Category Archives: Learning about earning

A life in the year of the School for Social Entrepreneurs East

What young people have taught me about starting a business  

I’m a year into my new job with The Prince’s Trust Enterprise Programme, supporting young people aged 18 – 30 as they explore enterprise and self-employment. It seems like a good time to reflect and take stock.

As someone old enough to be their parent (and, dare I say it, I could be their grandparent) there’s a temptation to think that the wisdom of age and experience trumps all other knowledge. Of course it doesn’t – I never stop learning. So what have I learnt over the past 12 months from the young entrepreneurs?

Many of the young people I meet expect to be told what to do and castigated when they don’t (or can’t) do it. The Prince’s Trust Enterprise programme is not about pushing young people to start their own businesses – it’s about enabling them to make informed decisions about where they want to get to in the world of work, and how they might get there. Self-employment is just one possible destination.

A lot of the young people are surprised by this laid-back approach. It’s a fine line between encouragement and more assertive guidance but, in reality, if they can’t motivate themselves to develop their business ideas they’re unlikely to succeed. And if they want a regular boot up the backside, I suggest to them they find someone else to do the kicking.

It’s easy to make achievement one dimensional – as if only what can be counted counts. Yes, it’s important to celebrate success and statistics about new business starts, number of loans made, and mentors matched; these are tangible and easy to compare year on year. But the real progress may be far less visible. Given the complicated lives of some of the young entrepreneurs, arriving at a meeting at the right time and place can be a major achievement in itself. Many are trying to set up a business against all odds – and there are some remarkable successes, even within some ‘failed’ businesses.

Passion is not enough. TV talent shows have created this myth for young people that if they want something badly enough they’ll succeed. This is unfair, it sets up unrealistic expectation in the young entrepreneurs – their business idea may be a bad one and/or they may simply not have what it takes. Managing expectations calls for sensitivity and sometimes, as with parenting, you have to bite your lip and allow young people to make mistakes and, hopefully, learn from them.

A final lesson I’ve learned from these young, sometimes inspirational, entrepreneurs is that setting up a business is often their ‘plan B’. Plan A is to get someone else to pay you to work 9 – 5 with limited responsibility and certainly with someone else working out Tax and National Insurance.

And that’s where The Prince’s Trust can also point to success.

A large number of young people may not be successful business owners but, after attending a four-day ‘Explore Enterprise’ course, mentoring, and developing a business plan, they’re more confident and employable. And a good number then get work – job done!

If you’re 18-30 and want to explore the possibility of starting your own business (or you know someone who does), The Prince’s Trust Enterprise programme is for you. It’s free and available both face-to-face and online, visit www.princes-trust.org.uk/enterprise to find out more.

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What price learning?

There’s a famous Mahatma Gandhi quote “Live as if you’ll die tomorrow, learn as if you’ll live forever.” I love it because it puts learning in its rightful place – at the heart of our lifelong journey.

This love of learning in its widest sense is exemplified by a social enterprise in Cambridgeshire – GAP Learning. The two creative sisters who run the enterprise sent me their newsletter some time ago and, with permission, I’ve reproduced it for this blog.

Austerity hits hard

Local authority budget cuts are visible everywhere. Brilliant organisations that provide meaningful social impact and community cohesion are lost. For example, more than 350 Sure Start children’s centres have closed in England since 2010; 45% of councils have cut provision for young people by around 30%. Public spaces are closing, social and essential services are experiencing crippling budget cuts. Closer to us, the Cambridge & District Volunteer Centre closes its doors tomorrow after 26 years; HOPE Social Enterprises in Huntingdon, a Craftworks venue, closed last month with the loss of their volunteer programme and shop. Everyone we partner within the training, advice and support world seems to be affected.

And Adult Learning (our world) will be doubly hit. Due to Brexit, the UK is losing the European Social Fund which part-funded almost all our free courses such as Fullspoon and Craftworks. What money there is, is increasingly difficult to secure with lengthy applications that, even if you have the fortune to win, have so many limitations attached the people you are trying to reach and support are knocked back by the sheer force of documentation and data gathering required for them to access the help. And if you’re a small charitable business, like GAP Learning, it’s tough out here with no credit rating or specialised departments. We’ll even have to say goodbye to our office in October.

But that’s what’s happening to us as a small business, it’s nothing compared to how some of our fellow humans are suffering and there will be no means to help them if things continue as they are: people facing cuts in welfare and benefits, people facing mental health challenges, people living with disabilities, people who are lonely and in need of a friend. There’s never been a better time for people to get together in their community to support one another. Teresa and I identified that people feel better when they make or create and that space to think is enough to see that changes can be good and necessary. We set about building a business that provided the means for people to get together to have fun, build passion and confidence and inspire hope in a future, whatever that may be.

Cambridgeshire County Council have been instrumental in enabling our work thus far and we will always be grateful for the opportunities they provided for us to support learners hardest to reach. We may have no contracts upcoming but we will not give up on our mission [see manifesto below]

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GAP Learning Manifesto

We will make positive change for the vulnerable, the unheard, the overlooked to give those without voices a means to communicate

We will create a sustainable business that puts people first – not the profit. We don’t give two hoots if you ticked the financially unviable box. We all have value

We are the change-makers, activators and will enable others via non-threatening, empathic, loving and caring means to open new ways to breathe

We are not commercial – we are utilitarian. We use sustainable materials to make products that will last. That have meaning. A purpose.  A beauty

We celebrate diversity. Not just recognise a random festival once in a while

We will not stand for racism, sexism and all other everyday isms that belittle, degrade or maintain control over others

We stand for Equal Opportunity for All.  The same mirror for each reflection – full and bright and clear

We recognise, support and partner individuals and companies that want to make a positive change in society

We value sisterhood. Family; Love; following your dreams; the small, quiet voice in the corner, in the shadow; the darkness

We value the symbiotic, natural world around us

Our language is clear (for those over eight years old).

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A hopeful future

Our idea is to become sustainable as quickly as possible by selling goods and services. We’ve been getting the Craftworks Rocks ready – with new branding and everything and are actively looking for venues to host a box for us.

We will develop more corporate and paid-for workshops but of course we will still look for small grant pots to run stand-alone projects. In fact, we’ve got a new project The Fixing Shop funded by Santander Foundation starting over the summer.

*     *      *      *     *

If you take a look at the Gap Learning website (http://gaplearning.co.uk) you’ll get a good idea at what’s at stake here. And while you’re there, check out ‘She Loves him tho’’ for another demonstration of the sisters’ creativity.

As Teresa and Amanda point out, what’s happening at GAP Learning is, sadly, nothing special. The current cuts have no respect for quality. But I’m sure they would love to hear your thoughts on possible ways out of their current sticky patch. I know the sisters won’t be giving up and you could be part of their fight!

STOP PRESS: A recent [ 7 July 2017] newspaper headline confirms how budget cuts are hitting local services for young people –  Council plans to scrap four dedicated children’s centres in Cambridge and 15 others across county in bid to save £1million www.cambridge-news.co.uk/news/cambridge-news/childrens-centres-cambridgeshire-county-council–13291759  and there’s a petition against the closures  www.cambridgelibdems.org.uk/no_childrens_centre_cuts

Read more about Teresa and Amanda at:

https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2016/03/01/gap-learning-a-growing-family

https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/fast-food-for-hungry-learners

https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/putting-a-price-on-hidden-talent

Get real

Reviewing Create Special – a new book on entrepreneurship

Writing a book for would-be entrepreneurs is not easy if you care about the people with the business ideas more than your reputation as a writer.

It’s easy to write a book along the lines of ‘if you care enough and want it enough you’ll get there’ and bookshop shelves show that many do – no doubt reflecting the famous-for-15-minutes-talent-show-con that pervades our TVs (ably assisted by series like The Apprentice)

It’s harder to write a book about the reality of starting a business – with all the pain that can inflict – because you risk putting off the very readers you hope will be inspired by your writing to rise above the barriers, reach for the stars, and be the best they can be (see, I’m getting carried away with that sort of bullshit myself).

Yes – passion and self-belief are important ingredients in any business start-up (why else would you put in the necessary slog to give your enterprise the best chance of success?) but it’s certainly not enough.

I come to be writing this review of Create Special by Jim Duffy though my day-job helping young people explore the world of enterprise and to start their own businesses if that’s the route they chose to take. I should declare an interest here – author Jim Duffy founded Entrepreneurial Spark – a network of business start-up incubators powered by [as they say] NatWest Bank around the UK, and I’m pleased and grateful to have access to one of those incubators, in Milton Keynes, for working with some of the young people who may become business owners of the future.

Ultimately, I feel it’s a disservice to anyone with a business idea to pretend that everyone can be successful if they try hard enough. There are able and less able people out there, and there are certainly good and bad business ideas. Even the best people with the best ideas can fail for very good reasons. For young people who lead complicated lives and have more obstacles than most to achieving business success, it’s dangerous to set them up to fail. Equally it’s also unhelpful to dismiss their abilities, as many authority figures have probably done already in their short lives.

So, in reviewing Create Special, I have a particular interest in assessing how well Jim Duffy has walked that tightrope – to balance inspiration and information – and whether this is a book for young people whom the system has failed and sent to the back of the queue.

I’ve already mentioned business bullshit and I think Jim Duffy scores pretty well on that (by which I mean low). As a lifelong bull-fighter against lazy language, I have my ‘red rag words’ – like ‘engage’ and ‘deliver’ which are meaningless without more detail (that then makes them redundant). Another, newer ‘d’ word I dislike is ‘disruptive’ – I think it’s often used to make something (or someone) sound more interesting than it/he/she is – like ‘new’ and ‘exciting’.

Jim Duffy gets as far as page 9 before using ‘disrupt’. I know lots of disruptive young people but you wouldn’t want them behaving like that in your business incubator! Yes – I’m the first to admit I’m a grumpy old pedant when it comes to language and communication.

Another bugbear of mine is the image surrounding entrepreneurs (particularly social entrepreneurs – about whom I’ve written in earlier blogs).  Awards, and not a few TV programmes with self-promoting, young (and often male) presenters are designed to give entrepreneurship (not quite the oldest profession… but one of them) an edgy and, dare I say it, ‘disruptive’ feel. While this is great for attracting young and young-at-heart entrepreneurs to give it a go, we need to guard against raising those false expectations.

While I think Jim Duffy comes close to presenting entrepreneurs as somehow super-human, he redeems himself by suggesting that creativity can be nurtured as well as being bestowed by nature and Channel 4. Also, that once developed, creative skills can be a real asset for navigating life in general as well as the world of business start-ups. I always say that a failed business start-up and the problem-solving skills it develops, can be a great springboard for later life.

In the world of entrepreneurship, case studies abound with the true tales of people who have overcome all sorts of physical and mental disadvantages to achieve business success (often defined as being wealthy beyond belief). And I’m not knocking them; such stories of success in the face of adversity make good copy and give hope to us all.

But whether you measure achievement in £-s-d or in some other way, I suspect that most successful businesses start from positions of relative privilege –  in university settings, in families where business is in the blood, in households where friends and family support – with contacts if not cash – in the early years.

A generalisation perhaps, but when working with young people who have an overlay of disadvantages such that turning up to a business advice session at an agreed time is itself an achievement, that starting point is important. In a section on focus, Jim Duffy suggests readers  could ‘lock yourself away in a remote cottage’ as one way to avoid distractions. Since even having a quiet space at home in which to write a business plan is on a wish-list for some of the young people I know, I’m delighted that Duffy also suggests you can shut the door to your study [or bedroom, or kitchen?] He also makes the case for having a notebook (and not necessarily one of the Mac variety…)  in which to write the right kind of #GoDo to-do lists; high-tech is not always best.

They say that parents should give their children ‘roots to grow and wings to fly’ and I think that in Create Special Jim Duffy just about gets the right balance between information for growing and inspiration for flying.  I regret that I came to entrepreneurship, and the creativity and problem-solving skills that places like Jim Duffy and NatWest’s Entrepreneurial Spark can unlock, relatively late in life. But it’s never too late to start – go create!

If you order a copy of Create Special online from Hive, you also support high street bookshops… http://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Jim-Duffy/Create-Special–Think-and-Act-Like-an-Entrepreneur-to-Change-Your-Life/20820428

On social entrepreneurs  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2013/12/21/slowing-the-spin-about-social-entrepreneurs

The business plan paradox

“If you don’t have a plan, you can’t change it”

In my work with young entrepreneurs, we set great store by them developing a business plan for each would-be enterprise. I describe it as the key that unlocks further support – including a start-up loan and a business mentor. And it can. That’s the carrot for young people hoping to start their own businesses and the stick is… well… it’s me giving them feedback on their various drafts at 1-2-1 meetings. It has to be  their business plan and after each encounter, I  hope they won’t give up; no one is going to force them to stay the course. Of course, many end up ‘doing their own thing’ and we lose touch.

But then I have mixed feelings about business plans. They are, at best, an informed estimate about how things might turn out. We know they’re out of date the minute the ink dries on the page and they can be knocked sideways, backwards, and forwards by unforeseen opportunities and obstacles in the weeks following. Business plans chart 12 months ahead in a linear, orderly fashion (with words and figures hopefully describing parallel journeys) but we know that real life – personal and professional twists and turns – mean that’s unlikely to happen. We say that the business plan should be a ‘living document’ – dynamic and being constantly updated – but I wonder how many really are…

Then there’s my guilty secret – in the three years I spent setting up The Repair Shed (a social enterprise in Hemel Hempstead) my business plan lay unopened,  unloved, and out-of-date on the shelf. In fairness, I did have a 12-month project plan for the funders and I spent a lot of time explaining why things didn’t turn out quite like I said they would.

And yet… and yet …

Young people starting a business plan, and progressing it from one draft to another, shows learning in action, and achievement – massive achievement is some cases – that is credit-worthy in itself. Transferring ideas from inside heads on to paper helps make thinking tangible and, can often clarify issues and gaps in knowledge. A written business plan can share understanding between strangers about the young entrepreneur and their new venture. Even if the business plan is abandoned, it can be retrieved at a later date – a lifeline if the business is floundering, a leg up if the business was never started. And there’s proof that the author of a well-worked business plan can become much more employable as a result of that planning exercise alone.

There’s a much-quoted saying “no business plan survives first contact with customers” but I’d be happy with that – it says our young entrepreneurs have actually started trading!

Coming soon – 10 questions your business plan should answer  

Risky business

They say that entrepreneurs are risk-takers and it’s fair to say that, like most things in life, it takes an element of personal and/or professional risk to make things happen. This is not to say you can only succeed in business by being reckless, but being willing to get outside your comfort zone is pretty much essential. So, what are the main risks for the entrepreneur starting a new business? Here are six ‘Cs’ to consider:

Can’t do – Much of the talk these days is about a ‘can-do’ attitude – as if positive thinking is enough to make things happen! In reality, self-awareness about what you can’t do is probably more important – so that you can work out how to overcome your shortcomings eg filling skills gaps by training or co-opting someone else.

Competition – With a new business one of the first considerations should be the competition (direct = others doing something similar, indirect = everything that’s going to stop your would-be customers buying your product or service). If there’s no competition, you might ask yourself why not, if there’s loads of competition you need to know why people should choose you. A serious assessment of the competition can reduce the risk of failure – try to learn from other people’s mistakes. That said, I’m a firm believer that you can gain more from cooperation/collaboration than competition.

Cash (flow) – The single biggest reason that businesses fail is running out of cash. There may be lots of money tied up in the business but none available in a liquid form – cash – to cover immediate costs such as salaries and daily expenses. Not for nothing do people like me repeat the quote Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity, but cash is reality.” Keeping a close eye on the money coming in and going out of your business bank account – your cashflow – will reduce the nasty surprises.

Capacity – So your start-up is doing well and you want/ need to grow; the biggest limiting factors at this stage are time and space. You only have so many hours in the day and, if your business involves face-to-face customer services, you’ll need to be looking for people to bring in to help out (in effect, to increase the hours in the day). You may also need more space to accommodate the extra people knocking at your door. If you’re selling products, you’ll likely need extra space for production, storing stock and materials, and maybe for increased packing and distribution.

Contingency – They say that the best business people are not so bright that they keep asking ‘what if?’ all the time. But, it would be bright to do at least some contingency planning around you and your business along the lines of … What if I’m off sick for 4 weeks?  What if my mobile phone or laptop was stolen? What if a massive order comes in next week?

Coordination – Business seems so easy when you see it in terms of ‘selling the right products/services to the right people at the right price’ (whatever we mean by ‘right’). But the problems arise because real life rarely provides an easy route from A to B. Coordination – having a realistic map of your route to a clearly defined destination, and systems for coping if/when things go wrong (breakdown recovery etc), will help make the ride less bumpy.

Ultimately, the best entrepreneurs manage risk rather than letting it stifle progress – they take risks when they can afford to fail. David Robinson, former Chief Officer of Community Links in East London, makes the case for risk-taking. “If we don’t fail it means we’re not taking risks. If we’re not taking risks it means we’re not trying to do things differently, and if we’re not trying to do things differently, why are we here?”

Small card, big message

In my day job I work with young would-be entrepreneurs to support them in setting up in business if they have an idea they want to pursue. As most people know, writing a business plan is a good place to start – to get the ideas out of heads and on to paper where it can be developed, adapted and, if need be, rejected.

When it gets to the publicity section I’m always intrigued that, in an age of social media and worldwide online communication, when asked how they plan to promote their business, nearly every young person writes ‘business cards’. How do they even know about business cards?!

I think the attachment to this humble handout is a combination of it being tangible (unlike things like ‘brand’ ‘values’ ‘and ‘social media’). It’s also cheap – most people know companies that will hook you in with an offer of your first 50 business cards free. Then there’s the comfort of conforming – ‘me too’ – everybody talks about business cards and seems to have then, so why don’t I?

This is not to knock the potential value of professionally produced business cards but, as money is always short, I tend to design and print my own (certainly when I’m paying for them) because I use so few. But then maybe, after 35 years in marketing, I’m missing a trick…?

A business card can, and should, say a lot about you and your business – your quality, character, professionalism, and quirkiness if that’s the business you’re in. Above all, it should be the ‘calling card’ that convinces your target customers that it’s worth making that phone call.

I’m someone with an interest in clear and concise communication in all its forms, so I find the business card an interesting challenge. Like most publicity pieces, it can be both ephemeral – one of many gathered at an event soon to be ‘filed and forgotten’, or essential for safe storage (in my case in a pile on my desk) for easy retrieval when the time is right. Surprisingly often I reach for one I know is in there somewhere, but the beauty of the business card for me is in the use of the limited space (in seconds and centimetres) for grabbing attention.

I’m a sucker for gimmicks so I’m usually more attracted to the design than the content. I’ve been working with a young person who plans to offer soft and hard garden landscaping services. We’re currently trying to produce a business card that grows using paper embedded with seeds. We’ve got the paper from my friends at the Frogmore Paper Mill.  Now it’s a matter of working out how to create the cards so they sprout and grow when watered carefully on an office desk – watch this space…

 

Last week in Bristol I was attracted to a slightly-larger-than-standard business card from a local company – Florentina & Chalky. What you can’t tell from the photo is that the card has a unique feel – like chalkboard – so they go one better than the company that ‘does what it says on the tin’!

What next – a scratch and sniff business card for a cheese shop?

http://florentinaandchalky.blogspot.co.uk 

http://www.thepapertrail.org.uk

PS – a re-use tip: If you’ve gathered a pile of business cards with blank backs and you don’t want them, you can use then as a deck of cue cards for your next talk – a handy-sized pack of prompts.

When customer care doesn’t have to costa lot

coffe-mugIn 2002, I visited a community café in Market Rasen in Lincolnshire – I was helping to set up something similar in the Cambridgeshire Fens at the time.  The entrepreneurial organisers of the café – Arena – had recently paid £2,000 for an Italian coffee maker (a machine, not a barista) and I’m not sure they didn’t have to import it direct from Italy.

I use their purchase – a bold and costly investment at that time – in marketing courses as an example of a USP (Unique Selling Proposition) that differentiated Arena from the other two cafes in the town – a greasy spoon and a teashop with doyleys. (If you’re too young to know what doyleys or greasy spoons are, look them up).  They made excellent coffee at a time when that was hard to find, particularly in a market town, and people used to travel from far and wide for Arena’s continental offering. But that wasn’t all; the baristas taught their customers how to use the machine and had them judge each other’s brews. ‘Barista of the Week’ posters adorned the walls of the café.

I’m sorry to report that the Arena Café closed in 2009 after the best part of a decade, so it looks like their USP had a limited shelf-life.

Of course, excellent coffee wouldn’t be such a strong USP these days with coffee shops on every corner. The theory goes that everybody now has to make great coffee because customers expect it, right? And all the competition means cafes have to look after their customers or they close, right? And the best coffee shops are local and independent, right?

Well, no – not in my experience.

All I want from a high street coffee shop is decent coffee (but I’m easy to please…) and somewhere I can relax with no hassle from staff – so passive, reactive customer care does me fine. Which is not easy to find in many popular coffee and cake outlets where they want to get you out as quickly as possible once you’ve stopped spending. I once heard that a famous burger chain tilted their seats forward slightly to discourage customers from staying too long, but that may be an urban myth.

we-dont-rush-our-coffeeSo, I’m happy to commend a chain of coffee shops – Costa – for treating their customers like adults, and for being friendly and laid back. My day-job means I meet enterprising young people for 1-2-1 advice sessions on a regular basis. A coffee shop is ideal – a public place where they can relax, stay out of the cold, and get a hot drink. Costa coffee shops are particularly suitable because they’re ubiquitous, accessible, usually have enough space and, above all, the staff are relaxed about me staying all day to meet a steady stream of visitors.

In practice I introduce myself when I arrive and explain what I’m doing. They seem to be genuinely interested – one manager wanted me to take a look at his business plan (part of my job) for a new venture, another offered commiserations when two young people failed to turn up. In every location I’ve been to, the staff have let me set up a tab and I pay for all the drinks when I leave. They haven’t learnt my name yet or started making my regular drink (medium Americano in a takeaway cup since you ask…) as I walk through the door, but that might come with time.

Another way to build your reputation is through consistently good service (assuming you have a winning formula). A recent return to a Costa coffee shop was just as I’d hoped – the manager welcomed me; said he remembered me from last time (I bet he says that to everyone) then left me well alone until it was time to pay.

Afterword: Yes, I know the chain is run by a hospitality conglomerate, I know that their coffee shops are franchises, but I still want to drink to their continued success.