Green Rooms is one of the most hotly anticipated new hotels to launch in London this year and it has been much talked about – both in the press and on social media (you can follow them @GreenRoomsHotel onTwitter). What’s more, because it doesn’t officially open to the public until mid-May people attending the Start Up | Stay Up Social Enterprise Conference will be some of the first to see the hotel’s seriously stylish interior.
I caught up with Nick at The Rose Lipman Building - headquarters for The Mill Co. Project, the social enterprise business he co-founded back in 2010 that provides workspace for independent artists and small creative companies. The business is going from strength to strength and now operates nearly 100,000 square foot of workspace, theatre space, cafes, bars and restaurants right across the capital, supporting in excess of 100 SMEs. Nick shared his start up story with me, and we spoke about what motivates him, the challenges he’s had to overcome in his career to date, and how he feels future social entrepreneurs can be better supported. He also dropped a few hints as to what he’ll be talking about at the event in April.
1. Given that you could have done anything, why did you become a social entrepreneur?
I don’t think you really choose to, I think you just do. It certainly wasn’t the case that I made a conscious decision to become a social entrepreneur. I guess I’m a self-starter, I’m very driven, and I like to succeed. But I like seeing other people succeed too, and when and where I can, I like helping people along. Working collaboratively is a big thing for me and it’s what The Mill Co. Project is all about.
2. Both of your parents had their own businesses. Did they inspire you?
Yes, I grew up with entrepreneurial parents. Both had their own businesses within the handmade rug trade. During my childhood I saw both businesses prosper, but then both went through very difficult periods too. As a family we went from being very wealthy to suddenly being very poor – so much so that at one point we had bailiffs turning up at our house and the property nearly got repossessed. I’ve been on a similar journey myself. I’ve been on the brink of bankruptcy and know what it’s like to have to start again. But you learn from it. These types of experiences teach you 1) to be resilient, 2) to get up and do things again and 3) to not be afraid to fail.
Growing up as I did meant work and life were the same thing. Business and home life sort of merged into one. We didn’t go on holidays, we went on business trips to China, Cairo or India to look at factories. I didn’t see the difference between working life and non-working life, and today it’s pretty much the same. I don’t see my work as work. I work all the time. I just see it as my life.
3. How is it you came to focus on the arts?
Well the handmade rugs business is about art and design – specifically interior design you might say. I worked for both of my parents when I was growing up and I got to know the ins and outs of the trade. Eventually I took over both businesses and amalgamated them.
And I did everything. I’d design rugs and carpets and would work with interior decorators in the UK and all over the world. I spent a lot of time in Cairo at the mill where approved designs that I’d created for clients would be woven and made into rugs. So I guess I’ve always been involved in art and design, and I’ve always been very appreciative of good design. Being around artisanal craftspeople from such a young age obviously influenced me. In addition, when I got out of the rug business I worked for a number of years restoring listed buildings, a lot of which were theatres. By the very nature of the environments I found myself in I was often in contact with actors, artists and producers, and this period broadened my understanding of the creative industries.
One thing I learnt very quickly was that there isn’t a lot of money in the arts – in the sense that practitioners from all sorts of different disciplines don’t earn that much, particularly when they’re starting out. The Mill Co. Project provides affordable workspace for artists, as well as spaces and stages for people to put on performances and exhibitions as well. There are all sorts of brilliant people out there, people with incredible ideas and phenomenal talent – but they really do need space to work in and platforms from which they can showcase that work.
4. Where do you see your social impact?
Primarily, it's about providing space for creative people to develop their businesses, ideas and enterprises. And we do that in a number of ways. Yes, we provide affordable workspace and performance space for those that need it, but we also provide a network and encourage our tenants to work collaboratively. Some of our tenants have established businesses that turn very healthy profits while some are much more embryonic. We have businesses at different stages of their evolution and on occasion they’ll work together to develop a brilliant product or performance.
But then they also work in isolation too, are very understanding of each other’s situations, and the policy of cross-subsidisation that we operate. For example, we have a lady who runs a charity called Tropical Isles, which is a carnival charity. She has about 200 kids come to one of our buildings every week. She runs workshop programmes as part of the arts awards and the kids that come in design carnival costumes, dance, and get involved in various music projects. This takes them to places they might otherwise never see, and helps them start their own enterprises too. However, she wouldn’t even be in the building if we didn’t have ‘normal’ enterprise businesses to support her. For example, we have a guy in the same building that runs his own successful fashion design company. He pays rent and that supports Martha. Established companies support the ones coming through from the bottom. That's our business model. Each building within The Mill Co. Project operates as a stand-alone enterprise and every building has to make money to work.
I think more and more people are beginning to realise that enterprise businesses and impact businesses are closely linked. Certainly our tenants get it. There are a lot of workspaces out there and we’re one of the cheapest providers but it really is about networks and getting people to work together. If you behave, act and work in an altruistic way you tend to get better results in the long run. It’s just right.
5. What motivates you to do what you do?
First and foremost - making money. It’s really simple, if I’m not making money I can’t do good things. I love helping others and seeing enterprises and people I like flourish. But I can’t do any of that stuff – whether it be providing cheap workspace or helping a struggling artist to put on an exhibition – if my own businesses aren’t profitable.
6. What is the hardest thing to do?
Things that are hard are things that you don’t want to do.
7. So what are the things that you don’t want to do?
I don’t want to get a job. If I had to get a job and deliver for other people, I’d find that hard.
8. How do you think that social entrepreneurs and businesses can be more supported?
Speaking in terms of the specific areas that I work in, I’d say: 1) how the Government can go about unlocking more assets 2) Look at finance – both in terms of models and individual practices. For example, are there ways to underwrite loans for social entrepreneurs?
9. Where do you see the future of social enterprise?
These are interesting times - I’m meeting with lots of people now who are really changing the way they think about business. They’re interested in making money but also about the social impact those business ventures might have. And do I think that people are thinking more about the long term, and developing sustainable businesses.
I think, in fact I know, that social enterprises are happening all over the world. Things are moving in the right direction and social enterprises are becoming more mainstream. The lines of demarcation between enterprises, social enterprises and charitable organisations are more blurred than they’ve ever been, and that’s a really good thing. We can do without all these labels and having to categorise things. More and more people are looking at problems and working out what type of enterprise is needed to fix them, and it’s not a case of taking one approach and ignoring all the others. You can mix and match. It’s a refreshing take on things, and one that will probably be particularly prevalent among young entrepreneurs and the next generation.
Join us and hear about how he turned his various ideas into profitable enterprises, how he raised funds for them, secured social investors and found the right people and partners to work with. He will also be advising on how to make buildings work, discussing leases and planning among other key issues.
To get your early bird ticket, please register here. You will be supporting a social enterprise and furthering your own impact journey too.
We look forward to seeing you at Green Rooms, Wood Green, London.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!