Tag Archives: opportunities

From tabletop to laptop – Recover

Latest in the More Expert by Experience series. For other profiles, see http://bit.ly/1rd75hZ

Recover logoWhen I last spoke to Ian Block about his business plan, he’d three years to achieve self-funding from sales of quality upcycled pre-loved furniture. At that time (February 2014) Recover – the social enterprise he leads in Welwyn Garden City – was one year old. I wondered how the three year plan had progressed over the previous two years.

“Our mission has remained the same throughout” confirms Ian “It’s about helping people reintegrate and get themselves worthwhile employment that will stay with them, and help them to be the best they can be; that they feel fulfilled and their lives are worthwhile.”

I asked whether there had been any surprises – good or bad. Continuing the theme of benefiting the volunteers, Ian points to success at the rate at which people have gained and used new skills. Recover has helped raise expectations to the stage where, says Ian, most volunteers are keen to progress.

Looking back, Recover have learnt some hard lessons about the reality of working with people who are furthest from the jobs market. One lesson is a well-known ‘problem of success’ for many social enterprises – that the most capable and productive unemployed volunteers move to paid jobs – an occupational hazard! And for those that remain…

Recover people and products

“There are a broader range of issues facing our volunteers than we anticipated. Their lives are complicated and it takes more time and support for people to move on and stay moved on, particularly when they are older or have lower self-esteem.”

“We thought that the majority of volunteers would progress relatively quickly and then help run Recover. But once out of treatment, when they come to us, the original problems may resurface; they need a lot of hand-holding to develop a sense of self-worth.”   

The first step, of what is often a long journey, is turning up on a regular basis – establishing some structure and routine. Recover offers work and life skills development through refurbishing quality, high-end furniture and Ian doesn’t underestimate the challenge.

“We’re not making sandwiches here – the work takes skill, concentration, focus, practice creativity, Recover recoveringtechnique. We’ve developed methods, systems and processes to keep it as simple as possible, but it still takes a lot of time to teach and embed the learning.”

The intensity of the hands-on support for volunteers means that Ian is finding it harder to balance the books from sales than he’d anticipated. Recover is currently aiming for 50% of income from sales and 50% from funding.

The biggest single development over the past 12 months has been the transition to independence from Recover’s parent charity. Recover is now a Company Limited by Guarantee and Registered Charity in its own right. This means more paperwork as back office functions are taken in-house, including insurance, funding applications, and reporting to the new directors.

Despite the increased demands on his time, Ian is clear about what matters “My priorities are supporting our team and making money. The backroom work has to be fitted in around that. Reporting alone could become a fulltime job if you let it – I started out working on dining tables, now I spend a lot of time on computerised tables!”

Looking ahead, it’s about finding the right balance between growth and consolidation. For Ian the books must balance to keep the doors open. Recover aspires to raise their 50:50 funding/earning ratio to 100% income from trading, but wisely he doesn’t set a date for this.

In the meantime, Recover are getting to grips with pricing – an issue for many social enterprises and an area where Ian is learning fast ‘what works’.

                                                                     Ian gets hands on

“We’re educating people about value – the quality and cost of our work. We’ve been  able to reduce prices as we’ve got better  and faster at refurbishment. The pieces   that we turn into ‘artisan one-of- kind items’ are well-priced compared with mass produced generic flat pack furniture from economy high street chain stores. Items     we don’t refurbish are sold at considerably lower prices than charity shops. Sometimes, we just ask people on low income for a donation that suits their budget.”

Another ‘problem of success’ – in addition to losing the most capable volunteers – relates to Recover’s high profile (“done without any paid advertising” adds Ian proudly).  The two staff members are finding increased demands on their time – from media people, businesses (all support welcome!) and statutory sector staff.

A timely reminder that I’ve taken over an hour of Ian’s time. As I leave, he joins his team for lunch which, he tells me, will be a main meal of the day for some. Yes – two years on from our original meeting, the strengths and values of Recover are still very much in evidence.

 Further information and contact:

http://www.recoverteam.co.uk https://www.facebook.com/recoverteam.co.uk https://twitter.com/RecoverTeam

https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/02/19/the-art-of-adding-value (February 2014)



The paying customer is always right

Bob and a shy Michael with commissioned window boxes

Bob and a shy Michael with commissioned window boxes

At The Repair Shed in Hemel Hempstead we’ve spent the best part of the year learning an important lesson.

We’ve been making products for sale from reclaimed materials, primarily old pallets. The products ideas – for homes and gardens – have come from many sources, including members of the Shed, their families, and of course, the internet. The result has been a range of traditional and more unusual items.

We’ve had fun making them and we’ve put them ‘out there’ – to research the market – online through Etsy (a craft-based selling site), on our webpage [https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/repair-shed-shop-2] and on Facebook [www.facebook.com/TheRepairShed]. Over the summer we’ve also been at outdoor events – country fairs, street craft markets and charity events. The face-to-face contact and feedback has been valuable, if somewhat disheartening.

We’ve learnt that it’s time to stop making products that we want to sell and to start making products that people want to buy. Online sales have been spectacularly unsuccessful and sales on stalls have not been much better.

a less shy Michael

A less shy Michael

Where we have had success is in taking commissions. Some are quite wacky – a ‘cat kennel’ a milk crate with a roof, and a sweet cart (as in sweets to suck and chew, not a hostess trolley for desserts) as well as more conventional items such as window boxes, and bug houses.

A commission is, of course, a firm sale at an agreed price (but costing is not always easy when you’ve never made the item before) so they’re a much better business proposition. And once made and photographed the one-off product can be promoted and might well become a source of further sales.

So we’re pushing for commissions and hoping the next stage will be repeat commissions of different items.  There are various statistics about how much more expensive it is to get a new customer than to keep an existing one (I’ve seen anything from 4 – 7 times more) but the detail is unimportant. Regular and repeat paying customers are the lifeblood of many businesses both big and small.

I was reminded about this when I heard that the landlady of a local pub knows pretty exactly how much each regular drinker is worth to her business. She can look down the bar and put a price above each head – £3,000 a year, £5,000, £10,000 … (yes, that’s a lot of beer!) And she looks after them like VIPs because they are; without them she’d close. This five star treatment was confirmed when a friend went to the pub for a meal with a small group of friends. When they asked if the noisy drinkers at the bar could be quietened down a bit, the landlady politely told them “sorry I can’t – they’re my regulars.”

Beyond funding

IMG_2377I’m sure you’ve done a bit of day-dreaming in your time about how you’d spend £1M if you won the lottery.

I avoid such speculation (mainly because I don’t do the lottery) but I do imagine from time to time what I’d do if I had an unlimited amount on money to invest in my current ‘good cause’ whatever that may be.

Interestingly, it’s not as easy an exercise as you might think (try it yourself…) even though most not-for-private-profit organisations seem to be fixated about money.

While concern about ‘the bottom line’ is sensible of course, I sometimes think that money, and the responsibility that comes with spending other people’s, gets in the way of organisational success. It’s the old conundrum – being too busy fundraising to do the work for which you’re fundraising!

Which is why I’m looking at non-financial resources for organisational success below, and at a training day at the end of February.

What makes an organisation sustainable?

Years ago I came across a brilliant toolkit which explored what it takes to make an organisation sustainable (note: there was a separate list for financial sustainability). Their recipe for success included…

  • having a clear strategic direction
  • being able to scan the environment to identify opportunities
  • being able to attract, manage and retain competent staff
  • having adequate administrative and financial systems
  • being able to demonstrate effectiveness and impact to attract resources
  • getting community support for, and involvement in, the organisation’s work

How does your organisation stack up in these areas? Be honest now.

Being a train…

Worth re-visiting the Gina Negus (founder, The Projects Company) analogy of viewing your organisation as a train – firmly on track, destination ahead down the line, resources fuel the journey, all on board travelling in the same direction, in control of the speed and direction of travel.

Is your organisation a train or an octopus (drifting, reaching out in all directions, just ’going with the flow’)?

The power of people

Online: I have a love-hate relationship with social media. I love the fact that (along with the rest of the universe of course!) I can now communicate with thousands of others easily, affordably and, if it’s done well, effectively. But it also brings what Adrian Ashton describes as ‘faux companionship’ that has a place in reducing isolation but, in my opinion, is no substitute for ‘face-to-face’.  For me the ideal blend is using the arm’s length facility to make things happen face-to-face*  In your organisation do you use social media effectively?

Offline: Here’s another question for you. If your organisation was threatened with closure, which 10, 20, 30, 40 people (that’s 100 in total) would you contact first for support? Applying the pareto principle [that 80% of your business comes from 20% of your contacts] which 100 of your 500 best contacts are the most important for your organisation’s survivial? The list could include your local newspaper editor, the printer who gives you extended credit, or maybe your frontline staff – the people who greet visitors and answer the phone – and an ever-dependable volunteer.

If you don’t already know who these people – your VIPs – are, find out and make 2015 the year you really look after your greatest assets!

If you’re interested in exploring these and other non-financial routes to sustainability and success, join me for a training day at the end of February. Details at http://www.voluntarysectortraining.org.uk/courses/event/89/Beyond-Funding-its-not-all-about-the-money and book now for a 10% early bird discount before the end of 2014!

*More about online and face-to-face communication at https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/04/08/local-social-online-and-connected-2)

An A – Z of social entrepreneurship: L – O

L & M – Leadership and Management

Management is about now, leadership is about the future; one implements goals, the other sets them; one relies on control, the other inspires trust; one deals in rational processes, the other in emotional horizons.” Amin Rajan

Another useful distinction comes from Lord Bilimoria, founder of Cobra Beer, who suggests that “leaders make things possible, managers make things happen”.

Either way it’s good to try not to confuse the two – many do – and remember…. you don’t need to be a leader or a manager to use those skills (particularly if you have greater expertise in both areas than the leaders and managers do!)

 N – Negotiation

 Gone, I think, are the days when negotiation was all about playing hardball and ‘getting your own way’ whatever the cost. Most entrepreneurs are in it for the long haul and recognise that it’s more about trying to end up in a (jargon alert) win-win situation with the other party. Any parent knows this makes for more rewarding relationships!

But nor is negotiation about bending over backwards and underselling yourself. Traditionally the not-for-profit sector has said ‘give us half the money and we’ll work twice as hard’. Being business-like – increasingly important in these hard times – is about saying instead ‘give us half the money and we’ll do half the job’.

 O – Obstacles and opportunities

Two sales executives were sent to a tropical island to research the market for shoes. One e-mailed HQ to report “bad news, no one wears shoes.” The other reported “good news, no one wears shoes.” Which would be your e-mail?

There’s a lot of bullsh*t spouted about necessity being the mother of invention and simply working smarter to save money as an excuse for slashing expenditure. But I do think some organisations have suffered in the past from the relative ease of access to funds for good works. Developing flabby organisations can lead to flabby thinking, and I’d like to think that a bit of belt-tightening might stimulate creativity.

Enterprise essential – look for opportunities in adversity

Following the closure of a library in Bournemouth, books were re-housed in the nearby pub. This meant the ‘new library’ was open until late each night, and on Sundays. It also brought people into contact with books in a non-threatening setting. Hard times can stimulate creativity and progress. As Ben Cohen, founder of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, has observed “to stumble is merely to move forward faster.”


Enterprise essential – know your business environment

Know your competition (which for a choir rehearsing in a church on a cold winter’s night is not only other choirs, but anything that will keep people indoors!) Continually gather as much information as you can to monitor the changing environment and keep on the lookout for trends that might present opportunities or pose threats.


Enterprise essential – Be open to opportunities

Balance focus and flexibility, be open to new ideas and be prepared to act quickly. Think positively! Two sales executives were sent to a tropical island to research the market for shoes. One e-mailed HQ to report “bad news, no one wears shoes.” The other reported “good news, no one wears shoes.” Which would you be your e-mail?