The clock is ticking. Not the ‘Help – I’m 60 in August and what have I got to show for it?’ kind of countdown. No, the clock is ticking because we’re four months into a 12-month Repair Shed programme funded by the Innovation in Waste Prevention Fund. By definition ‘innovation’ is unlikely to follow a neatly drawn plan, but I still feel pressure when reality gets in the way of our best intentions.
I’ve been documenting our progress since way before the funding came on stream (not least through these blogs) and I currently report weekly by e-mail to all our Shed members, monthly by phone to the funders, and formally face-to-face to our Steering Group every six weeks. I think this urge to document my progress, and lessons learnt along the way, is a function of my age and stage in life – I want to leave behind something, even if it’s only a list of mistakes; things I’d do differently next time around.
But what I haven’t been reflecting and reporting on is what it means to be trying to set up a social enterprise in my late 50’s. Until now nobody has asked me about this, maybe because they think it would be politically incorrect (age still seems to be a taboo subject for some). But now I’m meeting an MA student of social entrepreneurship researching social enterprise start-ups by people in the 50+ age group, so I’m trying to draw some conclusions about my age-related experiences.
It isn’t going to be easy because I’ve never thought of myself as being a particular age and, even if I did, I wouldn’t know how someone of that age would/should behave! What I do know is this….
My younger self would have advised me not to even consider starting a social enterprise because it’s such a difficult business model to sustain financially. It’s certainly not a level playing field … social enterprises tend to employ people deemed to be unemployable, locate in places others don’t go, and provide products and services others won’t. And why don’t other businesses do this? Because it won’t make them any money or, at the very least, it will involve an uphill struggle just to get to the starting line alongside ‘straight’ businesses. Mix in the ‘triple bottom line’ – measuring performance against people, planet and profit related objectives – and the challenge becomes even greater.
So the drive to take this difficult route to business success at my age and stage in life comes from personal experience – overriding objectivity and business sense. Just as charitable giving is often prompted by a personal connection with the cause being supported, so my involvement in setting up The Repair Shed is fuelled by an empathy for, and association with, the purpose behind the enterprise – to keep men aged 50+ healthier and happier for longer. I’m in the age group of my target market and I’d certainly have liked to have access to a Repair Shed at different stages in my life to help me through unemployment and mental ill health.
Whether my age and experience make me more credible to others is not for me to say – you need to ask them! I’m keen to avoid the cliché of equating age and experience with wisdom, but I have been around, I’ve built up contacts, and I invite contemporaries to bring their age and experience to the development of the enterprise as well.
I know I have the p-word – passion – and the energy to give the development of The Repair Shed vision my best shot, but I also feel that is tempered by a sense of realism and a self-awareness about my own limitations (managing people being one!) I don’t know whether this is a good or bad thing – boundless optimism can sometimes make things happen.
This more cautious approach to enterprise development may also affect my rate of progress but I’m not convinced this is a function of age. Certainly everything had taken far longer than I had planned and other, high-tech start-ups seem to develop much more quickly. In comparison, our operation is much lower tech (not all members are on e-mail for a start) and I’m the only person getting paid for the time I put in on developing the business.
With age, I suspect you don’t get so easily seduced by the hype around social entrepreneurship and social enterprises – a subject about which I’ve written other blogs. Suffice it to say that I don’t see this development stage in my career as being a route to fame and fortune! A life in the not-for-private-profit sector has taught me that the return on investment of blood, sweat and tears is the personal satisfaction, if I’m lucky, of seeing how people benefit from what I’ve created and leaving a sustainable set-up for others to develop and improve. Which would require a whole new blog to define ‘sustainability’…
For blogs on slowing the spin around social entrepreneurs and social enterprise, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2013/12/21/slowing-the-spin-about-social-entrepreneurs and https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/03/28/slowing-the-spin-about-social-enterprise