Tag Archives: entrepreneurship

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

Growing your enterprise – Nurture by Nature

Latest in the More Expert by Experience series

New Nurture by Nature logoNurture by Nature are connecting young people with nature and history at their stunning 6-acre site of ancient Norfolk woodland. Hannah Burns, fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneurs in Ipswich, is the inspiration behind the creation of an oasis of tranquillity. Exactly two years on from my first and last visit to Attleborough Wood, I get an update.

I’m surprised to hear Hannah summarise developments over the past two years as “laying the foundations and getting the structure in place.” This seems like an extended gestation period, but then I remember she’s in this for the long term; Nurture by Nature has a 20-year management plan. 

In reality, Hannah’s baby is now an energetic toddler as she explains “we’re trying new things, lots of activities, we’ve got a growing team, we’re working with more schools, we’ve got an office and tool shed [play area] and equipment [toys].”

But importantly, Hannah is clear about the reason she set up Nurture by Nature in the first place. “The ancient woodland is our priority – we’re here to take care of it as guardians and advocates. We’re trying to educate the next generation; make them more mindful about minimising their environmental impact.”  

The fresh air and exercise is obviously working well for the three staff members, four directors, and up to 15 volunteers. There is now talk of ‘scaling-up’ – hopefully with further support from the School for Social Entrepreneurs in London.

Hannah B - Nurture by NatureFor Hannah this is also about recognising her limits “admitting I’m not an expert in everything”, letting go “we’ve now got a strong team”, and bringing in outside help “we’ve had external marketing support to develop our public image”.

The painful pregnancy and birth that seem to accompany many, if not all, social enterprise start-ups are reflected in Hannah’s advice to other would-be entrepreneurs. “Don’t give up – it’s about your head and heart. I’ve been tired and tearful, had sleepless nights about taking risks, some months I’ve been unable to pay myself, and it can be lonely. But the change in the last year has been amazing. I’ve got supportive directors, each with specific expertise and, as staff, we care for each other.”

Another characteristics of people like Hannah is that they have too many ideas for the time available – mindfulness courses and weekend retreats being just two. Funding permitting, the next ‘big thing’ is a visitor centre, regular opening hours, and more work with schools.

“Think future, act now” could be Hannah’s mantra as she, no longer alone, continues to grow young people and ancient woodland in rural Norfolk.    

Further reading:

https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2013/11/27/freedom-to-think-outside-no-box-required (Nurture by Nature, November 2013)

Find out more about Nurture by Nature  www.nurturebynatureforestschool.co.uk www.facebook.com/NurtureBNature www.twitter.com/nbnforestschool

GAP Learning – a growing family

Latest in the new More Expert by Experience series

Teresa and AmandaNearly 18 months after graduating from the School for Social Entrepreneurs in Ipswich, I discover that fellow fellows Amanda Page and Teresa Crickmar are sisters. Well I only studied alongside them for 12 months… There has also been a wedding, but more about that later.

When I first interviewed the two sisters separately, almost exactly two years ago, they were developing two different social enterprises – FullSpoon (Amanda) and Craftworks (Teresa). I hadn’t a clue they planned to work so closely together to launch GAP Learning, but then I’ve discovered there’s a lot I didn’t know about them.

The Craftworks and FullSpoon courses are still happy and healthy* but they have now been gathered under one roof – GAP Learning (a Community Interest Company) with a new upstart moving in – She Loves Him Tho’. GAP stands for Generating Alternative Possibilities with a mission to reach out and get people at biggest disadvantage into education, training and employment through volunteering and learning.

As Amanda explains, that learning includes “a free five-week ‘Healthy Eating on a Budget’ FullSpoon course which includes food safety, budgeting, reducing food waste and cooking.” In comparison, Teresa describes Craftwork’s training as “A mini product design course, getting people talking, thinking about a stress-free life, thinking about learning and gaining new skills by making beautiful products to sell, with an option to set up in business.”

gap logo

Working with ‘hard to motivate’ learners can be exhausting but, for both sisters, this makes the small and large breakthroughs all the more rewarding. “It’s the elation of anything from a learner eventually ‘getting it’, to prising someone out of bed in the morning!”

Like nervous parents with fast-growing children, Amanda and Teresa don’t like to see their learners leave when the courses come to an end, so they offer them lots of progression routes instead. And, like teenagers who don’t really want to leave the comfort of home, some of the learners are only too happy to stay on!

Teresa explains “Once a course has finished, around 20% of graduates sign up to stay on for work experience with, for example, our partners at the local Love Food, Hate Waste project. Some graduates progress to paid roles for a few hours a week and also volunteer with GAP Learning.” Amanda elaborates “Two learners are now tutors, having been trained at Cambridge Regional College. Other part-time roles include administration, design and social media. Then there are one-off volunteering opportunities like event management.”

GAP learning 1Craftworks Rocks is their latest innovation, with young men being trained to make stylish pallet-wood boxes to store and display crafted magnets made by other learners and sold to the public. The plan is to locate the boxes in coffee shops and retail outlets nationally with income being used to pay the producers for more magnets, and to subsidise the courses to keep them free to learners.  Craftworks Rocks was the focus for a recent crowdfunding campaign which raised enough to launch the initiative to meet early demand for the boxes and magnets.

She loves him tho picIt was a ‘Social Venture Weekend’ at Cambridge Judge Business School and a wedding that sparked the latest addition to the GAP Learning family. Amanda was getting married and as she recalls     “I realised there was nowhere that creative people could have the fun of crafting their own wedding items – making rings and other jewellery, designing and printing invitations and menus, decorating shoes.” ‘She loves him tho’ was conceived “It’s a programme of workshops for brides, grooms and their relatives to create a bespoke ethical wedding range that helps make someone else’s life better.”

Amid such change and growth, has Amanda and Teresa’s mission also changed?

“No” says Teresa (like all close sisters, I realise one often speaks on behalf of them both) “Our mission has stayed the same – we want clear positive change through group learning for people with challenges. We’ve put some boundaries on who we work with and, even if we can’t really afford to, we’ll sometimes say  ‘no’ because of our strong values.” 

Building the team has also meant that Teresa and Amanda have had to learn how to manage – both people and processes. “Because we’re now paying people we have to equate our own time and theirs when costing items. We have to set targets and deadlines and it helps them that we’re clearer about expectations. We’re training them for the world of work so time management and good discipline are important.”

“For our part we have to be more realistic about how long things take, get a grip on cash-flow (were learning how payments can lag behind sales) and remind ourselves that unlike the understanding between the two of us, other people can’t read our minds!

As our conversation comes to an end, I ask what’s on the horizon. I admire social entrepreneurs who are self-aware and confident enough to admit their weaknesses alongside trumpeting their successes. Amanda and Teresa are upfront about their needs; funding and financial management are next on their to-do list.  Sounds like a good topic for a new GAP Learning course…

*The health of Craftworks is shown by a recent Social Return on Investment (SROI) calculation showing that for every £1 invested, the service creates £60 in social value. More at http://www.gaplearning.co.uk/documents/SRoI_Report.pdf

Further reading:

https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/putting-a-price-on-hidden-talent (Craftworks, February 2014)

https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/fast-food-for-hungry-learners (Full Spoon, March 2014)

Follow Amanda and Teresa on Twitter: @GAPlearning, Facebook: GAPLearningCIC , and at http://www.gaplearning.co.uk  and www.sheloveshim.co.uk

Purepallets – more than a family affair

Latest in the More Expert by Experience series

Purepallets 2 photosIn February 2015, Dawn Taylor – founder of Purepallets – was enjoying a service break from her visual merchandising role with a major high street store. After falling into a possible career change, Dawn wanted to see if she could make a business out of upcycling wooden pallets into unique products for homes and gardens.

A year later I was intrigued to find out whether, after the gestation period, she had cut the umbilical cord or returned to her more secure and financially rewarding role in mainstream retailing.

“I handed in my notice at the end of October” says Dawn. “I’m now self-employed and it’s quite scary. But I knew that if I survived the first 9 months it would be OK. So far, so good.”

Like many other entrepreneurs, Dawn enjoys the flexibility of being self-employed and working from home. She can combine home life with work in her workshop, help her son before and after school and, if she doesn’t think she’s put in enough hours, paint her pallet products in the evening.

“It’s a lot of hours if I include time on social media, but some days I might only work in the evening. And it doesn’t feel like work; I get up in the morning and I never have that feeling I used to get – ‘oh no, another day at work’. I’ve always got a new product to make so yes, I’m loving it.”

But can she keep work and home-life separated when she has a kitchen that doubles as a paint-shop, and what about weekends?

Family means I try to keep weekends free, but in the run up to Christmas I was very busy, so… But I do make a conscious effort not to work weekends. I’m in control – I can always say ‘no’, although a lot of the time I don’t!” Clearly Dawn is addicted to pallets in the nicest possible way.

Young Purepallet customersAttending events at weekends can be very time-consuming and is not always rewarding; Dawn is learning which ones are worth the effort. She points out that face-to-face contact with would-be customers personalises the business, which is the selling point of her bespoke creations – they’re individually made for individual people. And then there’s the reaction when people see her pallet products. “It gives people ideas, sparks their imagination, and I usually get commissions off the back of an event”. Over the past 12 months, commissions have continued to grow, through word-of-mouth and Facebook, to a point where they’re now up to 80% of sales income.

You’d think that the success of Purepallets would be enough to convince Dawn that she has a winning formula. But, like a mother nervously waiting for her child’s school report, she says she’s always anxious when she hands over a commissioned item. “Everything still feels so new that when I make a new item for someone and come to deliver it, I’m nervous they won’t like it. But then they say ‘it’s just what I wanted’ and that puts my mind at rest.” 

Purepallets is not so much a family business as a business that’s part of the family. Dawn’s pallet-dismantling husband and young son are, she says, ‘supportive’ and even the family’s small car doesn’t complain about doubling up as a van.

So how is the new member of the family settling in?  Like a rapidly growing teenager, it thinks in might be time to leave home! From sales at local events in and around York a year ago with mixed success, Purepallets products can now be found in retails outlets in Selby, Darlington, Halifax and, until recently, Wetherby.

Alongside possible re-location to an off-site workshop, storage space and retail outlet, what does 2016 have in store for Purepallets?

The list of events at which Dawn plans to display her products in the next 12 months sounds both impressive and exhausting. April means Living North exhibitions at Newcastle and York Racecourses. A return to the Festival of Thift in Darlington in September follows a successful visit in 2015 with Remade in Britain, and the York Christmas Markets will mean more pressure on precious weekends.

I finish our conversation delighted that Dawn loves pallets as much as she did when I first interviewed her in 2015 – on Valentine’s Day.

Further information:

Purepallets  http://on.fb.me/1ZLc701

Remade in Britain http://www.remadeinbritain.com/purepallets

A passion for pallets http://bit.ly/1QsPsVq  (February 2015)

Festival of Thrift 2016 http://www.festivalofthrift.co.uk

 

Could your enterprise be more mindful?

Rearview mirrorWhen I was younger, I had a recurring dream that I was driving a car by looking only in the rear view mirror. It probably has some deep psychological meaning about my childhood – I never found out – but it never ended in disaster; it wasn’t a nightmare.

As regular readers of this blog will know, in developing The Repair Shed, I’ve taken many opportunities to reflect on my ‘journey’ so far – to look in the rear view mirror and use what I see to map my route ahead.

So looking back is part of business planning, what about looking forward?

Business planning has more than its fair share of clichés, quotes and supposedly-clever sayings. ‘Fail to plan and you fail to plan’ and ’Pisspoor planning prevents proper performance’ (and any number of variation on the Ps of planning) are just two. I’m in favour of creating a map for the business journey; I’ve often advocated it when advising others while sharing another home truth – the planning process is more important than the plan itself.

But what if you didn’t look too far forwards or backwards while developing your business? It may sound like heresy, but bear with me…

I’m a convert to mindfulness – something which has been around a long time but is fast becoming more mainstream to the extent that schools and MPs are now considering its benefits. My sister who teaches mindfulness graphically summed it up for me when she said “If you have one foot in the past regretting what you didn’t do, and the other foot in the future worrying about what might happen, you piss on the present.”

Mindfulness is about living more in the present, being consciously aware of the ‘here and now’ to create some calm in an increasingly frantic world. I try to practise mindfulness each day when I’m shaving (I close my eyes and shave by touch), driving to work (giving a running commentary on my driving, other road-users and the driving environment) and while I’m cross-country running (scanning my body and identifying changes in everything from my breathing to my aching joints).

Going back to my recurring dream, while it would be impossible to ‘drive your business’ by only looking where you’ve been, you only have to see a short distance ahead to make progress (just as you can when walking or running).

Given the speed of change in the working and living environment and the likelihood that whatever you plan beyond a couple of months ahead is likely to need changing, what might happen if you didn’t have a medium/ long term plan? Here are just three speculative suggestions:

  • You might save a lot of time in meetings discussing things that will never happen, giving you more time to focus on running your business right now
  • You might be more open to opportunities and more responsive to the immediate needs of your customers (who says being pro-active is better than being reactive?)
  • Workers might feel less pressured by distant targets and more focussed on getting their job done better on a day to day basis

What do you think – could your business benefit from being more focussed on the present by being more mindful? Or maybe you think not enough time is spent planning ahead?

Further reading on reflection:  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/11/07/on-reflection-building-a-shed-day-400

A passion for pallets

???????????????????????????????Creative flair, a willingness to roll up sleeves and ‘have a go’, to experiment and being prepared to fail, all make Dawn Taylor well suited to a recent, perhaps surprising, career development. Dawn is founder of York-based enterprise Purepallets which does what it says on the tin (or should that be timber?) turning pallets into crafted items fit to grace any home.

From wine racks and candle holders to what can only be described as ‘letter wall shelving’ (B anyone?) pallet product design and creation clearly excites Dawn.

But perhaps the new career move is not so surprising, as Dawn explains… “When I was young I was a tomboy. My dad was a plumber and built our extension by himself, and I helped him. I learnt how to mix cement and lay bricks, so from an early age I’ve not been scared to try new things.” 

So, practical from an early age and Dawn’s creativity – probably also rooted in her past – has been honed through a career in retailing, including 14 years as a visual merchandiser with a major UK high street store.

And what could be more creative than turning a much-maligned product – the humble pallet which many of Dawn’s friends think is only good for firewood – into a thing with real appeal, each one unique? Having “fallen into making pallet products by accident” – an unexpected commission to make a wine rack – Dawn was soon bitten by the upcycling bug. She has just started experimenting with paint effects but still delights in the beauty of the ‘pure pallet’ finish which, when embossed with the original owners logo adds to the story behind the product.

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Now taking a service break with her current employer, Dawn has nine months to see if she can ‘give birth’ to a financially viable business. The product range is developing nicely – mainly through commissions from a rapidly widening customer base that values the bespoke nature of each item. With low overheads to date – pallets are sourced locally at low/no cost, the workshop is a garage at home, social media and word-of-mouth are the main marketing tools – there may be a temptation to under-value the finished product.

But Dawn believes her promotional offer – quality and uniqueness at affordable prices – could create a sustainable business model. While pallets grow on trees (well, sort of…) Dawn’s talents do not. With these she may just be able to differentiate Purepallets’ product range from others and have champagne corks popping.

See Purepallets products at http://on.fb.me/1xtfc8T

 

Men’s Sheds and bird boxes

IMG_4008Men’s Sheds are a vehicle to connect older men to like-minded people and the wider community bringing proven benefits in physical and mental wellbeing. How they do this varies greatly.

Despite there being over 1,000 Men’s Sheds in Australia and 200 in Ireland, with the UK catching up fast,  there is no typical Shed. Each aims to harness the resources of the particular locality to meet the needs of the men within it.

Just as Channel 4 TV’s ‘Shed of the Year’ awards stretches the definition of a shed, so too does the Men’s Shed movement. ‘Sheds’ in the East of England for example, include a former mortuary in Maldon, space in a community arts centre in Bedford, and a church building in Ipswich.

The Repair Shed in Hemel Hempstead occupies part of a warehouse and workshop space at the Hemel Food Garden – a horticultural social enterprise run by charity Sunnyside Rural Trust which works with learning-disabled adults to grow bedding plants under contract to Dacorum Borough Council.

Sheds, enterprise…

Making, mending and learning are three broad areas identified for income-generation in Hemel Hempstead. With a strong environmental emphasis on waste prevention, the plan is for the Repair Shed to turn reclaimed materials into functional items, for example furniture made from wooden pallets. An affordable repair service will run alongside free community repair events at which owners learn how to fix their broken items themselves. More formal learning by and for Repair Shed members – in repair, re-use and DIY skills – will be developed into paid-for training courses and one-off workshops for the wider community.

The Repair Shed itself aspires to be financially self-sufficient through selling goods and services, but it’s too early to know whether social enterprise is a route to a sustainable funding model. Elsewhere, the idea of income-generation and running a business operation doesn’t appeal to all Sheds.

Some Shed members like the continuity of structure, targets and plans – tapping into their commercial skills and experience – particularly when seeking to get back into employment. Others come to a Shed to get away from the stress of a business-oriented environment as Andy Wood, who helped set up the Norwich Men’s Shed, explains: “Making things to sell or offering paid-for services will be part of our business plan, but we are aware that this may cause pressure on participants to produce, which, in our view, would defeat the purpose of the project”.

… and bird boxes

That said, most Sheds do make things – whether for sale or for the satisfaction of being creative. Bird boxes are bread and butter for many Sheds – easy to make, great gifts for all ages in kit form or made-up, and a ‘nice little earner’ as Del Boy might say. At the new Maldon Shed it’s early days, but Bob Adams reports: “We have already been commissioned to make bird & bat boxes by Essex Wildlife Trust, and a few local pubs have asked us to make some flower troughs.” When the Men’s Shed in Aylesbury started, the group used bird box making as a team-building activity, making 75 in the weeks before Christmas and selling two thirds of them on a market stall before the festivities began.

The challenge of balancing ‘social’ and ‘enterprise’ activity, recognised by many social enterprises, is well illustrated by the recent bird box experience of another Buckinghamshire Men’s Shed, in Milton Keynes. A commission to make 150 bird boxes looks like good business but, for men not paid to join a production line, the loss of creativity that comes with making even 10 boxes can turn a hobby into a chore.

For more on Men’s Sheds around the UK go to www.ukmsa.org.uk