I’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 www.recoverteam.co.uk, The Secret Space in Hertford www.thesecretspace.org.uk, and All Seasoned in Letchworth www.allseasoned.org. 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.