Monthly Archives: April 2014

Enterprise essential – Prepare, prepare, prepare

Mark Twain famously said “it takes at least three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech” and the same applies to written work. A short piece – with simple words and short sentences that everyone understands – often belies the hard work and effort that goes into writing it. Preparing and rehearsing a presentation will help fluency and, if you can only use brief notes, a more spontaneous style.


Building a shed – the second 100 days

Day 200I’m already seven months into my year with the Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs Start-up Programme at the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE) in Ipswich. Doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun etc… but more about that later.

April 18 was day 200 – Good Friday – and a good day for further reflection on my progress in setting up The Repair Shed – a will-be environmental social enterprise involving older men in purposeful but unpaid employment – making, mending and learning.

A timely reminder of my plan (and deviation from it) also drops through my letterbox in the shape of a postcard, sent by SSE but written by me last October, about what I wanted to achieve in the six months to end March 2014. So what does it say on that oh-so-optimistic postcard?

For me, by April 2014 I planned to ‘know I’m going to get paid for the next 6 months’ and for The Repair Shed, to have ‘shed members recruited and active’ and to be ‘earning income’.

On the ‘members active’ front, I’m pleased to say that, after an inspiring and energizing shed crawl to Milton Keynes and Aylesbury at the end of March, we’re having a final meeting on 1st May (Labour Day – significant I think) before we literally roll up our sleeves and get hands-on.  We’re going to start small, one day a week, but I think the move will be important for making The Repair Shed more real for both insiders and outsiders.

So we’re not yet earning income and nor am I. Unless, that is, you count a £20 donation for putting someone’s IKEA shelves together (did you know there are literally hundreds of companies offering that same service – along with IKEA themselves?) A crowded market and not one for The Repair Shed I think. Try putting ‘flatpack assembly’ into Google if you don’t believe me.

At the start of this blog post I mentioned the F-word – fun – and I can honestly say the last 200 days have been some of the most enjoyable and rewarding of my entire career in the not-for-private-profit sector.

But F for fun, not for funding.

As no one is currently paying me to do what I’m doing, I’ve been tempted to think I can be a free spirit and do pretty much what I like as long as I’m developing The Repair Shed.  This isn’t the case of course, and I now know I need to be more formally held to account, in advance of possible income-generation (for The Repair Shed) and funding (to cover my time).

With this in mind, I’m setting up a steering group – inviting people whom I hope will want to help develop The Repair Shed through a personal and professional interest. People willing to attend tightly-run meetings at which I report on what I say I’m going to do/ have done and they share their expertise and insights.  To keep a wider group of people abreast of my exploits, I’m planning a monthly e-bulletin – Make & Mend – from May onwards, to allow others to look through The Repair Shed window.

If you’d like to have a regular, short and, hopefully, lively update on what we’re getting up to in the Repair Shed, just e-mail with ‘Make & Mend subscription’ in the subject box.

Enterprise essential – Free, new and you

‘Trigger words’ that, used in your written materials, will attract attention and generate interest. Use ‘free’ and ‘new’ with care – not too often and only when what you are offering is genuinely new and/or free! In comparison, you should use ‘you’ and ‘your’ as often as you can (and much more than ‘we’ and ‘our’). It may seen unnatural, but it will give your writing a chatty style and draws in your readers.


Enterprise essential – Add IMPACT to your message

I stands for intent (what do you want to achieve?) M – medium (what’s the best way to communicate?) P – profile (what does the message say about you or your organisation?) A – assumptions (are you making false assumptions?) C craft (is your message clear and concise?) T – them (does the message make sense to the recipient?)


Enterprise essential – A picture is worth a thousand words

Some general guidance about using photos: no photo is better than a bad one, one large photo is better than two small ones; photos of people are more interesting than photos of things. Avoid stock photos. Build up your own library – it’s cheaper and more authentic.


Enterprise essential – How to sum up your business

Can you sum up your business succinctly to explain why you do, what you do, and how well you do it? Potential supporters (funders, investors and other stakeholders) are most interested in the ‘why’ and the ‘how well’.


Growing your enterprise team – does size matter? 

Team size 2Recently I’ve had cause to re-think whether working on my own from home is the best way to develop my enterprise start-up plans to create The Repair Shed – a social enterprise bringing older men at  a certain stage in their lives together to make, mend and learn.

A recent radio discussion about shared workspaces extolled the virtues of co-working with other (often lone) entrepreneurs. Wearing my UK Men’s Sheds Association hat, I’ve also been learning about Association members through interviews and visits. A recurring theme is ‘shedders’ having their own garden sheds, but still wanting to work with others, on both their own and group projects, in Men’s Sheds.

Unless you’re my former next-door neighbour – an author who loved his own company (writing at home) and even travelled the world alone as a location scout for BBC documentaries – it appears the majority of people prefer to work with other people.

In 35 years in the not-for-profit sector, I’ve tended to work in small organisations. I always said I’d never work in an organisation where I didn’t know the person walking down the corridor towards me. I then promptly did so, by working with the National Association for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) which at that time had 120 full and part time staff. I hasten to add that NCVO was one the friendliest organisations I’ve ever worked in.

So, assuming you’re not destined to always work alone as a sole trader, what’s the right size for your enterprise team? I’m talking about the number of people who work in the business on a paid basis. This is not to under-estimate the sweated labour of volunteers but that’s a variable not easily built into a business plan.

Clearly optimum size will vary from enterprise to enterprise and many, of course, start with only one person – the entrepreneur – probably only earning an income after shedding a lot of blood, sweat and tears. In an earlier blog, I recounted US business scholar Michael Gerber’s theory that the success or failure of a new business is determined by the ability of the entrepreneur to cover three roles – entrepreneur, manager, and technician.

Gerber suggests that these three roles (he doesn’t appear to address financial management skills) are unlikely to be found in large enough quantities in one person to sustain the enterprise beyond a table-top business, probably run from home.

But there may be some kind of half-way house between working alone while wearing several hats and developing a staff team before the outlay can be justified or sustained.

Mike Southon, co-author of ‘The Beermat Entrepreneur’, points to the use of virtual networks of freelancers to build an initial team – bringing in expertise as/when necessary. But he observes that, as the business grows, so does the need for a ‘fixed office’.

The Beermat Entrepreneur’ author has calculated a certain staffing level which triggers a step-change in the way the business functions. That figures is 25-35 people, since made more precise by another commentator at 31. Above this figure, says Southon, people cease to know what’s going on all of the time, communications break down, and rules, procedures and processes have to be obeyed.

If the smooth functioning of a business relies on good internal relations between employees, the next significant figure is said to be 150 – the science-based ‘Dunbar number’. Named after anthropologist Robin Dunbar who defines it as ‘the theoretical cognitive limit of the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships’.

Apparently Richard Branson has his own upper limit for a company’s staff team for optimum social inter-action and internal communication – 300. Above this figure he believes that employees are unable to feel part of a team. Apparently when the Virgin Group was sold, Sony found they’d bought a cabinet of companies with ‘only’ 300 employees in each.

So what does this mean for my own enterprise development plans? Well, we’re about to have a first gathering of half a dozen (nice number) of would-be ‘founding members’ of The Repair Shed. For members read ‘workers’ as they’ll be the people generating income if things go according to plan. I’m also recruiting a steering group – a sounding board, a group to whom I become accountable. I hope this makes for a faster route to getting the Shed off the ground – but it won’t be at the bottom of my garden.


Slowing the spin about Social Entrepreneurs

The Beermat Entrepreneur

Of related interest…

Seth Godin on a paradox around investing in scaling up

On scaling and social innovation

Enterprise essential – Know your market

As a social enterprise – meeting the needs of your clients/ customers/ service-users is paramount. Make sure you know what those needs are, and that there is both a ‘gap in the market and a market in the gap’. Market research has to be more than talking to friends or going with a hunch – your evidence should stand up to tough scrutiny.


Enterprise essential – Everything communicates

Whether you like it or not, and even if you do nothing actively to influence it, people will make judgements about you and your enterprise. Perception is everything and, whether this is also reality, is up to you. From the start, you should communicate your plans positively, clearly and accurately. Remember you never get a second chance to make a first impression.


Local, social, online … and connected?

Online handshakeChildhood obesity, community breakdown, and the demise of the high street have all been blamed on the revolution in digital communication. While it may be true that computer games discourage physical activity, that worldwide communication has done little for neighbourliness, and online shopping is taking trade from town centre stores, that’s only one side of the story.

Online communication can reduce isolation, particularly for people who are less mobile through age or disability and, in rural areas, internet shopping has been a lifeline for sustaining postal services. In the world of ‘clicks and bricks’ development, businesses such as the Hive Network have innovated to combine the convenience of online ordering with support for local bookshops.

At the local level, perhaps in response to the facelessness of Facebook and the anonymity of Twitter, social media is increasingly being used to bring people together in person. Sites for car-sharing (giving and getting lifts), couchsurfing and nightswapping (free accommodation), and for lending tools and equipment are all part of a growing ‘sharing economy’ – countering competition and consumerism, particularly in times of financial hardship and excessive waste.

Cash mobs – surprise group spending sprees – use social media to bring people together for community-building that supports local, independent shops, creates real friendships, good feelings. It also, hopefully, inspires others to get active rather than going online to complain about car park charges and the dominance of the retail giants.

Sometimes, digital media can extend face-to-face coverage and make management more sustainable. Timebanking is about people trading their time to give and get support – earning and spending time credits (1 credit for 1 hour’s help). The help and support is very much face-to-face and traditionally members in the UK have been matched by a (human) timebroker. However in recent years, online facilities have put the matching process in the hands of more techno-savvy time bank members themselves and embraced a wider geographical area. In the USA (birthplace of timebanking) connecting online has been a feature for many more years than in the UK because of distances and numbers involved.

At a time when household budgets are being squeezed and our ‘throwaway society’ is under attack, sites like Freecycle and Freegle meet both a need for free items, and a desire to save items from ending up in landfill. At a time when some say people ‘know the price of everything and the value of nothing’, it’s heartening to know that so many people are willing to give away their pre-loved possessions without expecting payment in return. That’s e-bay, this is free-bay!

I can only speculate that much sharing and connecting in local communities now taking place would not have happened without the technology to make that first contact so relatively easy and unthreatening.  What do you think?

Get reading:

Order books online at and support local bookshops

Connected: The Amazing Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis & James Fowler

The Power of Just Doing Stuff: How local action can change the world by Rob Hopkins                                    

Together: How small groups achieve big things by Henry Hemming

What’s Mine is Yours: How collaborative consumption is changing the way we live by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers

Get active:

Cash mobs

Car-sharing and

Couchsurfing – and Nightswapping

Timebanking –

Freecycle  and Freegle