Joined by leading experts and award winning social entrepreneurs, the Start up | Stay up Social Enterprise Conference took place on 25-26 April 2016 at UK’s first arts-led social enterprise hotel, Green Rooms in London’s Wood Green. The conference speakers dismantled the clichés around #socent and focused on sharing knowledge, connections and practical insights with the audience of aspiring entrepreneurs; all passionate about making a difference and doing what matters to them.
Speakers ranged from pioneering social entrepreneurs who have ‘been there and done that’ to experts in accounting, consulting and funding – all sharing tips and stories to help support the growing social enterprise community. They all agreed it’s not an easy road, but a worthwhile one for those who are truly dedicated to making it happen. Here’s a summary of what they had to say:
1. It’s not what you call yourself is what you do that matters.
Founders including Liam Black, Sam Petter, Mike Britton, Nick Hartwright, Andrew Hunt shared their founding journeys on how they had built their businesses to address the problems or opportunities they had seen rather than setting out to be social entrepreneur per se.
2. Get clear on your purpose
A particular slide shared by Liam Black, “The poor are not not the raw material for your salvations” questioned the audience what are your motivations and purpose? Get clear on this otherwise you are likely to lose focus and passion sooner than you think.
Robert Foster of Red Ochre also summed the sentiment up nicely for those looking to start up: social enterprise is not a noun, it’s not a ‘thing’. It’s a verb, a way of doing things!
3. Use funding to build a sustainable income
Many social enterprises fail because the entrepreneurs are often driven by passion, they are hooked on their idea and wait in hope that budget lines and sales will be created to fit. Sarah Chu at Numbers for Good, demonstrated the importance of building financial confidence, walking us through everything from balance sheets to forecasting – and reminding us to set aside money for the tax man! Both Sarah and Mike Britton from Goodwill Solutions agreed that “cash flow is king” and is a key to growing a successful business.
4. Get your commercial mission right
Getting your commercial mission right was the coherent message throughout this event. This is what will sustain your business and help you to maximise your social impact. Our panelists for the funding and investment surgery session, featuring companies including Clearlyso, Buzzbnk, Venturesome, Big Issues Invest, CAN Invest and The Community Share all need to see evidence of how you are going to keep things up and running, particularly if you are seeking investment for your business.
On the social side, measuring and showing evidence of your impact can help to secure funding and keep you on the right track. Alison Freeman of the NEF advised those starting out that while measuring social ROI and valuing social impact can quickly become a complex process, the first step is the most important: identify your impact. Talk to people, share your ideas and ensure you understand what makes your social enterprise unique and what positive impact your organisation can achieve.
This clarity of your vision is essential for measuring impact – and economic success.
5. What is your identity, does this match?
There's a myth that anyone can start a business: you just have to have a bright idea, spot an opportunity or just have a winning combination of bravery and bravado, right? Well, not exactly. The reality is a bit harsher than that. Having a bright idea isn't enough. Nicholas Bull, from RSA questioned, do you recognise your identity? Know when you need expertise and specialism in your specific sector and down the line, know when you need to exit the business in order to let it grow.
Nick Hartwright is a perfect example of this. On the chilly, unfinished ground floor of his soon to be open Green Rooms ‘arts hotel’, Nick talked to aspiring social entrepreneurs about his long journey to restore an iconic, but derelict London building to develop – what he hopes will be – a thriving artistic community in North London. The project has taken more than his skills in building restoration and connections in the arts community to succeed. But the negotiating with everyone from local counsellors to the electricity board has been driven by Nick’s clear vision and determination to succeed. That and his recognition of the need to engage help from local experts wherever he needs it.
6. Know your appetite for risk
Each of us have a different appetite for risk. Nicholas Bull at RSA illustrated how making decision within your comfort zone can lead to lower chances of success. Without risk, you won’t get far, especially as an entrepreneur. Robert Foster at Red Ochre reminded us, however, that even though taking the plunge into the waters of social entrpreneurship is risky in of itself, it is important that you set your organisation up to protect yourself and your team – whether as a limited liability company, a co-op or partnership, a CIC or even a charity.
7. Have the right team on the bus in the right seats
Julia Meek & Tracey Vickers shared HCT’s 30 year evolution story. HCT went from a local transport charity to a disruptive landscape shaper and winning UK’s £10M deal of the century by having the right team on the bus in the right seats.
Nick Hartwirght surrounded himself with the right team to build and launch Green Rooms, and Andrew Hunt from Aduna kept persevering, talking to people and telling his story until he got the right people on board to promote Aduna and the ‘magical’ powers of Baobab, the ‘feel good’, sustainable African fruit.
8. The route you take is not going to be straight
Every entrepreneur will tell you this, protect yourself by knowing what good governances look like, take educated risks, know it’s okay to fail than making safe choices. Remember, to FAIL is the First Attempt In Learning. Just ask Andrew Hunt, who started with a passion for Africa and sustainability and ended up with a super-successful window display in Holland & Barratt touting the next superfood. There were definite bumps along the road and a harsh learning curve, but he steered the course and is now extending his product line to incorporate more superfoods from Africa.
9. Get out and get talking
Our panellists from Catch 22, Green Rooms, Ogunte, and Tatty Bumpkin discussed collaboration and what it takes to build successful partnerships. They agreed the key to success is getting out there and talking to people. They advised us not to be afraid to share our goals and missions – this is what sparks people’s interests and gets the conversation going.
When formalising partnerships they advised us to make sure you communicate clearly to ensure your partners understand what you are doing, their role in it and what they can expect. Nick Hartwritght also added that having the power of persuasion is important to successful collaborations – it helps to get the right people on board with your vision and fighting in your corner. Servane from Ogunte pointed out that we are all working with a complex ecosystem, so making sure you identify the leaderships skills you need to manage your business relationships is essential.
10. You, your future and retirement matters
Liam Black's keynote, wisely cautioned us to consider the future and yourself. Have you considered what your retirement will look like? Self care and investing in your future can be particularly tricky with social entrepreneurs, since you tend to be constantly juggling different role and wearing different hats, rather than focusing on your investment portfolio. It is easy – and often – ignored. But don’t leave it until it's too late. Start building a daily self-care routine and make it part of your business vision.
Throughout this year’s Start Up | Stay Up Social Enterprise Conference, I found an unwavering thirst for knowledge, an atmosphere of learning, connecting and sharing experiences from everyone I encountered and spoke to. I hope everyone who attended went away better equipped, armed with knowledge, contacts and inspiration to take the next steps and further their social ventures.
I’d like to offer thanks and heartfelt gratitude to everyone who took part and made the event success.
Here are some closing remarks from the delegates:
“I loved all the honest stories. I felt the speakers inspired us, while staying realistic, which I found very helpful.
“Thought provoking. Thank you for this inspiring event, I have learnt a huge amount of valuable information to get started with my social enterprise”.
“Very informative sessions and excellent speakers, I enjoyed meeting with the entrepreneurs.”
“I’ve been waiting for an event like this, very practical and useful advice.”