Tag Archives: entrepreneurs

What makes an entrepreneur?

Recent research by Innovate UK and YouGov asked 18-30 year olds that were not in employment, education or training about their attitudes to innovation and entrepreneurship. One of many findings suggested that young people have problems with the word ‘entrepreneur’ and only 8% of those interviewed said they would describe themselves as ‘entrepreneurial’.

This got me thinking about the images conjured up by the word ‘entrepreneur’ and why young ‘disadvantaged’ young people might distance themselves from that image.

I think mass media has a lot to answer for here. TV programmes (or ‘shows’ as Lord Sugar once described his) like The Apprentice and, to a lesser extent, Dragon’s Den have long since given up on pretending to reflect real business and typical business people – no doubt in the scramble for viewing figures and the need to edit hours of filming down to a few handpicked moments of high drama, however contrived they may appear in the final cut.

The confrontational format of both those TV programmes probably does nothing to encourage more thoughtful and less gobby would-be entrepreneurs to consider starting their own businesses. This may also explain why 82% of those young people that YouGov consulted viewed the business sector as ‘difficult to access’ (whatever that really means).

But I also think the contrasting portrayal of entrepreneurs – as super-cool, edgy, risk-takers – is equally unhelpful. I assume this portrayal is intended to make entrepreneurship more attractive to younger people, but giving entrepreneurs super-hero qualities can also be off-putting if you’re perfectly capable but low on self-confidence.

Maybe the potentially confusing terminology is also to blame. I’m not sure I could clearly describe the difference between an innovator, an inventor, and an entrepreneur. And that’s just in a business context; as far as I’m concerned all three individuals might have no plans to invest their particular talents in setting up a business, but still aspire to make a difference and change the world.

There are any number of articles defining ‘what makes an entrepreneur’. A Google search with this question gets you 30.7m results and I myself have written about this in the past, in relation to ‘social entrepreneurs’ in particular. There’s a mind-boggling array of arguments about whether entrepreneurship is about having the right mindset, relevant practical skills, or suitable character traits – in reality it’s probably a mix of all those elements.

Sometimes I work in the Entrepreneurial Spark incubator in Milton Keynes – a business start-up-and-grow facility (‘powered by NatWest’ it says on the publicity) and there I’ve seen a large poster with E-Spark’s interpretation of what it means to be a successful entrepreneur. The poster’s list of 22 ingredients in their recipe for success [with my own commentary in brackets] are below:

I focus, focus, focus [yes – procrastination and being all over the place is rarely helpful]

I re-imagine daily [whatever that means… could it be about constantly monitoring progress?]

Outcomes rule my day [being effective as opposed to efficient (which is about outputs) makes sense – ‘results-focused’ is another way of putting this]

I am self-aware ALWAYS [if this means knowing what you’re not good at, knowing your limits and how to plug the gaps, that a good thing]

I know my numbers [yes – whether you like or loathe them, you need to understand figures]

I engage my customers [Engage is one of my red-rag words because it’s so vague – so is this ingredient]

I am constantly curious [although they say the best entrepreneurs are not too bright – so they don’t always think about what could go wrong and focus instead on the destination]

My business has vision [I suppose as long as your vision and that of the business are complementary…]

I am humbly confident [yep – I think that strikes about the right balance]

I inspire my team to excel [leading by example is clever, leading from behind is even smarter]

Uncomfortable? I’m comfortable with that [the ability to take yourself out of your much-talked-about comfort zone is an essential requirement when starting a business – be prepared to do it]

I love to collaborate [yes – I believe collaboration (rather than competition) is the future for businesses that matter]

I am aware… Always on [I hope this doesn’t mean you never switch off from being an entrepreneur – that is not a healthy habit]

I make decisions intuitively [gut feeling is important for some people and, if you’re wrong, they also say ‘fail early, fail fast’ to make you feel better about your mistakes]

I take action – ALWAYS [cue old joke – I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not so sure]

I am constantly selling and pitching [interestingly there’s a current backlash against pitching. And a tip – don’t sell and pitch to your friends and family]

I wake up ready to communicate [as long as this doesn’t keep you or your partner awake at night!]

I have a lean work ethic [makes sense for some businesses – particularly those with low start-up costs, as does the concept of a ‘minimal viable product’]

I develop a relevant network [love or loathe networking, it can get you further faster]

I value working with mentors [never stop learning and never think you know it all]

I am opportunity hungry [I think this means being able to spot opportunities and take them]

The buck stops with me [exciting and scary – as is much of ‘going it alone’ in business]

Further reading:

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

Age and social entrepreneurship https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2015/04/08/age-and-social-entrepreneurship

Has pitching had its day? https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/15/the-apprentice-pitch-pitching-productive?

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

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

Winning workspace 

Welldone p2Poised as we are between the annual Eurovision songfest and that other talent show – the European elections – it’s seems fitting to be able to report that my social enterprise development journey has recently had a massive boost from winning a slightly different kind of competition.

I’ve entered competitions from an early age – the ones involving an element of skill; I have no time for lotteries. As a nipper, I used to spend hours in the library (remember, this was way before the internet) with my mother, researching what famous people did before they were famous, and other obscurities. I never won any big prizes, but I think the information-gathering was a great education and it was a lot of fun doing it with my mum who also entered competitions. I ended up winning more than she did (much to her annoyance).

Once infected, the ‘comping bug’ may lay dormant for years, but it never goes away. A year or so ago I won the competition to name the new community cinema where I live (the Royston Picture Palace since you ask). My ever-supportive wife said mine was probably the only entry (in fact, there were over 50) and there was equal scepticism from that quarter when I entered my most recent competition.

These days any competitions I enter have to really ‘hook me’ first. That was the case with one run by Wenta – the people behind the six business incubation centres in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire that are members of the ‘My Incubator’ family (see shameless plug below).

We were asked to tweet our business ideas – simple as that – the winner’s prize being a year’s free workspace and business support in an incubator of their choice. My background in marketing means I like the challenge of expressing ideas clearly and concisely, and you don’t get much more concise than a tweet.

So what’s my business idea? ‘The Repair Shed is a social enterprise run by/for older men at risk of loneliness – making, mending and learning’ [112 characters]

To cut a not-very-long story short, I’ve already tried out my hot desk in the Stevenage Business and Technology Centre and winning this competition could not have been better timed. As readers of a blog post on my second 100 days with the School for Social Entrepreneurs in Ipswich will know, I’ve recently decided to get down to the serious business of developing my business after six months of playing at being an entrepreneur.

I live in one corner of Hertfordshire and The Repair Shed will be in the opposite corner – in Hemel Hempstead. Although I’ve had access to desk space at Community Action Dacorum in Hemel, working from home most of the week has been the logical thing to do to save travel time, petrol costs and, of course, the environment. But being at home has its downside, principally the distractions… from trips to the coffee shop and running across Therfield Heath, to polishing my shoes and repairing our storm-flattened garden fence. And, yes, entering competitions on Twitter…

Stevenage is about half way between home and The Repair Shed, but I suspect it will be much more than a stepping stone in developing the business. The new discipline of joining others working on their enterprises, with onsite business advice, should work wonders for my focus, productivity and learning. It’s also a smart place to work; on hearing the Stevenage My Incubator had a cafe and showers my wife suggested I move in and live there permanently.

So I may not have won Eurovision (although I do sing in a choir and had a beard for 25 years) but I do feel my own competition win could be just the ‘douze-points’ vote of confidence I need. Watch this (work)space and thank you judges for your wise decision.

For more about Wenta’s business incubators, go to www.myincubator.co.uk

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

The Beermat Entrepreneur  www.hive.co.uk/ebook/beermat-entrepreneur-revised-edition-turn-your-good-idea-into-a-great-business/17085649

Of related interest…

Seth Godin on a paradox around investing in scaling up http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2013/12/the-moderation-glitch.html

On scaling and social innovation  www.theguardian.com/social-enterprise-network/2013/dec/16/scaling-up-growth-social-enterprise

Mind the gap – age and enterprise

???????????????????????????????The age-old debate – the energy and exuberance of youth versus the calm wisdom of age and experience – is alive and kicking in the world of business start-ups. Entrepreneurship is increasingly being touted as a cool and liberating career choice, and certainly technology is making start-up more possible, if not necessarily more sustainable. But alongside the young and dynamic entrepreneur, what role is there for the so-called ‘older-preneur’?

With evidence suggesting people in employment stay healthier for longer, pension pots under strain, and ageism still rife in the office, could business creation by older people make both social and economic sense?

In the not-for-private-profit sector, past curmudgeonly comments from Liam Black, former CEO of Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, confirm his consistent and healthy distain for what he sees as social enterprise spin. More recently he’s been cautioning wannabe social entrepreneurs in his usual forthright way, advising them to “Get some real business skills first, really learn about and understand deeply the issue you want to change in the world, build your networks and personal resourcefulness. Because God knows you will need them when you start your social enterprise – if indeed you ever do.”

Black seems to be suggesting that entrepreneurs need to be resilient and that this tends to come with age. Jules Pieri is experienced in private sector start-ups, she too indentifies resilience as an essential attribute and one in which she believes older entrepreneurs may have a ‘hidden advantage’. Pieri is founder and CEO of The Grommet which ‘launches undiscovered consumer products’. She believes the more mature adult has “more significant social and family supports to give them resilience to survive the brutal psychological assaults of creating a company” Pieri commends her three teenage sons for helping her think through issues, serving as an interested sounding board.

Returning to his central theme, Liam Black concludes by saying ‘Let’s not fetishise social enterprise and risk setting up many young people to fail’. This is important. Yes, we want to bring out the best in young people and yes, we understand that we learn most from failure, but a failed business start-up in the social enterprise sector is different. It’s not just a knockdown for the entrepreneur, it can have a serious impact on potentially vulnerable groups they work with; people who may be both employees and customers.

UnLtd, the social venture support agency, have done some useful research into social entrepreneurship in the 50+ age group. Hannah McDowall, co-author of their 2012 report ‘Golden Opportunities: Social Entrepreneurs in an Ageing Society’ recently made an interesting distinction between the views of younger and older entrepreneurs as the difference between new parents and new grandparents. She said the new parent/entrepreneur thinks their baby/enterprise is beyond criticism, while the grandparent is equally passionate but tends to be more objective and measured – ‘a different energy’ was how she described it.

What the ‘Golden Opportunities’ report itself confirms is the positive contribution of the older social entrepreneur; not only keeping the individuals concerned active (and in many cases earning) for longer, but in developing social ventures that address issues specifically related to our ageing society. The authors cite three examples:

  • Enabling ageing well by tackling inactivity in middle age
  • Providing employment support for people over 50
  • Building intergenerational collaboration to reduce the isolation of older people while passing on cultural skills and traditions to younger generations

To that list, I’d add a fourth example – my own social enterprise. The Repair Shed is to be a social enterprise run by and for older men at risk of loneliness – making, mending and learning for wider community benefit. That I fall into the 50+ category, and that I’m creating a facility I’d love to use myself, may help but it’s no guarantee of course that my ‘mature parenting’ will nurture success.

We want quality social enterprises to not only survive, but thrive. If those parental instincts also urge us to caution young upstarts with start-up ambitions, let’s hope they don’t automatically categorise us as grumpy old gits with no sense of adventure, but don’t be surprised if they do.


Liam Black http://www.pioneerspost.com/comment/20140306/letter-young-social-entrepreneur-the-world-needs-your-experience-not-your-ipad

Jules Pierihttp://jules.thegrommet.com/2014/03/03/the-older-entrepreneurs-secret-weapon/

UnLtd http://unltd.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Findings-Paper-4-Golden-Opportunities-2011.pdf



Enterprise essential – Trust your intuition

If your ideas come out of your years of experience in a particular field, they are likely to be worth pursuing. Work at them until they take off, or prove to be dead ducks. When you ditch doomed ideas, don’t take it as personal failure – true entrepreneurs have the self-belief to bounce back quickly.