Tag Archives: focus

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?

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

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

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

Building a shed – the second 100 days

Day 200I’m already seven months into my year with the Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs Start-up Programme at the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE) in Ipswich. Doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun etc… but more about that later.

April 18 was day 200 – Good Friday – and a good day for further reflection on my progress in setting up The Repair Shed – a will-be environmental social enterprise involving older men in purposeful but unpaid employment – making, mending and learning.

A timely reminder of my plan (and deviation from it) also drops through my letterbox in the shape of a postcard, sent by SSE but written by me last October, about what I wanted to achieve in the six months to end March 2014. So what does it say on that oh-so-optimistic postcard?

For me, by April 2014 I planned to ‘know I’m going to get paid for the next 6 months’ and for The Repair Shed, to have ‘shed members recruited and active’ and to be ‘earning income’.

On the ‘members active’ front, I’m pleased to say that, after an inspiring and energizing shed crawl to Milton Keynes and Aylesbury at the end of March, we’re having a final meeting on 1st May (Labour Day – significant I think) before we literally roll up our sleeves and get hands-on.  We’re going to start small, one day a week, but I think the move will be important for making The Repair Shed more real for both insiders and outsiders.

So we’re not yet earning income and nor am I. Unless, that is, you count a £20 donation for putting someone’s IKEA shelves together (did you know there are literally hundreds of companies offering that same service – along with IKEA themselves?) A crowded market and not one for The Repair Shed I think. Try putting ‘flatpack assembly’ into Google if you don’t believe me.

At the start of this blog post I mentioned the F-word – fun – and I can honestly say the last 200 days have been some of the most enjoyable and rewarding of my entire career in the not-for-private-profit sector.

But F for fun, not for funding.

As no one is currently paying me to do what I’m doing, I’ve been tempted to think I can be a free spirit and do pretty much what I like as long as I’m developing The Repair Shed.  This isn’t the case of course, and I now know I need to be more formally held to account, in advance of possible income-generation (for The Repair Shed) and funding (to cover my time).

With this in mind, I’m setting up a steering group – inviting people whom I hope will want to help develop The Repair Shed through a personal and professional interest. People willing to attend tightly-run meetings at which I report on what I say I’m going to do/ have done and they share their expertise and insights.  To keep a wider group of people abreast of my exploits, I’m planning a monthly e-bulletin – Make & Mend – from May onwards, to allow others to look through The Repair Shed window.

If you’d like to have a regular, short and, hopefully, lively update on what we’re getting up to in the Repair Shed, just e-mail leeinroyston@aol.com with ‘Make & Mend subscription’ in the subject box.

Enterprise essential – Focus on what you do best

When funds are limited, there may be a temptation to expand your range of services to match funding criteria without real regard to your primary purpose. This should be avoided. Concentrate instead on the core activities that best further your mission, are (relatively) profitable, and which tap into your organisation’s specific expertise.


Ten ways to stand out from the rest

We are increasingly bombarded with information – coming at us from all directions 24 hours a day (if we allow it).  In the face of this onslaught, the social entrepreneur might be inclined to give up trying to promote their enterprise or the campaigner their cause – particularly if metaphorically shouting louder and louder is just not their style.

Standing out lBut there are more subtle and equally effective ways to get your voice heard above the din; to differentiate yourself from competitors and keep your customers for longer. In doing and studying not-for-profit marketing for 35 years, I have identified many low/no cost ways to stand out from the rest – here are some.

Stress success: People (customers, paid and unpaid staff, financial backers, and other supporters) want to be associated with success. Use every opportunity to demonstrate the positive difference you’re making. Make good use of endorsements and good press coverage of achievements. Be specific about your success and back it up with evidence – this is not about spin.

Under promise and over provide: Don’t make inflated claims to attract business or other kinds of support. You undermine your organisation and the sector as a whole. Be positive but precise about what you can and can’t do. If I promise to send your order within a week and you get it the next day you’re impressed. If I do the opposite, I may lose your trust for ever.

Know your purpose: There’s a temptation for organisations to try to be all things to all people – avoid it! If you know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how well you’re doing it – and you can communicate this clearly inside and outside your organisation – you’ll be doing well. Every opportunity to develop the business should be assessed against your core purpose – will it take you closer to your next destination?

Take Care: Good marketing is about the efforts you make to go that extra mile to meet your customers’ needs. Think of the Friday phone call that, handled well, resulted in a £1M legacy for a Scottish medical charity. Ironically, it’s the little things that can leave more of a lasting impression (bad as well as good, so beware!) than grand gestures. And it’s not about how much money you throw at a problem.

Listen and respond: Make sure you handle complaints carefully. Done well it can turn that person into a regular customer and even an advocate. More generally, solicit and use both good and bad feedback. Always start with them – listen to what people are saying (and not saying) If you say you take feedback seriously prove it.

Everything communicates: Don’t think that promotion can be left to one member of staff or a marketing team.  Whether you like it or not, everything you and your colleagues do and don’t do sends out messages. So, by design or default, all enterprises have a brand/ image even if they don’t know what it is! Make sure that you control those outgoing messages as much as you can – consistency in your publicity materials is one way of doing this.

Connect with hearts and heads: A good mix of personal stories with facts and figures make a powerful combination. Stories will connect with people at the heart, facts and figures will connect at the head. (Facts and figures also help control the wild claims). Build up your stock of photos of real people – happy customers, busy staff, interesting events – ways to make your business come alive.

Aim to surprise: And make sure the surprise is a pleasant one! The supermarket chain Aldi led the way in changing stock (and offers) in shops every week to create a sense of anticipation and surprise. Other supermarket chains have since followed suit. You don’t have to change so often, but always think how you can develop and improve your service. Small surprises (a card to thank your customer for their purchase?) can also have a big effect.

Develop and use your USP [unique selling point]: Find out why the people who use your services think you’re special. When a choir asked its members this question a consensus came up around the high standard achieved (with no auditions) and that the choir attracted local people. This was developed into a strap line “fine music, made locally”.

Don’t take loyalty for granted: People are only loyal until someone comes along and offers something better. You take the loyalty of your supporters (customers, paid and unpaid staff, members and subscribers) for granted at your peril!