielded three – across the country. Following the London launch in November, I’ve been co-opted on to the Committee of the UK Association which partly explains my involvement in helping to plan the Australian Association President’s itinerary (or should that be shed-ule?)

Just before Christmas I was delighted to be awarded an UnLtd / Santander Spark Award which will allow me to organise a ‘shed crawl’ – an idea borrowed from Ireland where they already have 200 sheds. We’ll be taking a minibus to sheds in Aylesbury, Bedford and Milton Keynes – I really believe that seeing what sheds do is one of the best ways to fuel professional and personal interest and learning.

The Crawl will be in March as the plan is that February will be consumed by a Crowdfunding Campaign – something that readers of this blog will know is an activity about which I’m an ‘instant expert’ of the armchair variety [].

No better way to learn more than to run a campaign – for community involvement and awareness-building as much as the raising funds – and to assess local interest and potential demand for some of the products I’m hoping The Repair Shed will develop. The crowdfunding team is coming together nicely, a promotional video is in the pipeline. Whether we’ll make the Valentine’s Day launch date (‘something for the man in your life – a Shed’) is unclear.

The UK Men Sheds Association website is at

Enterprise essential – rank your ideas

Judge each idea by the same set of criteria – which may be a list of ‘essentials’ (will increase sales income) and ‘desirables’ (will attract new customers). Essentials score double. Once ranked in order, cut from the bottom up and don’t let your heart get in the way of your head.