Learning about Earning: 10 lessons from a social enterprise start-up

After 12 years advising others about starting social enterprises, Chris Lee has spent the last 12 months setting up an environmental social enterprise in Hertfordshire, with the support of the School for Social Entrepreneurs in Ipswich. The Repair Shed brings older men together to stay healthier and happier for longer by making, mending and learning. Details at https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/the-repair-shed

Below Chris draws out ten lessons (2 per blog post) from the past 12 months and compares what the social enterprise start-up handbook says with his own experience.  In reality, there are no hard and fast rules – no right and wrong ways to do things, rather a series of balancing acts…

Lessons 1 and 2

 Social vs enterprise

What is social enterprise? A clue in the phrase:  Social – Enterprise but there’s no one agreed  definition.

Not a legal entity, but a business model. Social enterprise can be seen as a ‘business solutions to social problems’. Social purpose is the ‘reason for being’, while profit fuels the journey but is not the destination.

In common with other businesses… a social enterprise seeks to address the ‘triple bottom line’ addressing social, financial and environmental objectives  – getting the balance right is a constant challenge eg costing and pricing to be inclusive/affordable and viable.

Above all it’s about clarity of purpose to avoid mission drift. Gina Negus of the Projects Company in Essex) asks … is your organisation a train? – on track with a destination ahead (2- 3 years?) clear to everyone travelling in the same direction. Drawing in resources to fuel the journey, but in control (in the driving seat) with your foot on the pedal to travel at the right speed for you.

Spin vs substance

My opinion – social enterprise and social entrepreneurship is over-sold.  I’m a social enterprise enthusiast, but it’s all too easy to believe the hype and cast the private sector as the villain and social enterprises as the answer we’ve all been waiting for to treat society’s ills.

Reality, of course, is much more complex – there are good and bad private sector and social enterprise businesses, and both may have social impact. And scale if also important. Until we make enough difference to enough people, we should resist the temptation to over-egg the pudding. Holding the moral high ground is not enough. More at http://bit.ly/1qxU7rV

The same goes for sanctifying social entrepreneurs as edgy and dynamic (often scarily young!) saviours of the world. The social enterprise movement has no monopoly on entrepreneurship and social impact. In my experience the most entrepreneurial people are too busy getting on developing their next idea than to have time to shout about it! More at  http://bit.ly/1q2FZYT

In my opinion, the best way we can ‘sell’ the social enterprise model is by providing quality products, services and practices – selling on quality (not cheapness or charity as some in the sector are tempted to do…) For examples of three social enterprises that ooze quality, go to the ‘experts by experience’ profile at http://bit.ly/WujgYy

Two final tips on grounding your promotion of all things social enterprise in reality: Think carefully about what the name of your enterprise says about you http://bit.ly/1qtgLC1 – your brand – and don’t be afraid to tell the story behind your products and services http://bit.ly/1tCTIqQ

If you’re interested in exploring ways to turn ideas into action, join Chris Lee for a day-long workshop on December 4 in Chelmsford Details at www.voluntarysectortraining.org.uk/courses/event/70/Ideas-Into-Action

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