Monthly Archives: November 2014

What’s keeping businesses small?

Big_spenders_in_LaddsSaturday 6 December 2014 is Small Business Saturday in the UK. It’s an idea imported from the USA two years ago to encourage us to target our support at small businesses on at least one Saturday in fifty two.

Being a Saturday, it tends to limit scope for giving support to the retail sector. In Royston (North Herts – where I live) at 12 noon we’re organising a cash mob – our fourth – a semi-spontaneous ‘mass spend’ at a semi-randomly selected independent shop. Everyone spends £5 and the retailer also gets written feedback from members of the mob about what they like about the shop and what would make it even better (which should be like gold dust to them).

To extend the benefit of the cash mob to other shops I’ve been around town inviting independent shops to make an exclusive ‘today only’ offer for members of the mob – a discount, a free something when spending £10 or more etc. It should help attract people to the cash mob as well as boosting sales in the shops.

The different reactions from the 19 retailers I talked to were interesting and may say something about the current state of independent retailing in the average UK high street.

A couple of the shops signed up to the idea immediately – great, nothing to lose, we can offer a straight 10% off and yes – happy to put a poster in our window to promote the cash mob. A couple of shops ‘got it’ but it didn’t fit their marketing strategy – which is fine by me; at least they had a strategy!

The majority wanted to ‘think about it’ – some said they needed to get permission. One person was literally ‘minding the shop’ but she’d been at our first cash mob so she knew what I was talking about. Some wanted time to think of an offer (if I was them, I’d keep a couple of promotional ideas in my back pocket at all times) and some said they’d ‘get back’ to me, which I suspect means they won’t. Most agreed to at least put up a cash mob poster and we’ll see whether they do.

A few where suspicious of me (it might have been my silly Movember moustache…) as if to say ‘where’s the catch?’ But two responses stood out for me.  One was a shop owner who complained that the Christmas Fayre (in town the same day) would close the street to cars and severely cut their trade. The other said even offering a 10% discount would wipe out most of his margin. I don’t understand the first retailer – we were trying to help boost their sales! The second shop owner’s response is a sad reflection of what is probably a reality for many high street outlets these days.

So, on Saturday 6 December, support your local independent shop, don’t expect a discount, and be nice to them – it’s a hard world out there.

More on cash mobs at and more on Small Business Saturday UK at


An A – Z of social entrepreneurship: W – Z

As Global Entrepreneurship Week and this A-Z come to an end, the last four letters of the alphabet consider ways we can be kinder to ourselves. Investing in the people running social ventures is every bit as important as any capital expenditure.

 W – Working week

The UK is said to have one of the longest working weeks in Europe. Despite trends in part-time employment (or should that be under-employment?), zero-hours contracts and a perceived threat to UK jobs from migrant workers, I still think there’s a case for a three day weekend.

Workers would choose a Friday or Monday as their extra day – effectively extending the weekend nationally to four days with an associated economic boost for the leisure industry. Absenteeism and days lost through ill health could well go down and job satisfaction and productivity up. And if pay was for job done, rather than hours worked, it needn’t mean an automatic 20% reduction in wage levels.

For a more reasoned case for a shorter working week see

X – x x x

The art of being yourself at your best is the art of unfolding your personality into the person you want to be. Be gentle with yourself, learn to love yourself, to forgive yourself, for only as we have the right attitude toward ourselves can we have the right attitude toward others.” Wilfred Peterson

A great number of us in the social economy so enjoy our (paid) work we would possibly do it unpaid if we could afford to. Certainly In my case the distinction between paid and unpaid work is becoming increasingly blurred.

But do you love yourself as well as your work?

My experience of working in the not-for-private-profit sector for 35 years is that we are better at caring for others than for ourselves. Our commitment to the cause often means we work ridiculously long hours for very little financial reward. Even where that’s our choice it can also be a selfish one; burn-out benefits no one – the sector loses experience and expertise and, at worst, it may put an additional burden on the NHS.

Y – Yes

I have a poster on my cellar wall at home – it reads ‘say yes more than no’. It’s bold, simple and effective (see it at It’s a wonderfully positive approach to life that I try to follow (and people who know me well can manipulate me to say ‘yes’ when they want my help…)

But, like being over-passionate about a cause, not knowing when or how to ‘say no’ can also be self-defeating. It feels great to feel valued, wanted and needed, but learning to say no (without feeling guilty or causing offence) is probably one of the most useful skills you can acquire early in your career to sustain yourself.

Z – Zzzzz…sleep, rest and relaxation

When you’ve said ‘yes’ too often, and worked longer hours than is good for you or your productivity, you need to know how to re-charge your batteries. Not easy when you’re excited by what you’re doing, but rest and relaxation is an essential part of most people’s 24-hour day.

In 2007, a hotel chain put up hammocks in their UK headquarters – allowing staff to take short naps as necessary. Whether the company still encourages siestas is not reported.

For those with less enlightened employers here are 20 excuses if you’re found napping at your desk

A bonus – wise words from the wonderful Nicholas Bate at Strategic Edge…                           Pause and consider 101

An A – Z of social entrepreneurship: T – V

T – Teamwork

 Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” Henry Ford

Entrepreneurs are traditionally portrayed as young, individualistic, passion-fuelled go-getters – and social entrepreneurs are also increasingly stereotyped in this way (too much in my opinion). In reality, of course, their success most often depends on teams and networks – often unrecognised publicly in the rush for the next big idea or public award.


What is it that sets your social venture apart from others – your unique selling point? Your USP should attract attention for the best reasons and leave a lasting impression. It doesn’t need to be literally unique of course.

Nearly 15 years ago – in the days before Starbucks and Costa – a community cafe in Market Rasen invested £2000 in an Italian coffee machine – a lot of money at the time. Great coffee became their USP in relation to other cafes – not just in the town but across Lincolnshire. The cafe survives today (I haven’t recently tasted their coffee).

 V – Values

Your USP may be your values – what you stand for beyond providing a quality product or service. Some years ago, research by Community Links in London found that most organisations could help themselves by being much more upfront about their values – even to the extent of displaying them on website home pages and in other prominent places.

For organisations with a particularly strong value-base, they also suggested this could differentiate one bidder from another in contract negotiations. Even in our increasingly cash-strapped economy values are still important; reference the Social Value Act and the rush by mainstream businesses to portray themselves as ‘social’.

An A – Z of social entrepreneurship: P – S

P & Q  – Price and quality 

There’s a danger that, in the fight for public service and other contracts, social enterprise is promoted as a cheaper vehicle for providing goods and services. Some social entrepreneurs who should know better find themselves making such claims. In only a few cases have I ever found this to be true.

Social entrepreneurs will never ultimately win a battle on price, however much we may want to be the chosen provider, and it’s a dangerous route to go down. In reality, social enterprise is an expensive business model – employing people deemed ‘unemployable’, providing what others won’t, and locating in places others don’t go. I’ve always believed ‘better not cheaper’ is a much more sustainable mantra than ‘more for less’.   

R – Risk  

– “If we wait for the moment when everything, absolutely everything is ready, we shall never begin.” Ivan Turgenev

Textbooks tell us we need to have a fully grown business plan in place before launching an enterprise to minimise risk. But increasing in a fact-moving business environment, there’s a case for getting products/ services out there before they are fully formed.

The argument for a ‘lean start-up’ is that there’s no substitute for market-testing with real products and services and that early-stage feedback is more likely to be taken on board because it’s not written in stone in your fully developed business plan. 

S – Systems 

When asked how he ‘turned around’ an international charity that had grown too fast for its own good, the new Chief Officer’s one word answer was ‘systems’.

Social entrepreneurs are renowned for being flighty and fact-moving. Frustrated staff at a great social enterprise once told me “the business runs best when xxxx [its inspiring founder] is not around”.  

Just as there is usually a team behind every great social entrepreneur, so there needs to be systems people who can identify what works that can be shaped into a regular way of working that gives the enterprise firm foundations and brings stability from day to day.


An A – Z of social entrepreneurship: L – O

L & M – Leadership and Management

Management is about now, leadership is about the future; one implements goals, the other sets them; one relies on control, the other inspires trust; one deals in rational processes, the other in emotional horizons.” Amin Rajan

Another useful distinction comes from Lord Bilimoria, founder of Cobra Beer, who suggests that “leaders make things possible, managers make things happen”.

Either way it’s good to try not to confuse the two – many do – and remember…. you don’t need to be a leader or a manager to use those skills (particularly if you have greater expertise in both areas than the leaders and managers do!)

 N – Negotiation

 Gone, I think, are the days when negotiation was all about playing hardball and ‘getting your own way’ whatever the cost. Most entrepreneurs are in it for the long haul and recognise that it’s more about trying to end up in a (jargon alert) win-win situation with the other party. Any parent knows this makes for more rewarding relationships!

But nor is negotiation about bending over backwards and underselling yourself. Traditionally the not-for-profit sector has said ‘give us half the money and we’ll work twice as hard’. Being business-like – increasingly important in these hard times – is about saying instead ‘give us half the money and we’ll do half the job’.

 O – Obstacles and opportunities

Two sales executives were sent to a tropical island to research the market for shoes. One e-mailed HQ to report “bad news, no one wears shoes.” The other reported “good news, no one wears shoes.” Which would be your e-mail?

There’s a lot of bullsh*t spouted about necessity being the mother of invention and simply working smarter to save money as an excuse for slashing expenditure. But I do think some organisations have suffered in the past from the relative ease of access to funds for good works. Developing flabby organisations can lead to flabby thinking, and I’d like to think that a bit of belt-tightening might stimulate creativity.

Beyond the stiff upper lip

Day 30 MoThis blog post is re-issued to mark Time to Talk Day – 4 Feb 2016 (

Day 20 and my face fungus is progressing considerably better than my fundraising effort for Movember (but more about that later… )

We all know that ‘keeping a stiff upper lip’ is the traditional (British?) response to adversity – particularly for men who, like me, had a privileged education in a boys’ boarding school. I imagine it was like that in the two World Wars and, in relation to men’s mental health today,  it’s still the recommended remedy from well-meaning people who know no better.

If, like me, you’ve experienced clinical depression you’ll know that ‘keeping a stiff upper lip’ is not the answer. For me and many others it helped to talk and that’s why I’m using my top lip this month for something more positive – to start conversations about men’s health – not just about our mental wellbeing, but also testicular and prostate cancer.

Like last year, I’m growing a silly moustache for Movember – because every enquiry about the whiskery wonder on my top lip is a chance to talk about men’s health.

It’s not too late for you to get involved.

Just go up to anyone with a moustache (beards don’t count) particularly if it looks like it might have been growing for only 20 days, and ask them about Movember. If they don’t know anything about it, tell them! And you can also direct them to these tips on keeping well

And yes, since you ask, I have been seeing my doctor about my enlarged prostate that gets me up in the middle of the night. The next rectal examination is on Tuesday – wish me (and my GP!) luck.

PS Did I mention that you can help with my top lip challenge? To support the fun, fund and awareness-raising work of the Movember Foundation, click here

The stiff upper lip revisted

An A – Z of social entrepreneurship: I – K

I – Ideas

 “It you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”  George Bernard Shaw

 My experience of the social economy is that people freely share their ideas – most of mine are ‘borrowed’ from other people. I still suspect that people keep their best ideas close to their chests – human nature? But David Floyd’s blog (much quoted by me) on the subject of sharing ideas is worth re-reading

J Jargon

Over 30 years ago I launched an international campaign – the Campaign Against Confusing Acronyms and Abbreviations (CACAA) and the same goes for jargon, bullsh*t, spin whatever gets in the way of clear communication. Of course, some use it intentionally to confuse and exclude, but we hope social entrepreneurs are above this.

My advice is: learn it then lose it. You should aim to understand the jargon associated with mainstream business but note – in a survey some years ago, 27% of business leaders admitted that they didn’t understand the jargon they were using. If 27% admitted this, think how many really didn’t understand it!

 K – Knowledge

 How many times have you heard an organisation say ‘we’re a learning organisation’ and then observed how they fail to live up to that claim? A friend of mine was once brought in to help an organisation establish what it means to be a learning organisation. I don’t under-estimate the potential value of doing that.

I’ve been involved in the knowledge business – assuming that embraces information, communication, learning, and education – all my 35+ years in the not-for-private-profit sector. I love and often quote Gandhi on the subject “Live as if you were to die tomorrow, learn like you were to live forever.”

But a cautionary note from Ian E Wilson – “No amount of sophistication is going to allay the fact that all your knowledge is about the past and all your decisions are about the future.